Remembering Dr. King

In his proclamation honoring Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday, President Obama reminds us of the value of service, and of the value of education. “Education can unlock a child’s potential and remains our strongest weapon against injustice and inequality,” the President writes.

Education was at the center of the civil rights movement, and equal access to education was a critical part of the fight to make African Americans truly equal. In his speech to the Vermont Baptist Church on Sunday, President Obama reflected on an early speech in King’s career, “The Challenge of a New Age,” in which King tried to see what would come after a Supreme Court decision abolishing segregated buses in Montgomery. Despite this victory, the President reminds us, “segregation was still rife; lynchings still a fact. Yes, the Supreme Court had ruled not only on the Montgomery buses, but also on Brown v. Board of Education. And yet that ruling was defied throughout the South – by schools and by states; they ignored it with impunity. And here in the nation’s capital, the federal government had yet to fully align itself with the laws on its books and the ideals of its founding.”

We still struggle to make that alignment. In Berkeley today, the school system is torn over lab time for science classes. The labs are not required for graduation, but are necessary for college admission, and white students are pushed into those college prep classes while African American students are not. The recently released Science and Engineering Indicators 2010 shows that minorities have on-time high school graduation rates 20 percentage points lower than whites. Given these disparities even in a wealthy and pro-science community, not to mention the ways science has been abused to justify racism or has simply adopted racism in its practice (cf.), it’s hardly remarkable that last year’s Pew poll on public attitudes toward science found an 11 point gap between whites and African Americans regarding whether they view science as positive. These attitudes hold African Americans back from being fully represented in the next generation of scientists, doctors, and engineers, and from bringing fresh perspectives to the sciences.

To address these problems, my Scibling Abel Pharmboy has dedicated his blog to the noble mission of increasing minority participation in science. Today, he highlights some of Rev. King’s remarks on science and its relationship to religion and to society. “Science investigates; religion interprets,” Dr. King said. “Science gives man knowledge which is power; religion gives man wisdom which is control. Science deals mainly with facts; religion deals mainly with values.” As Abel notes, King skipped past the idea of non-overlap between science and religion, preferring to consider the nature of their connection to debating whether it exists. In his talk on science and race at last weekend’s ScienceOnline ’10, Abel observed: “a great many of my science students, particularly of Hispanic/Latino or southern US African-American backgrounds, cite their religious beliefs as a primary motivator in pursuing a health sciences or pharmaceutical research career. Rather than religion being at odds with the scientific method, they feel that their faith fuels their desire to apply the scientific method in the name of relieving human suffering. The duality of religious beliefs and hypothesis-driven inquiry is certainly an intellectual challenge but one that I respect.”

Anyone wanting to improve their outreach to minority communities, to broaden the impact of science in society, has to take account of this phenomenon. The notion that pro-science means anti-religion is counterproductive to that goal. It takes people like those in Abel’s classes and forces a false dichotomy on them, driving potential advocates for science in underserved communities out of the fold. Dr. King didn’t have to make this choice, and neither do modern science students.

While pursuing this line of thought, I got curious to see what prominent “New Atheists” had said about Dr. King. He is, of course, a shining example of the way that a religious leader can improve society, and a pretty strong counterargument to the whole “religious moderates simply enable fundamentalism” claim. King’s struggle to block the extremism of Malcolm X and the Nation of Islam is well-documented, and it’s hard to claim that his non-violent, ecumenical form of equal rights activism somehow enabled to segregationist neo-confederate guerrillas of the fundamentalist KKK (for instance).

Anyway, not much from Dawkins, which is fine since he’s a Brit and can be excused for not wading into American race relations. King is not listed in the index to Sam Harris’s The End of Faith and Google doesn’t help me find other comments by him on the topic.

I did find this absurd tripe from the predictably noxious Christopher Hitchens (in 2007):

Wiener: Of course, you are right that we have Pat Robertson and … Jerry Falwell, saying horrible things in the name of religion. … But we have also had Martin Luther King …. Why not conclude that religion can lead people to do good things as well as bad?

Hitchens: Let me start with a question: Can you name a moral action taken, or a moral statement made, by a believer that could not have been made by an atheist? I don’t think so. I’ll take your case at its strongest—that would be Dr. King. Fortunately for us, he wasn’t really a Christian, because if he had followed the preachments in Exodus about the long march to freedom, he would have invoked the right that the Bible gives to take the land of others, to enslave other tribes, to kill their members, to rape their women, and to destroy them down to their uttermost child. Fortunately for us, he didn’t take that route.

This stinks of hypocrisy – of double standards, of revisionism, and of genuine pig ignorance. Hitchens, too, is a Brit, and so might be forgiven for not knowing the importance of Moses to the African American struggle for freedom, but he is not to be forgiven for forgetting the religious and cultural significance of Moses and the promise of freedom within both Judaism and Christianity. He is not to be forgiven for claiming that the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, who regularly turned to the Gospel for his inspiration, who turned his small Atlanta congregation into peaceful warriors for equality, and who turned the Lincoln Memorial into his pulpit, was not Christian. If there’s a bigger no true Scotsman fallacy to be attempted, I dare say we should notify Guinness before trying it. And Hitchens is hardly consistent in demanding that any good action attributed to King’s religion must be “a moral action… or a moral statement … that could not have been made by an atheist.” Atheists can and do back and take the moral statements and actions of religious authoritarians, but this is never admitted as evidence that religion isn’t the problem. All of a sudden, though, it is sufficient evidence not only to exclude actions King justified by overt reference to his religious beliefs from being considered as results of religion, but we are to believe that King wasn’t actually a Christian as a result. In short, I must conclude that the New Atheists have no reply to Martin Luther King, Jr., short of Dawkins’ entirely unremarkable observation in The God Delusion: “In America, the ideals of racial equality were fostered by political leaders of the calibre of Martin Luther King [sic] … Some of these leaders were religious; some were not. Some who were religious did their good deeds because they were religious. In other cases their religion was incidental. Although Martin Luther King [sic] was Christian, he derived his philosophy of non-violent civil disobedience from Gandhi, who was not.”

