Atheist or Religious, We All Need Good Science

Science is not just for secularists. And it’s not just for Democrats, either. Recent reports from the National Center for Science Education have helped make these points clear.

Earlier this week, NCSE reported that recent opposition to anti-evolution legislation has come from both religious and nonreligious quarters. Promoting this fact is very much in the interest of NCSE, which has no interest in dividing its base along (a)religious lines. This political reality is a reflection of a deeper truth, one constantly missed both by creationists and hardline secularists: Understanding science — real science — is neither a necessary nor sufficient condition for nonbelief.

Does every atheist, agnostic, freethinker, apatheist, and secular humanist possess a clear understanding of science? Many do, granted, but all? Hardly. They may all appreciate science on some level, and many venerate it. But appreciating and venerating science are not the same as understanding it.

And not everyone who possesses a clear understanding of science is an atheist, agnostic, freethinker, apatheist, or secular humanist. Even though prominent scientists continue to believe that understanding science would drive anyone — even Jesus — to outright atheism, there are plenty of good scientists with genuine religious commitments.

The same logic can be applied to political identity, and recent events at NCSE may help to highlight this fact. Last week the organization launched a new initiative focused on maintaining the quality of climate science taught in American schools.

This initiative brings new significance to the following statement, which has long been on their website: “NCSE believes that the teaching of good science is not a Democratic or Republican issue, but one that is essential to the success of all Americans [and is] unified in believing that science education should not be politicized.” In other words, understanding science — real science — is neither a necessary nor sufficient condition for being a Democrat.

I hope I’m not going out on a limb when I suggest that not all Democrats understand science. And, although the majority of candidates for the Republican nomination have worked hard to hide the fact, there are many (ok, some) Republican scientists out there.

The GOP’s hostility toward science may or may not have emerged naturally from the party platform, but it is certainly related to the religious orientation of its base. And it may be natural for Democrats to champion a scientific enterprise funded largely through a strong federal government. But science qua science really does stand largely aloof from politics (maybe that’s why it works so well).

Science is really powerful. It shines a light on a world we could never have imagined. But science, properly understood, is not fit to be the arbiter of all religious or political belief. This is why the good folks at NCSE can say in all truth: Good science education is for everyone.