"A Nation of Cowards": Science and Religion

By Adam Frank | February 19, 2008 11:56 am

Adam FrankAdam Frank is a professor of astrophysics at the University of Rochester who studies star formation and stellar death using supercomputers. His new book, “The Constant Fire, Beyond the Science vs. Religion Debate,” has just been published. He will be joining Reality Base to post an ongoing discussion of science and religion—you can read his previous posts here, and find more of his thoughts on science and the human prospect at the Constant Fire blog.

I grew up in particularly ratty part of North Jersey. The population was the usual American hodgepodge: Italian, Irish, Polish, African American, Puerto Rican, Cuban, and Dominican. It was a tough place with a kind of democracy of animosity. In general, everybody was looking to pound the other guy if the opportunity presented itself.

Still, I was regularly amazed at the strange friendships that would pop up. “Lippy,” the Italian-Irish small time hood who was a regular at Guys and Dolls Pool Hall, was best friends with a bunch of Puerto Ricans from the other side of town. Nobody got it. Normally these guys would have been at each other’s throats, but somehow it worked. Sometimes people just manage to find each other in the midst of the general warfare and chaos.

Which leads me to the Attorney General of the United States.

Yesterday, Attorney General Holder made the rather stunning comment that we Americans are a “nation of cowards” when it comes to the discussion of race.

Wow, pinch me. Was that a U.S. politician telling us the truth? I wasn’t sure that could happen. That is certainly change we can use.

Holder talked about the need for “very legitimate debate…that can and should be nuanced, principled and spirited.” He also made an observation that relates to discussion of science and spiritual endeavor (you can read this as “Religion” if you want, but clearly I am not interested in institutional politics). Holder said, “the conversation we now engage in as a nation on this and other racial subjects is too often simplistic, and left to those on the extremes.” This seems pretty relevant to our topic. Left to the extremes, we get the bullies in Arkansas trying to outlaw atheists holding office, or the I.D. enthusiasts banning evolution from being taught in schools. Left to extremes, we get the silly (though somewhat humorous) bus-ad war going on in Britain.

I am all for calling a spade a spade, and intolerance must be dealt with squarely. But the extremes force out the possibility of difficult and nuanced discussion. It’s exactly that discussion that might challenge us to think more deeply about what any honest and authentic search for truth looks like.

I love science, and am deeply interested in where it comes from. I am fascinated by how it fits into the long and broad tapestry that is human being. I don’t expect to agree with many things that come from the domains of spiritual endeavor. But when we are all at our best, we have the possibility to live in accord with our lived response to the world’s beauty. At our best, that aspiration seems common, and it seems like something worth having difficult and honest conversations to achieve.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Evolution, Science & Religion
MORE ABOUT: Adam frank, creationism

Comments (36)

  1. “nation of cowards” when it comes to the discussion of race.
    Italian, Irish, Polish, African American, Puerto Rican, Cuban, and Dominican.

    Coward. Italian American, Irish American, Polish American, African American, Puerto Rican American, Cuban American, and Dominican American. Or wop, mick, polack, pr, and generic spics (note brevity of expression). You omitted Jewish Americans, i.e., kikes; bohunks, squareheads, squidjiggers, pepsis, chinks, japs, gooks, wogs, gringos, frogs, limeys, flips, ragheads, generic white trash… and Greeks.

    Discrimination in America is economic and intellectual. The productive and the Gifted were sheared then flensed to award golden palanquins to the reproductive, poor, stupid, diseased, crippled, addicted… to the Officially Sad. Lyndon Johnson’s “Great Society” showered money upon society’s dregs to elevate them. Lottery winners, sports, entertainment enjoy multiple $million paydays invariably landing them in Betty Ford and the gutter. NINJA mortgage meltdown: if only we had been more generous to the undeserving.

    Ignorance can be educated, stupidity is forever. Invest in the future you want not the future you loathe. Evolution is a hoot if you are one of the survivors. Yahweh is singularly disinterested in human suffering other than to inflict it.

  2. Chubbee

    Don’t hold back, Al. Tell us how you really feel.

  3. Charles Schmidt

    Personally I do not believe that “cowards” was the best choice of words or accurate in what it seemed to convey. Most of us do not want to leave our comfort zone and if that means not talking about issues or the avoidance of them that is what we will do. Many times if an issue that is controversial is brought up be it religion, politics or the subject of race what happens is not dialog but argument that only leads to bad feelings between people or groups and solve nothing.

