Science, Religion and the New Atheism: Introduction

| By and (guest author) on Reading the Book of Nature

Richard Dawkins’ book, The God Delusion (2006), is just one of many books advancing a New Atheist view of religion and science (image source).


Richard Dawkins’ book, The God Delusion (2006), is just one of many books advancing a New Atheist view of religion and science (image source).


Introducing Stephen Snobelen (by Ted Davis):

In graduate school I had the distinct pleasure of studying with Isaac Newton. Well, not quite, but almost. My dissertation supervisor, the late Richard S. (“Sam”) Westfall, wrote the definitive biography of Newton and perhaps did more than anyone else to bring to light the “real” Newton, the man whose devotion to alchemy, theology, and church history greatly exceeded his interest in mathematics and physics. Although Westfall wasn’t the source of my own interest in Newton, he certainly fanned the flames. I eventually published two short pieces about Newton and I’ve done my best to follow the work of those historians who make Newton the focus of their work. 

Stephen Snobelen of the University of King’s College in Halifax is one of the people whose work I most admire. A founding member of the Newton Project (now at Oxford University) and Director of the Newton Project Canada, he does extraordinarily careful studies of Newton’s voluminous theological papers, which he understands as well as anyone who has ever lived, including Newton’s own friends. After earning the BA and MA in history from the University of Victoria, Snobelen earned the PhD in History and Philosophy of Science at Cambridge, one of the top such programs in the world. 

Imagine my excitement, then, when I learned a few years ago that he was writing an essay about New Atheist views of science and religion. In part, his essay reflects many years of experience teaching two courses about science and religion as well as a course on science and the media that engages with the ways in which science is presented in the media and popular culture. Published in a recent book about the New Atheists by Canadian scholars (pictured below), I am delighted to serialize his lucid essay for our readers at BioLogos over the next couple of months. 

Dr. Snobelen wants readers to keep something in mind as you read the several parts of this series: “In this essay, I make a distinction between militant atheists and moderate atheists. Many in the former category use the kind of flawed reasoning discussed below, while many in the latter category are not necessarily hostile to religion and often want to distance themselves from the excesses of their more aggressive confrères. Some of the best and most sympathetic studies of the relationships between science and religion have been written by my colleagues in the field of history of science who are themselves sceptics, agnostics or atheists.” I would say the same thing myself, without hesitation. 

Let’s now consider what Dr. Snobelen has to say about science, religion, and the New Atheists. 

The New Atheists on Science and Religion (by Stephen Snobelen)

“I am Alpha and Omega,” saith the Lord, “which is, and which was, and which is to come, the Almighty.”—Revelation 1:8

“The cosmos is all that is or ever was or ever will be.”—Carl Sagan, Cosmos (1980), opening line

In the headline for its November 2006 cover story, Wired magazine announced a new cultural force, helping to canonise its name and set out its mission: “The New Atheism. No Heaven. No Hell. Just Science. Inside the crusade against religion.” There is no afterlife. Religion must be abolished. The only thing that matters is science. The New Atheists had arrived.

Among the books that helped raise the profile of this movement are Sam HarrisThe End of Faith: Religion, Terror and the Future of Reason (2004) and Letter to a Christian Nation (2008); David MillsAtheist Universe (2004, 2006); the late Christopher HitchensGod is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything (2008); and most of all geneticist Richard DawkinsThe God Delusion (2006). A slew of books came from the pen of the late physicist Victor Stenger, including God: The Failed Hypothesis—How Science Shows that God Does Not Exist (2007), The New Atheism: Taking a Stand for Science and Reason (2009) and God and the Folly of Faith: the Incompatibility of Science and Religion (2012). More recently, biologist Jerry Coyne’s Faith vs. Fact: Why Science and Religion are Incompatible (2015) has kept the fire burning. Overlapping with the genre of New Atheist literature are two recent books on cosmology that espouse a materialist interpretation of science: Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow’s The Grand Design (2010) and Lawrence M. KraussA Universe from Nothing: Why There Is Something Rather than Nothing (2012), the latter published with an afterword by Richard Dawkins. These books have sold well and have received extensive media coverage. Their authors and many others who share their views have done numerous interviews, written many opinion pieces, and in general have emerged as a prominent presence in contemporary culture. The message of the New Atheism is simple, and this is one of the secrets to their success. It is this: science is good and religion is evil—or in the case of the two last-named books, religion is at best irrelevant.

