The following speech in acceptance of the Humanist of the Year award was delivered at the American Humanist Association’s annual conference in Denver, Colorado, on Saturday, May 9, 2015.
Permit us to question—to doubt, that’s all—and not to be sure…. It is our responsibility…to proclaim the value of this freedom, to teach how doubt is not to be feared but welcomed and discussed, and to demand this freedom as our duty to all coming generations.
—Richard Feynman, 1988
Before I begin I would like to thank the American Humanist Association for this remarkable award. The list of past awardees includes many intellectual heroes of mine, and to join that list is truly one of the greatest honors of my life. Moreover, the context of this award, humanism, means a great deal to me, because humanism characterizes the spirit that I have tried to use as a guide in my personal, professional, and public activities.
That spirit, to me, can be summed up as follows: It is up to us determine the nature of the way in which we carry out our lives, using a combination of reason, intelligence, and compassion. No one is taking care of us but us. Bad decisions produce bad consequences, and we must take responsibility for them, and, if possible, take actions to mediate or alleviate them. Whether or not the future for our children is better than the past is up to us.
We are, of course, constrained in our actions by the cumulative historical impact of ignorance and greed and the struggle for power, often accentuated by governments or churches whose interests may lie in permeating myths that build support for the status quo and squelch calls for change.
As a result, if we want to change the future for the better we must be prepared to encounter numerous obstacles. But I am a theoretical physicist trained to worry about possibilities, not practicalities. Moreover, I would argue that if we don’t first imagine a possible future, we can never implement the practical steps that might make it a reality.
So tonight, I want to suggest that humanism offers the world one of the most important drivers of change that can improve our future, and in so doing I may express an optimism that seems naïve. Nevertheless I am emboldened by the recent experience in this country regarding gay marriage. In spite of what some of the media might suggest, and what middle-aged senators may say, the issue of gay marriage is a done deal. Why? If you speak to a young person my daughter’s age, they don’t understand what the problem is. Almost all of them have friends who are gay, or they know gay couples and they cannot understand what the previous generation was concerned about. If the public and legal debate isn’t over right now, it soon will be. When the next generation grows old enough to vote, to judge, to represent the media, and to run for office the debate will surely be over.
This would have been unheard of a generation ago—indeed, merely a decade ago. How could change happen so quickly?
Max Planck once said that science advances one funeral at a time. And what he meant was that old theories may never die, but old theorists do, and when they do, they take their theories with them. A new generation is always more comfortable dispensing with old ideas than are their predecessors.
So, I want to argue here that it is possible to imagine a future without the tyranny of religious myth and superstition, and its chokehold on supposed morality. And it is possible to imagine such a future soon. We are never more than a generation away from change. The key is reaching the next generation when they are young.
There has happily been a great deal of discussion of late about the importance of encouraging children, particularly young girls, to go into careers in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (so-called STEM subjects). From an economic perspective, it is good for the country, because in the twenty-first century those countries without a workforce with STEM skills will quickly fall behind the curve. It is good for the world, because the challenges of the twenty-first century, from global warming to energy production and storage, will require technological innovation as well as institutional changes at the global level. And it is good for girls and young women, because these careers will help empower them, raise many out of potential poverty, and free them from subjugation by men.
But exposing children to science is far more than merely providing them with Lego sets and playing “sink or float.” Moreover, providing a set of facts is not the primary purpose of education. Teaching how to distinguish between fact and fantasy is, along with how to derive facts by questioning and testing, and where to go to access reliable data.
The most important goal in educating our children should be to encourage them to question everything, to not be satisfied with unsubstantiated claims, and to be skeptical of a priori beliefs, either their own, their parents’, or their teachers’. Encouraging skeptical thinking in this way, as well as directing a process by which questions may be answered—the process of empirical investigation followed by logical reasoning—helps create lifelong learners and citizens who can responsibly address the demands of a democratic society.
And there is overwhelming evidence that one of the key collateral benefits of a more scientifically literate populace is that the seeds of religious doubt are thereby planted among the next generation.
The late Christopher Hitchens once said that religion poisons everything. While there is ample room to debate this statement, even people who take a less extreme view must admit that in the current climate religion is poisoning the political process in many places throughout the world.
