Speech ban for atheists

In the state of Oklahoma, atheists are not welcome – at least not if it is up to the republican political majority. A frightening and misplaced attempt to prevent a lecture on evolution at the University of Oklahoma failed. But consequently, the university was bombarded by critique and demands of an investigation of the circumstances surrounding the lecture. The invited lecturer was Richard Dawkins. The complainant was the elected republican Todd Thomson who believes that atheists are against cultural pluralism. For that reason, they need to be silenced.

Contradictory? Yes that is for sure! Dangerous? Most certainly!

It is a matter of academic freedom and the fight against the fact that scientific knowledge is not given the same status as public opinion. The case in Oklahoma is unpleasantly reminiscent of the Scopes Trial of 1925 – as well as a reminder that creationist manipulation and abuse of power is both a real and everyday event in America. We have to take it seriously. This must not take place in Europe.

Evolution in the Bible belt

Oklahoma is located in the middle of the American Bible belt. It is influenced politically, morally, and religiously by the conservative Protestants. The state is also home to a powerful university that among other things holds a collection of world class literature on evolution – including a complete collection of first editions of Darwin’s work. It is also a place that refuses to teach evolution in high schools out of a fear of infuriating the community.

In a brave, important, and correct manner, the university had decided to use the Darwin Year to bring our solid scientific knowledge about evolution into focus. Furthermore, they had chosen to invite religious antievolutionists to show that the discussion was taken seriously. The week before Richard Dawkins gave his famous lecture, the Darwinian philosopher Michael Ruse and the intelligent design advocate William Dembski had a debate. They smiled, had a good time and Dembski admitted both that he spoke from a religious standpoint that was nonnegotiable and was put in his place from a philosophical point of view. However, then Dawkins arrived.

Religious veto

The interest in the lecture beforehand was so massive that the location had to be moved to a larger lecture hall which held 3000 people. However, if it had been up to Todd Thomson, the lecture would never have taken place. In the state of Oklahoma’s “House Resolution 1015” during the first congressional meeting in the House of Representatives, it was demanded that the University was to prevent the lecture from taking place due to the fact that Dawkins’ statements on evolution “are not shared and are not representative of the thinking of a majority of the citizens of Oklahoma”.

It was too late to cancel the lecture which incidentally was a huge success. Dawkins was celebrated with standing ovations, renounced his fee from the university, and promptly donated $5.000 to the education on evolution in Oklahoma. Only one screaming religious activist had to be escorted out of the lecture hall. However, the event did cause a serious academic hangover in an American state where academic freedom still has to be fought for in a manner that makes our domestic discussion on research freedom seem like a friendly game of Parcheesi at a backyard barbecue. 

Dawkins had to be stopped because he is an atheist. According to several conservative Christians in the Midwest, there is no place for people like him in the public forum. The anger is particularly caused by his book The God Delusion which was published in 2006. Dawkins is not a historian, a theologian, or a philosopher. That becomes apparent when reading the book. However, he does know evolution. And concerning one point in the discussion on religion and science, he hits the nail right of the head.

During the last couple of decades, it has become more and more common all over the western world that people’s religious beliefs receive special attention and that religious arguments are used as an acceptable right of veto in for instance matters of political science. 

Take care of our democratic foundation and academic freedom

That simply will not do. Religion is a matter of faith. Democracy is a matter of conviction. Science is a matter of knowledge. In a democracy, no one gets special privileges.

A democratic discussion should be built on a democratic foundation. A scientific discussion should be built on a scientific foundation. Those are two separate issues. A majority cannot decide what is scientifically correct. Neither can a scientific argument decide what is morally sound. In that discussion, we all have an equal right to participate regardless of beliefs, culture, background, and convictions. That all have the right of speech and of faith also means that you have the right not to belong to any religion.

Do not forget the republican Todd Thomson. Beware of people like him. He is detrimental to the dissemination of scientific knowledge and the preservation of academic freedom. He is a threat to democracy.   

Peter C. Kjærgaard

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