And so it is that since the middle of the last decade the New Atheism has become a cause célèbre in the media and popular consciousness. Few of their arguments are truly novel. What is new is the militancy and forcefulness of the presentation of these arguments, as well as their persuasive packaging and the media savvy of its leading advocates. New Atheists see their mission in polemical terms as a battle for cultural dominance. The principal target is religion and they are often merciless in their assaults against its bulwarks. The chief weapon is science, although this is science made in their own image: imperialistic, positivistic, atheistic, materialistic and, above all, specifically engineered to be corrosive to religious faith.

The New Atheists contend that the claims of religion do not stand up to scrutiny. But how well does the New Atheism itself stand up to careful and thorough-going examination? This essay will demonstrate that when many of the leading arguments and stances of the New Atheists on science and religion issues are subjected to a withering critique they are shown to be ineffective, self-serving, duplicitous or untrue. What is more, the weaknesses of these positions should be evident to believer and non-believer alike. 

Seven Characteristics of the New Atheism

There are many things a student of science and religion could say about the New Atheism. I will limit my survey to seven characteristic elements. These are:

1) the attack on religion (and philosophy);

2) the use and misuse of the Conflict Thesis about the history of science and religion;

3) the deployment of the Myth of the Medieval Gap (the claim that that science suffered severely under church domination during the Middle Ages) in purported histories of science;

4) the unreasonable intolerance of the views of others, including those who do not share their view of science;

5) the propensity to reductionist and essentialist understandings of both science and religion;

6) the advocacy of a philosophically naïve, epistemologically unsophisticated and imperialistic form of science known as scientism; and

7) an implied scientific pantheism. 

These seven elements will be illustrated with concrete examples from the words of New Atheists themselves, starting this week with the attack on religion.

The Attack on Religion (and Philosophy)

In 2009, beginning in Britain, advocates of the New Atheism got behind a campaign to put pro-atheist ads on buses. Richard Dawkins became the most high-profile supporter of this campaign. While a few jurisdictions such as the Halifax Regional Municipality in which I live did not permit these ads to be displayed, a large number of buses on both sides of the Atlantic soon bore the slogan: “There’s probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy life.” It had been decided that “probably” was a necessary qualification as one cannot prove there is no God. While this was a nice concession, the second part of the slogan—cleverly associating worry with religion and enjoyment with the lack of it—was not so nice.

Starting in 2009, hundreds of British double-decker buses—and London Underground stations—were emblazoned with advertisements like this one. (Image source)

This is an argument the New Atheists want people to buy into, and they perhaps believe that if it is repeated often enough more and more people will buy into it. But where is the evidence for it? The sound-bite slogan did not contain a footnote with empirical documentation. And who said religion must be associated with worry? After all, it seems that the New Atheists do a lot of worrying—at least about religion! Missing in the message of the slogan are the facts that atheists have higher suicide rates than religious believers and that those who practise religion have higher survival rates and life-expectancy (see Kanita Dervic et al. and Yoichi Chida et al.). As one moderate atheist not sympathetic to the rhetoric of the New Atheists put it:

Extensive empirical research has shown that religious affiliation of almost any kind is positively correlated with better mental health, measures of life satisfaction, and prosocial behaviours; which in turn are associated with enhanced physical well-being and healthy lifestyle practices; which are further related to enhanced quality of life and extended longevity. Militant atheists, it seems, are always claiming that they want to save people from the effects of religion. But save people from what, exactly? Why would they want to “save” people from the enhanced fulfilment, gratitude, optimism, health, and happiness that research proves religion helps foster? (Bruce Sheiman, An Atheist Defends Religion, p. 88)

It is a good question.

This is not to say that atheists cannot have long and healthy lives, because surely they can—especially if they avoid smoking and other dangerous activities. After all, Bertrand Russell lived to the grand old age of ninety-seven (and he was a smoker). The point here is that the argument about the so-called negative effects of religion can and should be challenged. A simple statement in bright colours on the sides of buses does not make something so. Another ad from the same campaign read: “There’s probably no God. Don’t let religion divide us. Let’s enjoy life together.” It is true that religion is often tied to divisiveness. But are not the New Atheists also guilty of this, by continuously and deliberately accentuating the division between religious people and atheists? And never mind the fact that in the secular world it is often principally politics, not religion, that creates the most division. Should we abolish politics and the party system too? Surely there is more to these issues.