The brutal terrorism of ISIS is merely one extreme. In this country numerous Republicans are now tripping over themselves to move to the right of the religious right—with the recent US House freshmen class reported to include a former Navy Seal who claims Hillary Clinton is the Antichrist, another who claims recent “blood moons” are fulfilling biblical prophecies, and another who proposed reclassifying single parenthood as child abuse.
The purpose of education may not be to destroy religious belief, but surely, as Richard Feynman alluded to in the quote at the beginning of this lecture, its purpose is to encourage doubt. In that arena we are sorely falling short.
At least one significant factor arises from the unwillingness, enforced by terror in much of the Middle East and political correctness in the United States, to openly ridicule in the public arena patently false and nonsensical claims, as long as they are religious claims.
This is particularly important in the current climate associated with satire of the type represented by Charlie Hebdo, because very few Americans support openly questioning or satirizing religious beliefs, even though they would be loathe to stifle questioning, debate, or even ridicule in almost any other area in the public arena. In a Pew survey published in May of last year, the number-one negative trait listed for possible presidential candidates by US adults was atheism. Some 53 percent of adults indicated that they would be less likely to vote for an atheist for president, more than would be similarly inclined if the potential candidate had never held public office, had had an extramarital affair, or were gay or lesbian.
Avoiding confrontations with religion is not restricted to politics. Many scientists and teachers do it, too. Recent studies—including a comprehensive national survey in 2007 by researchers at Penn State University—show that up to 60 percent of high school biology teachers shy away from adequately teaching evolution as a unifying principle of biology. They don’t want to risk potential controversy by offending religious sensibilities. Instead, many resort to the idea, advocated by the late Stephen Jay Gould, that science and religion are “non-overlapping magisteria”—separate traditions of thinking that need not contradict one another.
Those in the public sphere who have openly questioned the need for God, or the consistency of religious doctrine with empirical evidence, are most often dismissed as strident. Sadly, many of those who express such a reaction are not religious fundamentalists but fellow scientists. The claim is made—indeed a claim I myself used to make—that if scientists openly question the existence of God then we will alienate those who already view science as the enemy of faith, further hardening their stand against the teaching of concepts like evolution, the Big Bang, or even climate change and making it more difficult to break down barriers to education.
But by arguing in public (in many cases against their own internal views) that science presents no challenge to religious belief, my colleagues are being disingenuous. While science cannot falsify the vague postulate that there may be purpose to the universe, nevertheless the specific claims of the scriptures are, in many cases, empirically falsifiable, and those that are have been falsified.
“Non-overlapping magisteria” has a nice ring to it. The problem is that there are many religious claims that not only “overlap” with empirical data but are incompatible with it. As a scientist who also spends a fair amount of time in the public arena, if I am asked if our understanding of the Big Bang conflicts with the idea of a six-thousand-year-old universe, I face a choice: I can betray my scientific values or encourage that person to doubt his or her own beliefs.
Scientists who argue that we shouldn’t focus on these embarrassing contradictions are misrepresenting the key facet of science that Feynman so extolled. Science, at its basis, encourages open expressions of doubt, and progress often occurs by disproving the accepted wisdom of the previous generation. It also seems inconsistent to have no problem ridiculing the claims of astrology, even though a significant fraction of the public believes these claims, while arguing that it hurts the cause of science to suggest that various religious tenets are also poorly founded in reality.
Without demeaning the thoughtful faithful, we shouldn’t shy away from publicly accepting that many of the specific claims of the sacred books of the world’s major religions are not valid. One not need turn to the numerous contradictions with known physics and cosmology—after all, many of these books were written before we knew the Earth orbited the Sun. There are simpler falsehoods, from the existence of domesticated camels in the time of Abraham, to Muhammad’s famous night journey to a mosque in Jerusalem in spite of the fact that there were no mosques in Jerusalem at the time, to the fact that one of the central holy books of the Mormon faith—an Egyptian papyrus translated into the book of Abraham—is now known to merely describe the burial rites for Ra.
