I wanted to finish up my post on whale locomotion/evolution this morning, but things have come together in the blogosphere just-so that I can’t ignore the issue of the “new atheism” any longer. It initially cropped up last night in the comments of the previous post in discussion of the documentary Flock of Dodos. Personally, I felt that the scenes shot of the scientists at the poker game were a bit of a set up, creating something of a straw man version of who scientists are and what they think. We weren’t treated to a similar meeting of evangelicals, but, lest we forget the great “Framing Wars” from earlier this year, scientists are often shown as being intolerant, condescending, and bad communicators overall. The recent spate of atheist literature, most notably The God Delusion, Breaking the Spell, God is Not Great, and Letter to a Christian Nation, seem to have reinforced this view as some of the authors (like Dawkins and Dennett) are so closely associated with previous works on evolution, seemingly confirming that it is the mission of scientists to destroy religion in whatever form it might take. To be honest, I haven’t read any of those books and I am not particularly interested in them, but there are discussions about them everywhere on the blogosphere, and the impressions seem to be relatively polarized. I can’t speak to what the books do or do not say being that I haven’t read them, but there has been a great debate as to the approach the authors have taken in trying to get their point across, a method that some people feel makes science seem bigoted and condescending.
My friend Walt, from the blog Prehistoric Pulp, summed up his take on the subject this way;
[A]s I was moving away from pseudoscience, the last thing that would have helped was some know-it-all telling me how stupid I was for believing all that garbage. People are naturally defensive, and the most likely result of me hearing that would’ve been to found reasons to keep believing, to solidify my stance to let this jerk know I wasn’t going to let him intimidate me. That’s why I hate the language the two use to defend atheism – it’s so counter-productive to the cause. I’m not saying that certain big wig creationists, like the Discovery Institute folks, shouldn’t be ridiculed and criticized. They most certainly should. I’m talking about everyday folks who usually give no more thought to religion than maybe showing up for church every Sunday. People like to be treated as equals, and showing a certain amount of respect to their own views can help open the door to getting them to think about other points of view.
This is a feeling shared by many people, and even if authors like Dawkins and Hitchens don’t call people stupid outright, that is the impression that titles like “The Enemies of Reason” (which, don’t get me wrong, is an excellent documentary) can sometimes give. Even so, deeply held religious or spiritual beliefs often lead to a certain amount of defensiveness and sensitivity (as Walt noted), especially when we’re dealing with a personal god that many evangelicals claim to know. Take this quote about the god of the Old Testament from The God Delusion, for example;
[A]rguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction. Jealous and proud of it, a petty, unjust, unforgiving control freak, a vindictive bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser, a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.
Is the comment pointed? Surely, but nonetheless true. This particular quote has been one of the most cited, yet it does not deal with Christians/Jews themselves, merely the way their god acted according to the Old Testament. Even when I had something resembling Christian faith myself, I found the sheer violence and anger of the Old Testament God to be absolutely horrifying and disgusting, yet many of the worst stories are repackaged for children via shows like Veggie Tales. In one particular episode I was made to watch about the famous fall of Jericho under the leadership of Joshua, the various seed-bearing fruit seemed to be having a good time, their faith causing the walls of the city to come crumbling down with no loss of life or limb. When I got home I pulled a Bible off the shelf and decided to check out what really happened;
When the trumpets sounded, the people shouted, and at the sound of the trumpet, when the people gave a loud shout, the wall collapsed; so every man charged straight in, and they took the city. They devoted the city to the LORD and destroyed with the sword every living thing in it—men and women, young and old, cattle, sheep and donkeys.
This is just one of many examples of the bloodstained past that Christianity so proudly proclaims, but mentioning this fact (or implying that a God who deems such an act fit to carry out is an unjust one) is often taken as a personal attack. Indeed, religion is such a touchy subject that one need not say “You’re an idiot” to easily offend, and for that reason any discussion of religion that is too pointed is said to be intolerant. At this point even mentioning the name “Richard Dawkins” in some churches or small groups is enough to make hackles rise, and (from what I can tell from my own experiences at least) he is often seen as the archetype for all modern scientists.