New Atheists, who regularly criticise religious believers when they play fast and loose with evidence (and rightly so), often turn a blind eye to distortions and factual errors perpetrated by their own side. There will be more on these distortions and errors (in future instalments), but for now I want to continue to focus on the New Atheists’ distorted view of religion. One common example of this is the oft-repeated claim that religious faith is entirely subjective and a form of gullible blindness. Several decades ago Richard Dawkins offered this definition of faith: “It means blind trust, in the absence of evidence, even in the teeth of evidence” (The selfish gene, 2nd ed., p. 198).

Commonly cited though Dawkins’ sentence is, it is a definition that few religious believers would recognise. We can call this “the argument from New Atheism’s definition of faith.” Faith, we are told, is belief in the complete absence of evidence. Science is about facts. Faith is about myths. Science is constantly questioning. Faith is unquestioning belief. Now, anyone making that kind of claim about faith has surely not spent much time around thinking believers. If science is really about facts, then why didn’t Dawkins study the definitions of faith articulated by Christians themselves? The title and contents of Jerry Coyne’s 2015 book Faith vs. Fact traffics in the same simplistic and dichotomous thinking.

A definition of faith that better reflects Christianity, at least, would be this: faith is belief in the absence of complete evidence. It is perhaps best to think of this matter in terms of a continuum. On the one side we could put “blind faith,” which would be faith with no evidence. I am not aware of any believer whose faith could be defined in this way, but it is a logical possibility. On the other side, we could put positivism, which is the argument that there can be no belief without evidence. This is the position many New Atheists claim they hold (I rather doubt that they do, but that is another matter). Somewhere on the continuum between these two extremes we could place “informed faith,” belief with partial evidence. A Christian does not have complete evidence of the Resurrection of Christ, a central doctrine of Christianity set forth in the New Testament and enshrined in the Apostles’ Creed. But there are Resurrection narratives and testimonies, as well as sophisticated historical and philosophical arguments by well-educated people for the likelihood of the Resurrection of Christ. Not everyone will agree that these testimonies are sufficient to warrant faith, but these testimonies demonstrate that faith in the Resurrection of Christ has not been dreamt up out of thin air. In fact, given that even our imagination is ultimately based on our experience of the world, it could be argued that true blind faith is an impossibility in the real world.

The New Atheist definition of faith is a straw man. It is a definition applied to Christianity with hostile intent. It is an argument won on illegitimate grounds—on lack of sufficient evidence. As evangelical Christian and geneticist Francis Collins put it, “The caricature of faith that Dawkins presents is easy for him to attack, but it is not the real thing” (The Language of God, p. 164). One element of this argument is the claim that science and religion are wholly different from each other in terms of their methods, standards of evidence and rates of success. But this is not a position that would be accepted by most philosophers and sociologists of science, who have over the past several decades revealed a great deal of subjectivity in science. As the late scientist and scholar of science and religion Ian Barbour aptly put it, “Science ... is not as objective, nor religion as subjective, as [has] been claimed” (Religion and Science, p. 93). Large numbers of philosophers of science would agree wholeheartedly with the first part of this statement, while religious studies scholars would confirm the second part.

In a 7 June 2010 interview with Diane Sawyer on ABC News, professor Stephen Hawking declared: “There is a fundamental difference between religion, which is based on authority, and science, which is based on observation and reason. Science will win because it works.” We need to make allowances for the fact that Hawking was likely using this interview to promote his co-authored book on cosmology, The Grand Design, which was published in September of that year. But the statement raises a number of questions. First, what, exactly, is the competition? Second, why is the scientist seen by many as a universal expert? Is a scientist specially placed to comment on the profound question of whether or not there is a God? Should it be a surprise that a scientist who is probably an atheist would make these claims? And what does the statement “science will win because it works” mean? Is Hawking saying that in a contest for people’s souls, science will eventually claim victory over religion? Is he saying that the methods of science are superior to those of religion? Or is he arguing that science produces results and religion does not? 

Yes, science will win at science, but this should not be a profound revelation. It is clear that Hawking wants to present this as a choice between two options. He does not countenance the possibility that both can coexist and have a fruitful exchange. But notice the trick that Hawking is playing. In measuring religion against the successes of science, he is asking religion to do something that it is not meant to do. Is religion a failure because it did not decode the structure of DNA? Is this not like saying that science is a failure because it has not of itself produced great moral codes as have the world’s religions? Hawking’s statement should be recognised for what it is: barely disguised scientific imperialism. Dawkins’ characterisation of faith falls into the same category, for when he speaks of “evidence” he means scientific evidence. He is judging religion against the standards of science, or at least his interpretation of science. 

