Z e t e o
Reading, Looking, Listening, . . . Questioning

Science and Religious Freedom (and Kim Davis)

Categories: Drew Whitcup, ZiR


download (5)Deviating somewhat from my typical weekly fare, I am reading a piece in The New Yorker by physicist Lawrence Krauss that offers a scientist’s view of the Kim Davis saga and the concept of “religious freedom.” Davis, of course, is the Kentucky clerk who was jailed for five days following her refusal to provide gay couples with marriage licenses. Krauss is blatantly critical of her position that a religious belief (even a “sincerely held” one) should trump a legal mandate:

The problem, obviously, is that what is sacred to one person can be meaningless (or repugnant) to another. That’s one of the reasons why a modern secular society generally legislates against actions, not ideas. No idea or belief should be illegal; conversely, no idea should be so sacred that it legally justifies actions that would otherwise be illegal. Davis is free to believe whatever she wants, just as the jihadist is free to believe whatever he wants; in both cases, the law constrains not what they believe but what they do.

Krauss has a unique point of view. As a scientist, he is constantly questioning, and notes that—by definition—nothing can be called sacred. Unfortunately, some advocates for “religious freedom” strongly disagree:

The Kim Davis controversy exists because, as a culture, we have elevated respect for religious sensibilities to an inappropriate level that makes society less free, not more. Religious liberty should mean that no set of religious ideals are treated differently from other ideals. Laws should not be enacted whose sole purpose is to denigrate them, but, by the same token, the law shouldn’t elevate them, either.

Krauss conveys a clear message that deference to religious beliefs is counter-productive when it comes to understanding science, and that the same analysis applies to understanding and enforcing laws in a secular society.

The notion that some idea or concept is beyond question or attack is anathema to the entire scientific undertaking. This commitment to open questioning is deeply tied to the fact that science is an atheistic enterprise…It’s ironic, really, that so many people are fixated on the relationship between science and religion: basically, there isn’t one. In my more than thirty years as a practicing physicist, I have never heard the word ‘God’ mentioned in a scientific meeting. Belief or nonbelief in God is irrelevant to our understanding of the workings of nature—just as it’s irrelevant to the question of whether or not citizens are obligated to follow the law.

Whenever scientific claims are presented as unquestionable, they undermine science. Similarly, when religious actions or claims about sanctity can be made with impunity in our society, we undermine the very basis of modern secular democracy.

—Drew Whitcup, Zeteo Contributing Writer

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5 Comments to “Science and Religious Freedom (and Kim Davis)”

  1. Daniel D'Arezzo says:

    My husband and I were married last year in Baltimore. Maryland has had legal same-sex marriage for a couple of years now, through a plebiscite pushed by then Gov. Martin O’Malley, now a candidate for the Democratic Party’s nominee for president. The information on the Baltimore City clerk’s website was clear and correct. My husband, who has suffered strokes, did not accompany me; I merely had to present his I.D. The official who helped me was relaxed but professional, and my business with the city was carried out expeditiously. That’s the way it’s supposed to be.

    The video I saw of Kim Davis turning away a gay couple was troubling. The petitioners were shrill and asked about Kim’s failed marriages; Kim was soft-spoken and did not respond to the provocations. She simply said that the office was not giving out marriage certificates that day. She did not say why. She asked the petitioners to leave.

    I understand why the petitioners were angry. Kim is a public servant (you can hear someone say, “I pay your salary!”) but she is not what the Good Book would call a good and faithful servant. She is, for all her meek demeanor, a bully. It is hypocritical of the Tea Party and the far right, who complain endlessly of bureaucratic abuse, to back Kim Davis on religious grounds. I’m grateful to Lindsey Graham for saying she should resign if she can’t do her job and to Donald Trump for saying that same-sex marriage is the law of the land. They have it right, and Mike Huckabee and Ted Cruz and (of all people) Rand Paul have it exactly wrong.

    Lawrence Krauss’s position that science is opposed to religion is an interesting one, because it flies in the face of received wisdom that religion and science run on separate tracks: faith for one, material evidence for the other. Maybe Krauss is right, but religion v. science is not the point in the case of the rogue clerk of Rowan County. There is no scientific claim on trial that same-sex marriage is legal or constitutional or that it’s a social good rather than an abomination.

    The question that Kim Davis’s behavior raises is political. As Graham put it, Are we [the United States] a country of laws, or are we not? Even a panel on Fox News [!] agreed that, if Davis’s position were upheld, the U.S. would dissolve into chaos.

