Yesterday, President Obama gave a well-timed speech about the need for science as a way to best provide the people with security, health, and well-being.
It is a good time to bring into the foreground of the discussion the fact that science is, by far, the best tool available for avoiding the catastrophic consequences of, for example, a global pandemic. Priests may be of use comforting those who are sick and dying, but scientists are the people who can help to make sure that there are fewer sick and dying who are in need of comfort.
People often ask, "Why don't atheists build hospitals?"
Part of the answer is that atheists are building the solutions that reduce the need for hospitals – and providing the medical treatments that make the hospitals others build more effective.
(Note: The other answer to the question of why atheists do not build hospitals of course is the same as the answer to the question of why heliocentrists do not build hospitals. In fact, they do. They just don't use charity as an advertising platform for their beliefs. I sometimes wonder how much charity churches would engage in if it were not for its usefulness in advertising their church – how much of the value of a care package is found in the fact that one is helping the poor, and how much of the value is found in the fact that it is effective advertising.)
Of course, a person does not need to be an atheist to be a scientist. However, when the question being asked is, "What have atheists done for the community," this is a legitimate and honest answer to the question. These are the types of activities where a lot of atheists spend a lot of their time.
It is also a good time to bring to the foreground the fact that one of the tools that scientists will be using to keep us alive is an understanding of evolution. This is an understanding of how mutations occur, what types of mutations are possible, what the effects of those different mutations would be, and how those different mutations will come to be represented in a population over time.
The processes by which scientists will provide us with the best means for protecting ourselves from this outbreak are the same processes that explain how humans and chimpanzees can have a common ancestor.
Teaching basic biology to children is one way to give those students the background that they need to study the complexities of biology. All of the effort that goes into making sure that children are ignorant of evolution is effort that draws people away from the future pool of research biologists who will keep us safe from diseases such as swine flu. That, in turn, means more deaths and more suffering than we would otherwise have to pursue.
If this pandemic should expand, I can well expect that it will fall hardest on those countries that rely on religion and superstition to deal with problems such as this, and will fall less hard on those countries that respect science. And that will not be a coincidence. That will be because scientists have, for decades now, been answering the prayers that the various gods have been ignoring.
We could, perhaps, blend the two views by saying that God gave us the scientists and thus God is to be credited for the work that scientists do in saving our lives. However, this does not change the fact that the scientist, and not the priest, is the one who will give us the best tools for dealing with threats such as this.