The folks over at Belief.net have a very good and interesting interview with the author of Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism. The interview covers the expected topics of what exactly a “freethinker” is both historically and currently (hint: it’s not just non-believers) as well as the role freethinkers have played in American history from it’s founding on up. It talks about the golden age of freethought as the period between 1870 up to World War I and how their aren’t any real freethought heroes these days as opposed to people like Robert Ingersol in the past who advocated freethought and challenged those who would oppose it. Some of the most interesting comments, however, come from a question about what battles lie ahead between secularists and the religious right such as the following:
One of the more astonishing and dismaying public statements ever made was made by Antonin Scalia several years ago in an address about capital punishment to the University of Chicago Divinity School, which received very little publicity at the time, in which he said that God has the power of life and death and therefore governments, who derive their power from God, have the right to dispense life and death too. This is a horrifying thought. The idea of having judges who look to God for instructions in their decisions, not to “we the people,” as our secular constitution says, it’s a terrible idea. When you look to God for instruction, well everybody’s God says something different to him. We can’t decide government policy on the basis of people who think they have a pipeline to God.
She also brings up some interesting points when asked about the role of secularists in defending science and how religion undermines science. Susan goes out of her way to point out that not all religions undermine science and, in fact, not all sects of Christianity undermine science which can be easy to forget at times. She correctly points out that it’s largely the Fundamentalists we have to worry about in this regard, but that the threat also comes from folks who buy into New Age beliefs which tend to replace science with pseudo-science.
Fundamentalist religion undermines science, and any attempt to codify a particular set of religious values in law undermines science. We’re seeing that in stem cell research. Basically, the restrictions established by the Bush administration are inspired by the belief held by the Catholic Church hierarchy—I don’t say Catholics because polls show that the majority of Catholic disagree with the Church hierarchy. But the Catholic church hierarchy and fundamentalist Protestants hold the belief that any research on embryos, even if they are five days old, is a form of abortion and abortion is murder and therefore we can’t have it. And certainly having these kinds of religious views written into restrictions on science so as to impede any investigation of these things, is an example of the way, again in which a particular kind of religion impedes science.
I think Americans are increasingly ignorant about science and how it helps us understand the world. I don’t mean that science is a god, but it’s one of the tools for understanding how the world really is. And it’s important to understand that it isn’t only the religious right that’s anti-science.
New Age beliefs are also dangerous for science because it’s an irrational view of the world. It leads to people who believe in space aliens abducting people and taking them into space and sexually assaulting them and sending them back to earth. It looks for supernatural explanations whereas science looks for natural explanations. It prevents us from looking for the explanation that could lead to cures for cancer and things like that.
These New Age-y beliefs are an incredible example of the deterioration of American education. Polls show that a majority of Americans believe it’s possible to communicate with the spirits of the dead. Europeans don’t believe that. America is a hotbed of totally irrational beliefs.
I believe in rationalism as the freethinkers of the 18th and 19th century believed in it. I don’t believe in explaining things by space aliens and crop circles, and I don’t believe that the way you cope with death and suffering is by saying it’s God’s plan, or we could talk to those people we’ve lost on the other side. I think that these are dangerous beliefs for society as a whole because they discourage any real critical thinking about anything. It’s not just a political issue, it’s a larger cultural issue.
Indeed. The interview is a good read and I’ve put the book on my Amazon Wishlist. If you consider yourself a Freethinker you may want to check it out for yourself.