Even here, we have a problem. In introducing Dr. King for the speech on the Challenge of a New Age referred to by President Obama, “Samuel Williams, one of King, Jr.’s mentors at Morehouse … remark[ed] of his former pupil that there is ‘some talk of his being a student of Mahatma Gandhi, and he is, but long before he heard of Mahatma Gandhi, through the preaching of his grandfather, the late Dr. A. D. Williams, and the preaching of his father, the quiet, dedicated life of his mother, he heard and learned of Jesus of Nazareth, whom he now follows in all that he does.’” Jesus, too, spoke of turning the other cheek, after all.

But rather than sink into the divisions of yesterday, let us remember King’s words about strife and conflict, from that same speech:

Those of us who live in the twentieth century are privileged to live in one of the most momentous periods of human history. It is an exciting age, filled with hope. It is an age in which a new world order is being born. We stand today between two worlds: the dying old and the emerging new. Now I am aware of the fact that there are those who would contend that we stand in the most ghastly period of human history. They would argue that the rhythmic beat of the deep rumblings of discontent from Africa, the uprisings in Asia, the confusion surrounding Suez, and the racial tensions of America are all indicative of the deep and tragic midnight which encompasses our civilization. They would argue that instead of going forward we are going backwards. We are retrogressing, they would say, instead of progressing. But far from representing retrogression and tragic meaninglessness, the present tensions represent the necessary pains that accompany the birth of anything new.…

I’m trying to get something very basic over to you. The world in which we live is geographically one. And now we must make it spiritually one. Through our scientific genius we have made of the world our neighborhood. Now through our moral and spiritual genius we must make of it a brotherhood.

This day is a good one to rededicate ourselves to that goal. The quest for equality, whether in science classes or healthcare coverage or the right to marry, is still a necessity, and King’s words are still a guide to the complexities of that struggle. We are still shaping the new age to come, and I would rather see it form into a loving brotherhood of all than the bitter and divisive world preached by Rush Limbaugh and Pat Robertson.

Make time, if at all possible, to volunteer through, or Organizing for America, or Equality California, or your favorite group dedicated to social justice and equality for all.


  1. #1 Ray Ingles
    January 19, 2010

    I don’t think religion is a source of evil per se or anything like that. I think it’s often a catalyst, and a risk factor.

    Catalysts don’t generally make an impossible chemical reaction possible. Rather, they affect the rates of reactions, often taking a negligibly slow (but possible) reaction and accelerating it manyfold until it has practical consequences. Religion seems, to me, to be a catalyst for certain kinds of irrational thinking.

    Irrational thinking and invalid arguments can reach valid conclusions, sometimes. I don’t find it something to count on, though. At least as often – I’d argue much more often than not – it reaches invalid conclusions. I find even Darwin’s original arguments for the fundamental equality of human ‘races’ (let alone all the findings since then) to be more effective against racism than King’s religion.

    And then there are some evils that have a purely religious cause. Back when the Zionist movement was getting started, there was serious proposal to buy a bunch of land in South America and found a Jewish state there. Instead – for purely religious reasons – the Palestine region was chosen. And we’ve seen how well that’s worked out…

  2. #2 Mike from Ottawa
    January 19, 2010

    … for purely religious reasons – the Palestine region was chosen.

    That probably comes as something of a surprise to the rather sizeable numbers of non-religious, socialist zionists who were crucial in founding Israel. History was not a negligible factor.

    I do love how often folk who implicitly contrast their rational thinking with the irrational thinking of others so quickly come a cropper.

  3. #3 Ray Ingles
    January 20, 2010

    Mike – aside from a Bronze Age land grab, what exactly made Palestine the obvious choice?

    I’m quite aware that there were many secular Jews who fought (and died) to found modern-day Israel. Coming right after the Holocaust, that’s hardly surprising. But you miss my point. Would they not have fought as hard if a New Israel had been founded elsewhere? And if not – why not?

    History – religious history – certainly played no small part in the selection of Palestine (“be’Yerushalayim” and so forth). Please tell me: what, aside from religion, argued that the Palestine region was the logical place for a ‘Jewish homeland’, especially considering the entirely foreseeable friction that would engender?

  4. #4 Huxley
    January 21, 2010

    Fucking theist, go die. Atheism is about peace. Go Hitchens.

  5. #5 Josh Rosenau
    January 21, 2010

    Awesome trolling, Huxley. FWIW, I’m not a theist, and you managed to endorse peaceful atheism by suggesting that theists should die. If Snitchens and Harris were not among the more prominent advocates of preemptive war over religious issues, I’d think it were pure comedy.