But Hawking, along with his co-author Leonard Mlodinow, have widened the scope of their attack to include philosophy. Their 2010 book The Grand Design made headlines for its claim that God was not necessary to explain the existence of the universe. In the conclusion of their book, they write, “Spontaneous creation is the reason there is something rather than nothing, why the universe exists, why we exist. It is not necessary to invoke God to light the blue touch paper and set the universe going” (p. 180). (For a theistic critique of the arguments for the irrelevancy of God to cosmology, see John C. Lennox, God and Stephen Hawking.) On the first page of their, book in a chapter entitled “The mystery of being,” Hawking and Mlodinow outline a series of profound questions about the nature of reality and the origin of the universe. They then add, “Traditionally these are questions for philosophy, but philosophy is dead. Philosophy had not kept up with modern developments in science, particularly physics. Scientists have become the bearers of the torch of discovery in our quest for knowledge” (p. 5). This is a nakedly imperialistic statement in favour of the dominance of science (or at least a particular form of it). But as has been pointed out, after supposedly casting philosophy on the scrap heap of history, Hawking and Mlodinow go on in the book to do philosophy—whether or not they recognise this. After I read this claim, I asked a (non-religious) philosopher colleague whether he agreed that philosophy is dead. Not surprisingly, he disagreed with Hawking and Mlodinow.

In a video-taped discussion with Dawkins in 2012, the physicist Lawrence Krauss made the following (rehearsed) comment: “Maybe I’m not qualified to talk about nothing because philosophers and theologians are experts at nothing.” Clever, but hardly fair. With this witticism he renders irrelevant at least two and a half millennia of sophisticated philosophical and theological discussion of many of the questions he attempts to address in his book. Krauss seems to be suffering from a form of historical myopia, for several of the key concepts he discusses in his book—a universe from nothing, laws of nature, and the multiverse—were either introduced or embraced by religious thinkers centuries before his birth. (I do not mean that all religious thinkers embraced multiverse. Then, as now, some religious thinkers favour and some do not favour the idea.) The very title of Krauss’s book was first formulated by the early modern German philosopher Gottfried Leibniz and resonated with theological meaning. Krauss’ statement is similar to Dawkins’ claim that theology is about nothing and that it is a non-subject (although in an apparent contradiction he has also qualified this claim by acknowledging that the scientific study of religion does exist). Sadly, an examination of A Universe From Nothing and The God Delusion reveal that both Krauss and Dawkins would have benefited from training in philosophy and the philosophy of science. The epistemology (including scientific epistemology) in these works is often either naïve or non-existent.


According to Lawrence Krauss, quantum cosmology has shown that the universe “could result literally from nothing by natural processes,” so “we don't need a creator.” As Ted explains elsewhere, it’s a shockingly naïve claim that shows how little Krauss knows about religion. (Image source)


Finally, the New Atheists have been quite successful in their arguments against religion by persuading many people to accept this equation: fundamentalist religion and abuses done in the name of religion = religion. One of the inspirations for the New Atheist movement was the terrorist attacks on 9/11. For many this was evidence that religion was in essence a form of fanaticism that causes people to commit acts of unreason. One suspects that for some New Atheists, 9/11 was not a revelation to this effect, but rather a convenient (and spectacular) argument to deploy in support of a cause to which they were already committed. But to be fair, the New Atheists have done a rather good job of collecting, itemising and classifying the various sins of religion. This role played by the New Atheists has at least one useful outcome, for just as in a parliamentary democracy the opposition helps to keep the governing party honest, so the New Atheists have, in effect, called religion to a higher standard. And many a religious person will find themselves agreeing with many of the arguments presented by the New Atheists precisely because these are in essence arguments against abuses of religion. Additionally, just as the New Atheism can play a valuable role in a pluralist society as an oppositional culture, so, too, can religion.

The facile equation (implied or stated) that religion is fundamentalism should be treated no more seriously than, say, the equation that politics equals fascism. There is abuse, scandal, dysfunctionality and autocratic behaviour in democracy and politics (election fraud, post-election violence, sexual misconduct, unfulfilled promises, and tyranny). Does this mean that democracy should be abandoned? Most would probably say, no, it means that democracy should be improved and strengthened. While the New Atheists are largely mute on this issue, science and technology also have abuse, scandal, dysfunctionality and autocratic behaviour (fudged research, retracted papers, scientists selling out to industry, cases of questionable ethics, bullying tactics and sexual harassment and sexual assault; see the Appendix below for documentation). 