There may be places in the world where one risks decapitation for questioning certain religious claims, but in a rational world it is hard to argue that questioning these, or a host of others of dubious repute, should be viewed as inappropriate. Education at its heart is inseparable from teaching doubt.
It is good to be skeptical, especially about ideas you learn from perceived authority figures. Recent studies even suggest that being taught to doubt at a young age could make people better lifelong learners. That, in turn, means that doubters—people who base their views on evidence, rather than faith—are likely to be better citizens.
Last year, writing in the New York Times, the political scientist Brendan Nyhan explained how “identity often trumps the facts.” We would rather reject evidence than change our sense of who we are. Knowledge is comparatively helpless against identity: as you grow better informed about the issues, you just get better at selectively using evidence to reinforce your pre-existing commitments. A 2014 Yale Law School study, for example, demonstrated that the divergence between religious and nonreligious peoples’ views on evolution actually grows wider among those who are familiar with math and science. Describing Nyhan’s work in the New Yorker, Maria Konnikova summarized his findings by writing that “it’s only after ideology is put to the side” that the facts become “decoupled from notions of self-perception.” If we want to raise citizens who are better at making evidence-based judgments, we need to start early, making skepticism and doubt part of the experience that shapes their identities from a young age.
Meanwhile, earlier this year, an AP-GfK poll revealed that less than a third of Americans are willing to express confidence in the reality of human-induced climate change, evolution, the age of the Earth, and the existence of the Big Bang. Among those surveyed, there was a direct correlation between religious conviction and an unwillingness to accept the results of empirical scientific investigation. Religious beliefs vary widely, of course—not all faiths, or all faithful people, are the same. But it seems fair to say that, on average, religious faith appears to be an obstacle to understanding the world.
And it is an obstacle that may begin early. Last summer a new study published in the journal Cognitive Science claimed to find a significant difference in the ability of children as young as five and six years old to distinguish fact from fantasy, depending upon their past exposure to religious education, in church or parochial school. The children with religious training (coming from many different religious backgrounds) were less able to judge that characters in fantasy stories were fictional rather than real compared to children with no such exposure. Unfortunately, the methodology of the study was badly flawed, but I suspect a good scientific study would be likely to demonstrate something similar, and I encourage better scholars to carry out such studies.
By planting the seeds of doubt, education offers the best opportunity to immunize children against the intellectual virus that is associated with dogma and superstition in the world today.
Of course, science class isn’t the only place where students can learn to be skeptical. A provocative novel that presents a completely foreign worldview, or a history lesson exploring the vastly different mores of the past, can push you to skeptically reassess your inherited view of the universe. But science is a place where such confrontation is explicit and accessible. It didn’t take more than a simple experiment for Galileo to overturn the wisdom of Aristotle. Informed doubt is the very essence of science.
Some teachers shy away from confronting religious beliefs, because they worry that planting the seeds of doubt will cause some students to question or abandon their own faith or the faith of their parents. But is that really such a bad thing? It offers some young people the chance to escape the guilt imposed upon them simply for questioning what they’re told. Recently I received an e-mail from a twenty-seven-year-old man who is now studying in the United States after growing up in Saudi Arabia. His father was executed by family members after converting to Christianity. He says that it’s learning about science that has finally liberated him from the specter of religious fundamentalism. The same week, I received an e-mail from a young man who lives in Indiana; he feels isolated and damaged because of the reaction of his friends and family to his rejection of religion and his love of science. I get e-mails like this regularly. We owe it to these young people to help them feel, as another young letter-writer put it, that “I’m not the only one who has these thoughts.”
Is it naïve to imagine we can overcome centuries of religious intransigence in a single generation through education? Maybe. But as Nelson Mandela said about going from prisoner to president in the span of a generation, “It always seems impossible until it’s done.”
The stakes are too high not to try, as Feynman warned us a generation ago:
It is our responsibility to leave the men of the future with a free hand. In the impetuous youth of humanity, we can make grave errors that can stunt our growth for a long time. This we will do if we, so young and ignorant, say we have the answers now, if we suppress all discussion, all criticism, saying, ‘This is it, boys! Man is saved!’ Thus we can doom man for a long time to the chains of authority, confined to the limits of our present imagination.
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