April 27, 2007

The new atheism-2: Breaking down the wall

In the post-Galileo world, elite religion and elite science have tended to get along pretty well. Opposing the heliocentric model of the solar system has been roundly criticized as a stupid thing for the Catholic church to do and, since then elite science and elite religion have seemed to find a modus vivendi that enables them to avoid conflicts.

A large number of people, scientists and non-scientists alike, have managed to believe in a deity while at the same time being more-or-less active members of churches, temples, and mosques. They have managed to do this by viewing the creation narratives in their respective religious texts as figurative and metaphorical, and not as records of actual historical events. Such people also tend to believe that the world is split up into two realms, a belief which is captured in a statement issued in 1981 by the council of the prestigious National Academy of Sciences which says "[R]eligion and science are separate and mutually exclusive realms of human thought whose presentation in the same context leads to misunderstanding of both scientific theory and religious belief."

Most of the people who subscribe to this kind of statement see no conflict between scientific and religious belief structures because each one deals with one of two distinct worlds that do not overlap. So scientists are supposed to deal with the physical world while religion deals with the spiritual world. Such people tend to view the periodic legal and political skirmishes between the creationist and scientific camps as the work of overzealous extremists, both religious and atheist, who are attempting to mix together things that should properly stay separate. They feel that their own point of view is very reasonable and find it hard to understand why everyone does not accept it.

Stephen Jay Gould, who was himself not religious, was a key advocate of this model of peaceful coexistence between the two worlds (or as he called them 'magisteria') of science and religion, going to the extent of even writing a book Rocks of Ages advocating it. He gave this model a somewhat pretentious name of Non-Overlapping MAgisteria or NOMA.

What this model successfully did was to allow elite religion and elite science to work together against those Christianists who sought to base public policy on religious beliefs. Thus in the periodic skirmishes over teaching intelligent design, prayer in schools, and other church-state separation issues, scientists and elite religionists tended to be on the same side, jointly opposing the attempts of people who sought to replace secular society with one based on a fundamentalist Christian foundation.

But this model peaceful coexistence model has some fatal flaws (that I have discussed before) and can only be sustaine by people strictly compartmentalizing their beliefs to avoid having to come to grips with the problems. Others are aware of the lack of viability of this model but have sought to downplay the problems in order to preserve the political alliance between the elite science and religion camps. But this is where things are changing.

The initial challenges to this peaceful co-existence model came from intelligent design creationism theorists like Berkeley emeritus law professor Phillip Johnson, who sought to drive a wedge between elite science and elite religion by arguing that one could not simultaneously be a methodological naturalist and a believer in god, since the former excluded the latter. His aim was to force elite religionists to make a choice: are you with god or with atheistic science?

In doing so, he was conflating the two different concepts of methodological and philosophical naturalism to serve his rhetorical purposes. As I have written before, one is not forced to be a philosophical naturalist (which essentially means atheist) in order to be a scientist, but there is little doubt that elite scientists are overwhelmingly atheist or agnostic.

But more recently, the attack on the peaceful coexistence model has come from a visible and vocal group of atheists who have also argued that this 'two worlds' model that allows elite religion to coexist with elite science is essentially a sham, and that intellectual honesty demands that this be pointed out. This new rise in vocal atheism can be seen everywhere in a flurry of books and films and blogs. There has been a rise in organizations seeking to bring the views of atheists to the public's attention and a new lobbying group has been created called the Secular Coalition for America (SCA) that includes atheists, agnostics, freethinkers, and humanists, and seeks to increase the visibility of non-theistic viewpoints in the United States.

As intelligent design creationism seems to be a spent force these days, receiving one setback after another since the Dover verdict, and reduced to a traveling road show that exhorts the true believers, this new attitude by atheists challenging the two-worlds model comes too late to help the cause of Johnson and his allies to advance the teaching of intelligent design creationism in schools by creating a split between elite science and elite religion. But this new outspokenness amongst atheists has caused some ripples in the fabric of elite opinion, and is sometimes referred to as the 'new atheism'.

