New Atheists, Science, and the Roots of Religious Intolerance

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


Ted notes: Michael Reiss—who probably knows more about the field of science education than any Fellow of the Royal Society—was unfairly fired by the Royal Society, when some of its most famous Fellows took umbrage at something thoughtful that Reiss said about science education and creationism, after it was quoted entirely out of context. The whole matter constitutes a textbook case of intolerance by anti-religious scientists. (image source)


Introduction by Ted Davis

Shortly before Christmas, I began presenting a series about Science, Religion, and the New Atheists by historian of science Stephen Snobelen. Earlier columns were devoted to the Conflict Thesis and the Myth of the Medieval Gap. Last month, Dr. Snobelen examined some of the ways in which well-known New Atheist writers exhibit intolerance of religion, especially as seen in their attacks on Francis Collins, including their complaint about him holding a top science position while also speaking about his Christian faith. Equally worrying things have taken place in the United Kingdom, leading Dr. Snobelen to ask how Christians should respond and to delve into some of the reasons why New Atheists attack Christian scientists in this way. His series resumes after the next heading.

Michael Reiss and the Royal Society: Charity to All (by Stephen Snobelen)

For the New Atheists, religion must be pushed into the private sphere and separated from association with science, even while scientific atheism enjoys free reign in the public sphere while associating itself with science. A pertinent example comes from Britain’s famous Royal Society, the oldest scientific body in the English-speaking world. In 2008, Michael Reiss, a leading expert on science education who is also an ordained Anglican priest (despite having a Jewish father and an agnostic mother), was forced to resign his position as Director of Science Education at the Royal Society when it was reported that he supported the teaching of creationism in UK schools. In fact, his position had been misrepresented in the media. What he had actually said was this: rather than simply dismissing any creationist beliefs amongst students, teachers “should take the time to explain how science works and why creationism has no scientific basis.” Yet the Royal Society’s fears that the misinterpretation had “led to damage to the society’s reputation” resulted in his dismissal. The prospect of Britain’s leading scientific organisation being associated with the teaching of creationism is almost comical, but evidently the Fellows of that august institution did not see the humor in it.

The controversy arising from all of this had some supporting the need for Reiss’s resignation, but others thought the Royal Society had made a big mistake. Richard Dawkins actually sympathized somewhat with Reiss’ plight, while at the same time repeating his standard attack on “the accommodationist line,” namely, “the mantra that there is ‘no conflict’ between evolution and religion” (a view that Reiss certainly holds). Biochemist and science blogger Larry Moran, who is also no friend of religion or accommodationism, was blunter and less ambivalent than Dawkins. In his opinion, Reiss’ resignation resulted from “a witch-hunt and I deplore the actions of some of my fellow scientists.”

To be clear, Reiss is in no way a creationist himself. In 2009, he signed a letter written by a number of prominent British scientists (including Richard Dawkins!) to protest a new school curriculum that did not use the term “evolution.” The following year he debated Michael Behe on Intelligent Design. Despite Reiss’ opposition to creationism and Intelligent Design, the late chemist Sir Harry Kroto defended his firing simply because, as an ordained minister, Reiss must believe in a creator. According to Kroto, many Fellows of the Royal Society “cannot see how such a person can pontificate on how to tackle this fundamentally unresolvable conflict at the science/religion interface.” Kroto declared that Reiss, “together with all religious people – whether they like it or not, whether they accept it or not – fall at the first hurdle of the main requirement for honest scientific discussion because they accept unfound dogma as having fundamental significance.” This seems tantamount to saying that only unbelievers are really qualified to be good scientists—a claim that plainly contradicts the facts, even in our modern, highly secular age.

In the wake of his unjust dismissal, however, Reiss responded with Christian charity. As BBC journalist William Crawley reported six months later, Reiss accepted the fact that “the debacle was seen by some as an ‘own-goal’ and that his comments were used by some Creationists in the culture war between evolution and creationism.” According to Crawley, “What’s remarkable is that Michael Reiss, a soft-spoken and very thoughtful man, is clearly not interested in rhetorically punishing those who misrepresented his views, or those within the science establishment who mounted a campaign which succeeded in having him removed from his Royal Society job.” When Crawley asked Reiss “if the Royal Society was a cold house for Christians, he was quick to defend his former employer,” and equally quick “to point out that some leading British Creationists were kind enough not to try to portray him as a Creationist,” despite some confusion about that in the media. In the end, those scientists who pegged him as a creationist “had trouble understanding his personal views as entirely consistent with his life-long commitment to evolutionary biology.”

The Roots of Atheist Intolerance   

In fact, many atheist or agnostic scientists form friendships with religious scientists and show them genuine respect, even while acknowledging divergent world views, just as many religious scientists befriend and respect unbelieving colleagues. Nor do scientists have a monopoly on showing mutual respect and tolerance in the face of fundamental differences.

Sadly, such attitudes are not characteristic of the public face of New Atheism. Some New Atheist scientists and their followers have replaced respect and civility with schoolyard terms of abuse that imply enlightened superiority over their opponents. (I won’t delineate these, but they aren’t hard to find.) Name-calling might seem trivial, but it is symptomatic of a deeper problem that can distort perceptions of both religion and science. You can see the effects of this kind of rhetoric in hateful comments on YouTube, news sites and especially online atheist forums, where many of the comments consist in nothing more than sneering remarks targeted at religious beliefs and the people who hold them. I hear it in the classroom from some of my science students. I have even heard from students that science professors sometimes make disparaging comments about religion in science classes.


