I am one of the very fortunate who has never had to fight my family on religious matters. My parents raised me in a very secular fashion and did not speak of spiritual matters when I was young unless I brought them up.
I was 10 years old. And like any nerdy 10 year old, I was in love with dinosaurs, sharks and other monsters of biology. I decided that I would read “Jurassic Park,” all on my own without any parental assistance. It took months, averaging maybe 5 pages a day, but I was resolved.
Prior to that time, religious matters had barely crossed my mind, but I found myself grappling with the basic questions as I made my way through the book. (I have reread the book in adulthood and cannot quite place what passages brought this line of inquiry on. Perhaps it was the philosophical ramblings of Ian Malcolm?) I considered the possibility of a god or gods, whether such a thing was necessary for life or the universe to exist, and what would be a good way to uncover some proof. I asked my parents for their views on the matter. They answered honestly and simply, and their answers resonated quite sensibly with me (my father has been an atheist for most of his life while my mother prefers to remain agnostic). By the end of the book, the matter seemed settled. No evidence for god, and most importantly, no need for god to enter into the equation whatsoever.
I remained a resolved, but uninterested atheist for more than ten years. Who the hell could really care that much about god or religion anyway? There are just so many other things to spend your time and energy on. And even as I read Dawkins and Hitchens, and witnessed the renaissance of religion in American politics, I remained primarily uninterested in engaging people on the matter. Sure, there are whackos out there, but just let them be and they’ll let you be, for the most part. There are so many intelligent and honest people who devote their lives to science and the pursuit of truth. Their work is what makes the world work. Follow them and keep learning.
Then I entered graduate school, as a master’s student in pure mathematics.
It’s no secret that mathematicians are the most spiritual bunch in the sciences. There are many reasons for this, perhaps the most important being that it is entirely possible to be an amazing mathematician and still not know a thing about reality. Mathematics is abstraction, and although abstraction can motivate empiricism (just as the inverse is true), abstraction can also be isolated. Most survey data that I have seen suggests that about 1 in 2 mathematicians will tend to be religious. And this is not necessarily just some vague form of deism, this is largely true religion.
So after a year or two in grad school, surrounded by no one but other mathematicians, all toiling away in abstraction and relative anonymity, I found it rather hard to ignore the inconsistencies and incompatibilities in many of my colleagues’ work versus their beliefs. Questioning such people on these matters is not an easy endeavor, however. Everyone around is intelligent, highly educated and passionate about what they do. There is also no shortage of ego. And questioning the beliefs of better mathematicians than I has proven to be a near herculean task. However, I have found it more and more necessary to do just that.
To me, mathematics is nothing without science. It is philosophy and art, and of course it can be very beautiful and profound completely in its isolated abstraction, but it does not contain any power until it is utilized to describe, explain or predict reality. Too many mathematicians refuse to accept this and to accept all the implications of that reality. And those implications most certainly include the utter absurdity of believing in a god. I simply cannot sympathize, I cannot excuse it because, by and large, they are too smart to be excused. Mathematicians do not need to be scientists, but they do need to acknowledge that mathematics is only poetry without science. If they are going to care about truth too, then they have to embrace reality. The same can be demanded of scientists in general.
Which brings me to my point. There are three kinds of religious scientists (and mathematicians): cowards, liars and idiots. The cowards need to be reassured and rescued, the liars need to be challenged and contested, and the idiots need to be exposed. It is because of this that I have become an engaged atheist, outspoken and loud, a “new” atheist if that’s what you want to call it. As long as the cowards, liars and idiots are protected by our silence and general disinterest in anything not directly related to our research, they will continue to compromise the credibility of our fields. You can be a brilliant scientist and still believe in god, but you can’t do it sincerely. That’s a problem. Sooner or later will be a clash, whether it’s in the form of muddling research, deceiving students or misrepresenting reality in a public statement or lecture. If you’re going to devote your life to the pursuit of truth, then you better have enough guts to stomach the implications, all of them.