Frontlines — Vol. 17 No. 3

Matt Cherry, Timothy J. Madigan, Tom Flynn

Hale-Bopp and Heaven’s Gate

In early 1996, the astronomer Alan Hale submitted an article to FREE INQUIRY dealing with the comet he had recently co-discovered with Thomas Bopp. Although there was no way to be sure at that time if the comet would be as spectacular as it proved to be, Hale felt that there was a need to counteract the already-large number of people making supernatural claims about the import of this discovery. Some were claiming that the comet had been predicted by Nostradamus, others that it was a portent of the end times as described in the Book of Revelation, and a few even claimed that an alien spaceship was hiding behind the comet, ready to strike Earth and enslave it.

Hale’s article “The Unlimited Cosmos—A Personal Odyssey” appeared in the Summer 1996 issue of FREE INQUIRY and was one of the first articles not only to alert the general public to the existence of Comet Hale-Bopp, but also to criticize those who cheapened the appearance of this magnificent astronomical body by insisting that it was not important in and of itself, but was only significant because of its supernatural or paranormal implications. Hale said that Comet Hale-Bopp would present an unprecedented opportunity to increase scientific literacy and show that one could appreciate the beauty of this “heavenly body” on its own terms. In light of this, FREE INQUIRY sponsored a conference in Tucson, Arizona, on February 14-16, entitled “Myth and Magic in the Sky,” in which Hale reiterated his naturalistic views on astronomy.

The suicide in March of 39 members of the “Heaven’s Gate” cult, followed by the copycat suicide of one former member and the unsuccessful attempt by another in early May, give a macabre vindication of Hale’s fears that bizarre religious interpretations of comets were by no means a thing of the past.

Faith Steady Among Scientists — Or Is It?

The two-page commentary in Nature (April 1997, pp. 435-436) triggered a media frenzy. University of Georgia science historian Edward J. Larson and Washington Times reporter Larry Witham had surveyed U.S. scientists and found that they were no less religious in 1996 than in 1916. Pundits were surprised that belief had not lost more ground. Conservatives suggested the secularization of America was losing steam.

That verdict may be premature. In a famous 1916 study, psychologist James Leuba polled 1,000 biologists, mathematicians, astronomers, and physicists about their religious beliefs. Contemporaries were astonished that only 40% believed in God or an after-life. Leuba, a humanist, predicted that with expanding scientific knowledge religion would continue to decline.

Larson and Witham’s results appear to contradict Leuba’s optimism. At first blush, their figures showed no change in core religious attitudes: about 40% of respondents still believed in God or the afterlife. Among unbelievers, even the proportion of firm skeptics to agnostics was the same. That persistence across 80 years seems remarkable. But how reliable is it?

For historical reasons, Larson and Witham replicated Leuba’s study almost exactly, though admitting that “[clompared to the technology used in modern surveys, Leuba’s effort was quaint.” They, too, polled 1,000 biologists, mathematicians, astronomers, and physicists drawn from a current edition of the same reference work Leuba had used. They followed Leuba’s distribution of specialties, polling only biologists, mathematicians, physicists, and astronomers. In Nature, Larson and Witham were forthright about these design limitations. But media accounts often over-looked them, giving the erroneous impression that faith among today’s scientists had been measured under contemporary standards of rigor.

There are further grounds for skepticism that Larson and Witham did not discuss in Nature. Since they surveyed a smaller percentage of listed professionals than Leuba (science has expanded), their survey is open to randomization errors that Leuba didn’t need to worry about. Witham told FREE INQUIRY that subject names were drawn on an every nth name basis. That may be random enough for political polling or marketing research, but it’s a

surprisingly casual way to randomize subjects for a rigorous scientific study. Larson and Witham also failed to mention in Nature that their replica of Leuba’s survey instrument was only half of a larger questionnaire that included another, entirely separate series of questions about creation and evolution. Witham reported the results of that study himself in a bylined April 11 Washing-ton Times story. There, he admitted the evolution study had been performed as “a separate but parallel study to one reported … in Nature.” Interestingly, he failed to disclose that he was its co-author, naming Larson and an anonymous “reporter for The Washington Times” as architects of the survey.

Finally, the whole of Larson and Witham’s data doesn’t paint a consistent picture of abiding faith among scientists. The desire for immortality (independent of a respondent’s belief in it) has declined precipitously since 1916. Larson and Witham described “a significant shift in views held by the … professions surveyed,” with physicists and astronomers replacing biologists as the most skeptical. Their tag-along evolution study offered further signs that unbelief remains strong among scientists. More than half said humans arose over millions of years without God’s involvement, compared to just 9% of the general public in a 1992 Gallup poll of parallel design. Almost half of the public said humans were created in their current form less than 10,000 years ago; only 5% of scientists agreed. (One wonders who they are.) Of course, media focused on another finding: that 40% of scientists surveyed held the hybrid position that God guided evolution.

