Join the real world and show faith in reasoned debate

Lawrence Krauss -Apr 14, 2012

<em>Cartoon: Andrew Dyson</em>

Cartoon: Andrew Dyson

This weekend's Global Atheist Convention in Melbourne, one of the largest such gatherings in the world, has raised more than a few eyebrows. The first question that arises is this: how can one seriously bring people together simply to celebrate not believing in something? The answer is equally simple. The convention will instead celebrate something positive: reason.

Too often, especially in my own country, the United States, public policy is based on ideology, preconception or money - anything but what it should be based on, namely empirical evidence. Promoting such evidence-based decision-making is vital to the health of democracies, which can function effectively only with an informed electorate and legislators.

Individuals may differ in their opinion on issues such as addressing climate change, for example, but without an honest assessment of existing knowledge, and an awareness of the fact that the climate is changing now, that sea levels are rising, that the world is getting warmer, that oceans are acidifying, and that all these changes are consistent with predictions based on known human production of greenhouse gases, how can we hope to explore sound policy options for how to meet this challenge?

In the US in 2008, when presented with the option of a presidential debate on science and technology policy questions, the two presidential candidates opted instead for a debate on faith, in spite of the fact that faith is irrelevant for all of the major challenges facing the next president, from the environment to energy production, national security and health.

As I put it at a recent debate in Canberra, when the issue of religion as the basis of rational policy was concerned, if you are choking next to me and either I could perform the Heimlich manoeuvre or I could pray for you, which would you choose? Needless to say, in that instance, even the most devoted recognised the difference between religion and science in a time of real crisis is that science works.

There is another reason, however, to bring such a large group of individuals together who share an unwillingness to accept on faith various outrageous claims of divinity associated with books compiled by long-dead and sometimes illiterate peasants thousands of years ago. Religious fundamentalists of all persuasions are quite vocal - and politicians do not turn a deaf ear. It is about time we demonstrated that a significant fraction of the voting public, about 15 per cent in the US, for example, claim no religious affiliation, and that we vote, too. Two weeks ago, 30,000 people came together in Washington DC for a Rally for Reason. On the other side of the globe, in Melbourne, 4000 people will gather for a similar purpose.

But perhaps the most significant impact for the individuals who will come together at the Global Atheist Convention will be a personal one, and one that is not that different from the reasons that people attend churches, synagogues and mosques.

Based on my own experience, many will come to share a sense of community with those who share a common world view. They may come from communities where they are afraid to speak out openly about their views on religion. Surrounded by the relative safety of numbers, many will come away from the weekend with courage bolstered and frankly feeling better about themselves.

One of the criticisms launched against a scientific world view is that it can never fulfil the deep human needs that have made religion so prevalent throughout human history - the needs to be a member of a group, to sense something grander in the world outside oneself than one can immediately perceive.

I for one cannot accept this claim. Surely by celebrating together a remarkable universe, indeed a universe far more remarkable than anything envisaged either by science fiction writers or by the authors of scripture, we might hope to encourage a shared sense of awe and wonder and partnership that is based not on an imaginary world we have created to console ourselves, but on the real world.

Lawrence Krauss is foundation professor and director of the Origins Project at Arizona State University, and the author of A Universe from Nothing. He will appear with Richard Dawkins at the Sydney Opera House on Monday.

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