Some key voices in this new attitude are Richard Dawkins (The God Delusion), Sam Harris (Letter to a Christian Nation and The End of Faith), Daniel Dennett (Darwin's Dangerous Idea, Consciousness Explained and Breaking the Spell), Victor Stenger (God: The Failed Hypothesis) and Brian Flemming (creator of the film The God Who Wasn't There).

The soothing view of advocates of peaceful coexistence that religion is a neutral ideology that some followers take in an evil direction while others take in a good one is being challenged. The new tack taken by the new atheists is that even though individual religious people are often very good, that is largely irrelevant. The problem with religion is that, at the very least, believing in a god requires one to suspend rational and critical thinking, and that is never a good thing. As Voltaire said: "If we believe absurdities, we shall commit atrocities."

Thus they have taken on the task of highlighting the fact that belief in a god has no credible objective evidence to support it and thus should not be believed by any person who supports reason and science. As Dawkins, one of the most forceful and vociferous among them, says: "I am attacking God, all gods, anything and everything supernatural, wherever and whenever they have been or will be invented."

It is this new front between elite science and elite religion in the science-religion wars that has caused some turbulence.

More to come. . .

POST SCRIPT: Cricket World Cup final

The final of the World Cup is being played between Australia and Sri Lanka on Saturday, April 28, 2007. The game starts at 9:30 am (US Eastern time) and will probably last around six hours, barring a complete rout by one side.

I have been told that people can see a live telecast of it in DeGrace 312 (Biology building). If you want to see what cricket is like as played by two good teams, you should drop by. There is a charge which I think is $10.00 but am not sure since I just heard about it.

In the semi-finals, Sri Lanka beat New Zealand and Australia beat South Africa. South Africa came into the tournament as the favorites but gave several lack-luster performances and barely made it into the final four. Australia has been the dominant team, crushing their opponents, and are undefeated, so they are now the heavy favorites for the title. Sri Lanka has been playing well too, but they will have to be absolutely at the top of their game to defeat the powerful Aussies.

It should be a good game.


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Hi Mano,


I followed your link to an old post to look
for these "fatal flaws" but I did not really find
them. Not that I really find Gould's argument
NOMA especially compelling. Not that I
find Dawkins' counter-arguments particular compelling either.

It seems to me that in these science/religion
discussions there are many things that
one "side" assumes about the other that
are distortions or oversimplications
about what is going on. Generally speaking,
most scientists know very little about the wide
range of ideas addressed within serious
scholarly theology. Generally speaking most
theologians know very little about the wide range
of ideas addressed in modern science.

For example. I read a book today where a
famous writer on the history of religion
pointed to developments in string theory
as evidence that scientists are beginning
to contend with "reality that is
more than just time and space" and took this
as an indication that the purely rationalistic
naturalist world-view of science was breaking
down. In my view, this is just as
incomplete a characterization as someone
asserting that having any religious perspective
automatically requires the adaption of several
logically inconsistent and rationally dubious
assertions about the nature of physical

For example, I once listen to a discussion
between two friends of mine, one an atheist and
the other a Methodist miniser. My atheist friend
stated that he in particular rejected to the
idea of god since this implied the existence
of a supreme "super-natural" being who breaks or
at least bends the laws of nature so as to
to intervene in the affairs of humankind.
My atheist friend said "I can't believe
that a god like this exists." To which my
minister friend replied, "Well that's not the
kind of god I believe in either." In other
words, if we characterize either science
or religion incorrectly, then we will
draw the wrong conclusions. And the details
matter, I believe.

