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.”