Popular anti-religion creates false dichotomy

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.


  • Anonymous

    While I sympathize with the sentiment expressed in this article, I think you are unfairly attacking at least Hitchens, and perhaps Dawkins (although you seem to have less of a problem with him). Hitchens never claims (to know) the philosophical stance that the physical world is the only thing that really exists. He does, however, point out that empirical knowledge is the only verifiable knowledge, almost by definition. He himself writes that he 1) would not be opposed to religion if it were harmless and 2) if its proponents did not insist on injecting religious principles into politics and whatnot. However, he goes on to say that those who adhere to religious ideals ought to admit that they are acting on blind faith, and that any "knowledge" they purport to know per non-empirical means is personal and not verifiably existent in the world. In other words, what does it mean to know something (e.g. God exists) non-empirically. Furthermore, it's one thing to believe in some amorphous concept called God. It's quite another to promote the literal truth of a physically existent book. In the latter case, it is entirely fair to point out inconsistencies within the book itself and with the natural world (which all can experience and thus verify). What Hitchens, at least, really wants is for the faithful to just, as they say, "man up" to the fact that faith is inherently blind. As for the question of whether or not empirical knowledge is the only knowledge, consider this--how do you know that you know something? As the age-old religious objection goes, "What if there is a God, then what?" Age-old atheist response, "How would you know, and how could you demonstrate said knowledge to me?" That is, how could they even separate the knowledge from any other fantasy/idea in their head? The point, then, is to at least demonstrate that there is no verifiably higher knowledge than empirical knowledge when it comes to objective truth and that it is a meaningless question to ask why there must be evidence for things (like asking "why does there have to be a why"--it contradicts itself in presupposing the very thing its trying to defeat).

    Again, however, I must admit that militant atheist (as the Christian Right calls it) is having the effect of the faithful holding tragically flawed perceptions of science. However, these books in question have nonetheless gone a long way in helping many formerly faithful (like myself) in putting their faith behind them for good (note I said helped, not caused).

  • Anonymous

    "The four points of the compass be logic, knowledge, wisdom and the unknown. Some do bow in that final direction. Others advance upon it. To bow before the one is to lose sight of the three. I may submit to the unknown, but never to the unknowable." - Roger Zelazny, in "Lord of Light"

    The essential difference between 'supernatural' and 'natural' explanations is that the 'supernatural' is unknowable by humans - something forever beyond human ken, something we will never be capable of understanding. Different terms are used - the 'ineffable', the 'mystery', and so forth - but the basic idea is the same.

    Epistemologically, the 'unknowable' is a troublesome concept. How can we, in practice, distinguish between something 'currently unknown but comprehensible' and something 'forever unknowable'? From a practical perspective, the only way to tell which category something falls into is to try to understand it; if you succeed, then it was knowable. The problem is, if you fail, you can't conclude that it's unknowable. It might be… but it also might be the case that you just didn't happen to figure out something knowable, and you or someone else might have better luck on a subsequent attempt.

    It's quite true that unknowable entities can't be ruled out a priori. Maybe there really are some out there. But… how would you prove it? If we encountered a real, honest-to-goodness 'miracle', what evidence could you possibly present that it was caused by a god and not a powerful alien? The most you could ever say would be, "A god hasn't been ruled out, yet." From a practical perspective, I can't see what the notion of 'supernatural' buys you. Unless you're trying to justify not even trying to understand something.

    The 'supernatural' - i.e. the 'unknowable' - adds nothing to our understanding except to limit our willingness to try to understand.

  • Anonymous

    Most atheists you are likely to meet aren't even that philisophical. It's more of a spritual "growing up" to realize that:

    1 - A god is not required to explain the natural world that we find ourselves in.
    2 - There is no credible evidence of such a god.

    In this respect, the loss of faith in god is identical to a loss of faith in Santa Clause or the Easter Bunny.

