God Versus Science — Back in the News

A new book about religious belief has been burning up the pages of newspapers and magazines lately, and the outlook for a peaceful solution looks bleak.

God versus science is back in the news — again. As sure as Newton’s Third Law of Motion, that every action has an equal and opposite reaction, the new schism between the two cultures comes right on the heels of intelligent design’s potent attack on scientific education in the United States.

A new book by Oxford University professor Richard Dawkins’ — The God Delusion - is driving a groundswell of opposition to what Wired calls “The New Atheism: No Heaven. No Hell. Just Science.” Reviews in the New York Times Book Review, Harper’s, and Seed, whose masthead declares, “Science is Culture,” all dispute Dawkins’ logic, despite the authors’ strong dispositions to accept reason before faith.

One specification of the third law is that when two objects collide, opposite forces are equal, but acceleration is not. Therefore, upon impact, an object with more mass will stand its ground while an object with less mass rebounds in the other direction. In practical terms, this is why a bounced ball comes back at your face rather than knocking the Earth from beneath your feet. But does this hold up when applied to the collision between the two cultures?

Before I attempt to answer that, it should be noted that when scientist and novelist C.P. Snow first coined the “two cultures” in 1959, he was describing a dichotomy between scientists and “literary intellectuals” that was so vast neither side could effectively converse with the other. This is different than the clash between God and science, but the same dipolar description of knowledge still rings true. Another difference in the new relationship between the two cultures is that, far from Snow’s premise of a divergence of languages, now the two sides are on a collision course partially because they attempt use the same rhetoric.

So what happens on impact? Last year, science clearly proved itself more massive when intelligent design, a veiled piece of creationism, hit a wall and cracked — politically, judicially, and educationally. Now, the “new atheism” is pushing back with an equal and opposite reaction. But its proponents are finding that their logic is also not as massive as it seemed.

On Sunday, Mike Holt dissected Dawkins’ work in the New York Times Book Review, finding himself on the same fence shared by many people who celebrated the defeat of intelligent design. To this “in between” group, as Holt describes it, Dawkins’ arguments sound right, they even feel right, but something still does not jibe. Holt likens reading The God Delusion to watching a Michael Moore film: “There is lots of good, hard-hitting stuff about the imbecilities of religious fanatics and frauds of all stripes, but the tone is smug and the logic occasionally sloppy.” Point by point, Holt parries and counters Dawkins’ characterizations of religion as an evolutionary byproduct, a historical phenomenon, and a philosophical argument.

The November edition of Harper’s took its rebuttal a step farther with the headline, “In Defense of the Religion,” a critique of Dawkins’ “Hysterical Scientism.” Author Marilynne Robinson deconstructs many of same arguments that Holt does, although she sees even fewer redeeming qualities in the atheist perspective. “A pervasive exclusion of historical memory in Dawkins’ view of science,” especially frustrated her. Robinson was one of a number of critics to rebuke the author’s tendency to compare the pluses of science with the minuses of religion. “Dawkins critique of religion cannot properly be called scientific,” she wrote. Just as the press was insulted by intelligent design’s use of scientific logic, it is now insulted by a scientist’s use of philosophical rhetoric.

With this mixing of the waters in mind, Wired’s Gary Wolf set out on a fascinating journey to identify congregants in “The Church of Non-Believers,” and find out whether or not they could convert him. Like Holt and Robinson, Wolf is inclined toward science and reason rather than religion and faith. But was he ready to follow the call of the new atheists and categorically reject any notion of the divine? What he uncovers, with his unique approach to reporting, is that few people are willing to make such a commitment. At broody meetings around Los Angeles, Wolf found that, “Typical atheists are hardly the rabble-rousing evangelists that Dawkins or [Sam] Harris might like. They are an older, peaceable, quietly frustrated lot, who meet partly out of idealism and partly out of loneliness.”

The “faces” of the new atheism number half a dozen in Wolf’s cover story. Dawkins’ is the leading figure, joined by neuroscientist Sam Harris, who has an equally uncompromising distaste for religion. Others in the vanguard tend to make room for some level of spirituality, including scientist and Bad Religion rocker Greg Graffin and the irreverent comic duo, Penn and Teller. The most interesting character is Tufts University philosopher Daniel Dennett, who seems, according to Wolf’s description, much more cognizant of logic’s limitations in tackling faith. But none of these Godless priests are able to convert the scientifically inclined author to full atheistic belief. “Myself, I’ve decided to refuse the call,” writes Wolf. “The irony of the New Atheism — this prophetic attack on prophecy, this extremism in opposition to extremism — is too much for me.”

The only magazine to suggest a compromise or reconciliation was Seed. The November issue carries a cover story about E.O. Wilson, the Harvard entomologist who pioneered studies in biological explanations for social behavior. The headline begs, “God vs. Science. Can This Man Broker a Truce?” In his new book, The Creation, Wilson argues that the religious right should form an “alliance” with scientists because they are “uniquely prepared” to “save the creation.” Unfortunately, author Amanda Leigh Haag does not flush out the meaning of Wilson’s ideas. Most of the article is devoted to his past accomplishments and 1998 book, Consilience, which argued for the intermixing of various intellectuals disciplines. Leigh has good quotes from Dawkins and Dennett, but she does not begin to discuss the current “culture wars” until the end of her article and fails to explain exactly where and how Wilson fits in.

Seed also reviewed The God Delusion, delivering a more sympathetic critique than others. Author P.Z. Myers writes that Dawkins’ book is “a powerful argument,” and declares, “It’s going to be a classic.” It is not an unreasonable prediction. The new atheism has already set itself up as a distinct chapter in a very long-running dispute. Holt, though critical of Dawkins in the Times, concedes that his book proffers “a couple fresh arguments — no mean achievement, considering how thoroughly these issues have been debated over the centuries….” Indeed, the law of equal and opposite reaction has been driving this altercation for a long time.

The poet Lucretius, who would have been a contemporary of Jesus Christ, was an early atheist. In an epic poem about the nature of the matter, which hinted at atomic theory, he wrote, “Religion mothers crime and wickedness.” Romans persecuted Christians for another 350 years after that, until the decline and fall of the Empire gave way to a period of medieval religiosity. In the 18th century, romantic spirituality pushed back against Enlightenment rationality. Auguste Compte, in the mid-19th century, revived scientific opposition to religion, calling it positivism (derogatorily, other called in scientism). And shortly thereafter, the introduction of Darwin’s theory evolution defined the clash of cultures that has raged ever since.

Journalists’ critical response to the new atheism is hardly surprising in this historical context. Wary of extremism in all its forms, unfavorable reviews of The God Delusion have branded Dawkins’ promotion of science as “fundamentalist” and “evangelical.” It gave pause when proponents of intelligent design began to argue like scientists, and it is equally so when the opposite happens, and scientists begin to argue like preachers. Conservation of momentum was the staple of Newton’s third law, and it applies to the collision of God and science as well as it does to physical objects. It is like watching the silver momentum balls that people used to keep on their desks — a ball strikes one end of the chain and another jumps up on the far side to repeat the trick in reverse. The motion is self-sustaining. Back and forth — click-clack, click-clack — it never stops.

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Curtis Brainard writes on science and environment reporting. Follow him on Twitter @cbrainard.