    We could talk of how the Church burned books because they went counter to teachings and most would say that we were unenlightened then and others would offer that science and other ideas were wrong and some would say that they still are.

    It is also true that some can have an effective dialog about many issues without taking offence when they are not agreed with on the issue yet that is not the norm. For me it is not the race, color or any other factor but the person that determines my feeling toward them and most people I know feel the same way. But for me too start a conversation with someone by saying “How is it to be black” or anything like that would be to ask for a fight or at least offend him or her. You cannot have that kind of conversation with everyone. Religion, science and other subjects are the same way with some you can and some you cannot have any kind of discussion with them or they are defensive.

  4. Scott

    Sorry, I do not agree. “Cowards” was an appalling and inflammatory word to use and the main effect will be to turn a lot of people off from discussing the real problems. People do not react well to being insulted. I would have thought that someone holding such a high office as AG of the US would know better.

  5. I understand. I don’t think Holder meant everyone was a coward either. I think what he meant was there are difficult conversations that will require some effort to get to. I think he purposely choose such strong language to get people past being locked into only hearing the extremes. In that sense I think it is useful.

  6. Charles Schmidt

    @ Adam Frank: Adam, He may well have not meant everyone however being an attorney he should have known better and selected a less inflammatory word to convey what he was trying to say. Even I found it distasteful, as my Dad said say what you mean and mean what you say.

  7. I thought it was pretty jarring too. Here is where this touches on science and religion. I am sure everyone has had that uncomfotable moment when an issue of race come up in a diverse crowd and everyone looks at each other wondering “oh boy, where is this going to go?” I have seen the same thing happen among scientists when someone says they are religious or spiritual or whatever. People tend to shy away from the conversation and are happy when it moves on to something else.

    Perhaps a nation of the courageous as goal would have been better.

  8. Charles Schmidt

    @ Adam Frank: Adam, True as you said some people are uncomfortable with “religious or spiritual or whatever” in a conversation but I could also be that they feel that there ideas or belief system would be challenged and they are not secure in their belief system. We are all multifaceted and to be a scientist and have a religious belief or the other way around is reasonable.

  9. Jake Coughlin

    You’d probably get more readers if you move your “Adam Frank is a professor of astrophysics…” to the BOTTOM of your posting. That’s all I ever see in my RSS reader.

  10. Mike Gottschalk

    I’m excited to see that the categories of cowardice and courage in this case, are removed from their usual place of war and replaced into the context of constructive dialog. Perhaps war is a failure of courage to engage in something more difficult than destruction: creation.

  11. vel

    we have to be courageous enough to confront the attempt to force opinion on anyone. It is only belief that makes races “different”, it is only belief that makes science “bad”. We need a dicsussion on why racism and religion can’t be addressed for what they are, baseless claims, and why they should not be called on the carpet as any claim should be. Why should it be handled any differently? Why should a “religion” or any other personal belief be immune to requests for evidence?

  12. Charles Schmidt

    @ Vel: You are right the way that I have seen it presented religion and the associated beliefs with it require no proof and yet when science presents evidence to support any assertions they are never giving enough evidence to support it. There seem to be different rules for religion and science from the point of view of religion and those that believe in it. If science is to bring proof to the table to be evaluated then religion should as well and to me the Bible is not confirmation or corroboration of anything just a base on which it has been built.

  13. Of course there are different rules for religion and science, it is those from each “side” who try and claim there aren’t that is the problem. Religion trying to foist its claim on reality on those embracing science and visa versa. Religion is inner space reality where beliefs and ones own proofs can reside while science is outer surface reality where replicable evidence is sought about how things work and what they are built of etc., the surface of reality. The insistence that the rules be the same for two very different realms of thought and experience creates problems. Religion is a personal matter, not an organization as an organization is political as soon as it is formed. Thus religion has been used for bad things just as science has been used for bad things both, I would argue, by political(economic) interests. The debate seems to hold that either religion or science is the problem when neither are the problem, the problem is the political manipulation of them both from inside and out. We are divided like this in may ways by those who fully understand the power of divide and conquer. It is time to expose the men behind the curtains and be done with such wasteful nonsense as that debate. Apocalypse now, lift the veil. Of course people will cling to what they are most comfortable with in their community or psyche so compassionate discourse is required to coax everyone into the river.

