Heroes of Science and Secularism: A Series

Welcome to the first in a series of posts calling attention to men and women you may not have heard of – women and men who are making significant contributions to science and secularism. I won’t call them unsung heroes, as they are well known in their fields and spheres of influence; but neither are they famous at the level of Richard Dawkins, or even Sam Harris. But like those luminaries, some of them have had books on the New York Times’ bestseller list.

The plan for future posts is to keep the introductory comments brief and let my heroes speak for themselves via links to audios, videos, and written materials. So this time only, I’ll ask you to endure a few paragraphs of preliminary explanations.

It’s probably just me preaching to the choir again, but I still feel the need to comment on why I’m using the descriptive noun hero in a gender-neutral sense. To my ear and sensibilities feminine terms like heroine nearly always seem to detract from what is important about a person by needlessly calling attention to their gender. Consider the deservedly archaic aviatrix, or the ludicrous mayoress or governess. Or instructress, inventress, proprietress/proprietrix (LOL). Don’t you agree there’s something kind of weird about talking that way? Thankfully, those words and others like them have fallen into disuse; and what I’m saying is that all routinely feminized nouns like heroine need to join them in the linguistic hall of shame. We live in a society where more women than men graduate college, for chrissakes, where women have taken their rightful, earned places in all fields at all levels (although we’re still awaiting a woman president, but thank Zeus the anti-woman Michelle Bachmann never got any traction). So let’s drop all gratuitous, patronizing gender distinctions as I do in this series, which features only heroes – women, men, and groups.

Now about the relationship of science and secularism, which will also be obvious to many readers. After much thought I concluded that science and secularism together covered damn near everything that’s important to me in the public domain. Science subsumes reason, logic, skepticism, critical thinking, transparency, rejection of authority, and the primacy of repeatable evidence. Secularism, which in this country theoretically separates church and state, is a necessary condition for science to function effectively. It takes very little imagination to see how science, and ultimately everything, would suffer under an American Taliban – a Christian fundagelical theocracy – which is clearly a goal of the shockingly successful religious right.

So science and secularism are interdependent, inextricably intertwined (I just had to use that phrase at least once). In the broadest sense, science covers everything we know – and I mean everything we have been able to verify, directly and indirectly. (Of course not everything we know has to be verified scientifically (e.g., the Eiffel Tower is located in Paris); but if something can’t be properly verified, then we are, or should be, obliged to be skeptical of its existence (other than in the minds of believers). On the other hand, skepticism of well-verified scientific findings is perverse and prevalent, especially among those who identify as conservatives or Christian fundamentalists and evangelicals.

Science is, of necessity, open, transparent, and universal; it requires freedom of thought and expression; it cannot be censored or constrained by dogma. And it should be abundantly clear that political and religious ideologies are mortal enemies of science; they would make scientific inquiry and findings subordinate to their dogmas; they would cut off its head, tear out its heart, and turn what was left into an evil instrument of oppression and aggression. 

The role of science in a secular society seems obvious and in alignment with common sense and the principles enacted by the founders of this nation, to wit: let our laws and public policy be informed and guided by verifiable evidence and reason. Given the nature of the world we live in, anything less is a prescription for disaster. I was going to say long-term disaster, but the long term is already upon us. What happens in the next few years will most likely be a template for the future of the country.

So on my list of heroes are people who are fighting to reclaim and secure a future that is safe for science and reason. Most of them are atheists or agnostics; a few, like Frank Schaeffer, Barry Linn, and Kenneth Miller, are practicing Christians. And of course there are many awesome women, including Eugenie Scott, Executive Director of the National Center for Science Education. So far no Muslim or Christian fundagelical is within shouting distance of making my list, so be sure to let me know if you come up with a qualified candidate (which I find hard to imagine). END OF INTRODUCTION

Now, at last, meet my first Hero of Science and Secularism, Sean Faircloth, public speaker extraordinaire and the most important person you may not have heard of. It has been less than a year since I first heard him speak on a video posted at the website of the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science. That short talk really resonated with my thoughts and fears about the religious right, and I was blown away by Faircloth’s deep understanding of the issues and his compelling plan to counter the theocratic threat to what’s left of our freedom and democracy. So I immediately forwarded the video to everyone on my email list along with effusive words of praise and an expression of uncharacteristic hopefulness.

As my long-suffering friends and tens of readers are aware, it takes a lot to rouse me from my pessimism regarding the United States’ and the world’s collective future. And yet that's what Faircloth accomplished in a 31-minute talk and with his new book, Attack of the Theocrats: How the Religious Right Harms Us All and What We Can Do About It. In his book and his speeches he puts forward a realistic vision and a strategy for reversing “creeping theocracy” and bringing about the tolerant, secular society we all want to live in. His many examples of real harm being done to real people in many unsuspected ways provide a way to connect with regular folks who are not aware of the nature and extent of the threat from the religious right.  

Faircloth is saying it's time for a change in the priorities of the secular movement, time to focus on public policy issues and to reclaim the moral high ground. (We know the religious right is profoundly immoral, but the majority of  citizens do not.) And he actually succeeds in making me believe that our message can be presented so as to capture the attention of the non-theocratic majority of Americans – to help them understand and feel what's at stake. And to energize them to support efforts to undo the growing list of wrongs perpetrated and perpetuated in the name of religion.   

As much as anyone, I love to mock conservatives, theocrats, wingnuts, and Republigoons™ – all those proto-fascists who are poisoning our public and private spaces. It’s satisfying to show, again and again, how ignorant and how wrong they are about everything (which, of course, never changes their minds). But if we’re going to reverse the insidious theocratic trend, we need to recruit and organize support at all levels, just as the right has been doing for 30 years or more, and with alarming success. I see Faircloth as a present-day Paul Revere sounding the alarm, telling us to tone down our internecine differences and focus our collective efforts on saving the things we most value about this country.

Addendum: Attack of the Theocrats was published before Rick Santorum entered the Republican race for president. I have to think that Santorum’s menacing theocratic positions are an incredible gift to secularists. If the majority of Americans aren’t revolted and scared shitless by the implications of his regressive agenda, they soon will be with some help from people like Sean Faircloth. And us.