Stephen Snobelen
 on May 10, 2017

Does Science Equal Atheism?

The formula “science = atheism” is widely accepted by New Atheists, even though virtually all historians understand that science does not necessitate any particular metaphysical view.

Butterfly on flowers

Photo by Dominik QN on Unsplash

Introduction by Ted Davis

Historian Stephen Snobelen has critiqued some of the ways in which New Atheists tend to oversimplify complex realities by trying to “explain” them solely in terms of material causes. That attitude is closely linked with “essentialism,” the idea that there is “an essence of either science or religion that holds true across time and cultures,” from which the New Atheists construct their version of the Conflict Thesis. As Dr. Snobelen notes, “This kind of essentialism is particularly grating to historians.” He explains why.

New atheists and essentialism

It isn’t hard to find examples of essentialism in the world of the New Atheism. For instance, New Atheists have a penchant for setting up oppositional dichotomies: science vs. religion, superstition vs. reason, or faith vs. fact (to borrow the title of the recent book by Jerry Coyne). Equally tendentiously, the formula “science = atheism” is widely accepted, even assumed, by New Atheist authors and many of their readers, despite the fact that virtually all historians understand that science does not come with any particular metaphysical view attached at the hip as a necessary appendage.

For the New Atheists, the world of science and religion is black and white. They tend to speak about “the Church” and “Christianity” as if they are fixed, homogeneous entities, whereas they allow “science” to change and modernize over time. This makes it very easy for them to say that science, which in their view is fully up to date, necessarily conflicts with religion, which in their view is stuck hopelessly in the past. Yet, even in the Middle Ages the Catholic Church was hardly monolithic. For example, it included diverse religious orders, such as the Augustinians, Benedictines, Dominicans, Franciscans, and the prophetic movement inspired by Joachim of Fiore. Many of the leading intellectuals of that age were devout members of those orders, and they regularly debated one another’s ideas rigorously, sometimes developing entirely new and important concepts that we still accept and use today.

A related problem is that New Atheists often exhibit a biased particularism: scientists are enlightened and enlightening forces for good, while religious people are not. Carl Sagan’s famous words that science is “a candle in the dark” that lights the path away from religion captured this attitude perfectly, but we’ve already seen how that flame cannot sustain itself in a genuinely historical atmosphere. (Sagan’s words were featured in an anti-religious cartoon by Don Wright of the Palm Beach Post.) Unfortunately for this New Atheist attitude, the excluded middle of the religious scientist (of whom there are tens of thousands in the United States alone) fatally complicates matters.

Memes, flying machines, and new atheist propaganda

Part of the genius of the New Atheists is that, like any good propagandists, they recognise the power of the meme, slogan, and sound bite. It may thus be appropriate that Dawkins coined “meme.” But, here is perhaps the most prolific New Atheist sound bite: “Science flies you to the moon. Religion flies you into skyscrapers.” As with many memes that bob freely on the Internet like electronic flotsam, this one is often disassociated from its source or, occasionally, even mis-attributed to Richard Dawkins, whose own view is actually more nuanced (see the note below). In this case, the sound bite appears to derive from a book by Victor Stenger (see p. 59), who later used it as an epigram opposite the title page of another book. In addition to proliferating online, it has been emblazoned on T-shirts and bumper stickers. Sound bites by definition lack nuance, but this one was designed to lack nuance. Its illocutionary force is that science is uniformly progressive and good, while religion is uniformly primitive and evil. Never mind that science can’t be defined solely by the Apollo missions, or religion by the politically motivated acts of terrorists whose actions are rejected by the vast majority of their co-religionists.

