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In the November 2006 cover story of Wired magazine, Gary Wolf thoughtfully gave ear to some of atheism's most aggressive voices and labeled the movement that they lead “New Atheism.” Envisioning a brave new world in which science and reason overcome religious myth and superstition, New Atheists labor to purvey a comprehensive worldview that explains who we are and how we got here (Darwinian evolution), diagnoses our most urgent ill (ancient superstitions about God), and, most importantly, prescribes a cure for that ill (eradication of religion).
In the same month that Wired reported on New Atheism, Time magazine artfully depicted the science and religion quandary with a combination double helixÆrosary on its cover. The title, “God vs. Science,” might have led a casual reader to expect a story about a theologian opposing science, but the article actually covered a debate between two scientists. Geneticist Francis Collins, director of the Human Genome Project, and biologist Richard Dawkins of Oxford University weighed in on Time's questions about science, belief in God, and whether the two can peaceably coexist in an intellectually sound world-view. Collins said they can; Dawkins said absolutely not.
Recent battles over textbooks in America lend credence to the notion of science and religion as perennial foes, and ABC News, reporting on a survey of atheism among scientists, casually commented that “the clash between science and religion is as old as science itself,” as if that's what everybody with any gray matter already knows. But historians of science reveal a different story, one that is more in line with the view of Dr. Collins.
In his course Science and Religion, Lawrence Principe, professor of the History of Science and Technology at Johns Hopkins University, meticulously untangles the historical accounts of events commonly bandied about as proof that religion suppresses science, such as the trials of Galileo and John Scopes. Principe teaches that, contrary to irreligionist lore, the two disciplines were generally viewed as complementary until a little more than a century ago.
Principe identifies two late-19th-century publications as the origin of the idea of warfare between science and religion: A History of the Conflict Between Religion and Science, written by skeptic scientist John William Draper in 1874, and A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom, published in 1896 by Andrew Dickson White, first president of Cornell University. It is noteworthy that both writers seemed to want the church to back off; Draper wrote at the request of a popular science publisher, and White in response to criticism that he had received for establishing Cornell as the first American university with no religious affiliation.
Principe reveals that the premise of both books—that science and religion have occupied separate camps throughout history, and that religion has always been the oppressor of science—is unfounded, calling Draper's book “cranky,” “ahistorical,” and “one long, vitriolic, anti-Catholic diatribe,” while White's is “scarcely better.” Still, he credits the two sub-scholarly works with crystallizing in the popular mind the image of ongoing, intractable warfare between science and religion. Today's New Atheists echo and amplify their war cries.
Are We Talking Science or Faith?
Skeptics ardently defend their right to reject religious dogma and make up their own minds about ultimate reality. Certainly, atheists, scientific or not, are free to adopt whatever belief system they choose, but can they legitimately claim science as the basis for atheism? Put more simply, has science disproved God, as the irreligionists maintain?
A closer look at Richard Dawkins and Francis Collins sheds light on that question. The most significant difference between the two scientists is not that one believes in biblical creation and the other in Darwinian evolution. Both affirm Darwinism. The salient distinction is that Collins allows for the possibility of God, whereas Dawkins does not.
But it wasn't always so. The fourth son of two freethinkers, Francis Collins was homeschooled until age ten. His parents instilled in him a love for learning but no faith, and the agnosticism of his youth gradually shifted into atheism as his education progressed. He was comfortable with it, discounting spiritual beliefs as outmoded superstition, until he began to interact with seriously ill patients as a medical student. When one of them, a Christian, asked him what he believed, he faced a rationalist's crisis. “It was a fair question,” he wrote in The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief. “I felt my face flush as I stammered out the words ïI'm not really sure.'” At that point, Collins realized that he had never seriously considered the evidence for and against belief.
Determined to practice authentic, what-are-the-facts science, Collins set out to investigate the rational basis for faith. Reluctantly, he found himself feeling “forced to admit the plausibility of the God hypothesis. Agnosticism, which had seemed like a safe second-place haven, now loomed like the great cop-out it often is. Faith in God now seemed more rational than disbelief.”
