Should Scientists Speak Out Against Religion?

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.

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About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, City of Light, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • DuWayne

    I think that this whole discussion has gone way off the deep end, by both sides. It seems to me that your dead on with;

    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 can attest. I actually enjoy civil conversations about the nature of belief and specificaly, my own and their interface with the beliefs of others. What turns me off is being told that I am either stupid, or going to hell, because of my beliefs. What actually pisses me off the most is when I read Myers say that it’s ok to call me (a person of faith who believes in evolution) stupid, because I’m smart enough not to switch my alliegance in this fight over a petty insult.

    Ultimately, I am concluding that there really isn’t nearly the divide here, that is being percieved.

  • Chris

    It seems to me that Myers and Dawkins were doing exactly what you advocate, right up until the moderate theists stabbed them in the back. Again. It’s not like “We could win this debate if the filthy atheists would just go hide so they won’t disgust anyone who sees them” is a *new* position; some of us just thought it had finally been buried at the crossroads with a stake through its heart. Seeing it exhumed yet again by our putative allies is rather disturbing.

    (To head off the usual hyperbole: nobody on either side of this debate has, to my knowledge, advocated pogroms, burning at the stake, ghettoization, making anyone a second-class citizen or forcing them to wear special symbols on their clothing. The historically inclined reader may recognize all of those measures as ones pioneered by theists, which may be regarded as a historical accident or demographic artifact if one is so inclined.)

    Stop trying to push the atheists to the back of the bus and we might be less inclined to push back.

    However, the right to criticize any opinion, including religious ones, and even in harsh terms, is not negotiable. If the moderate theists want us to give that up in order to sit at their table, we’ll build our own table. To do otherwise would be surrendering the war for a mere chance at winning the battle.

    As those who read this far have probably guessed by now, I place myself firmly in the Dawkins/Myers camp. The idea that we don’t dare offend the religious (but offending atheists is A-OK) concedes them an unearned upper hand; the idea that we can’t criticize *anyone*’s beliefs smothers the whole discussion in its cradle. Ultimately the accommodationist school disregards the logical validity of arguments and judges them instead by their pragmatic impact, i.e. as propaganda, not as reasoning.

    If the problem is that much of the public can’t handle the truth, the solution is not to carefully craft some half-truth they can swallow but to expand their minds and improve their critical thinking skills. The believer’s misconceptions about evolution are usually mostly harmless, but their habit of accepting what they are told without demanding evidence for it (or worse, rejecting the evidence even when it is under their noses and clinging instead to the unsupported word of an authority) is a deadly danger to them and everyone around them.

  • Infophile

    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”.

    I know a handful of closet atheists myself, and I suspect that what’s going on here may have a role in why they’re afraid to come out. Someone who simply admits to being an atheist is branded a Satanist, while someone who argues the merits of atheist is branded as the equivalent of a religious terrorist.

    But though that may be their reason for staying in the closet, I have to disagree with their conclusion. What the world needs to change its conclusions is more open atheists who are notable not terrorists.

  • DuWayne

    Chris -

    It isn’t an argument about whether or not someone should criticize religion. It is an argument about attacking people, because of they have religious beliefs.

    I am dead set on fighting to keep church and state seperate. In that I fight to remove religious dogma from legislation – if no reasonable argument can be made, outside of religious dogma, to support a law, it should be eliminated. I also fight to improve science education and to keep religion out of it. Regardless of how many insults are thrown in my direction by assholes like Dawkins, Myers or Moran, I will continue to fight. But I have no interest in working with people that insult me, nor will I.

    It is simply a sad state of affairs that a more united front cannot be risen. I have met people at meetings for interfaith alliances for the seperation of church and state, who have an incredibly hard time putting their dogma aside to work with people of other faiths or no faith at all. The people who usualy have the easiest time with it are the atheists. It is sad to me to see atheists who have the same problem as the people of faith who can’t handle those meetings. Every one of the people that I met, who couldn’t handle it, I would consider fundimentalists, including Protestants, Catholics, Orthadox Jews and Muslims.

    To be clear, I do not appose questioning or even tearing at the foundations of mine, or anyone elses spiritual beliefs. My point is, it needn’t be personal and it’s a lot more effective if it is civil. For the record, condescention is not civil. You are not possibly going to carry the weight of the argument with your superiority, the arguments superiority should be able to stand without pre-supposing your own.* It really boils down to; being an asshole about it, hurts our side.

    *I am not directing that at you specificaly Chris, this is my suggestion for “appeasing” evolutionary theists, while maintaining the integrity of your position.