Stenger’s slogan emphasizes the advanced technology that made the moon missions possible, but the sharp contrast he places between religion and space science is highly misleading. According to the late historian of technology David F. Noble (cited below), not only were many astronauts Christians (see below), but a good number of NASA scientists, engineers and administrators were too. He notes that religious, and especially Christian, culture and practice were widespread at NASA—and that some were motivated by Christian ideals. Many rocket scientists were religious believers. This includes Hugh Dryden, NASA’s first operational chief and a Methodist lay preacher; NASA administrator James Fletcher (a Mormon); and William R. Lucas, who played a role in the design of the re-entry heat shield and who became director of the Marshall Space Flight Center in 1970. The most prominent example is Werner von Braun, the chief architect of the Apollo missions who became an evangelical after arriving in the U.S. from Germany after World War II. The idea that secular science—as opposed to “religion”—flew men to the moon is rhetorical, not historical.

A similar slogan is depicted in the image at the top of this column: “Religion gave us the dark ages. Science gave us the space age.” Heightening the effect, the white text is printed against jet-black sky over the Moon, alluding to the Myth of the Medieval Gap and the associated claim that Christianity caused the decline of science at the end of the ancient world. Once again, the radical distinction between religion and science shunts aside the complexities of reality—and so does a probably unintended irony in this very image: the backdrop is the famous “Earthrise” photograph taken by astronaut William Anders on Christmas Eve 1968 on the Apollo 8 lunar mission. This was the first time humans had orbited the moon and seen the earth from so far away. Together with Frank Borman and James Lovell, Anders read the opening lines of Genesis during this famous orbit, while Borman (an elder in his church) had earlier uttered a Christian prayer. Several other astronauts were also strongly religious—including John Glenn, the first American to orbit the earth, Buzz Aldrin, the second person to walk on the moon, Jeffrey Williams, who currently holds the American record for the longest time in space, and Leslie Wickman, who is now the first woman executive director of the American Scientific Affiliation. (Dr. Wickman narrowly missed the opportunity to go on a space mission.) The fanciful T-shirt aphorism misses the inconvenient truth by light years.

I doubt that New Atheists would like the following alternative slogan: “Science kills tens of millions. Religion cares for the sick.” Were not the industrial wars of the twentieth century made possible by modern science and technology? Have not religious organisations and religious adherents founded and supported a great number of hospitals? Although the answer to both questions is yes, neither statement captures the totality of science or religion.

The problem with “essentialism”

In a previous column, I explained that historians reject the widespread view that “science” and “religion” are fixed entities that can easily be understood in terms of one unchanging relationship across all times and cultures. This is a form of essentialism. The Harmony Thesis—the idea that science and religion are always innately harmonious—is one popular type of essentialism to which Christians are especially prone. On the other hand, the default position of New Atheists is the Conflict Thesis, another form of essentialism.

It is well nigh impossible to point to some pure essence of either science or religion that holds true across time and cultures, let alone an essence of one particular relationship between them. This kind of essentialism is particularly grating to historians. John Hedley Brooke, the first person appointed Andreas Idreos Professor of Science and Religion at Oxford, put it like this: “There is no such thing as the relationship between science and religion. It is what different individuals and communities have made of it in a plethora of different contexts” (Science and Religion: Some Historical Perspectives, p. 321, italics his).

Brooke’s critique has been taken even further by Peter Harrison, who was named to the same professorship after Brooke retired (although he has since returned to his native Australia). In his recent book, The Territories of Science and Religion (2015), Harrison shows himself to be a historian’s historian in his takedown of anachronism, demonstrating that any conception of “science” and “religion” as unchanging “natural kinds” clashes with the messiness of the historical realities. Harrison deploys a territorial metaphor, speaking of “science” and “religion” as territories whose characters and borders do not remain constant. Harrison demonstrates that there wasn’t anything corresponding to our modern taxonomic notions of science and religion in the ancient world or for many centuries after that.

