A young girl stood up at the microphone in front of a theater packed with adults and asked the speaker how she could ensure she receives an adequate science education. Richard Dawkins, world renowned British evolutionary biologist, who is said to be the most cited living scientist, paused. Then he said he was sorry if her teachers were "refusing to teach seriously." He urged her to complain, and advised open-mindedness and critical thinking. "Ask yourself, is this the kind of thing you’re being told because of evidence or just from authority," he said. "Mistrust it if it is from authority."
It was an unusual sort of conversation underscoring the unusual nature of Dawkins’ visit to Iowa last weekend. He came at his own expense to sound an alarm on the breach of boundaries between religion and public life, and the negative impact on knowledge, education and public health.
When Democrats and civil libertarians complain about the creep of religion into politics, they are often dismissed as waging a political war on Christianity itself. But when the author of books such as "The Extended Phenotype" and "The Selfish Gene" does, a new grassroots national movement called SecularityUSA is hoping people might listen. If Iowans are persuaded, the thinking goes, they might have an impact, because Iowa’s early presidential caucuses give the state disproportionate power over whether a candidate makes it through the winnowing process.
If turnout for Dawkins’ talk Saturday was any indication, they were onto something.
The United States, though admired and envied around the world for its secular constitution and scientific leadership, has recently "gone astray," Dawkins said. "I am deeply troubled by the stories I get from American teachers whose science lessons are subverted by parents, school boards and sometimes local officials," he said. Calling it a scandal, he noted a Florida biology teacher was reprimanded by her superior for teaching evolution, after a parent complained. And he called a move against vaccinating children very serious "because if enough people don’t, you don’t push the herd above a threshold. You must reach a critical percent of people who are immune to a disease or you get an epidemic. It’s not just a personal decision. You’re actually damaging society if you don’t vaccinate."
Dawkins had accompanied Sean Faircloth, a former Maine legislator who served as communications director of his Foundation for Reason and Science. Faircloth has teamed up with Des Moines vascular surgeon Alan Koslow, SecularityUSA founder and Iowa coordinator. The organization has a 10-point vision for a secular America, which includes several items on health-care decisions involving children. Noting that religious child-care centers in Alabama are not required to obey the same health and safety laws as other ones, and that in Tennessee, parents aren’t required to get medical attention for their sick children if they choose faith healing, Faircloth declared, "The religious right has stolen the word, ‘morality,’ and we need to steal it back."
SecularityUSA hopes to have a continuous presence in Iowa beginning in 2015 to advocate for, among other things, keeping religion out of the military, health care, public education, land use, medical and environmental decisions, science information and employment. "Tell secular people to come to Iowa!" exhorted Faircloth. "Instead of two years in the Peace Corps, they could do two weeks in Iowa."
The United States is the most religious Western industrialized country, according to a 2012 WIN-Gallup International Poll, which found 60 per cent of Americans consider themselves religious. Polls have shown only 16 per cent to 20 per cent of Americans claim no religious affiliation. The goal of SecularityUSA isn’t to discredit religion or make people abandon their beliefs, stresses Faircloth. It’s to prevent religious views from dictating public policy. To that end, Dawkins says he’d like to "take a leaf out of the gay lobby," which has successfully pushed back against religious encroachment on their civil rights.
And how does Dawkins view his role as a British citizen trying to influence what Americans think? Britain doesn’t have a constitutional separation of church and state, which makes America unique, he said. Also, "America is so powerful. Who becomes president affects everybody. We shouldn’t have to leave it to you guys."
It’s an interesting argument in an era of globalization, but one not likely to persuade detractors of science and evolution. But it’s not often enough that leading scientists weigh in publicly on the abandonment of rational thinking for ideological ends. From restrictions on birth control to end-of-life decision making, the nation that has been on the cutting edge of medical and scientific advancement has been sliding into its own kind of fundamentalism. It’s time we heard from a range of different perspectives on the impact that is having. If you see examples, let me know.
Rekha Basu is a columnist for the Des Moines Register.
— Des Moines Register