    In the end, though I don’t believe in God, I disagree with Krauss if what he’s saying is that science and religion are incompatible. During the papacy of John Paul II, the Roman Catholic Church decreed that Copernicus and Galileo were right–the Earth and the other planets orbit the Sun. And so what? The Church also does not quarrel with Darwin’s theory of evolution. The Church’s God works in mysterious ways His wonders to perform. I know plenty of people who believe in God and attend religious services regularly and also vaccinate their children, watch TV, drive cars and subscribe to National Geographic.

    Kim Davis is a cause celebre today and will be forgotten tomorrow. She is a drama queen and a bully and she should be called a bully. I would invite her to come to Jesus, the Jesus who said “Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s” and “Not my will, Lord, but thine.” Instead of pretending to Christian humility, she ought to have some. She could learn a little from people (like her gay petitioners) who have actually been oppressed. When she persecutes the gay citizens of Rowan County, she persecutes Jesus. Maybe one day she will meet Jesus on the road to Damascus, and if she does, maybe she will have to decency not to talk about it.

  2. Ed Mooney says:

    Some who is Civilly disobedient needn’t think that as a rule, or even in their own case, sacred considerations trump civil ones. Martin Luther King called attention to corrupt law by disobeying it and raising a moral-legal discussion thereby. Gandhi did the same in disobeying British law. A society needn’t endorse the view that all public, considered violations of the law should be heeded. It can never be ‘legal’ to violate a law. What any decent society must allow for is that its citizens have lee-way to call attention to laws that in their view are unjust by civil objection-by-disobedience. The law has every right to defend itself by jailing those who disobey. King and Gandhi were jailed; laws were changed. Without their disobedience there’s a good chance that corrupt laws would never be altered.

  3. Ed Mooney says:

    oops! “Someone”, of course, in sentence one. And I should add that many scientists refuse to conduct certain sorts of experiments or do certain sorts of research on moral grounds, and on grounds that may well be religious as well. Weapons research is an instance. That doesn’t weaken the fiber of science in general any more than civil disobedience weakens the fiber of civil law in general.

  4. Steve Webb says:

    I just read the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy’s article on Civil Disobedience, and it turns out that my earlier description of Kim Davis’s conduct as an act of civil disobedience is incorrect. An act of civil disobedience is a public violation of a particular law undertaken by an ordinary citizen expressly to bring attention to the injustice of that law. What gives ethical legitimacy to the violation is the citizen’s prior publicity of the act and her willingness and even intention to accept the normal punishment for the violation. Kim Davis’s conduct, by contrast, is that of a public official who refuses to execute her office in the normal and expected ways and in accordance with her oath, and then subsequently attempts, through her lawyers, to escape punishment for the infraction. The question is whether her refusal conforms to any recognized method of ethical social protest. The answer would appear to be clearly no. The type of conduct that comes closest to Davis’s is something called Rule Departure, which the SEP article defines as follows:

    “A practice distinct from, but related to, civil disobedience is rule departure on the part of authorities. Rule departure is essentially the deliberate decision by an official, for conscientious reasons, not to discharge the duties of her office…. It may involve a decision by police not to arrest offenders…or a decision by prosecutors not to proceed to trial, or a decision by a jury or by a judge to acquit an obviously guilty person…. Whether these conscientious acts actually contravene the general duties of the office is debatable. If an official’s breach of a specific duty is more in keeping with the spirit and overall aims of the office than a painstaking respect for its particular duties is, then the former might be said to adhere better than the latter does to the demands of the office…”

    As described, rule departure sounds more like a public official’s use of his or her discretion in order to avoid an over-zealous or unreasonable exercise of public authority. Moreover, the official’s departure from normal procedure is for the purpose of benefiting rather than thwarting the individuals concerned. Kim Davis’s conduct is pretty much the opposite of this. Her behavior represents an official’s express wish, based on religious zealotry, to thwart individuals from obtaining public services to which they have a legal right. So it seems fairly safe to conclude that her behavior has no recognizable ethical basis and is in no way worthy of our respect.

    Moral of the story: research should come before writing, not after. Consequence of the story: chalk one up for Daniel.

  5. Ed Mooney says:

    My mind is changed. You’re right, Steve, it’s not a case of civil disobedience. And on the other issue, science and religion: they needn’t conflict once we drop the idea that religion is a matter of making claims in the same ball park as science. A poetic sensibility doesn’t need to conflict with science, nor does a political or moral one though they may in some instances. Scientists can forget Yeats or The Book of Job while at work and save them for weekends. Serious readers of the Book of Job can read Darwin on the weekend.

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