  • Boelf

    What is required is an attack of the idea and not the person who holds it. When it comes right down to it I agree with most moderate theist on political, economic and moral issues. Just that small matter of disagreeing on the existence of a god.

    I enjoyed working with them getting progressive elected. I respected their energy and conviction.

    On the other hand there no point in soft peddling my ideas, for instance saying I’m agnostic when I am certainly an atheist. The same in discussing bible inconsistencies and church history only drawing the line at rudeness.

  • Alex Weaver

    Why do I have the impression that the actual argument has undergone a sudden burst of speciation?

    Anyway, one thing that I know I should clarify more often is that what I generally mean when I speak of “stupidity” would be more precisely characterized as “intellectual negligence”; that is, I am not referring to a deficiency in mental functioning capacity, but rather to the individual’s actual mental functioning in a given instance falling far short of their potential (particularly if it results in behavior with adverse consequences, whether for the party guilty of committing stupidity or innocent bystanders). There are probably other terms like this that could use a clearer definition. Can we think of any?

    BTW, Adam, do you have any idea why I occasionally find that when I’ve typed a comment and I click submit comment, nothing happens and neither the links on the page nor the refresh button seem to work?

  • Chris

    I like “intellectual recklessness” better, myself, but either is fine.

    The problem is that, again, it will generally be seen as a personal attack by the person so criticized. Many people take their religion very personally indeed and are unwilling to separate a criticism of their religion from an attack on the person.

    Furthermore, if you present a clear and decisive refutation for what they claim are the reasons they believe in their religion, and they continue believing just the same anyway, how can you *not* call them, at the very least, unreasonable? They demonstrably *are* unreasonable. And there are plenty of religious people making demonstrably false statements – is it an intolerable personal attack to say as much?

    I’m not sure what you mean by “condescension”. As far as I know, both Dawkins and Myers believe that in theory, any theist, even really committed ones like the pope, could see the light (so to speak) tomorrow and realize that they had wasted a large part of their lives. This is very unlikely, because people are more willing to rationalize their positions than to abandon them, but it is possible; nobody is claiming that some people are just inherently incapable of seeing the world as it is. People who are deceived can be undeceived; people who are ignorant can learn. What’s condescending about that?

    I think some people define “rudeness” in a way that precludes substantive criticism in *any* form. By declaring the content of the message, and not its form, “rude”, they can attempt to exclude ideas they don’t want to deal with. If this is done unintentionally it is at least a major error that deserves to have attention drawn to it; if it is done intentionally it is dishonest.

  • J

    From the U.S. News article:

    But do Dawkins and the other atheists add anything to a vigorous tradition of skepticism and unbelief that includes the witty satire of Voltaire and the brilliant cultural and psychological probings of Friedrich Nietzsche? What is so new about “The New Atheism,” as the November cover story of Wired magazine dubbed the phenomenon?

    This is a weird argument I’ve heard elsewhere. “There’s nothing new here; all these atheists are saying has been said before.”

    Ugh. Man is that irritating to hear. If that were a valid criticism, then why exactly are thousands of new books on Christianity or any other historical religion published each year? Rarely to any of them have anything “new” to say. And indeed, lots of religious authors make BANK by simply rehashing things other religious thinkers–or even things they themselves–have said dozens of times before?

    There are thousands of tenured, salaried theologians in this world. NONE of them are producing anything “new.” There are, I dunno, what, a dozen or endowed chairs of atheism at all of the universities in the world? Any religious folk whose criticism of new atheist books amounts to “Heard it!” are definitely earning the skewed glance of the Gods of Irony.

  • DuWayne

    Chris -

    I don’t think it is rude to criticize someones beliefs. I am talking about how one goes about it. I don’t know if you have ever dealt with people of faith – most any – that are trying to proselytize you. Some of them start off in an inflamatory manner and turn a person off from the start. Others get quite condescending and obnoxious when the person they are “witnessing” to isn’t interested or dissagrees. Neither of these tactics is effective – in fact they make most people who encounter them hostile to the ideas being portrayed.

    That is why people who are assholes about criticizing religion, rather than productively helping the cause of protecting science education and the move to a secular society, are quite counter-productive instead. I understand that many of them are loud, obnoxious and agressively so, when attacking evolution and atheists. Does that mean that we have to adopt the same moronic tactics that we rightly criticize on a regular basis?

