Why Assaulting Religion With Science Is Nuts
David Berreby is the author of "Us and Them: The Science of Identity." He has written about human behavior and other science topics for The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine, Slate, Smithsonian, The New Republic, Nature, Discover, Vogue and many other publications. He has been a Visiting Scholar at the University of Paris, a Science Writing Fellow at the Marine Biological Laboratory, a resident at Yaddo, and in 2006 was awarded the Erving Goffman Award for Outstanding Scholarship for the first edition of "Us and Them." David can be found on Twitter at @davidberreby and reached by email at david [at] davidberreby [dot] com.
The other day commenter Cotdail took issue with a tossed-off aside in my post about religion and happiness. I said the hostility of militant atheists to religion borders on madness, to which Cotdail replied: "I fail to recognise anything that is 'bordering on a kind of madness' about being hostile towards immoral, anti-rational beliefs." Fair point. So here's why I think the crusading atheists are as loopy as the crusading, um, crusaders.
First, it seems to me that Dawkins/Dennett/Harris/Hitchens and other "new atheists" are as obsessed with religion as are believers. Why so focussed on a bagful of other people's bad ideas, which one finds ugly and hateful and senseless? It doesn't seem quite compos mentis.
To which the New Atheist will reply that crusading against religion is an unpleasant duty, because of all the harm religion does. That defines their work, then, as proselytizing for reason—the job is to convince religious people to change their minds about faith. How do they do it? Well, Daniel Dennett, in his hateful book Breaking the Spell, compares religion to a cancer (page 39); poison (page 85); a swamp (106); child porn (13); bad weather (38); germs (84); coyote howling (57); pedophilia (261); the external coating of a deadly virus (45); an "unsavory miasma'' (289); and a backyard swimming pool carelessly left unfenced, into which children fall and drown (299). Can someone explain to me how this is supposed to open the minds of believers?
Aside from the "they are evil" hyperbole, which suggests that New Atheists know they are talking to themselves alone, I also think their project has a more fundamental flaw: Their attack on religion is based on the premise that scientific accounts of reality are the only reliable source of truth about the world. But, as Scott Atran has pointed out, the whole point of religious faith is that it is contrary to what we know by material means—that is why it's faith. In other words, it is because it's impossible for the sun to stand still that people value their belief that God made the sun stand still for Joshua.
As Atran puts it, "religious thought is insensitive to the kind of simple-minded disconfirmation through demonstrations of incoherence that [Sam] Harris and others propose." So when you come along and say science shows the Sun can't stand still, you're failing utterly to speak to the reason people believe in the miracle.
Suppose Dawkins and Dennett and Harris et al. had a peculiar and strong dislike for deaf people, and were promoting cochlear implants for all, because of their belief that no one should have to grow up deaf—and never mind what that community has to say about themselves. And suppose these "New Auditists" were promoting the value of hearing by (a) insulting deaf culture and (b) playing beautiful music to people who could not hear it. Would not their fierce hatred, their closed-mindedness, and their futile tactics strike you as a tad looney? Instead of assaulting the deaf minority, of course, they've taken aim at the vast majority of the world's people who profess religious belief. So it's not enough that the plan is ugly and futile—it also has to work on about 6.5 billion people to succeed. Is that crazy enough for you?
Illustration: Galileo Before the Roman Inquisition, via Wikimedia
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