To put it simply, as Harrison shows, there was no “science” and no “religion” to come into conflict with each other. For one thing, any notion that there were secular “scientists” in Ancient Greece—a popular idea among the New Atheists—founders on the fact that much of the philosophising about nature and the cosmos in the Classical period was far from materialistic. The pre-Socratic philosopher Thales declared that “all things are full of gods” (p. 24). Anaxagoras believed “that the whole universe was controlled by a divine causal principle (nous — mind or intellect),” a belief that influenced “Plato, Aristotle, the Stoics, and the Neoplatonists,” and grounded “much of the subsequent ancient Greek belief in the inherent rationality of the natural world.” Furthermore, “in various ways other pre-Socratic philosophers had postulated similar principles—Anaximander’s Apeiron [the boundless], Heraclitus’s Logos, Xenophanes’s ‘One God’—that imply an ordered, yet divinely animated, cosmos” (p. 25).

In short, in the ancient world there was no science in the modern sense, but instead (with some exceptions such as the materialist Epicureans) we find philosophy infused with ideas of the divine and motivated by the goal of the moral improvement of the philosopher. Modern, professional science did not come into being until around the beginning of the nineteenth century. The term “scientist” wasn’t invented until the 1830s. Thus it does not make sense to speak about “science” in the Ancient world, except as a kind of shorthand that requires qualification. Aristotle was a philosopher, not a scientist. Isaac Newton was a natural philosopher, despite helping to found modern science. Historians don’t impose categories on the past. Rather, we ask the question, what were the categories of the past?


Ted notes: This book by Scottish science writer Mary SomervilleThe Connection of the Physical Sciences (1834), led to the first print use of the word “scientist.” According to the late Sydney Ross (cited below), it comes from a review of this book published in March 1834 by the Cambridge polymath William Whewell, who had apparently first used the word verbally at a scientific meeting the previous year. Noting that “the tendency of the sciences has long been an increasing proclivity of separation and dismemberment” (in other words, specialization), Whewell lamented “the want of any name by which we can designate the students of the knowledge of the material world collectively.” Seeking a “general term by which these gentlemen could describe themselves with reference to their pursuits,” he “proposed that, by analogy with artist, they might form scientist,” adding jocularly “that there could be no scruple in making free with this termination when we have such words as sciolist, economist, and atheist.” The irony that a term implicitly referring only to “gentlemen” first appeared in print in connection with a book authored by a woman went unremarked by Whewell. Photograph of the 1854 American edition by Edward B. Davis.

In fact, many models have been proposed for the “relationship” between science and religion. The founder of the academic field of science and religion, Ian Barbour, identified four such models: conflict, independence, dialogue and integration. Stephen Jay Gould popularised NOMA (Non-Overlapping Magisteria), which is more or less an updating of Galileo’s model of keeping theology and astronomy largely separate, a model that in turn has roots in the thought of Augustine, who stressed that the Bible is a book of spiritual things, not a book of physics (to use a modern expression). Some of these models are prescriptive—Gould certainly intended his to be, since he wanted to keep Creationists from influencing science teaching in the U.S. school system. Descriptive models work much better for historians. Thus, when teaching science and religion, I also suggest what I call “SOMA” (Semi-Overlapping Magisteria). In history, science and religion have sometimes interacted and sometimes been independent. The same is true today. The point here is that there are many possible models (and as models they are only approximations), but the one that best describes the historical and contemporary examples is the Complexity Thesis. Since it best serves their agenda, no one should be surprised that the New Atheists have chosen to promote the form of essentialism known as the Conflict Thesis.

Note on Richard Dawkins:

Dawkins appears to have a more nuanced position than Victor Stenger on religious people flying planes into buildings. In 2010 he said, “There are no Christians, as far as I know, blowing up buildings. I am not aware of any Christian suicide bombers. I am not aware of any major Christian denomination that believes the penalty for apostasy is death. I have mixed feelings about the decline of Christianity, in so far as Christianity might be a bulwark against something worse” (quoted in Ruth Gledhill, “Scandal and schism leave Christians praying for a ‘new Reformation’,” also published in The Times).

About the author

Stephen Snobelen Headshot

Stephen Snobelen

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.