    To be clear, I am not advocating “shut up and put up with them and their beliefs.” I am advocating civility. Civility dictates that even when you are right and they are so obviously wrong, one does not adopt an air of superiority. The ability to be gracious in the face of absolute ignorance or even condescention is it’s own superiority. Why take the bait? Why show that you have as little control of yourself as they do? If they are being aggresive, spear them with your wit, don’t resort to their own barbarism. You aren’t going to convince them that way, but you come out looking a lot better than they do, which might convince others, or at least weaken their faith. After all, it was their brother or sister, who was cursing, not you. It was their brother or sister, who was rude, while you were polite and gracious throughout.

    I feel much the same about politics. It does nobody any good to call a conservative a fucktard or simpering imbecile. It may feel good, but what pratical purpose has been accomplished? Mostly a loss of credability on the part of the one doing the name calling – it certainly isn’t going to incline that conservative to want to listen to their attacker, nor are they likely to want to listen to another liberal who might explain the position better and make them change their mind. But why listen when their epierience with liberals is so damned abrasive? Or why should the guy at the next table, who really doesn’t have a firm opinion, take the side of the jackass resorting namecalling?

    I’m not saying din’t criticize, I’m not even saying don’t rip peoples beliefs to shreds. I’m just saying don’t adopt the tactics of ignorant morons or you look like ignorant morons – no matter how right you are.

  • DuWayne

    J -

    A much simpler answer, though yours is quite valid; more and more science to back their assertions.

  • Kelly

    As a Spirit-filled Christian, I have thoroughly enjoyed communicating with my brother in law, who leans toward atheism. I’ve read Sam Harris’s “Letter to a Christian Nation”, and numerous web-sites that tear into Christianity. We’ve been gracious and respectful towards one another via a five month email, open discussion on the subject of whether God exists. It’s been awesome, really! I don’t view atheists as bad people at all, I view them as those who have yet to experience God’s Grace. It’s a two way street between God and any given individual. God respects atheists enough to let them decide which “reality” they would like to live in, one with God or without God. Both take faith, and if one chooses faith in Jesus Christ (He is not a myth, there is plenty of historical evidence that supports that He is who He says He is) then he/she gets the reality of life with God in this life and in the next! Sam Harris jokingly realizes that he is in big trouble if he is wrong, yet he’s not absolutely sure, so why should he insist that God does not exist? Sam Harris is a great observer of the reality of his life without God. The evening news reports much of Sam’s perspective night after night to the masses. How could God exist is the question many ask? The reason for the entire debate is that Christians possess,(by Grace and by His Spirit), an entirely different perspective; the world from God’s perspective. My hope is that many more atheists would get the treasure of seeing that perspective in their life-time, and to some degree that is up to them.

  • James Bradbury

    Hi Kelly,

    Both take faith

    I would be interested to hear what, in your opinion, it is about atheism that requires faith. Do you believe that all beliefs (whether relating to the supernatural or not) require faith?



  • Clint


    Both take faith

    Does it take faith to believe in things you know are true? Is faith still necessary where evidence, logic, and reason give a rock solid explaination? I do not need faith to be a non-believing athiest any more than I need faith to believe that stars are giant burning nuclear reactors.

    But back to the subject at hand. I think scientist have a duty to speak out against religion at least once in their career so as to at least help ensure the survival of their field of study for future generations. Well known scientist in the past have done a lot of good to lend their clout to the struggle against oppressive idiologies like Islam, Judaism, and Christianity. Had their way, God explains everything and we should stick to the plow, microscopes and telescopes are for infidels.

    I am a Dawkins supporter to the point of almost being a militant athiest. But using force and violence would only make me as bad as religion itself, so I steady my hand and use my words instead. With people dieing everyday for religious reasons, you almost want to fight fire with fire. We need a change and I see it coming. Two of my kids are athiest and I’m working on the third now. Do I force the subject and turn them against religion? No. I simply point out the facts and teach them all the options and all the religions. Thats something you can’t get from a school nowadays. There’s a start to fighting the good fight, indoctrinating kids to think for themselves. Get them before the priest do, because we all know what happens then..

    P.s. Christians are ignorant. Really, 95% haven’t even read the Bible except what the Sunday priest points out. And 99% of them know nothing about the roots and history of their religion or of religion in general. Only half of them really believe in it and the other half just show up for appearance credit. *My figures are from a sampling of at least 1000 church going people I’ve known over 38 years as a “christian”, before I finally seen the light. My indoctrination as a baptist child was very strong, but thank evolution my mind was eventually stronger. I used to work in the kitchen, but now I’m a high income software engineer, guess that explains it, I got smarter. Proof that disbelief is beneficial to life.