Do we abandon science because of these things? No, we improve it and strengthen it. Why do the New Atheists not apply this same even-handedness to religion? (Here it might be worth asking if the New Atheists should first make sure their own house is in order before charging religion with, for example, sexism and sexual harassment.) Because this would not serve their interests. What does serve their interests are selective arguments that make the best possible case for science and the worst possible case for religion. But this is hardly playing fair.

Looking Ahead

Next time, Snobelen examines how New Atheists employ the Conflict Thesis—the false claim that science and religion have always been deeply at odds.


Notes

Citations

MLA

Davis, Ted. "Science, Religion and the New Atheism: Introduction"
http://biologos.org/. N.p., 16 Dec. 2016. Web. 17 October 2017.

APA

Davis, T. (2016, December 16). Science, Religion and the New Atheism: Introduction
Retrieved October 17, 2017, from http://biologos.org/blogs/ted-davis-reading-the-book-of-nature/science-religion-and-the-new-atheism-introduction

References & Credits

APPENDIX

Even a short list of examples demonstrates that science has a far from perfect record. Take, for example, the recent revelations that some scientists were co-opted by the sugar industry in the 1950s and 1960s to cover up the dangers of sucrose to heart health and instead portray fat and cholesterol as the primary culprits (Cristin E. Kearns, et al, “Sugar industry and coronary heart disease research). How many premature deaths resulted from this deception, the effects of which will likely continue for some time? And then there is the persistent problem of fabricated and falsified research. One European study published in 2009 indicated that almost 2% of scientists admitted to fabricating, falsifying (in the dishonest rather than Popperian sense) and modifying “data or results at least once” and that “up to 33.7% admitted other questionable research practices.” When colleagues reported on their colleagues’ conduct, the figures were 14.12% and 72% respectively. The study’s author believed that these numbers only represent “a conservative estimate of the true prevalence of scientific misconduct,” but note that the author also stresses that the worst numbers are for “medical/pharmacological researchers.” (Daniele Fanelli, “How many scientists fabricated and falsify research?”) On sexual harassment and assault in scientific fieldwork, see Kathryn B. H. Clancy, et al, “Survey of academic field experiences (SAFE): trainees report harassment and assault,” and Joan C. Williams and Kate Massinger, “How women are harassed out of science.”

References and Suggestions for Further Reading

An earlier version of this essay was published as Stephen D. Snobelen, “Science, religion and the New Atheism,” in The New Atheism, ed. Susan Harris (Charlottetown: St. Peter Publications, 2013), pp. 109-44. BioLogos and the author are grateful to St. Peter Publications (the only source for purchasing this book) for permission to publish this updated version online.

Images

Main image: Starting in 2009, hundreds of British double-decker buses—and London Underground stations—were emblazoned with advertisements like this one.  (Image source)

Image of Stephen Snobelen courtesy of Stephen Snobelen.

About the Authors

Dr. Snobelen's research and teaching interests include history of science (early modern and nineteenth century), science and religion, science in popular culture, the popularization of science, radical theology in the early modern period, and millenarianism. His primary research efforts are currently devoted to interpreting Isaac Newton’s theological manuscripts and understanding the relationships between Newton’s science and his religion.

Dr. Snobelen has consulted for and appeared in television documentaries on Isaac Newton, including Newton: The Dark Heretic. His most popular course is on science fiction film, which he uses to introduce historical, philosophical, and ethical themes about science and technology to undergraduates in the humanities, sciences, and engineering. He and his wife Julia have four children who help keep them grounded in the more important things of life.

 

More posts by Stephen Snobelen

Ted Davis

Ted Davis is Fellow of the History of Science for the BioLogos Foundation and Professor of the History of Science at Messiah College. A former high school science teacher, Ted studied history and philosophy of science at Indiana University, where his mentor was the late Richard S. Westfall, author of the definitive biography of Isaac Newton. With the English historian Michael Hunter, Ted edited The Works of Robert Boyle, 14 vols. (London: Pickering & Chatto, 1999-2000), but his interests include the whole 2000-year interaction of Christianity and science. Author of dozens of scholarly articles and essays, Ted is one of few historians who have written extensively about both the Scientific Revolution and modern America. He and his wife Kathy enjoy theater, music, and traveling to new places.

More posts by Ted Davis

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