There used to be an old barn in a field near my house in Oregon that had a saying painted on the wall that faced the I-5 freeway: "Soldiers of the Lord, armor up!"
I appreciated the martial passion and energy, but not the theology. Yeah, that's what we really need in the world right now, more frenzied religious extremists.
What is needed, though, are Defenders of Reality -- soldiers of science, reason, and demonstrable evidence. Astronomer Carl Sagan sounded the warning of an attack back in 1995, in his book "The Demon-Haunted World."
I worry that, especially as the Millennium edges nearer, pseudoscience and superstition will seem year by year more tempting, the siren song of unreason more sonorous and attractive. Where have we heard it before?
Whenever our ethnic or national prejudices are aroused, in times of scarcity, during challenges to national self-esteem or nerve, when we agonize about our diminished cosmic place and purpose, or when fanaticism is bubbling up around us -- then, habits of thought familiar from ages past reach for the controls.
The candle flame gutters. Its little pool of light trembles. Darkness gathers. The demons begin to stir.
We churchless have a responsibility to defend the territory of our shared reality.
This is not only the domain of scientists, but of everyone who seeks the brotherhood and sisterhood of humankind in commonality, not division, in what binds us together, not what separates us.
Around the world at this moment people are courteously gathering together in the name of science and the scientific method. Discussing. Debating. Learning. Researching. Studying.
It doesn't matter what country these people are from, or what religious beliefs are common in each person's culture. Science seeks a shared understanding of the natural world that we all inhabit, our common ground.
When my two-year-old granddaughter starts school (not far off), I want her learning about what's real in the world, because this is what a child in China, Zambia, Indonesia, Chile, or anywhere else should also be learning.
It's too idealistic to think that humanity can ever inhabit a war-less, poverty-less One World. But science is one of the most powerful means we have for bringing about an ignorance-less Earth.
Then it's up to each of us to decide how vigorously we will employ it. Carl Sagan said in his book:
Imagine that you enter a big-city taxicab and the moment you get settled in, the driver begins a harangue about the supposed iniquities and inferiorities of another ethnic group. Is your best course to keep quiet, bearing in mind that silence conveys assent?
Or is it your moral responsibility to argue with him, to express outrage, even to leave the cab -- because you know that every silent assent will encourage him next time, and every vigorous dissent will cause him next time to think twice?
Likewise, if we offer too much silent assent about mysticism and superstition -- even when it seems to be doing a little good -- we abet a general climate in which skepticism is considered impolite, science tiresome, and vigorous thinking somehow stuffy and inappropriate. Figuring out a prudent balance takes wisdom.
...As I've tried to stress, at the heart of science is an essential balance between two seemingly contradictory attitudes -- an openness to new ideas, no matter how bizarre or counterintuitive, and the ruthlessly skeptical inquiry of all ideas, old and new.
This is how deep truths are winnowed from deep nonsense. The collective enterprise of creative thinking and skeptical thinking, working together, keeps the field on track.