  14. Michael Beckley

    He was right to say what he did. If we are ever to change, we must really change and not pay lipservice to it. The number of “White” Americans are still living in a post-slavery haze and being white, I am “Confided” with, everyday, peoples bigotry.

  15. Michael Beckley

    I know so many “White” people who would never have a real conversation about their racist views for, guess what reason….they are cowards!

  16. PeterS

    Vel, you say “(why) religion can’t be addressed for what they are, baseless claims, and why they should not be called on the carpet as any claim should be.”
    Of course belief systems should be examined and questioned (who argues against that?) but when you begin the conversation by describing some one else’s belief system as ‘baseless’ you are denigrating them, inflaming emotions and making a rational conversation difficult.

    There are a great many thoughtful theologians of different persuasions who will readily discuss the evidential basis for their beliefs. You might disagree with them about the strength of the evidence and the necessity for their beliefs but I expect you will learn to respect them for their sincerity and careful scholarship.

  17. I agree with cowards.
    I also liked what Sam Smith called us, “a nation of epigones.”

  18. Mike Gottschalk

    @vel: As a theologian I agree with your belief that my observations and conjectures should be open to all criticism. I’m more than willing to engage with anyone who cares to enter that dialogue with me. Hopefully, we’re all studying reality in order to be more real and not just to be in alliance with our chosen disciplines. You fail to see that your implied claim that science is the ultimate way of knowing everything in its ultimate sense, is anything more than a faith statement. What basis do you have for such an all encompassing belief?

  19. Charles Schmidt

    Today I received the following in my email and it does address why there is little or no dialog on race.
    This is great. I have been wondering about why Whites are racists, and no other race is…..

    Proud to be White

    Michael Richards makes his point…………………..Michael Richards better known as Kramer from TVs Seinfeld does make a good point.

    This was his defense speech in court after making racial comments in his comedy act.. He makes some very interesting points…

    Someone finally said it… How many are actually paying attention to this? There are African Americans, Mexican Americans, AsianAmericans, Arab Americans, etc.

    And then there are just Americans. You pass me on the street and sneer in my direction. You call me ‘White boy,’ ‘Cracker,’ ‘Honkey,’ ‘Whitey,’ ‘Caveman’….. and that’s OK.

    But when I call you, Nigger, Kike, Towel head, Sand-nigger, Camel Jockey, Beaner, Gook, or Chink .. You call me a racist.

    You say that whites commit a lot of violence against you… so why are the ghettos the most dangerous places to live?

    You have the United Negro College Fund. You have Martin Luther King Day.

    You have Black History Month. You have Cesar Chavez Day.

    You have Yom Hashoah. You have Ma’uled Al-Nabi.

    You have the NAACP. You have BET… If we had WET (White Entertainment Television), we’d be racists. If we had a White Pride Day, you would call us racists.

    If we had White History Month, we’d be racists.

    If we had any organization for only whites to ‘advance’ OUR, lives we’d be racists.

    We have a Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, a Black Chamber of Commerce, and then we just have the plain Chamber of Commerce. Wonder who pays for that??

    A white woman could not be in the Miss Black American pageant but any color can be in the Miss America pageant.

    If we had a college fund that only gave white students scholarships …You know we’d be racists.

    There are over 60 openly proclaimed Black Colleges in the US . Yet if there were ‘White colleges’ That would be a racist college.

    In the Million Man March, you believed that you were marching for your race and rights. If we marched for our race and rights, you would call us racists.

    You are proud to be black, brown, yellow and orange, and you’re not afraid to announce it. But when we announce our white pride, you call us racists.

    You rob us, carjack us, and shoot at us. But, when a white police officer shoots a black gang member or beats up a black drug dealer running from the law and posing a threat to society, you call him a racist.

    I am proud… But you call me a racist.

    Why is it that only whites can be racists??

  20. Good points? I don’t think so. Abhorrent behavior and name calling is shared by all races, certainly, but racism is really more about the dominant system and the sensitivity or insensitivity of its members to minority races being mistreated and historically cheated by that dominant system. To say that somehow the system is unfair to white people is to not know the history nor the current reality for the people of other races. While that may be changing I would suggest taking your argument to a white privilege or racial sensitivity work shop.

