Many of our secular critics worry that if we oblige people to choose between reason and faith, they will choose faith and cease to support scientific research; if, on the other hand, we ceaselessly reiterate that there is no conflict between religion and science, we might cajole great multitudes into accepting the truth of evolution (as though this were an end in itself). Here is a version of this charge that, I fear, most people would accept, taken from journalist Chris Mooney and marine biologist Sheril Kirshenbaum’s book Unscientific America:
If the goal is to create an America more friendly toward science and reason, the combativeness of the New Atheists is strongly counterproductive. If anything, they work in ironic combination with their dire enemies, the anti-science conservative Christians who populate the creation science and intelligent design movements, to ensure we’ll continue to be polarized over subjects like the teaching of evolution when we don’t have to be. America is a very religious nation, and if forced to choose between faith and science, vast numbers of Americans will select the former. The New Atheists err in insisting that such a choice needs to be made. Atheism is not the logically inevitable outcome of scientific reasoning, any more than intelligent design is a necessary corollary of religious faith. A great many scientists believe in God with no sense of internal contradiction, just as many religious believers accept evolution as the correct theory to explain the development, diversity, and inter-relatedness of life on Earth. The New Atheists, like the fundamentalists they so despise, are setting up a false dichotomy that can only damage the cause of scientific literacy for generations to come. It threatens to leave science itself caught in the middle between extremes, unable to find cover in a destructive, seemingly unending, culture war.
The first thing to observe is that Mooney and Kirshenbaum are confused about the nature of the problem. The goal is not to get more Americans to merely accept the truth of evolution (or any other scientific theory); the goal is to get them to value the principles of reasoning and educated discourse that now make a belief in evolution obligatory. Doubt about evolution is merely a symptom of an underlying condition; the condition is faith itself — conviction without sufficient reason, hope mistaken for knowledge, bad ideas protected from good ones, good ideas obscured by bad ones, wishful thinking elevated to a principle of salvation, etc. Mooney and Kirshenbaum seem to imagine that we can get people to value intellectual honesty by lying to them.
While it is invariably advertised as an expression of “respect” for people of faith, the accommodationism that Mooney and Kirshenbaum recommend is nothing more than naked condescension, motivated by fear. They assure us that people will choose religion over science, no matter how good a case is made against religion. In certain contexts, this fear is probably warranted. I wouldn’t be eager to spell out the irrationality of Islam while standing in the Great Mosque in Mecca. But let’s be honest about how Mooney and Kirshenbaum view public discourse in the United States: Watch what you say, or the Christian mob will burn down the Library of Alexandria all over again. By comparison, the “combativeness” of the “New Atheists” seems quite collegial. We are merely guilty of assuming that our fellow Homo sapiens possess the requisite intelligence and emotional maturity to respond to rational argument, satire, and ridicule on the subject of religion — just as they respond to these discursive pressures on all other subjects. Of course, we could be wrong. But let’s admit which side in this debate currently views our neighbors as dangerous children and which views them as adults who might prefer not to be completely mistaken about the nature of reality. - Sam Harris
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