Ted notes: Although philosopher and historian of science Michael Ruse doesn’t believe in God, he has argued in various places that evolution and Christian faith are not necessarily incompatible. I don’t endorse all of Ruse’s ideas on this topic, but I applaud his genuine respect for those Christians who take the bull of evolution by the horns and do some serious theological wrestling. His advice at the end of this book is on point: “If you are a Darwinian or a Christian or both, remember that we are humans and not God.” We ought to have “a little modesty about what we can and cannot know,” and “a tolerance and appreciation of those who would go beyond science, even if we ourselves cannot follow” (p. 219). (image source)


New Atheists like Richard Dawkins, Jerry Coyne, and Sam Harris want to browbeat and humiliate religious scientists in the public sphere, even while they work hard to take up residence in science as its masters. Intolerance like this may well have consequences within science as well. Does this public shaming deter some talented religious people from entering science? To what degree does it cause some already in science to internalize their faith, or contribute to some abandoning it altogether? Ironically, perhaps this New Atheist intolerance actually encourages some believing scientists to speak about their faith in public.

What are the roots of this intolerance? In attempting to police science according to their own dogmatic vision of what it should be, New Atheists go far beyond the generally accepted scientific policy of adhering to methodological naturalism; they are beginning to insist on an orthodoxy based on on metaphysical naturalism. Surely, scientists should be judged on the merits of their science and not be drummed out of the scientific elite for holding religious or metaphysical positions that differ from those of the guardians of scientific atheism. As Ted Davis has pointed out, science has existed for thousands of years and flourished in a multitude of cultural, political, and metaphysical contexts. The New Atheist view that science implies or even requires metaphysical naturalism is flatly inconsistent with the historical facts. Furthermore, in a pluralist society, methodological naturalism allows everyone of whatever world view to participate in science on an equal basis. By insisting that science requires metaphysical naturalism, the New Atheists reveal themselves to be deeply illiberal opponents of religious, philosophical and cultural pluralism.

Some New Atheists go even further, and occasionally a very troubling motive emerges. As early as 2006, Sam Harris flatly proclaimed that “Science must destroy religion,” because “irreconcilable religious commitments still inspire an appalling amount of human conflict.” Harris’ concern about the abuse of religion is certainly well placed, but religion is hardly the only cultural force capable of becoming a dangerous ideology. The lust for power and the tendency to intolerance are human weaknesses, not uniquely those of religious people. Secular politics is surely no less capable of inspiring much conflict, yet Harris seems to have a special scorn for religion—and a special confidence in science to eradicate religion.

It is science “in the broadest sense, includ[ing] all reasonable claims to knowledge about ourselves and the world,” that Harris believes “must destroy religion.” Harris is obviously ignoring the very significant fact that many religious people are highly respected scientists; he must be thinking abstractly of his ideal of a pure essence of secular science. However, it is difficult to separate his notion of science from the deep hatred of religion that he has occasionally expressed. For example, when Harris was told that his “analogy between organized religion and rape is pretty inflammatory,” he responded, “I can be even more inflammatory than that. If I could wave a magic wand and get rid of either rape or religion, I would not hesitate to get rid of religion.”

Nevertheless, the New Atheists may have a harder time than they wish in having their way. Even while they have been very successful in securing media coverage, even their fellow unbelievers have called out the distasteful arrogance and triumphalism that the New Atheists aren’t ashamed to hide and demonstrated that their arguments aren’t as ironclad as they want you to think. Many people also realize that just as a religious demagogue does not speak for all religion, or even a particular denomination, neither does someone like Harris, Coyne, or Dawkins speak for all atheists. And, they certainly don’t speak for all science.


The late Sir Peter Medwar (image source). Ted notes: The New Atheists don’t even speak for all scientists who don’t believe in God. Nobel Laureate biologist Peter Medawar did not believe in God, but unlike the New Atheists he did not disparage religion, partly because he recognized the inability of science to answer ultimate questions. As he put it with some eloquence, “The existence of a limit to science is made clear by its inability to answer childlike questions having to do with first and last things, questions such as, ‘How did everything begin?’ ‘What are we all here for?’ ‘What is the point of living?’ ... It is not to science, therefore, but to metaphysics, imaginative literature, or religion that we must turn for answers to questions having to do with first and last things.” (The Limits of Science, pp. 59f).


For any Christian who finds the arrogance and triumphalism of the New Atheists distasteful and worthy of censure, there is a helpful opportunity for careful reflection. In what ways can a believer appear similarly arrogant and triumphalistic to non-believers? The Apostle Paul provides guidance for a course of action: “Walk in wisdom toward outsiders, making the best use of the time. Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person” (Colossians 4:5-6 ESV). Similarly, Peter writes: “Do no pay others back evil for evil or insult for insult. Instead, keep blessing them …” (1 Peter 3:9 ISV). A Christian setting out to respond to the New Atheists might end up engaged in self-examination about his or her own words and deeds.


Notes

Citations

MLA

Davis, Ted. "New Atheists, Science, and the Roots of Religious Intolerance"
https://biologos.org/. N.p., 13 Apr. 2017. Web. 15 December 2017.

APA

Davis, T. (2017, April 13). New Atheists, Science, and the Roots of Religious Intolerance
Retrieved December 15, 2017, from /blogs/ted-davis-reading-the-book-of-nature/new-atheists-science-and-the-roots-of-religious-intolerance

References & Credits

A note from Dr Snobelen: I am grateful to Ted for his helpful editorial suggestions that have improved this section and for contributing a good deal of insight and useful material, including on the Reiss resignation.

Looking Ahead

Dr. Snobelen’s series continues next time with a discussion of New Atheist appeals to reductionism (the idea that complex things are properly explained only in terms of their constituent parts) and essentialism.

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, expanded version online.

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.

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