Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Science, Religion and War

Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirschenbaum have an editorial in the Los Angeles Times in which they ask Must science declare a holy war on religion? These two writers have been criticized by both Jerry Coyne and P.Z. Myers for their book Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens our Future. In this editorial, they write:
It often appears as though Dawkins and his followers -- often dubbed the New Atheists, though some object to the term -- want to change the country's science community in a lasting way. They'd have scientists and defenders of reason be far more confrontational and blunt: No more coddling the faithful, no tolerating nonscientific beliefs. Scientific institutions, in their view, ought to stop putting out politic PR about science and religion being compatible.

The New Atheists win the battle easily on the Internet. Their most prominent blogger, the University of Minnesota biologist P.Z. Myers, runs what is probably the Web's most popular science blog, Pharyngula, where he and his readers attack and belittle religious believers, sometimes using highly abrasive language. Or as Myers put it to fanatical Catholics at one point: "Don't confuse the fact that I find you and your church petty, foolish, twisted and hateful to be a testimonial to the existence of your petty, foolish, twisted, hateful god."
I'm guessing he isn't talking about the New Testament. Myers and Dawkins are the pre-eminent evolutionary biologists who moonlight as vocal atheists. They are joined by journalist Christopher Hitchens as the triad of evangelical atheists. As the authors point out though, they are not the norm:
More moderate scientists, however -- let us call them the accommodationists -- still dominate the hallowed institutions of American science. Personally, these scientists may be atheists, agnostics or believers; whatever their views on the relationship between science and religion, politically, spiritually and practically they see no need to fight over it.

Thus the American Assn. for the Advancement of Science and the National Academy of Sciences take the stance that science and religion can be perfectly compatible -- and are regularly blasted for it by the New Atheists. Or as the National Academy of Sciences put it in a recent volume on evolution and creationism: "Today, many religious denominations accept that biological evolution has produced the diversity of living things over billions of years of Earth's history. ... Religious denominations that do not accept the occurrence of evolution tend to be those that believe in strictly literal interpretations of religious texts."

A smaller but highly regarded nonprofit organization called the National Center for Science Education has drawn at least as much of the New Atheists' ire, however. Based in Oakland, the center is the leading organization that promotes and defends the teaching of evolution in school districts across the country.
In a sense, the new atheists are cutting off their noses to spite their faces. These organizations are powerful and command much attention in the scientific community. The only Christians that see the NCSE as adversarial are the Young Earth Creationists and they see all of normative science that way. It is also telling that these YEC organizations, while popular among some of the less-informed public, are anathema to scientists and scientific organizations. As the interview between Dawkins and Wendy Wright showed, they won't listen to evidence and and cannot be reasoned with. That is not the group that Dawkins and his compatriots are after. Calling them names won't change their minds and that is all Dawkins and company can seem to do. No, if the new atheists can get the rank and file scientists to come around to their way of thinking, they have won half the battle. They have too much contempt for the general public to be effective. Perhaps Darwin was right after all:
It turns out that late in life, when an atheist author asked permission to dedicate a book to Darwin, the great scientist wrote back his apologies and declined. For as Darwin put it, "Though I am a strong advocate for free thought on all subjects, yet it appears to me (whether rightly or wrongly) that direct arguments against Christianity & theism produce hardly any effect on the public; & freedom of thought is best promoted by the gradual illumination of men's minds, which follows from the advance of science."
The current generation of new atheists can never hope to achieve this with their current tactics.

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