Thanksgiving season this year has been anything but peaceful. Providing further evidence of the growing assertiveness of atheists, the war of words between faith and reason has erupted into the headlines once again. This time it came in the form of a scientific forum in California titled “Beyond Belief: Science, Religion, Reason and Survival”, where a vigorous debate was waged over whether and how scientists should fight against religious belief in society.
And the aftershocks of this debate have spilled over into the blogosphere, where some of my favorite writers have taken opposing sides in a heated argument over whether scientists who are outspoken advocates of atheism are doing more harm than good in the fight to promote scientific understanding among the public. On one side, as always, is the “shamelessly godless” P.Z. Myers of Pharyngula, while Ed Brayton takes the other; each has been joined by others as well.
As I read the situation, this is fundamentally a battle over tactics, not ideology. Neither side is questioning the right of both atheists and theistic evolutionists to exist, and both sides want to see creationism and other forms of ignorance defeated. The dividing issue is how to bring about that goal. One group believes that atheists should be glad to work together with theistic evolutionists, and refrain from condemnations of religious belief that are too sweeping or too strongly worded, lest we drive away the mostly religious public and ensure our own defeat. The other believes, with Richard Dawkins, that the battle between science and creationism is just one skirmish in a larger war between faith and reason; that theistic evolutionists in some sense suffer from the same blindness as creationists, just in a different form, and that the best way to promote science and reason is to attack all forms of unjustified faith. This second group holds that to do anything less is to fight the symptoms without treating the cause.
Personally, I cannot commit entirely without reservation to either of these camps. As I said, there are writers on both sides of this debate whom I read regularly and whose opinions I respect. It does not help, I think, that the conflict has been blown somewhat out of proportion by misunderstandings on each side of the other side’s position, and excessively harsh arguments launched in response.
My sympathies are principally with the second camp, however, that of Richard Dawkins and P.Z. Myers. I agree with much of what they say, not just about the falsity and danger of religion, but of the importance for atheists and nonbelievers to speak out strongly. I reject the idea that it is or ever can be a bad thing to be passionate in one’s convictions. On the contrary, I think ordinary people respond to passionately held beliefs defended strongly, and will usually come to respect such positions regardless of whether they agree with them. I deny that we should ever be ashamed of who we are, and I deny that we should allow our enemies to silence us in the guise of offering us “help”. If atheists are perceived as immoral and untrustworthy people who should not be emulated, that perception comes from creationists and other fundamentalist groups who have worked hard to sow stereotypes that work to their advantage. We will win this debate by meeting those falsehoods on their own ground and exploding them, not by accepting their attempts to define us and watering down our position accordingly. Defenders of science would only be fooling themselves if they believed that doing so would win any concessions from religious conservatives who are dead-set against us.
Also, I think the point is well-made that the demand for atheists to refrain from excessive bluntness rarely seems to be applied consistently. I note that there are theistic evolutionists who are excellent scientists and also unapologetically evangelical Christians (Francis Collins comes to mind). To my knowledge, no defender of science education has ever pleaded with these people not to speak out about their beliefs, lest they drive our support away by turning off the many atheists and agnostics who would otherwise contribute to the pro-evolution effort.
Most importantly, I think the atheists score on the point of philosophical consistency. Myers and Dawkins are absolutely right to point out that some people who are otherwise excellent scientists inexplicably abandon this commendably rational standard when it comes to their religion, simply because society has promoted the bizarre idea that religious beliefs should for some reason be exempted from the standards of evidence we apply to other ideas in everyday discourse. Atheists, however, are consistent: we believe that claims require evidence, and give no ideas a free pass.
That said, the pro-accommodation side (represented by bloggers like Ed Brayton, and by scientists such as Melvin J. Konner at the conference) have some valid points to make as well. First of all, while I think religion can and should be opposed, I believe there are more effective and less effective ways to do it. One of the less effective ways is to cast aspersions on the intelligence of believers or otherwise use language that can easily be read as an ad hominem attack.
The paradigmatic example is Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion, which I think is an otherwise excellent pro-atheism book with a poor choice of title that is needlessly insulting and will turn away many potential readers. When atheists attack the character or intelligence of ordinary religious believers, we give them a convenient excuse to dismiss everything else we say. On the other hand, when we emphasize that what we are criticizing are people’s beliefs and their actions arising from those beliefs, our arguments cannot be so easily rejected out of hand.
I do not deny that some of my fellow atheists have a tendency to treat all religious groups as if they are equally the enemy, when that is not the case. We may believe that theistic evolutionists’ religious beliefs are not true, and say so. We may even believe, as I do, that the wide acceptance of religious faith as a decision-making technique and the reluctance to criticize any sincerely held religious belief is what has created the problem of fundamentalism in the first place. But it does not follow from any of this that all religious people are equally to blame for the current onslaught of ignorance against science. On the contrary, we should focus our rhetorical fire primarily on where it is most deserved: the anti-intellectual extremists who actively work to destroy science.
This is not to say that religious moderates should wholly escape criticism. While they do not do the harm that fundamentalists do, I think many of them are guilty of urging atheists to keep quiet, of saying that there is something intrinsically wrong with atheists speaking out. I find the conclusion hard to avoid that this position, in some cases, comes less from a tactical desire not to antagonize the public and more with a discomfort of their own toward atheism. Consider this quote from a brief article titled Christian Author Warns Of Growing Atheist Backlash:
He said he hopes there can be a respectful exchange of ideas somewhere between the militant extremes of religious violence and militant atheism.
Take careful note of the two groups being presented as polar opposites in this comparison. One group is made up of religious fanatics who are willing to sanction torture, slavery, and mass murder in the name of God. The other group is made up of atheists who offer strongly worded critiques of such behavior. Both these groups are presented as equally “extreme”.
Or this excerpt from a U.S. News and World Report article, The New Unbelievers:
“We restrain ourselves from saying bad things about religion, from talking about it at the dinner table. These guys want to talk about religion at the dinner table.”
I am puzzled by the assumption on display here that discussing religion openly is somehow a bad thing. My view is that when religious believers say and do things that are worthy of criticism, they should be criticized. I also happen to believe that when there are conflicting truth claims, the best way to sort them out is a free and open debate. Apparently, the person quoted here prefers that conflicting and incompatible beliefs be swept under the rug, insulated from skepticism by a relativistic view of truth that discourages any debate between different viewpoints. I say that true beliefs have nothing to fear from being scrutinized and debated, and if they are not true, shouldn’t we want to know that, so that we can find something better?
In conclusion, my recommendations for atheists are this: We should work together with moderate theists who share our concerns about the threat that religious extremism poses to society in general. More so, we should welcome them to our side, and if another atheist says they are exactly as bad as the fundamentalists, we should firmly dispute that claim. Just because our beliefs differ in some areas does not mean that we cannot productively collaborate with them on the areas where we do agree. However, we should make it clear that we will not consider their beliefs exempt from criticism, nor will we refrain from speaking our minds. So long as we are united in our efforts to fight creationism and protect church-state separation, our cause has nothing to fear from healthy debate.