Are the New Atheists Responsible for the Creationist Menace?

Robert Wright, the well-known journalist and author, has just suggested that the so-called New Atheists – people like Richard Dawkins who sneer and laugh at religion, thinking it a great evil and that science, Darwin’s theory of evolution in particular, shows the way forward – are if anything exacerbating the tension in the U.S. between those who accept evolution and those (“Creationists”) who accept some literal form of the Genesis story of origins.

He writes: “A few decades ago, Darwinians and creationists had a de facto nonaggression pact: Creationists would let Darwinians reign in biology class, and otherwise Darwinians would leave creationists alone.” However: “A few years ago, such biologists as Richard Dawkins and PZ Myers started violating the nonaggression pact.”

Continuing: “I don’t just mean they professed atheism – many Darwinians had long done that; I mean they started proselytizing, ridiculing the faithful, and talking as if religion was an inherently pernicious thing. They not only highlighted the previously subdued tension between Darwinism and creationism but depicted Darwinism as the enemy of religion more broadly.”

What was the consequence? In Wright’s opinion:

If the only thing this Darwinian assault did was amp up resistance to teaching evolution in public schools, the damage, though regrettable, would be limited. My fear is that the damage is broader – that fundamentalist Christians, upon being maligned by know-it-all Darwinians, are starting to see secular scientists more broadly as the enemy; Darwinians, climate scientists, and stem-cell researchers start to seem like a single, menacing blur.

Wright backs up his hypothesis by noting that more and more people seem to be moving from a middle-range compromise, where evolution occurred but God guided its path, to outright biblical literalism. Wright suggests that people feel that, thanks to the New Atheists, they must choose between science and religion, no third way, and that they choose religion.

Naturally enough the New Atheists don’t much like this hypothesis. Jerry Coyne, over at Why Evolution is True, expectedly has gone ballistic. Using terms usually reserved for me, we learn that Wright’s thinking is “madness.” He is “dumb.” And: “As always on this topic, Wright is talking out of his nether parts.”

Actually, I am inclined to agree with Jerry Coyne that there was not much of a non-aggression pact. I have spent a lot of my life fighting Creationist attempts to get a bible-based account of origins into the state-supported classrooms. In 1981, I was (together with people like Stephen Jay Gould and Francisco Ayala) an expert witness for the ACLU when successfully we fought back an attempt in Arkansas to get Genesis into the biology curriculum. This was all well before the New Atheists appeared on the scene.

Having said that, I do think that Wright has something of a point. I too worry that polarizing things does lead to a religion-or-science-and-take-no-hostages kind of thinking. And whatever the Constitution may say and whatever previous interpretations may have been, I fear that the present Supreme Court might take this as an excuse – if indeed they even look for excuses – to allow some form of biblical literalism into biology classes. The fact is that the New Atheists do tend to treat Darwinism as a form of secular religion – complete with Darwin Day (Darwin’s birthday) as their festival of celebration rather than Christmas or Easter. And I worry that some wily lawyer is going to take advantage of this. Accommodationist folk like me can help map out a middle ground that respects and observes the separation of Church and State. Evolution in the classrooms; God in church.

Undoubtedly this post is going to bring down the usual opprobrium from the faithful, but before I vanish beneath the avalanche of scorn and sarcasm, let me say that in major respects I fault the mainline churches far more than the New Atheists. Of course there are good Christians arguing for the separation of Church and State. Barry Lynn, an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ, and the Executive Director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State need apologize to no one.

But when did you last hear the Catholic hierarchy holding forth about the need to teach evolution in schools and to expel biblical literalism? And I am not sure that a lot of the Protestant Churches are much better.

To conclude. I don’t think that Robert Wright is precisely right in what he argues. But I do think he has got a point. And I hope that at least some of us can consider this issue dispassionately, because it is important.

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