This year to date, six people in Bangladesh who have promoted a natural and observation-based view of humanity's place in history have been hacked to death by those who seek to impose a particular supernatural view of humanity's origins and destiny. Other "free thinkers" in that country have been severely injured and threatened. Previously confined to authors and translators, last weekend witnessed the same method of execution applied to publishers of science-based books. These targeted killings have generated both fear and bravery among the community of rationalist advocates in the country. During the same period, two foreigners not associated with science education have also been killed in the south Asian nation, but by a different method of execution: drive-by shooting. While there is debate about whether all these killings were linked, death by hacking has been exclusive to the former group.
These executions express, to some degree, an underlying tension that Bengal has experienced since before the partition of India by the British in 1947. This is the struggle between a secular identity based on shared Bengali language and culture (an identity that has kindled many notable scholars and activists, including several Nobel Prize winners) and, in the eastern part of Bengal that is now Bangladesh, an identity based on the numerically dominant religious tradition, which there happens to be Islam. The present government of Bangladesh is from the secular lineage but its efforts to afford the threatened citizens the necessary protection would greatly benefit from more international attention to the issue, which is one reason why persons outside the country should care about it.
Another reason for concern is that the struggle going on within Bangladesh stands proxy for a broader clash of ideas that faces the world at large. Within the country the murdered writers and publishers are commonly labeled "atheists", and it is true that some have taken a vocal stance against aspects of religious dogma. But more fundamental was their commitment to promoting a way of knowing that comprehends our origins through an understanding of processes that operate naturally in the universe today. This is science, an approach that has contributed practically to the well being of almost every human living today.
Science does not address or explain all aspects of what it means to be human, but it does contextualize humanity's place in history of the Earth and universe. It informs us that we live on an ancient and unusual planet on which life appeared early in our geological past and on which our own species appeared very recently. We now know that during its history the Earth's surface and atmosphere experienced dramatic physical and chemical changes, and that life itself has been a vital contributor in guiding these, bioengineering a condition that we, at this particular time, are fortunate to experience. The Earth's history, written in the rocks, provides an empirical chronicle of past natural experiments which inform us about how the planet will respond now and in future, and this is particularly relevant as our own actions propel atmospheric composition into territories uncharted for many million years.
During a low point for the Allies in the Second World War Churchill remarked that "we are entering a period of consequences". The same applies to our understanding of the age and history of the Earth. Until recently we have reaped Earth's resources unhindered by ignorance about the absolute age of the planet, or of the future implications of past changes in the Earth's oceans and atmosphere. But now, as our own actions exert global impact, knowing when and precisely how quickly biodiversity has crashed during past episodes of mass extinction is critical for assessing the impact of present and predicted change.
Such efforts are only useful to us, however, if we accept that they point to the truth, and many who adhere to scripture prefer to orientate our place in history based on explanations available at the time authoritative texts were enshrined. For them, what science tells us about the past and our origins has no relevance for predicting the future, and thus can and should be ignored. Those sharing this view are a wide church. They include those Hindus in India who recently killed Muslims accused of eating beef, much of the United States Congress and several of the candidates for the U.S. presidency, members of ISIS, and the meat-cleaver-wielding fundamentalists who have this year cut down the lives of six Bangladeshis who dared to disagree with them.
Given the comforts that science has provided us all it is tempting to sit back and assume that sense will soon prevail. But in a time in which extremist groups can now exert disproportionately large influence, the recent global rise of identity politics and of petty nationalism gives pause for thought. The ultimate triumph of reason can no longer simply be assumed.