- Science Versus Religion? The Insights and Oversights of the “New Atheists”
The recent “science versus religion” debate has tended to unfold in a way that reflects the angry shouting match characteristic of our debased political culture, lacking in rigor and loaded with rancor. The American media exacerbates the problem, typically staging the issue as a boxing match: in this corner, the strident religious dogmatists defensively brandishing their bibles; in the other corner, the rationalist scientific atheists confidently preaching the neo-Darwinian gospel. This media setup is presumably to the liking of the so-called New Atheists, since it parallels their portrayal of the issue in their respective books and interviews. Isn’t it obvious who wins? But to accept their characterization of the issue in dispute prejudices the matter and begs the question. As this article endeavors to show, the dichotomy as alleged by the New Atheists and parroted by the popular media is a false one. To unveil this will require a way of proceeding that differs from most contributions to this often fruitless dispute. It will require making some distinctions that are normally ignored.
The “science versus religion” debate is both real and illusory. It is real insofar as the natural sciences, to the extent that they provide [End Page 17] an impressively cumulative corpus of knowledge about natural processes, clearly undermine some religious truth claims about the natural world. It is illusory insofar as all scientific findings are entirely compatible with other, different religious truth claims about God’s relationship to the natural world. The “New” Atheists (conceptually there is nothing original about them)—a group that, for the purposes of this article, includes Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, Michel Onfray, and John Allen Paulos—see the religious beliefs contradicted by scientific findings and proceed to ridicule religion and religious believers in general. In doing so, they mistakenly construe religion as though it were an undifferentiated whole. Furthermore, they are unaware of the character of their own philosophical presuppositions, uninformed about intellectual history and sophisticated biblical scholarship, and lacking in any methodological rationale or rigor in their treatment of religion. Consequently they seem not to see how their alleged refutations of the reality of God depend on their assumptions about what they think theology is. Posturing as educated intellectuals standing up for critical rationality against naive credulity, in fact they demonstrate at length how little they know about intellectual matters directly relevant to their concerns, a point that in their respective ways David Bentley Hart and Terry Eagleton have recently made with erudite panache.1 And like some of the religious believers whom they belittle, the New Atheists apparently bother to read only what confirms their personal beliefs.
This article both acknowledges the insights and demonstrates a few of the most egregious oversights of the New Atheists. It shows that the findings of science do not demand an atheistic denial of God, but can instead be rationally interpreted in different terms consistent with a traditional Christian view of God and theology of creation. Antagonistic grinding back and forth leads nowhere because of parallel dubious assumptions: on the one hand, that “religion” and “faith” make truth claims about reality and yet are individual, interior, personal, private matters of the heart and so [End Page 18] beyond rational criticism or reproach; on the other hand, that all religious claims are false simply because many are demonstrably mistaken. Neither presupposing nor seeking to demonstrate God’s existence, this essay proceeds on the minimalist assumption that truth cannot contradict truth—the principle of noncontradiction is necessary for the pursuit of truth and for rationality whether in science or in religion.
Most critics of the New Atheists have not acknowledged the legitimate points that they make. This is perhaps understandable considering the antireligious loathing that pervades their works. Still, the New Atheists say some things that are true. For example, they rightly assert that the findings of science falsify many religious beliefs. To choose only one such example, widespread especially in the United States among many fundamentalist Protestants: the earth is not six thousand or so years old, nor is it and the life...