  21. Back to the debate issue, this comes from a conversation with D. Rothenburg about Arne Naess;
    Well Spinoza you know, was such an interesting character. Kicked out of Judaism and Christianity, believed that ethics could be argued in a kind of geometric manner, like Aristotle did, a vigorous step-by-step talking about very abstract things. He also believed nature was something that God and nature were the same thing, and God was there in nature, and kind of flowing all around us, a very kind of non-Western kind of view, but one that made Nature all the more important and alive. And this also had a big influence on Arne Naess, who started to argue for the same thing. Nature is something not to worship, but something of supreme importance, of supreme, intrinsic value. But Spinoza said ‘God as nature’, ‘Deus sive Natura’ and this was something Arne tried to put into practice and put into environmental discussion and say ‘Don’t think you just have to talk about policy and facts and calculate, as if that’s the only way to be rational when dealing with nature. You may feel that nature is a part of you, and that’s objective. That’s something you can bring to the table in a debate. ….in his early ’90s he wrote this book that became the No.1 Bestseller in Norway called Life’s Philosophy, in which he said things like ‘All my life I’ve believed logic, rigour, argument is important. Now I realise emotions are what really matter.’ Telling the same kind of things, but with a different perspective.

  22. Charles Schmidt

    It seems that the point of the email I received and posted was missed. That point is there are different standards of looking at things from a ethnic or cultural view just as there are dissimilar standards when it is science based on confirmable experiments or other support and religion that is base on faith alone. Using faith to make a judgment without out side support for it is not reasonable when evidence for or other observations is over looked or just discarded. The view that you cannot prove that God exist and must betaken on faith is fine until things that can be proven are not accepted because of that faith. The Religions say that we cannot understand God but the followers tells us that this is the way that the deity did it, if being incomprehensible and beyond understanding how can it be said that is the way it was done, no evidence.

    In no way have I had any problems with those of other ethnic groups or gender and for the most part those that had a problem it was theirs with belonging to their ethnic group. That some in the past were slaves does not really have any bearing on today, that many do not have decent opportunities is no doubt true in many cases but does that mean that they should turn to racism. To say or think that one race or group should be able to exclude another is to perpetuate racism and it makes little on no difference which one it is or the reason for it, it is still wrong. Just as it is wrong to say that faith makes science wrong with out any other support for the judgment.

  23. Mike Gottschalk

    @Howard Switzer: Howard, I would add to this something from the theologian, Paul Tillich. He referred to god as ‘The Ground of Being”. He argued that we are mistaken to think of god as one being beside other beings; rather, god would be the ground from which being emerges. I like this as a means to help conceptualize god. Similar to this is: The Tao that can be named is not the Tao. I like this as well. In the religious side of things, we distinguish between two ways of knowing; knowing in terms of facts and knowing in terms of intimacy, of taking something into your depths. I think Arne is speaking to this.

  24. Mike Gottschalk

    Oh- and its interesting to me that in human being, life evolves into this capacity.

  25. I agree with that view, Mike. Ground of being or Tao that can’t be named both work for me.

    As to Charles point I think one would only make a decision based on faith if there was no other supporting evidence, where one had no other agency over the situation. Having faith that this airplane will not crash thus getting on board still knowing that a percentage of them do crash. The scientist making a bomb that could theoretically cause a reaction that would blow the planet up. Did he have faith in his math and decision to detonate it without such dire consequences? Well perhaps it was taken out of his hands by someone who had more faith, some mad general? The idea that the existence of God requires any faith doesn’t exactly work for me and seems to render God with a primitive conception. Perhaps it is the term many accept as a name, God, that is the problem for what we are talking about is beyond names, its the mystery, its the unknown from which the known comes, which is why the ‘ground of being’ seems to work. As with science or religion, one cannot be completely sure but can only let their experience continually inform them. And as with the great story in Ben Franklin’s autobiography, the Christian asking the Quaker why they don’t write down their beliefs as they might be trusted more if they did and the Quaker responding that he had seen what he believed to be true proved wrong over time and that some things he believed false proven to be true, “so what would I write down?” In science we write it down and change it when it is proven wrong having no attachment to the outcome one way or another, theoretically, …of course we’re only human. Thus we should begin to see the relationship between science and religion, if we can get beyond the prejudice that the politics of each has wrought. Also, isn’t this all a bit of a cosmic joke that we can all laugh about? I find those taking either side too seriously funny.

