CFI’s Declaration in Defense of Science and Secularism

We are deeply concerned about the ability of the United States to confront the many challenges it faces, both at home and abroad. Our concern has been compounded by the failure exhibited by far too many Americans, including influential decision-makers, to understand the nature of scientific inquiry and the integrity of empirical research. This disdain for science is aggravated by the excessive influence of religious doctrine on our public policies.

We are concerned with the resurgence of fundamentalist religions across the nation, and their alliance with political-ideological movements to block science. We are troubled by the persistence of paranormal and occult beliefs, and by the denial of the findings of scientific research. This retreat into mysticism is reinforced by the emergence in universities of “post-modernism,” which undermines the objectivity of science.

These disturbing trends can be illustrated by the push for intelligent design (a new name for creationism) and the insistence that it be taught along with evolution. Some 37 states have considered legislation to mandate this. This is both troubling and puzzling since the hypotheses and theories of evolution are central to modern science. The recent federal court decision in the Dover, Pa., case has set back, but not defeated, these efforts. Moreover, the resilience of anti-evolution movements is supported not only by religious dogmatism but also by the abysmal public ignorance of basic scientific principles. Consider these facts:

  • A recent poll by the Pew Research Center revealed that 64% of Americans are open to the idea of teaching intelligent design or creationism in public schools.
  • Some 42% totally reject evolution or believe that present forms of life existed since the beginning of time.
  • 38% would teach only creationism instead of evolutionary theory.
  • Only 26% agree with the predominant scientific view that life evolved by processes of natural selection without the need for divine intervention.
  • The percentage of individuals who accept the theory of evolution is lower in the United States than in any other developed country, with the exception of Turkey.

Recent polls have illustrated other instances of scientific illiteracy:

  • 20% of Americans think that the Sun revolves about the Earth
  • Only 10% know what radiation is
  • Less than one-third can identify DNA as a key to heredity
  • In the U.S., twelfth grade students scored lower than the average of students in 21 other countries in science and math.

We think that these dismal facts portend a clear and present danger to the role of science in the U.S. In our view it is not enough to teach specific technical subjects—important as that is—but to convey to the public a general understanding of how science works . This requires both some comprehension of the methods of scientific inquiry and an understanding of the scientific outlook. The cultivation of critical thinking is essential not only for science but also for an educated citizenry—especially if democracy is to flourish

Unfortunately, not only do too many well-meaning people base their conceptions of the universe on ancient books—such as the Bible and the Koran—rather than scientific inquiry, but politicians of all parties encourage and abet this scientific ignorance. It is vital that the public be exposed to the scientific perspective, and this presupposes the separation of church and state and public policies that are based on secular principles, not religious doctrine. Yet government legislators and executives permit religion, instead of empirical, scientifically supported evidence, to shape public policy. Consider:

  • Embryonic stem cell research, which promises to deliver revolutionary therapies, has been needlessly impeded by the misguided claim that the embryo and/or the first division of cells in a petri dish (blastocyst) is the equivalent of a human person. This is rooted in a moral-theological doctrine that has no basis in science.
  • The nation spends hundreds of millions of dollars on faith-based programs of unproven efficacy, including ill-advised abstinence-only programs in such areas as drug abuse prevention and sex education, which are more successful at promoting misinformation than abstinence.
  • Abstinence policies are advocated abroad and promotion of condom use rejected, heedless of the danger of AIDS and of the need for wise policies aimed to restrain rapid population growth.
  • Scientific evidence of global warming is dismissed and the destruction of other species on the planet is ignored, driven by the misguided view that the Earth has been given to the human species as its dominion.

We cannot hope to convince those in other countries of the dangers of religious fundamentalism when religious fundamentalists influence our policies at home; we cannot hope to convince others that it is wrong to compel women to veil themselves when we deliberately draw a veil over scientific knowledge; we cannot hope to convince others of the follies of sectarianism when we give preferential treatment to religious institutions and practices. A mindset fixed in the Middle Ages cannot possibly hope to meet the challenges of our times.

Science transcends borders and provides the most reliable basis for finding solutions to our problems. We maintain that secular, not religious, principles must govern our public policy. This is not an anti-religious viewpoint; it is a scientific viewpoint. To find common ground, we must reason together, and we can do so only if we are willing to put personal religious beliefs aside when we craft public policy.

For these reasons, we call upon political leaders of all parties:

  • to protect and promote scientific inquiry
  • to base public policy insofar as possible on empirical evidence instead of religious faith
  • to provide an impartial and reliable source of scientific analysis to assist Congress, for example, by reviving the Congressional Office of Technology Assessment
  • to maintain a strict separation between church and state and, in particular, not to permit legislation or executive action to be influenced by religious beliefs.

Science and secularism are inextricably linked and both are indispensable if we are to have sound public policies that will promote the common good, not only of Americans but of the global community.