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Francis Collins: The Angry Atheists Do Not Speak for Us

On the eve of Expelled premiering in theaters across the country, Pew offers a wide ranging Q&A; with Francis Collins, director of the Human Genome Project. The full interview is more than worth reading, but a particular exchange is revealing.

How can scientists – especially scientists who are religious believers, like yourself – do a better job of reaching out to these people and convincing them that these findings are not a threat to their faith?

That’s a very difficult challenge. And I don’t think we should underestimate just how threatening it is to someone who has been raised in a creationist environment to give that up. They have heard many times since they first came to church as a child that the creationist view is part and parcel of belief in God. And, they’ve been told, if you even for a moment begin to allow the possibility that evolution is true, you are on a certain path toward loss of your faith and probably worse, eternal damnation. So we have to recognize that in that circumstance, a simple logical argument and presentation of the data is not going to be sufficient in one sitting to change somebody’s mind. And in fact, there will be strong resistance to even looking closely at that information because of the fear of what it might lead to.

I also think that those of us who are interested in seeking harmony here have to make it clear that the current crowd of seemingly angry atheists, who are using science as part of their argument that faith is irrelevant, do not speak for us. Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens do not necessarily represent the consensus of science; 40 percent of scientists are believers in a personal God. A lot more are rather uncomfortable about the topic but certainly would not align themselves with a strong atheistic perspective. To the extent that it can be made clear that the assault on faith, which has been pretty shrill in the last couple of years, is coming from a fringe – a minority – and is not representative of what most scientists believe, that would help defuse the incendiary rhetoric and perhaps allow a real conversation about creation.

As Collins accurately notes, the argument by Dawkins, PZ Myers, and other atheist hardliners that science undermines the validity of religion, even respect for religion, is at odds with the consensus view in the scientific community.

For example, as the recent National Academies report on evolution concludes: “The evidence for evolution can be fully compatible with religious faith. Science and religion are different ways of understanding the world. Needlessly placing them in opposition reduces the potential of each to contribute to a better future.”

In a subsequent journal editorial, these core themes as featured in the report were endorsed by twenty professional science societies and organizations. As the editorial recommends: “These data indicate that Americans respect the expertise of science and education professionals and also look to clergy for guidance on scientific issues of potential relevance to religion. The value of encouraging each of these groups–including scientists who hold religious beliefs–to become involved in promoting quality science education cannot be overstated.”

As I noted at the time of its release, by taking an audience-based approach to communication, the National Academies report was an innovative–perhaps even historic–step towards more effectively engaging the wider public on evolutionary science.

Yet the more things change, the more they appear to stay the same. With the release of Expelled in theaters this spring, we are once again trapped in what amounts to a perceptual Ground Hog’s Day. On display in the film, and in the resurrected press coverage of intelligent design, are the two tail ends of the bell curve of opinion in the debate. These two voices continue to drown out the vast middle on the issue as represented by the National Academies, many scientists, religious leaders, and lay citizens.

At one end of the spectrum you have the loud voice of cultural conservatives like Ben Stein who claim that there is censorship in science and that evolution is part of a larger atheist agenda to undermine religion. At the other tail end of the distribution of opinion, the most visible affiliates of science are atheist hardliners such as Richard Dawkins and PZ Myers.

While these two maverick communicators are to be commended for their tireless work to counter the pseudoscientific claims of the ID movement, their paired message that science is indeed incompatible with religion likely only alienates many Americans who might not otherwise be concerned about the teaching of evolution in schools.

This unfortunate impact is only magnified in a carefully marketed documentary such as Expelled. A moderately religious and under thirty audience of movie-goers is likely to respond positively to Ben Stein as a familiar comedic actor and to be receptive to what for them is a preferred Comedy Central genre of public affairs content packaged as irony and satire. Moreover, they are unlikely to know many details about the Dover case or even to previously have heard about ID.

Yet for this audience, when Dawkins and Myers compare religious faith to knitting and hobgoblins or when they describe learning about science as inevitably eroding faith, Stein’s central argument that “Darwinism” is part of a larger atheist agenda will be powerfully reinforced.

The coarseness of Dawkins’ and PZ’s commentary even has film critics bristling. In reviews otherwise harshly dismissive of Expelled, Jeffrey Kluger of Time magazine describes Dawkins and Myers performance as “sneering, finger in the eye atheism,” while Justin Chang of Variety refers to Dawkins as “atheism taken to hateful extremes.”

If Hollywood cognoscenti are offended, imagine the anger triggered among movie-going audiences?

To be fair, Dawkins and Myers report that they were deceived by the Expelled producers. They were originally told that the film was titled “Crossroads” and that it would be a documentary about the intersection of science and religion. If they knew the real focus of the film, they would not have agreed to the interviews. Yet it is unlikely that Dawkins and Myers would have said anything different for a PBS special on the same topic.

Dawkins and Myers are entitled to their opinion and as a fellow atheist I strongly support their right to voice criticism of religion. Yet at some point they need to consider the unintended consequences of their preferred brand of atheist punditry, and to recognize the pragmatism of the consensus message from the National Academies and other leading science organizations.

In their campaign, Dawkins and Myers may honestly believe that they are speaking truth to religion and that by adding their voice to the argument culture, they can raise awareness among the non-religious while potentially shifting society towards greater secularization. However, in coming decades, if the goal is to defend the teaching of evolution in schools and to maintain public trust in science and scientists, their message likely serves as a liability towards that end.

For those in the DC area, I will be discussing more of these themes in a presentation tomorrow (Friday) at the National Science Foundation, details here.


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