The New York Times recently ran a pleasant profile on science fans’ favorite figurehead: Neil deGrasse Tyson. He discussed the recent close calls our planet has had with meteors, and argued that we won’t always be so lucky to survive these events unscathed.
Those who steward the safety of our planet and society should have the educational background to justify their positions. Tyson is worried that "you have people who are not scientifically literate who have risen to positions of power and control." He specifically mentions Representative Paul C. Broun, a Georgia Republican on the House Science Committee who says the world is 9,000 years old and was literally created in six days. He has also been quoted as saying that the sciences of embryology, evolution, and the Big Bang are "lies straight from the Pit of Hell … lies to try to keep me and all the folks who are taught that from understanding that they need a savior."
Our First Amendment rights create a lot of inadvertent problems in our political system, both in how groups are free to endorse candidates and rally voters around hateful causes. Politicians often utilize the moral high ground of family and faith, when they don’t have the mental capacity to argue technical, scientific, industrial, economic or diplomatic issues. It’s an easier argument to win, and there are always reliable voters waiting to support the candidate that spends the most amount of time on bent knee in front of Jesus.
Although a bigger concern these days seems to be the separation of corporation and state, I can’t help but agree with Tyson on the lack of scientific knowledge among those who presume to lead us on scientific issues. Ongoing debates about gay marriage and abortion show us that the nation is still very much divided on issues that supposedly stem from the teachings of Christ, but more honestly reflect a bigotry and misogyny we are too dishonest to admit to. Moreover, neither the Senate nor House are run on meritocratic principles — but rather on seniority and real politicking. So those who’ve put in the time are rewarded seats of influence, over those who have the necessary academic backgrounds.
Historically, the separation of church and state was intended to be a total division. Consider Europe at the time, where sovereigns reigned at the top of a national church — forbidding all other religions. John Locke’s writings (which inspired a lot of Constitutional thought) were influenced by the violence he witnessed during the Protestant Reformations — with high death tolls on both ends of the religious conflicts. The conclusion was clear: a state religion, or religious meddling in state affairs, was inherently unfair to any group not practicing that particular faith.
Several of our founding fathers agreed with the notion, and insisted that faith be a private matter between a person and their god. The government was not to interfere in church affairs unless they violated the rights of others, and in turn churches would not influence politics. The Treaty of Tripoli was signed by President Adams and passed unanimously by the Senate — Article 11 declares unequivocally that the United States is not in any sense founded on the Christian religion.
So how do we accomplish a true separation, without restricting people’s right to practice their faith? Some interesting arguments are being presented in the current DOMA/Prop 8 debate before the Supreme Court, especially the argument that a moral offense is not enough to categorize something as a crime. This is at the heart of creating distinctions between biblical "crimes" and the actual laws we choose to govern ourselves by. If something you do offends my faith, but nothing else, then please continue to enjoy your bacon-wrapped shrimp and gay sex.
Our nation needs to start focusing on far more important issues. We’re still climbing out of an economic toilet. Our military is essentially policing the world. Our citizens are jobless, crushed by debt and uninsured. Just look at our annual science versus military budgets.
The technological innovations that might save our economy, health, and future will require scientific literacy. Which means we need to be investing in education programs, from kindergarten all the way through to congress!
Representative Broun may be an idiot, but he is an elected idiot. We need to demonstrate that we value information over rhetoric. Older conservatives might be easy to paint as villains, holding back progress in society — but they’re organized around values they deem important and want to preserve. The Occupy Wall Street movement taught us that no matter how passionate your ideals are, if you can’t organize and establish clear leadership, your demands will summarily be ignored.
We can keep having these moronic, inane debates or we can stop perpetuating this manufactured war between science and faith. Religion should be about people’s personal connection to the unknown, the unity that it creates among groups through common faith, and a shared hope. Just as everyone should be free to practice their religion, churches should strive to keep their members from hypocritically restricting other people’s way of life. Science has its own exploratory reverence and curiosity to discover, and if left unencumbered, should in no way need to attack religion to validate its discoveries.