    As for your points about religion and science being compatible, a world where a supernatural being intervenes in the everyday lives and other workings of the universe is a very different place from a world where there is no such intervention. Science may not be able to prove the non-existence of a god (Victor J. Stenger's arguments aside), but it can certainly make some predictions about the likelihood of the miracles upon which most religions are based. And based upon those predictions, from what we know about the physical world, belief in a god is hardly reasonable.

  • Anonymous

    This is a nicely articulated perspective on the less-than-tidy polemics of assuming science and religion are mutually exclusive. And, I think you make a good point about the risks of using science to bludgeon the fantasy of religion. However, polemics aside, there is the basic premise that religion doesn't actually make logical sense. The fundamental problem is that has to believe in some made up premise articulated down through the ages. I am an atheist because I don't believe in religion, not because I believe in science. Science has proven itself to be a reasonable way to obtain good information and therefore has a justified existence in my world. It has added value to me personally and to the world as a whole since knowledge is inherently valuable. Religion on the other hand has not benefited me in any way whatsoever. And, the evidence of its evil contribution to the development of all life on earth is overwhelming. I'm not an atheist because I believe science is good, I'm an atheist because I see religion as nothing but a pointless agent of evil, suffering and pain enslaving millions of minds and bodies. I can't fool myself sufficiently to think that directed thoughts in my head (belief) will somehow help the prevent all the murders and rapes happening this instant around the world and that have been happening all along during every moment of human existence on this planet. It won't save anyone from a tsunami. It doesn't stop people from happily murdering thousands, and in fact, seems to inspire them to do so. For religion to be considered on the same footing as science as a valid component of human culture, I think it needs to demonstrate some actual value in some way, shape or form. I'm still waiting, as "opiate of the masses" doesn't seem like an upside to me.

  • Anonymous

    I agree wholeheartedly with the first commentator. I have devoured the books by Dawkins, Hitchens and Sam Harris. I am now reading "The Portable Atheist" (edited by Hitchens) and it is a phenomenal book. The books, and by extension the authors, helped me bury finally any tenuous belief I had in a god. Growing up in the Bible Belt, giving up god was no easy task, but I am proud to say that I am an atheist, and proud of it.

  • Anonymous


    It is a telling sign of the times that atheist books can be published without the authors being murdered or blacklisted. At least in America.

    You are 'astounded' by the number of anti-religion books have been published and have enjoyed wide success. What are we talking, 4 or 5 books? Compare that to the thousands published each year that allow Christian book stores to flourish. Please. Your divinity school bias is showing.

    Stephen Jay Gould’s famous description of science and religion as two “non-overlapping magisteria” shows a willful naivete of the actual happenings in the world. True that churches typically don't share hallways with laboratories, but you don't get out much if you aren't aware of how the religionists have staked out positions to interfere with science.

    I live in Florida where the state is moving to introduce the word evolution into the science texts. Up till now they have had to hint at or ignore the bedrock finding of biology. No one has to guess what pressure caused this.

    Riddle: What do you call an atheist priest? Answer: Father (cause he doesn't want to lose his income or pension.)

    Bruce in Orlando

  • Anonymous

    Commenter above says:

    "empirical knowledge is the only verifiable knowledge, almost by definition."

    But, how is this statement verifiable? It's certainly not empirical and it seems to defeat itself. (see: Logical positivism)

  • Anonymous

    @7 - If that statement were worded just slightly differently, logical positivism would be irrelevant. (see: tautology)

  • Anonymous

    @ 12:24 (anonymous posting really annoys me)

