John on January 4, 2006 at 4:38 pm
2005 can in part be described as the year of the “theocracy watch.” This was widespread among atheists of all stripes but probably received its greatest splash courtesy of Frank Rich and Maureen Dowd of the NY Times (where else?). Also, though not from 2005, one has to give a nod to Bill Moyers rant.
I’m on record saying that most atheists are good people. I believe that to be the case. However, there is a strain of fundamentalist atheism or scientism which I think needs to be watched with a suspicious eye. Perhaps it’s my imagination, but it seems to me that there is a growing faction among atheists who are tired of tolerating disagreement with their views and their agenda.
Case in point is this article by Sam Harris called Science Must Destroy Religion. [HT: Grey Thoughts] I’m not going to fisk the whole thing here. At this point, I just want to point out the central features of this increasingly popular view.
- Religion and science are incompatible: As Harris puts it “The conflict between religion and science is inherent and (very nearly) zero-sum.” PZ Myers echoed this recently.
- Science is truth: Harris says “Science, in the broadest sense, includes all reasonable claims to knowledge about ourselves and the world.”
- Religion Threatens Civilization: Harris says “Religion is fast growing incompatible with the emergence of a global, civil society.”
- We Can Have Morality Without God: Harris says “The distinction between science and religion is not a matter of excluding our ethical intuitions and non-ordinary states of consciousness from our conversation about the world…”
There are others one could pick out, but these four all represent ideas that I’ve seen floating around beyond this article. I’d like to comment on these ideas in a general way.
1) Religion and Science Incompatible: Mr. Harris may be a fine scientist but his knowledge of history leaves a lot to be desired. The “warfare” thesis of the interaction of science and religion was popularized in the 19th century, particularly in books by Draper and White who practiced the worst kind of “whig” history. Modern historians of science (Ron Numbers, David Lindberg, Gary Ferngren, etc.) agree that this so-called warfare thesis is dead in the water. The actual interaction of science and religion is much more complex (and interesting). And I’d like to point out, the battles that do exist are as often initiated by those flying the secular banner as the other way around (T.H. Huxley call your office).
2) Science is Truth: This idea has become more and more pervasive. Case in point, my 4 year old daughter was watching an animated show on Noggin recently and the main character was explaining that by applying science to any problem, we can solve it. The word science was being used, I believe, because it added perceived value to the show. But all that was really being taught was clear thinking or simply common sense. By expanding the definition of the word science and using it as a synonym for rationality in this way, we imply that rationality can not exist without “science.” This fits well with other atheist urban legends about the Dark Ages and the flat earth, etc. Not only is it circular reasoning, it’s an absurd idea contradicted by history. It really amounts to little more than propaganda.
3 and 4) Religion Threatens Civilization and Morality Without God: Here we have the noxious core of Gregory S. Paul’s study which we’ve written about extensively (and again recently) on this site (predictably, someone who agrees with Harris cites the study in the comments). Some religions do threaten civilization, but clearly not all do so. Western civlization in particular succeeded because of not in spite of Christianity. There certainly is morality without organized religion, though I question its effectiveness in practice.
Overall, I think it’s worth noting that for people like Sam Harris and Gregory S. Paul, science is an afterthought. They are both driven to do science specifically so that they can use it as a weapon against religion. I’ve demonstrated that Mr. Paul’s conclusions about religion were offered as facts some 3 years before his study attempted to prove the point. Does anyone doubt that Mr. Harris was likewise committed to demolishing religion well before he began his career in the neuroscience of belief?
Atheists are fond of pointing to the Crusades or the Inquisition or more recently Intelligent Design or the beating of Paul Mirecki as examples of what they have to fear from religion. “Beware Theocracy!” is the unofficial rallying cry of the irreligious left. What they usually fail to acknowledge is that the opposite of theocracy, call it atheocracy, is just as deadly if not more so. The Reign of Terror, the October Revolution, the Cultural Revolution in China — these were far more deadly and more recent. And it continues today under dictatorships in Cuba, Vietnam, North Korea, China — if atheists have something to fear from “us” we assuredly have as much to fear from them.
Frankly, I don’t want to live in a country where Sam Harris and PZ Myers make the rules because I suspect in such a country people like me are likely to end up in some sort of re-education camp. As I said at the beginning of this post, most atheists are good people, but I think they are misguided if they believe that atheism is somehow immune to bloody fundamentalism. Like any set of beliefs it can be coopted by a contingent that believes brutalizing the “other” is not only acceptable but necessary. Based on “Science Must Destroy Religion” I think it’s fair to say an increasing number of atheists in this country are headed that way.
Update: Scott at Magic Statistics has just posted about another prominent atheist out to destroy religion, Daniel Dennett.
Update 2: Teens who stole 27 figures of baby Jesus planned to burn them. [HT: Pearcey Report]
Category: Atheism |