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Religion and the Science Minister

March 20, 2009 Leave a comment

Canada’s minister of science, Gary Goodyear, has opened up a healthy debate over religious belief and one’s ability to carry out the responsibilities of Minister of Science.

He didn’t do it intentionally, of course. He blundered into it when he refused to answer a question about evolution during an interview with The Globe and Mail.

His response:

I’m not going to answer that question. I am a Christian, and I don’t think anybody asking a question about my religion is appropriate.

He added that “just because you can’t see it under a microscope doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.”

That apparent pro-evolution comment got Mr. Goodyear into a good deal of hot water, notably from scientists who are upset over the Harper government’s cuts in funding for scientific research. And probably from the Prime Minister, who’s been fanatic about keeping his MPs out of controversies.

In a later interview with CTV, Mr. Goodyear said he believes in evolution. But he displayed a rather unique understanding of it. “We’re evolving every year, every decade,” he said. “That’s a fact, whether it is to the intensity of the sun, whether it is to, as a chiropractor, walking on cement versus anything else.”

Mr. Goodyear, the MP for Cambridge, Ontario, is a chiropractor. Chiropractic is, of course, the least scientific of the health disciplines.

There’s an old principle in parliamentary governance that “civilians” should head up the departments of government. In other words, you shouldn’t have to be a General to be the Minister of Defense, an industrialist to be the Minister of Industry, or a physician to be the Minister of Health.

If only the “experts” were in charge, we’d live in a technocracy, not a democracy. An exception to this rule is usually made for the Justice portfolio, which almost invariably goes to a lawyer.

The Canadian astronaut who is now a Liberal MP, Marc Garneau, says you shouldn’t have to be a supporter of evolution to hold down the job of Science Minister.

war-on-science

Yet Mr. Goodyear’s comments are troubling. We can see examples every day of the damage done when religious faith checkmates scientific fact: the Bush ban on governmnent funding for stem cell research, or the Pope’s latest dictum that use of condoms is part of the AIDS problem, and not a solution.

Usually, it’s the Republicans who are being accused of bring anti-science.

In the Republican War on Science, according to Publisher’s Weekly, Mooney tracks Bush White House efforts to spread misinformation about stem cells; the work of religious right regulators in restricting access to birth control; and the attempts of the Discovery Institute (and other think tanks linked to the Bush base) to fight the teaching of evolution.

We haven’t seen these extremes in Canada, fortunately. In fairness, I have to report that the Prime Minister says his government set aside $5-billion in the budget for science and technology spending. But the criticism is that this is going for applied technology, rather than pure research — the stuff of future progress.

I think the best way of handling these issues is to apply the principle of separation of church and state. Religious faith can  no more be allowed to influence scientific policy than, for example, Islamist belief in Sharia law can be permitted to affect the Canadian justice system.

That means being on constant guard against incursions of religious faith of any kind into the democratic state.

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