By Marc Kaufman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 15, 2006
Concerned that the voice of science and secularism is growing ever fainter in the White House, on Capitol Hill and in culture, a group of prominent scientists and advocates of strict church-state separation yesterday announced formation of a Washington think tank designed to promote "rationalism" as the basis of public policy.
The brainchild of Paul Kurtz, founder of the Center for Inquiry-Transnational, the small public policy office will lobby and sometimes litigate on behalf of science-based decision making and against religion in government affairs.
The announcement was accompanied by release of a "Declaration in Defense of Science and Secularism," which bemoans what signers say is a growing lack of understanding of the nature of scientific inquiry and the value of a rational approach to life.
"This disdain for science is aggravated by the excessive influence of religious doctrine on our public policies," the declaration says. "We cannot hope to convince those in other countries of the dangers of religious fundamentalism when religious fundamentalists influence our policies at home."
While the speakers at the National Press Club unveiling were highly critical of Bush administration policies regarding stem cell research, global warming, abstinence-only sex education and the teaching of "intelligent design," they said that their group was nonpartisan and that many Democrats were hostile to keeping religion out of public policy.
"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," reads the declaration, which was signed by, among others, three Nobel Prize winners.
Kurtz, a professor emeritus in philosophy from the State University of New York at Buffalo and a longtime critic of the influence of religion on public policy, said that the nation needed the equivalent of a "second Enlightenment." He said the methods of science, which have led to much human progress, "are being challenged culturally in the United States today as never before."
Several speakers also had strong words for the media, which they accused of distorting scientific consensus in the name of journalistic balance. David Helfand, chairman of the Columbia University astronomy department, said for instance that while 99 percent of scientists working in the field of climate change are convinced that it is serious and the result of human activity, the views of the 1 percent who disagree are often given equal weight in stories about global warming.
Lawrence M. Krauss, an author and theoretical physicist at Case Western Reserve University, said the scientific community has done a "poor job" of explaining its logic and benefits to the public. He also said scientists have a more active role to play in opposing faith-based governing, which he said the public often rejects once it understands the issues involved.
"In the current climate there is an implicit, if demonstrably false, sense that if your actions are based on a belief in God you are good person, and if they are not you are a bad person," Krauss said. "We should be very concerned that our political system reinforces the notion that the more you pray for guidance, the better suited you are to govern."
The goals of the new group are to establish relationships with sympathetic legislators, provide experts to give testimony before Congress, speak publicly on issues when they are in the news, and submit friend-of-the-court briefs in Supreme Court cases involving science and religion. The Center for Inquiry-Transnational, a nonprofit organization, is funded by memberships.