  26. Mike Gottschalk

    Howard, you guys need to get that instant transporter on line; where’s the pub when you need it?!

    I’m sensitive to the fact that the word God can now days sound like the name “Rog” for the god of some made- up stone age people in a B movie aired in the middle of the night on uhf channel 86. When I myself use the word god, I use it in a mode of symbol (I wrote about this under Adam’s address to the silly) in fact, one of my most voiced prayers, when I do voice them (rarely) is, “God please deliver me from god”. I recognize the reality that exists apart from my word for it. Btw, my second (close) plead is, “God deliver me from me.”

    It amazes me at how averse the sacred is to our crass attempts to contain it. Perhaps our best poets are the ones who can lead us to the sacred without trespassing and chasing it away.

    When Tillich talks about mystery, he makes a clear distinction in its use. If something that is thought of as a mystery can be solved, it was never a mystery; it was just a problem needing to be solved. The etymology of mystery’s meaning began with a shutting of the mouth; it originally points to an experience where words fail to convey what is seen and the inability for one to use words to teach what is beyond the didactic. Why does Existence exist instead of Non existence? And even Non existence is itself still something existing; kind of like zero- the nothing that is. Existence is a true mystery; once we uncover a beginning we’re left with the question, where did this come from? It can’t be solved. Not even by the idea of god.

    I think equal to this mystery of existence is the mystery of consciousness and comprehension- of real subjectivity; you and I are made of the same stuff that granite is, yet neither of us is a counter top and only you are you in this whole world and likewise for the rest of us. Here is where we’ve used the word soul which too, has suffered a fate similar to the word god.

    If a key component of Mystery is that it can’t be rendered into a problem, how then, does making it into a problem relieve us of something needing relief? I liked Dawkin’s book, “The Selfish Gene”- I read it ten years ago. One thing that gets overlooked though, is that a description of an underlying mechanism is not the same as explaining an over all phenomenon. If I were to push his argument for assigning the sum total of my consciousness to genes alone, then all I can say is that my genes don’t agree with his genes. And if I decide his genes are the correct ones and ask him for a dose of his genes to transplant my own so that I can have the belief of correctness that he does, who is making that decision, and will they decide differently in the future when another description gets made into the new explanation?

    From my point of view, just as an idea of soul in the middle ages blindered us from seeking physiological understanding, todays ideas can blinder us from the mystery and fullness of subjective consciousness.

    Should we devise an “anti making of mass destruction weaponry pill” to keep society from devising them? Under the threat of death? In light of the mystery and potential elegance of subjective consciousness, the pill idea seems as crass to me as living by some cosmic rule book without thought and argument on our part- but adults who can’t live from this depth of mystery, are in need remedial supervision or pills. I think an adult relationship between religion and science is well over due.

    Another name for the un-nameable: The Unspeakable Eros.

  27. “If something that is thought of as a mystery can be solved, it was never a mystery; it was just a problem needing to be solved.”

    So Sherlock Holmes et al never solved a mystery? …and a whole genre of books and films.

    Actually, liked all this. I just accept that some mysteries cannot be solved while some can and changing my word usage at this point… well, we’ll see. I’m always having to explain myself anyway. Yes, a transporter to the pub.

  28. Mike Gottschalk

    Well, ya- I haven’t changed my street use of the word mystery- I wonder though, it seems that in the sacred sense of mystery, infinity shows one of its paradoxes: that which is not supposed to have walls has some pretty big walls. I assume you’re a scientist- if you are, I’m curious as to how you respond to such a barrier to knowing something that you want to know?

  29. Jim

    Sick of It All is a band with lyrics that make you think about life, society and on and on.
    They may be rough and raw but is that not the generation that Reganomics created and still feel the pain today…

    Religion is a controlling technique for racists and males that have no marbles left.
    As for the women that were brainwashed into giving up their kids due to the corporate media or biblical fears…

    “foolish thoughts of rapture
    in the government
    should not be … or even entertained”

    FLorida Atheists and Secular Humanists represent good people.
    Yeah some are bitter folks that were wronged in their quest for faith only to find friendship and comfort were the key; to life.

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