Whatever its weaknesses, Larson and Witham’s work does suggest that, contrary to Leuba, scientific erudition alone cannot extinguish the religious impulse. Millions cannot resist the emotional suction of supernatural belief. If science dulls traditional Christianity, many will turn to alternative creeds before embracing the perceived aridity of secular humanism. To encourage more people to live without religion, humanists must offer an alternative that is not only scientifically informed, but emotionally robust as well.

Pupil + Voucher ≠ St. Mary’s

Ohio parents more likely to pray that vouchers will get their children into the schools of their choice will be the ones least likely to be able to use them.

The first state in the Union to allow religious schools to be destinations for voucher-carrying students has had its own highest court slap its hands. The program is no go because it “provides direct and substantial non-neutral government aid to sectarian schools” wrote the Ohio District Court of Appeals in a unanimous decision.

Last fall, vouchers worth $2,500 became available to low-income parents in the Cleveland City School District who wanted to send their children to one of the 53 area private schools. Some 2,000 kindergartners through third-graders shifted schools as a result, at a cost of $5.5 million.

But 80% of those private schools were religious, giving taxpayers and teachers’ unions grounds to object. “The only real choice available to most parents is between sending their child to a sectarian school and having their child remain in the troubled Cleveland City School District,” wrote Judge John C. Young. “Such a choice can hardly be characterized as ‘genuine and independent.'”

Ohio Governor George Voinovich supports the program and expects to take the appeal process all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. In the mean-time in Wisconsin, a state judge has nixed expanding that state’s voucher program to include religious schools.

Poles Defy the Pope

Pope John Paul II’s spring visit to his homeland produced an unintended consequence: it hastened the adoption of a secular constitution for Poland. A referendum that approved Poland’s first post-communist constitution was held at the end of May just six days before the pope visited his native country. The government apparently chose an early referendum date to avoid papal interference.

The new constitution establishes Poland as a secular state, guarantees equal rights for the non-religious, and explicitly recognizes that Polish patriotism and ethical behavior do not require religious faith. Regrettably, the constitution does make some concessions to religious pressure. For example, it starts by invoking “God,” and outlaws gay marriage. But, despite Catholic demands, there are no constitutional assertions of “Catholic values” and “natural law,” and no ban on abortion.

Poland’s secular constitution is a remarkable achievement for the country that Pope John Paul II has tried to turn into the world’s most dogmatic Catholic state. In the early 1990s, a series of government measures imposed Catholic creed on all Poles. Doctrinaire laws included a total ban on abortion, and a requirement for all school pupils to receive instruction in the Catholic faith.

The Polish secularist movement, with humanists at the forefront, organized resistance to the pope’s political program. In 1996 a secularist government was elected with a strong parliamentary majority. The new government set out to reverse the “Catholicization” of the Polish state. Instead it promoted an open society that protected the rights and beliefs of all its citizens, whether religious or not.

The new government’s secular humanist sympathies were shown by its warm welcome for an international humanist conference held in the Polish capital of Warsaw, in September 1996 (see FREE INQUIRY, Winter 1996/97.) Several leading Polish politicians attended the meeting, and Prime Minister Wlodimierz Cimoszewicz sent a message of strong support:

It was with great satisfaction that I learnt of the program of your conference—both the subjects of the partic-ular sessions and the participation of eminent intellectuals from numerous countries convince me that the idea of humanism attracts all those who do not agree to the stubbornly re-peated efforts to enslave society on doctrinal or denominational grounds. The purpose of the Federation of Polish Humanist Associations . . . concerning “defending universal humanist values, secular state, free-dom of life-stance and real equality of citizens regardless of their beliefs” is particularly close to me.

FREE INQUIRY Editor-in-Chief Paul Kurtz, who was a keynote speaker at the Warsaw conference, commented, “FREE INQUIRY has been very active in advancing secular humanist principles in Eastern Europe. For example, we help finance the excellent Polish mag-azine Bez Dogmatu [Without Dogma.] We are delighted that Poland has now firmly embraced the ideal of a free and secular society. We will continue to support humanist projects in Eastern Europe in the hope that all countries in the region will follow the Polish lead.”

—Matt Cherry, Tom Flynn, Timothy J. Madigan, and Andrea Szalanski

Matt Cherry

Matthew Cherry is the Secretary for Development and Public Relations, International Humanist and Ethical Union.

Timothy J. Madigan

Timothy J. Madigan is the chair of FREE INQUIRY’s Editorial Board.

Tom Flynn

Tom Flynn is editor of Free Inquiry, executive director of the Council for Secular Humanism, director of the Robert Green Ingersoll Birthplace Museum, and editor of The New Encyclopedia of Unbelief (2007).


Hale-Bopp and Heaven’s Gate In early 1996, the astronomer Alan Hale submitted an article to FREE INQUIRY dealing with the comet he had recently co-discovered with Thomas Bopp. Although there was no way to be sure at that time if the comet would be as spectacular as it proved to be, Hale felt that there …

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