Then comes a bit of correspondence from Sam Harris in the latest issue of Nature calling for scientists to stand up against “unreason.” Harris first mentions the overall incompatibility of orthodox Muslim beliefs with modern science (primarily that nothing can challenge or contradict the Koran), then moving on to Francis Collins and how Nature commended Collins’ attempt to bridge the science/religion gap despite Collins coming to choose his belief system because of how beautiful a frozen waterfall is. I’m not a big fan of Collins and I don’t think the arguments he has made in many public forums have been especially good (I haven’t read his book, The Language of God, nor am I much inclined to), but I fail to see how his personal conversion story somehow undercuts all of science or is a threat to it. I may disagree with Collins about his beliefs or assertions he makes based upon them, but Harris’ highlighting of Collins as a religious, rather than scientific, figure seem to be little more than a jab at religion for it’s own sake.
By the same token, however, I often have issues when scientists claim that there is no conflict whatsoever between science and religion, or that they are mutually exclusive ways of understanding the universe. The history of the debate in and of itself shows that not to be true, and religions often have very different interpretations of nature and where humans came from than the evidence that humanity has been able to gather about nature through science. Taking a NOMA-type approach might be pleasing or non-threatening, but (at least for me) it doesn’t work cognitively. The fact that people have deeply held religious beliefs which shape the way they view and interact with their world should be understood (dare I say respected), but this doesn’t mean that we should pretend like there is no larger conflict here. I would like to believe that if we focused on good science that important ideas like evolution could gain a much wider acceptance (and I think this is true to some degree), but at least in the present time beliefs on this issue have often become so polarized that religion is tightly wound around ideas about nature, and it’s nearly impossible to try to reach people who don’t understand evolution without making them feel like they’re being attacked by an atheist.
So what are we to do? Unfortunately I don’t have many answers, and often times I don’t try to address this hot topic of modern atheism/agnosticism because I feel like I’m walking on eggshells. I think we should be honest and straightforward about atheism/agnosticism and putting forth good science without being overly antagonistic (Carl Sagan seems to have taken to this sort of approach in many of his works), but even then some people are going to feel attacked because personal belief is such a sore spot. Even beyond putting forth good science, superstitious beliefs and nutty hypotheses should be addressed and confronted, and I don’t think there’s any reason at all why religion should somehow be exempt from criticism or scientific scrutiny. Still, even classic science documentaries like Cosmos offend by stating that “The cosmos is all there is, all there ever was, and all there ever will be,” some feeling that such statements implicitly deny God, who is often said to be “outside” of time and space despite his interventions in the affairs of man and nature. Even documentaries that have nothing at all to do with religion, putting forth only science, seem to irk the religious. Talking about some of the responses to the various documentaries he’s hosted, David Attenborough said this;
I often get letters, quite frequently, from people who say how they like the programmes a lot, but I never give credit to the almighty power that created nature, to which I reply and say, “Well, it’s funny that the people, when they say that this is evidence of the almighty, always quote beautiful things, they always quote orchids and hummingbirds and butterflies and roses.” But I always have to think too of a little boy sitting on the banks of a river in west Africa who has a worm boring through his eyeball, turning him blind before he’s five years old, and I reply and say, “Well presumably the god you speak about created the worm as well,” and now, I find that baffling to credit a merciful god with that action, and therefore it seems to me safer to show things that I know to be truth, truthful and factual, and allow people to make up their own minds about the moralities of this thing, or indeed the theology of this thing.
I can’t help but feel that people who protest so much believe in a “small god” who can only exist within the strained confines of one book instead of the world itself, but my opinion on the matter makes them no less fervent about their personal beliefs. Science aside, I don’t think that religion is inherently bad or inherently good; just as anything else it is a mix of the two, and there are radical fundamentalists just as well as more liberal and reasonable thinkers. Figuring out how such mindsets become entrenched, rather than trying to battle against them as a whole, seems to me like a more productive affair than labeling the whole of religion “expired” and struggle to get it into the dust bin. In fact I’m sure religion will continue on through my entire life and long after I’m gone, just as science will, and I think people will (and should) disagree on topics where the two intersect. Ideas may be railed against, refuted, and deemed ignorant, but even as we try to do away with ancient belief systems that hinder us as a society I think we need to respect that others whom we disagree with are “fellow travelers” shaped by their own life experiences as well, and understanding who they are, where they’ve come from, and why they think the way they do can be more helpful than simply attacking their opinions with no considerations. This isn’t a call of relativism or to ignore the problems of reduced science literacy coupled with increases in memberships to fundamentalist religions, but rather my opinion that it may be more helpful to listen carefully and respond firmly without calling many of the world’s inhabitants superstitious morons.
John Wilkins has some more informed/better written thoughts on the same subject over at Evolving Thoughts, so be sure to check out his take on this subject.