Indeed, while it is certainly the case that the
literalist/fundamentalist characterization
of religious expression has been the "loudest
voice" over the past decades, it is not the
only voice and there many discussions going
on within and beyond current mainstream
religious scholars and theologans who
view the issue in a very different way.
As authors such as Borg, Gomes, Spong, and
others have argued, the important issue is
not a debate about whether or not god
has a physical existance and what this means.
The important issue is not whether
the events described in the religious
narratives of any given religious perspective
"really happened?" The important is issue is
what do these stories mean and in what way
do these stories enrich our lives and
inform our experiences?

Similarly, I do not see how it follows that
"viewing the creation narratives in their
respective religious texts as figurative
and metaphorical" subsequently implies
that views held must be "sustained by
people strictly compartmentalizing
their beliefs to avoid having to come to grips with the problems." Which problems would these
be, exactly? What particular compartmentalizing
is required? I've never understood this
"compartmentalizing" issue. If one takes a
view of one's religious experience, how is it,
then that this view must be compartmentalized
from any other aspect of ones experience? This
word "compartmentalization" gives the
impression of some kind of matter/antimatter
kind of thing -- as if allowing to come in
contact would result will be some kind
of cognitive rational meltdown or explosion.
I just don't see it.

I have a similar comment regarding
the "new atheist" (more assertive) movement
in the US and elsewhere. While it is certainly
a good and refreshing thing to have more
voices calling for reasoned and rational
approaches to all kinds of problems, there is
a little bit of a screetchy tenor to some of
the statements made by Dawkin's and Harris
in their unrelenting inclination to denounce
any viewpoint that is not strictly atheistic.
You characterize their stance that that those
who would seek some sort of "peaceful
coexistence" are "intellectually dishonest"
-- this is a rather loaded term, I think.
It is not clear to me in what manner those
who follow a liberal religious/theological
perspective being "anti-rational?"
At what point is intellectual honesty
being violated? My impression is that this
is not really a logical argument -- rather
it seems this is a kind of complaint
"ad hominem".

Indeed, by declaring what sounds like an
"all out intellectual war" on all
kinds of religious experience and expression,
people like Dawkin's and Harris alienate a
substantial group of potential allies --
those who embrace a more liberal religious
perspective who would otherwise be very
inclined to support what might be a much
more important efforts to counter the most
objectionable statements and policies
of the literal "factual-belief" based
fundamentalists of many kinds.

And finally, although I have no evidence
to support this, I worry a little that
by arguing the "hard atheism" perspective
that a scientific viewpoint can never be
consistently held with a religious viewpoint,
we approach the "slippery slope" whereby
some might take this as permission to have
a prejudice against the scientific
acceptability and credentials of any scientist
or science teacher working in any field
who openly held or practiced _any_
particular religious perspective. I worry
that there are those who might interpret
Dawkins and Harris to mean that anyone
who followed some religious tradition ought
to be disqualified or at least suspect as
being in some way "logically flawed" and
therefore unqualified implicitly unworthy
to participate in science or scientifically
approached enterprises. And while I agree
that in our present culture here in the US,
much unfair discrimination presently falls
upon those who would openly declare their
personal atheism, I would not want to see
the reverse occur either.

Posted by Corbin on April 30, 2007 01:39 AM

A few itemized postscripts to my posted comment here:

(1) Sometimes when one posts a comment or a sends
an email, there is a element of "sender-remorse".
In addition to wincing at my numerous grammatical
and spelling errors, I realize that my post comes
across as a little "screetchy" itself. Chalk this
up in part to the general tendency that computer
typed communications tend to convey a stronger
and more negative sentiment than the sender
intends. I am far from being an expert on
any of these matters and to the extend that
I have expressed something in a manner
that implied my having factual understanding
about any of this instead merely an
impression or personal opinion, is the
extent to which I should have expressed
myself more carefully.

