It is a telling sign of the times that both journalist Christopher Hitchens’ latest book, “God Is Not Great,” and Oxford professor Richard Dawkins’ latest book, “The God Delusion,” have made The New York Times best-seller list. But while Dawkins has been the veritable poster child of atheism for decades, Hitchens and several others have joined his cohort only recently. In the past few years, an astounding number of anti-religion books have been published and have enjoyed wide success.
In many instances, the positive critiques are well-deserved. No one will debate the numerous horrors that have been perpetrated in the name of various religions, the intolerance preached from various pulpits around the world or the irrationality so often confused with faith. Yet these polemicists go further, not only decrying the foolishness of certain beliefs, but practically evangelizing for their particular brand of atheism.
The problem with the sort of atheism found in the popular press is that, despite its scientific trappings, its proponents are essentially playing philosophers. Not content with exposing Kent Hovind-style charlatans, popular atheism fallaciously argues that because science presupposes naturalism (the idea that everything can be explained through recourse to natural causes, as opposed to supernatural causes), it is therefore only rational to hold to physicalism (the idea that physical things are the only things that exist), which of course excludes any concept of the supernatural.
But physicalism is a philosophical position, not a scientific one. Other similar propositions, such as “scientific knowledge is the only form of knowledge,” are also scientifically unprovable. These are questions about which well-meaning, reasonable people may disagree. Science can say that there is no empirical evidence to indicate anything beyond the natural world, but that doesn’t decisively rule out the possibility of its existence. Yet atheistic polemicists are making just such claims. Browsing through a Barnes and Noble over winter break, I ran across a book with the subtitle “How Science Shows That God Does Not Exist.”
It doesn’t have to be this way, of course. The late Stephen Jay Gould’s famous description of science and religion as two “non-overlapping magisteria” is apt. The National Academy of Sciences espoused a similar view in a booklet entitled “Science, Evolution and Creationism” published earlier this month: “Science and religion are separate and address aspects of human understanding in different ways. Attempts to pit science and religion against each other create controversy where none needs to exist.”
Unfortunately, those offering critiques of popular atheism often fail to differentiate between the science and the philosophy of their opponents. Throwing out the baby with the bath water, they concoct pseudoscientific explanations such as creationism and intelligent design. Furthermore, this false dilemma engenders a generalized mistrust of science that goes beyond evolution. Until recently, many conservative Christians were skeptical regarding the veracity of global warming. Thankfully, this is beginning to change: Religious environmentalism is now a hot topic in many congregations.
It’s wishful thinking to dismiss these people as poorly educated, backward folk. Some of my high school and undergraduate classmates now hold degrees from various well-respected universities and are also fervent proponents of intelligent design. Two of the people I have in mind were physics students. In discussions with such people, appeals to Augustine, Francis Collins, various popes and other Christians who see no conflict between science and religion fall on deaf ears. These people have rejected science because they see in it an inevitable implication of atheism. Their stubbornness is exacerbated by the like of Dawkins and Hitchens.
Evangelists for atheism who link their philosophical positions to science end up doing that same science a great disservice by fueling the fire of fundamentalism here and around the world. Calling them evangelists is warranted, because if their true goal were the propagation of the acceptance of science, they simply wouldn’t focus so much on non-scientific implications. Instead, they spread their various gospels, pander to the popular hobby of religion-bashing, and even invoke a persecution complex — you can purchase a “Scarlet Letter” T-shirt at richarddawkins.net. In reality, though, Dawkins and his cohort are mostly preaching to the choir. In this argument, both sides lose: Reactionary religion marginalizes itself in the face of the modern scientific world, and evangelical atheism helps to produce more of the very enemies it most despises.
Gabriel Michael is a graduate student in the Divinity School. His column usually runs on alternate Wednesdays.