In contrast to Collins's rational inquiry and personal struggle over the question of God, Richard Dawkins, the de facto spokesman for scientific atheism (think Madalyn Murray O'Hair with a PhD), lays out his case for unbelief without struggle or reservation. In chapter four of The God Delusion, titled “Why There Almost Certainly Is No God,” Dawkins introduces his “Argument from Improbability,” and though the chapter waxes long, its reasoning distills to something like this:
1. The universe we observe is highly complex.
2. Any creator of this complex universe would have to be even more complex than it.
3. It is too improbable that such a God exists; therefore, there almost certainly is no God.
The first two statements qualify as acceptable premises, but the conclusion that Dawkins reaches simply does not follow from them. This isn't legitimate reasoning. It's rationalization—that is, finding some plausible-sounding explanation for arriving at a conclusion that he has already chosen.
Dr. Dawkins is certainly free to choose to disbelieve, but his conclusion was not derived through scientific or rational means. Rather, it hints at an underlying personal, philosophical faith choice to disbelieve. Ernst Mayr, one of the twentieth century's leading evolutionary biologists, made a similar observation when he analyzed reasons for disbelief among his Harvard colleagues. “We were all atheists. I found that there were two sources,” he said. One group “just couldn't believe all that supernatural stuff.” The other “couldn't believe that there could be a God with all this evil in the world. Most atheists combine the two,” he summarized candidly. “The combination makes it impossible to believe in God.”
Former atheist and biophysicist Alister McGrath concurs, noting that most of the unbelieving scientists he is acquainted with are atheists on grounds other than their science. “They bring those assumptions to their science rather than basing them on their science.” Dawkins's rationalization, as well as the observations of McGrath and Mayr, reveal the choice to disbelieve for what it is—a personal, philosophical choice made apart from reason or scientific inquiry. I call it a “faith choice” because it involves choosing a foundational presupposition concerning a realm about which we have incomplete (but not insufficient) knowledge.
A Choice of Faith
Francis Collins's conclusion, that the God hypothesis is not only plausible, but compellingly supported by evidence, flatly controverts New Atheism's premise that faith constitutes an irrational belief without evidence. It also reveals that the real conflict isn't one of science versus God. It's a conflict between those who allow and those who disallow the possible reality of God.
Polemicists will continue to clamor for converts to their side on the question of God because between the poles live thoughtful, educated people—not necessarily working scientists, but people who value science. Some believe in a supreme being called God, and others haven't made up their minds. It is these theological moderates that New Atheism seeks to recruit with pithy epigrams such as “God vs. Science” and “My beliefs are based on science, but yours are based on faith.” What believers need is a calm, judicious counter-strategy when New Atheism advances under the guise of science, one that can transform verbal sparring into illuminating dialogue. Let me give you an example of what I mean.
My friend Dana has known Sam for decades. Over the years, Sam has peppered her with questions about her faith. Despite feeling intimidated—Sam is a highly respected leader in their community—she has answered as best she could and maintained their friendship. One evening over dinner in her home, Sam turned his questions on her teenagers, essentially asking them, “Do you really believe all that stuff and why?” Dana allowed them to speak for themselves for a while before intervening.
“Sam,” she started agreeably, “you and I have discussed this many times. I've told you what I believe and why, and you've told me all of your reasons for not believing.” Then she posed a question that she had never put to him before. “What if there really is a God, but you just don't know about him? Are you willing to consider that possibility? Are you willing to ask him if he's out there? Something like, ïGod, I'm not even sure if you're there, but if you are, would you show yourself to me?'”
Dana let her question hang in the air. The teenagers likewise waited for Sam to break the silence. “No,” he finally said. “I'm not willing to do that.” And he hasn't brought the subject up since.
Dana gently—but powerfully—pierced the facade of scientific skepticism with one question: Are you willing? It is not a question of scientific reasoning, but a question of choosing, of making a personal faith choice that, once made, establishes the starting point for one's reasoning. Atheism isn't founded on science or reason any more than theism is based on faith devoid of reason. The atheist, too, has made a faith choice. He has just chosen differently. •
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