(2) I will confess that I did not read your
earlier post ("The new atheism 1") as carefully
as I should have and so some of my responses
that should have taken this into context did
not do so. In particular, I did not quite
digest at first your characterization
of "elite" and "popular" subclasses of both
science and religion. This of course
relates to my points about the
misunderstandings and conflicts between the
different arenas of science and religion, and
my comments would have been better if
I had reflected upon these ideas more

(3) It's worth emphasizing that I recognize
that in reporting on the approach and views
of the "new atheists", you have thus far
primarily reported on these developments
without stating your opinions on them
(even as I have expressed some opinions of
mine on these in these comments). I just wanted
you and your readers to understand that I was
not necessarily attributing Dawkins' and
Harris' views on these matter to you
and/or others.

Posted by Corbin on April 30, 2007 02:57 AM


I think that whether a scientists is religious or not does not affect how their peers view them. As I have said many times, all that science requires is methodological naturalism, not philosophical naturalism. In fact, most scientists don't really know or care what the religious beliefs of their colleagues are. so that danger of religious scientists being "second class" has not arisen and will not arise unless, like Behe, they start inserting supernatural explanations for phenomena.

The compartmentalizing issue and the "fatal flaw" I referred to are connected. It ultimately comes down to the mind/god-body problem. How can a supernatural (and presumably non-material) agent interact with the material world if the spiritual and materai worlds don't interact? Compartmentalizing means to avoid addressing that question.

Now if your religious beliefs are such that you say that it only refers to your sense of beauty and awe and personal meaning, then there is no problem. Everyone has those experiences. Some assign it to god, others to the workings of the brain. A problem would only arise if someone says that it is god who is pushing their neurons around to give them a sense of joy or whatever. Then we are back to the two-worlds problem again.

Whether the "new atheists" are pursuing an effective political strategy is a good question that should be debated. I think they are driven by the sense that the old peaceful coexistence model seems to be leading to a rise in fundamentalist beliefs in the US and in parts of the Islamic world.

Posted by Mano Singham on April 30, 2007 03:46 PM

Hi Mano,

Thank you for your thoughtful response to
my response to your post.

Yes, I agree entirely with your assertion that
whether a scientist is religious or not generally
speaking does not affect how their peers view them. I've never seen evidence of this kind
of discrimination in a professional context,
(although I have seen in expressed in
some other contexts, for example occasionally
we see people like Bill Maher and others
label religion as a "neurological disorder" and
so forth.)
So my worry is not based on evidence of current
discrimination in science but a fear of future discrimination if these "mental disorder"
meme catches on.

Perhaps my worry is unfounded.

I agree that this "material/non-material"
business is problematic at best.
I suspect that there are more people who
simply do not understand this issue than
there are people who are in denial about it.

Having said this, it occurs to me that
there are other "quality dimensions"
besides "physical/spiritual" that one might
consider. For example, one could
make a spectrum of questions that spanned
from "well-structured" to "ill-structured".
Science is well-positioned to attack the
former, and less well-positioned to attack
the latter. But just because a problem is
ill-structured does not mean it is not
important. Also, I am not saying that there
are any classes of problem that science might
not be ultimately able to tackle at some level.
This "God of the gaps" game seems an obviously
a losing proposition.

Finally, regarding your point "...some assign
to god, others to the workings of the brain.."
in the context I was talking about both
"assignments" being allowed at the same time
with no "pushing neurons" as you say. I
suppose one could complain that this is a
case of semantics -- "you say tomato".
I agree wholeheartedly (whole-forebrainedly?)
that there is strong evidence to support the
notion that the experience of human
consciousness and emotion, including the
perception of awe and beauty is a direct
result of anything other than the function
of the human brain which is a by-product
of natural evolution of the human
animal/machine. However I also think
that one can have such a perspective and
still find it personally helpful to have
a religious perspective to reflect on what
these experiences mean.

Finally, somewhat off-topic, I saw a
bumpersticker today that I really liked:

When Jesus said "Love your Enemies" I think
he meant that you should not kill them.

Posted by Corbin on May 2, 2007 03:28 AM