    The whole point of knowledge is that one can understand something about the world and then verify it--that is, I can know empirically that the sky is blue or the ground is made of dirt, which is itself composed of certain minerals, or that I am a black freshman college student sitting in his suite in TD typing on a laptop. I can find empirical evidence for these things and anyone else can evaluate the same evidence and reach the same conclusions. We can even build off those conclusions and deduce more about the world and make verifiable predictions thereof. This is decidely not the case with anything "supernatural". The whole of point of a thing being empirical is that it can be verified and thus confirmed. The "supernatural" is what cannot be verified. So, to put it another way, when I can confirm I know something, then it's natural fact. When I can't but choose to "know" it anyway, then we call it "supernatural" or whatever else. Please, let's not be sophistic or willfully naive or obtuse in trying to suggest there's any comparison between empirical data and "supernatural understanding". It just doesn't fly. Again, since you seemed to miss this, one cannot ask "Why must there be a why?" because the very question presupposes what it aims to reject or defeat. To not accept the premise that there must be a why or evidence, then, leads to a contradiction. Thus, the need for empirical data behind claims stands. Now, I will grant you that religious and other supernatural notions or whatever can have value to some people who need such things, and I acknowledge their need. However, the value they derive from such things is not the same as objective knowledge of the natural world, and so my critique against the attempts of religion to explain the world stand as stated above (and well embellished by subsequent posts).

    Whether it is good or not, the fact of the matter is (as the faithful themselves concede in lauding their own "faith"), belief in god is irrational. I find no personal value in the concept and thus have let it go. The many who have not reached that point yet will cling to ancient mythical systems and superstitions and/or newew supernatural belief sets, but they remain fundamentally irrational and apart from actual cognitive knowledge.

    @11:50 (and anyone else) I'm also from the traumatizing Southern world of Christian dogma. I was ardently Christian (Pentecostal, in fact) for most of my life, but I was finally able to let it go as my high schhol years ended. I was agnostic at first, and then with the help of Harris, Hitchens and some others (including some awesome people and ideas I've encountered here at Yale), I've finally progressed to atheism (or non-theism, as some seem to prefer, for it tends to come with less baggage). It wasn't easy, but it's so worth it. Atheism is indeed progress, and it's steadily becoming easier to recognize and dismiss the sophistry and inconsistencies of religious "logic" (which, I maintain, is fundamentally contradictory). I’m damn proud of it, too.

  • Anonymous

    The "non-overlapping magisteria" (NOMA)argument made by Gould was exploded by Dawkins in The God Delusion. True, some religions do not make scientific claims, but nearly all of the them do.

    If cells from Jesus were discovered and it was determined it had no Y chromosome, proving he had no father, would theists claim "non-overlapping magisteria" and ignore this fact? No. They would sing to the high heavens that they were right all along and say this provides evidence for the divinity of Jesus.

    It is because NO evidence has been find, and likely never will be, that theists and those sympathetic fall back on NOMA.

  • Anonymous

    Now, really, faith is faith for a reason. Faith does not require logic to make sense, it requires faith! It's a feeling, not a reason, that one believes in God. Not everyone believes in God, because they don't feel the spirituality. The ones who feel it, believe in God. I know most of my science friends are religious and most of my non-science friends are atheists… Think again…

  • Anonymous

    The problem is: There is no reason to believe that the supernatural exists. Therefore a 'lack of belief', otherwise known as 'atheism' is the ONLY possible intellectually honest position a person can have. Belief without knowledge or evidence, or 'faith' is unwarranted, regardless of the methods or tactics used to discredit it. All faith and religion is anti-scientific by nature. That's what makes it faith. It's almost like saying "pain hurts".

  • Anonymous

    Gabriel, if I said I still believed in Santa Claus, would you lose respect for me?

  • Anonymous

    I suppose the likes of Dawkins and Hitchens do breed some reactionary conservatives, but I doubt it's a significant amount. I think the only real harm they do is that they make the conservatives even more entrenched in their position. Reasonable moderates who have already embraced the idea of "two non-overlapping magesteria" won't go running into the arms of Creationists just because they're a bit offended by Dawkins' latest book.

    And unfortunately, the whole "non-overlapping magesteria" concept only works with liberalized religion. In order to fully accept modern science, one either needs to take their religion with a grain of salt, be something along the lines of a deist, or have no religion. I'm probably setting up a false trichotomy there, but I can't think of any other possibilities for having faith without compromising science.