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.