Herb Silverman is the Founder of the Secular Coalition of America, the Founder of the Secular Humanists of the Lowcountry, and the Founder of the Atheist/Humanist Alliance student group at the College of Charleston. Here we talk about math and activism.
Scott Douglas Jacobsen: With respect to the dead, and to the legacy of apprehension of the natural world, what makes mathematics an important foundation to the intellectual traditions of the modern world? How does the secular community benefit from them? What ways does mathematics, even simple arithmetic, assist in reasoning about the modern world? As discussed in prior sessions, what have been cases of civil disobedience on the part of mathematicians, scientists, and similars with a secular and freethought orientation about the world? How do new mental tools – mathematics and science – give a new intellectual garb, and civil disobedience provide, sometimes, novel moral clothes for working in, thinking clearly about, and acting in the modern world to make secular change?
Herb Silverman: The 18th century mathematician Gauss said, “Mathematics is the queen of sciences and arithmetic is the queen of mathematics.” Mathematics is considered the queen of sciences because it is essential in the study of all scientific fields. Galileo referred to mathematics as the language in which the natural physical world is written. When scientific statements are translated into mathematical statements, including about the structure of the universe, we apply mathematics to solve scientific problems. Similarly, arithmetic (the branch of mathematics that studies numbers and their operations) is the foundation that leads to the study of other branches of mathematics.
Mathematics has its own intrinsic beauty and aesthetic appeal, but its value is measured mainly by what we learn from it. The achievements and structures of mathematics are among the greatest intellectual attainments and worthy of study in their own right. The reliance of mathematics on logical reasoning has educational merit in a world where rational thought and behavior are highly valued. Furthermore, the potential for sharpening the wit and problem-solving abilities fostered by the study of mathematics also contributes to acquiring wisdom and intellectual capabilities. Descartes said, “Mathematics is a more powerful instrument of knowledge than any other that has been bequeathed to us by human agency.”
Mathematics has played a major role in bringing about innovations. Many mathematical theories and models of real-world problems have helped scientists and engineers grapple with seemingly impossible tasks. In addition to making technology more efficient and effective, mathematical techniques help organizations deal with financial, manufacturing, and even marketing issues. These advances have influenced where and how we live, what we eat, what we do for work or leisure, and how we think about our world and the universe.
Martin Gardner said, “Mathematics is not only real, but it is the only reality.” And Bertrand Russell said, “Mathematics is, I believe, the chief source of the belief in eternal and exact truth, as well as a sensible intelligible world.”
Regarding secular activism, I was not led directly to it through studying mathematics, though perhaps indirectly. Mathematics requires us to think analytically and critically, with heavy reliance on logical reasoning. Such reasoning helped me give up my childhood belief in God. But being an atheist doesn’t necessarily turn you into a secular activist. I was an atheist for over 30 years before I became a secular activist. When I learned that our South Carolina Constitution prohibited atheists from holding public office, I ran for governor as the candidate without a prayer, which eventually helped me to successfully overturn this unconstitutional provision through a victory in the South Carolina Supreme Court.
Most mathematicians and scientists are probably atheists, though they don’t lead with that term or even think about it. And they probably became atheists for the same reason I did—the importance of thinking logically. Whether or not they consider themselves secular activists, they unintentionally are activists when they announce scientific findings that conflict with god beliefs found in holy book about the nature and understanding of our universe. A large body of mathematics has been used by science to show that many theological beliefs are false. With every natural scientific discovery, there is less reason to believe in the supernatural. For instance, we can accurately predict future eclipses, events once attributed to God’s wrath. Such findings make obsolete many “God of the Gaps” arguments.
I think most mathematicians and scientists try to ignore religion because it has nothing to do with their area of expertise. Some, like Steven J. Gould, reluctantly felt the need to engage with religion when religionists denigrated a body of scientific research (like evolution).
I understand why most mathematicians and scientists don’t become secular activists. It does not help, and in some cases might hurt, their careers. Nonetheless, I wish more of them would become secular activists, explaining to the public the importance of science and how many scientific findings have disproved religious claims. We need a more educated society, not a more ignorant and religious society.
Scott Douglas Jacobsen is the Founder of In-Sight: Independent Interview-Based Journal and In-Sight Publishing. He authored/co-authored some e-books, free or low-cost. If you want to contact Scott: Scott.D.Jacobsen@Gmail.com.
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Other Resources: Recovering From Religion.