The joys of secularism
Carlton M. Caves
2011 August 15

James Wood's review of The Joy of Secularism in the August 15-22 New Yorker still has my attention after a weekend of thinking. My response is very much colored by my forty years as a physicist. Scientists are often thought to be in the vanguard of the secular world view, and it's not hard to see why. From the mysteries of quantum physics, to the variety and complexity of life on Earth, to the wonders of the cosmos---the life of a scientist is full of awe and wonder. Our mission of recording and understanding the mysteries of Nature gives meaning and purpose to our lives, without the need to appeal to any extra-human agency. The cumulative impact of our enterprise on human understanding, evident to anyone who cares to look, heightens this sense of purpose.

The universal character of the scientific enterprise frees scientists, to some extent, from the toxic racial, ethnic, and religious divisions that plague other fields of endeavor, and it permits us to slip a bit outside the anthropocentric world view of religions and the dominant culture. Does this mean that scientists are unconcerned about questions of ethics and morality? Far from it, but we do have a different perspective. Understanding that the present complexity of life on Earth is the product of nearly four billion years of biological evolution gives us more respect for Earth and its inhabitants than does attributing Creation to any Creator. We know, for example, that humans need now to focus on saving Earth from humanity. Understanding that ethics and morality have their primitive roots in hominid evolution and that these roots have been developed through tens of thousands of years of cultural evolution does not make us less mindful of ethical and moral precepts than someone who believes that God has written out the rules in bold type. Rather we realize that these precepts are a gift from our forebears---perhaps unique to us on Earth---and that every generation of humankind is obliged to refine and perfect them. This obligation we share with thoughtful believers of all faiths, God's bold type notwithstanding.

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