Now here’s a genuinely novel idea. “Religious leaders need to be held accountable for their ideas. In my state of Arizona, Sister Margaret McBride, a senior administrator at St. Josephâs Hospital in Phoenix, recently authorised a legal abortion to save the life of a 27-year-old mother of four who was 11 weeks pregnant and suffering from severe complications of pulmonary hypertension; she made that decision after consultation with the motherâs family, her doctors and the local ethics committee”.
The bishop of Phoenix, Thomas Olmsted, immediately excommunicated Sister Margaret, saying that the motherâs life cannot be preferred over the childâs. “Ordinarily, a man who would callously let a woman die and orphan her children would be called a monster; this should not change just because he is a cleric”.
So writes Lawrence Krauss in the current edition of Scientific American. “I donât know which is more dangerous, that religious beliefs force some people to choose between knowledge and myth or that pointing out how religion can purvey ignorance is taboo. To do so risks being branded as intolerant of religion”, he continues.
The US National Science Board publishes a report every two years designed to assess the public’s understanding of science issues. This year, the Board chose not to publish the findings in this area, arguing that the questions were flawed indicators of science knowledge because “responses conflated knowledge and beliefs”. Translated into English, it’s best not to highlight the fact that people’s religious beliefs cause them to flatly reject scientific facts. This is no trivial matter.
When presented with the statement: âhuman beings, as we know them today, developed from earlier species of animals,â just 45% of US respondents indicated âtrue.â Compare this figure with the equivalent scores in Japan (78%), Europe (70%), China (69%) and South Korea (64%). Only 33% of Americans agreed that âthe universe began with a big explosion.â
Add in the results of a 2009 Pew Survey: 31% of US adults believe âhumans and other living things have existed in their present form since the beginning of time.â When responses are sorted by levels of religious activity, it suggests that the most devout are on average least willing to accept the evidence of reality. White evangelical Protestants have the highest denial rate (55%), closely followed by the group across all religions who attend services on average at least once a week (49%).
“Keeping religion immune from criticism is both unwarranted and dangerous. Unless we are willing to expose religious irrationality whenever it arises, we will encourage irrational public policy and promote ignorance over education for our children”, concludes Krauss’s article. Ireland and the US have both suffered badly – and continue to suffer – at the hands of religious zealots. The Murphy and Ryan reports expose an indelible stain on the first century of our new Republic, when this State allowed one religion to gain a stranglehold on both education and health, and to wield political power without accountability – the classic recipe for corruption.
Thankfully, this grip has been loosened as the tidal wave of clerical crimes and cover-ups too sickening and pervasive to be explained away have come to light and we finally begin to evolve towards the vision of a tolerant, secular Republic that respects all faiths and none equally. In the US, tragically, the reverse seems to be happening.
The pact between the Republican Party and the religious right has deepened that party’s schism with science. The consequences of this Faustian bargain are almost unfathomably grave. There was a time when most reasonable people agreed on the immutable scientific facts, while differing widely on interpretation.
That was then. The toxic politicisation of science understanding in the last two decades has ended that uneasy truce. Now, as a rule, the great majority of Republicans reject out of hand any and all scientific findings that don’t fit with their ideologically tinted world-view. Gemma Hussey once famously talked about turkeys voting for Christmas; she could have had these same Republicans in mind.
Anyone who claims to follow US politics and still clings to the notion that the climate crisis is in any way capable of putting a dent in the business-as-usual paradigm has simply not been paying attention. In the heel of the hunt, we are not an especially rational species, despite our pretentions to the contrary. The iron grip of religions (in all their splendid contradictions and irrationality, not to mention just plain silliness) on the minds of so many underlines this.
Once upon a time, our clinging to arcane and illogical belief systems and rejection of empirical evidence was of interest mainly to anthropologists. Now, it’s the existential issue that is set to define the limits of our success and, in time, the nemesis of our species.