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Religion, Science and the New Atheists July 7, 2009

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Dwight Furrow's Posts, Philosophy, religion, Science.
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Chris Mooney has done yeoman work rescuing science from the know-nothings in the Bush Administration. Now he has a new book (with co-author Sheril Kirshenbaum) devoted to  scientific illiteracy, in which he takes on the so-called “new atheists”.

The “new atheists” (a term I don’t like) write books that defend, without reservation or compromise, the view that religion is false, incompatible with science, and unworthy of belief. Atheists have always argued this so I’m not sure what the difference is between “new atheists” and “old atheists” except that the new ones write really popular books. (They include Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Dan Dennett.)

At any rate, Mooney thinks the “new atheists” are too uncompromising and that public acceptance of science would benefit if atheist authors would be more accommodating and less confrontational toward religious believers.

I haven’t read Mooney’s book but I’ve been following some of the debates about it on-line. Ophelia Benson at Butterflies and Wheels excerpts passages that condemn the new atheists:

They’re hardly a monolithic group…But the broad tenor of the movement they’ve impelled is clear: It is confrontational. It believes religious faith should not be benignly tolerated but, rather, should be countered, exposed, and intellectually devastated.
The most outspoken New Atheists [sic] publicly eviscerate believers…If the goal is to create an America more friendly toward science and reason, the combativeness of the New Atheism is strongly counterproductive. [p 97]

And so on and so on, for another eleven pages.

America is a very religious nation, and if forced to choose between faith and science, vast numbers of Americans will select the former. The New Atheists err in insisting that such a choice needs to be made. Atheism is not the logically inevitable outcome of scientific reasoning…A great many scientists believe in God with no sense of internal contradiction…[pp 97-98]

Benson disagrees with Mooney and takes him to task for this accommodationist approach.

See what I mean? That’s asking a lot. It’s asking a great deal too much. We’ve had that – we’ve had years and years of nearly everyone being deeply sensitive to the millions of religious believers among our citizenry, and we don’t want to be deeply sensitive any more. We want to talk freely. The millions of religious believer can toughen up a little and get used to disagreement.

I have to agree with Benson here. If atheists believe there is no God and belief in God is incompatible with science, why not say it? Conflict is at the heart of intellectual inquiry. It is in the very nature of intellectual inquiry that opposing sides put their cards on the table and we hash out, by looking at the evidence, who has the best argument. When one side cannot make its view heard and must pussyfoot around for propriety’s sake in order not to offend, intellectual inquiry is stymied because the conflict that forces better and clearer answers to questions is suppressed.

And Benson is quite right that in our culture religion has always had a free ride because of the taboo against challenging religious beliefs.

The culture wars are not going to go away if the so-called “new atheists” tone down their rhetoric. There is a reason why these books are popular—there is an audience for them. Many people are deeply troubled by the dogmatism and public consequences of excessive religious fervor. That disquiet will not lessen if its standard-bearers in the public square mute their voices.

Religion speaks to the values and aspirations of billions of people. If it is to continue to do that effectively, it must accommodate itself to a modern world which includes, not only science as the dominant form of inquiry, but disquiet about  belief systems that seem to conflict with science. If the illusion of compatibility is allowed to persist, religion is never forced to confront the deep conflict between religion and science—and that will be a gargantuan incoherence at the center of modern belief systems.

The task of explaining how human values and meaning fit within the world that science describes is one of the  most important intellectual tasks of our time. Thoughtful religious people can check out of this debate and refuse to engage, but that will leave them unable to contribute to this task. Reticence on the part of the “new atheists” only encourages that head-in-the-sand approach.

And Mooney’s hypothesis that, in the face of obstreperous confrontation, religious people will simply ignore science is preposterous. You can’t really ignore science—it pervades every nook and cranny of modern life and consists of stubborn facts that cannot be wished away.

The plain fact of the matter is that there are deep conflicts between religion and science. As a culture we will not resolve the disagreement by hiding those conflicts.

Of course, that does mean that as citizens we have to agree to live with the conflict. We have to find ways of coming to political agreement about various policies without debating metaphysics. That is not easy but it is made no easier by  silencing one side of the debate.

Update: Minor correction

 book-section-book-cover2 Dwight Furrow is author of

Reviving the Left: The Need to Restore Liberal Values in America

or Visit the Website: www.revivingliberalism.com



1. Brian English - July 10, 2009

and belief in God is incompatible with religion,
Uhm, I’d think that religion belief in God quite compatible. I think you might’ve meant science instead of religion.

Great article though.

2. Dwight Furrow - July 10, 2009

Thank you Brian!

3. Atheist belief in UFOs – Part 1 | Latest UFO Sightings - July 12, 2009

[…] Religion, Science and the New Atheists « Philosophy On The Mesa […]

4. Jairo Mejia - July 29, 2009

Atheists and Gnostics are right in most of their thinking

It has been common among religious believers to look with misgiving to atheists and Gnostics, and to think that they are mistaken; however, in many instances the opposite is the truth; some religious beliefs are not just irrelevant, but baseless. The “God” of main line traditions simply does not exist. I accepted the challenge of finding the One who may be recognized even by Gnostics and atheists: the Existence itself, “All-That-Is.” If something is there, that is God. Look at the book “Christianity Reformed From ist Roots – A life centered in God” (Amazon.com). I am confident that some of your friends will be relieved of the illusion, as I did myself.

Jairo Mejia, M. Psych., Santa Clara University
Retired Episcopal Priest
Carmel Valley, California


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