New Atheism: A Disaster Comparable to the Tea Party

Oh dear, I am in trouble again with the New Atheists.  I penned a piece recently over at Huff Post on the problem of evil.  I suggested that I personally think it insoluble.  Indeed, I don’t want the problem solved because I don’t want any part of a system that, even if it offers my eternal salvation, came at the cost of Anne Frank and her sister dying in Bergen-Belsen.  However, I don’t think the Darwinian mechanism of natural selection exacerbates the problem.  For which conclusion I am being called all sorts of nasty things.  Including, expectedly, the obligatory jokes about my name.  (I pronounce it to rhyme with “goose,” unlike the English word that rhymes with “whose.”)  I particularly like the understanding chap who spoke of me as formerly one of the good guys, but now sadly degenerated—“tragic” was the term used.  I suspect rather that we might already have moved on to “farce.”

Even I sometimes wonder why I am in such bad odor, apart from the fact that whenever I am confronted with people for whom disagreement is considered not just wrong but morally offensive my first tendency is to laugh and tease.  I am not much loved by a number of campus feminists.  But really.  I have spent 40 years fighting fundamentalism, including so-called Intelligent Design Theory—on the podium, in print, and in the courtroom (as a witness for the ACLU against Scientific Creationism). And while I am not a card-carrying atheist—I vowed that when I gave up Christianity, I was not going to join another religion, even a secular version like humanism—I truly really am a nonbeliever.  I describe myself as an agnostic or skeptic, but I am pretty atheistic about the central claims of the major world religions.

What we have is a perfect exemplification of what Freud called the narcissism of small differences.  I am so close in so many respects to the new Atheists that I am hated with the kind of passion that you usually find between Protestant sects differing over the true meaning of the Whore of Babylon.  Is she just the Pope or is she the whole of the Catholic Church?  Of course I also suffer from what we might call the Laurie Essig syndrome.  I do like a bit of a bust up.  (You will notice that Laurie has become my King Charles’s Head.  She comes into everything I write.  Like an updated Mr. Dick, I now have two computers and every time I feel the urge to mention Laurie, I dash over to the alternate and pound away until the mood passes.)

My position is simply this.  Although I am myself a nonbeliever, I do not think that traditional religion contributes to this nonbelief.  Note that I say traditional religion.  I obviously don’t think you can believe in Noah’s Flood and be a modern biologist or geologist.  But the central, basic, traditional claims of religion—stay with Christianity for simplicity—about a Creator God, and the special place of humans, and even eternal salvation, seem to me beyond the range of science.

Although I joke about Foucault and those sorts of things, I have been deeply influenced in my view of science by the thinking of philosophers and historians in the past half-century.  Strongest influence of all was Thomas Kuhn, especially his insistence that scientific thinking is deeply and necessarily metaphorical (something he thought was equivalent to his claims about paradigms).  What Kuhn pointed out is that while metaphorical thinking is very powerful, in both explanatory and heuristic senses, it succeeds in major part by ignoring certain questions, ruling them off limits.  If I say my love is a red, red rose, I am saying nothing about her mathematical abilities, and if I say (as today’s scientists do say) that the world is a whacking big machine, I am saying nothing about such questions as why there is something rather than nothing, why morality, or (and this is more controversial) why computers made of meat (aka brains) produce sentience.

I think science leaves these questions open, and if religion wants to try to answer them, it is perfectly legitimate for it to do so.  It doesn’t mean that we have to accept the answers of the religious, and it doesn’t mean that religion cannot be criticized—I have said that for me personally the problem of evil is beyond solution—but I don’t think it can be criticized by science.

This is why, whatever is said about me, I am not about to change my mind—at least not without some arguments.  And this is why I think the New Atheists are a disaster, a danger to the wellbeing of America comparable to the Tea Party.  It is not so much that their views are wrong—I am not going to fall into the trap of labeling those with whom I disagree immoral because of our disagreements—but because they won’t make any effort to think seriously about why they hold their positions about the conflict between science and religion.

Perhaps it is just a turf war, but I don’t think philosophy is something to be ignored or done after a day’s work in the lab over a few beers in the faculty club.  I think if you want to show that science and religion are inherently in contradiction, then you should show why people like Kuhn (and indeed Foucault) are wrong about the nature of science.  That I think is morally wrong, namely taking positions with major political and social implications, without doing your serious homework.  Just mentioning Galileo’s troubles with the Church or Thomas Henry Huxley’s debate with the Bishop of Oxford is no true substitute for hard thinking.

And let there be no mistake, the positions we take on science and religion do have major political and social implications.  The right-wing politicians now running my state of Florida just love to hear that scientists think that evolution is incompatible with the religious beliefs of their constituents.  It gives them a perfect cover when, as is happening once again right now, they introduce bills to get Intelligent Design Theory taught in biology classes in the public schools of the state.

Up to now, the courts have turned back such efforts on the grounds that they violate the separation of Church and State as mandated by the First Amendment to the Constitution.  But, given the present composition of the Supreme Court, who knows what might happen the next time such a law comes before them?  I just hope that in five years time I don’t find myself saying: “I told you so.”

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