We seem to be witnessing a broad reaction against the New Atheism movement by atheists as well as religious believers, whether undermining the idea of a long-standing conflict between science and religion, or taking a critical view of their political agenda. James Ryerson recently examined three new books (including my own) in the New York Times Book Review – a small sample of a growing body of work.
Many of today’s “New Atheists” reprise a nineteenth century argument about the “warfare of science with theology” (to use the title of one of the most well-known books of this genre by A.D. White published in the 1870s). There is a great deal of evidence that this cliché has little historical validity. For example, R. L. Numbers & K. Kampourakis question the idea that religion has obstructed scientific progress: many of the early pioneers of natural science were deeply religious; Copernicus’ theory was not immediately rejected by the Catholic Church (Copernicus held minor orders in the church and a cardinal wrote the introduction); and certain theologically based concepts like “natural law” were crucial for the development of science in the west. While some religious positions conflict with science (Ryerson’s example is “Intelligent Design”), there is little evidence to support a grotesquely over-generalized “conflict myth” regarding the larger story of the interaction of science and religion. If religion and science are not inevitably at war, there is no reason to think that science can serve as a pillar for an atheistic worldview. My own work is less historically oriented; instead it points to several places where those who try to use cognitive science to undermine religion are not necessarily either logically or empirically convincing in their arguments. There is no reason to think that science is necessarily or inevitably on the atheists’ side.
The New Atheism movement is receiving a powerful attack from another side as well — the politics implicit in their worldview. Two books published this year exemplify this critique, in which militant atheism is seen as an anti-progressive “secular fundamentalism.” C.J. Werleman, in The New Atheist Threat: The Dangerous Rise of Secular Extremists, himself formerly a militant atheist, describes the New Atheists’ uncritical devotion to science, their childish understanding of religion, their extreme Islamophobia, and intolerance of cultural diversity. All of this provides a rationalization for American imperialism vis-à-vis the Muslim world. Stephen LeDrew’s The Evolution of Atheism shows that atheism is not just the denial of belief in God but is itself a system of belief in a “secular ideology” with a particular cultural and political agenda, an agenda powered by a simplistic view of science and a rationalistic utopianism that “exhibits some totalitarian tendencies with respect to the use of power.” If religion no longer binds society together and undergirds morality, state power must take over. These, and other critics, argue that the “New Atheists” are a major source for the Islamophobia that plagues our nation right now and their ideology can easily be used as the basis for a hyper-individualistic, every man (the gender reference is intended) for himself politics in which the poor and less fortunate are cast aside and forgotten.
Undermining the New Atheism offers no necessary support for religion. There certainly are thoughtful atheists with a nuanced understanding of religion to whom these critiques, including my own, do not apply. The books referred to here do not demonstrate, or even claim, that atheism is false. But they add up to a conclusion that science and rationality are not necessarily on the side of atheism and that atheists cannot simply assert that science and rationality belong uniquely to them. Accepting this should eliminate some of the bitter sloganeering on both sides of the current atheism-theism discussion and so possibly make it more complex and more fruitful.
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