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In the latest Point of Inquiry podcast episode, regular host Chris Mooney, the science journalist, is interviewed by Ronald A. Lindsey, a bioethicist, lawyer and CEO of POI’s parent organization Center for Inquiry.

Chris is his usual well-balanced self, but Lindsey, whether he’s just being a devil’s advocate or, as seems more likely, actually believe in strong neo-atheism, displays a rather… disconcerting attitude. He reminds me of a friend’s observation that some Mensans have a hard time accepting that the average person is less rational than them (which itself is a flaw on their rationality — insisting that everyone else sees thing the way one does, rather than more dispassionately trying to understand belief formation) — first by assuming that any non-confrontational dialogue between religion and science is a subtle attack on science itself (and assuming that organizations such as the Templeton Foundation are immutable and thus their past flaws are proof of a continuing sinister intent), then by, incredulously, asking if, indeed, getting religious believers to accept scientific findings has to involve an appeal to emotion as well as to reason, whether atheist scientists should not *shame* religious people into abandoning their beliefs!

With the display of hubris, lack of empathy, and misunderstanding of basic psychology on offer, neo-atheists like Lindsey (and Richard Dawkins) are really doing themselves and science a disservice — perpetuating a distrust between atheists and religious people, and making it harder to engage and change the mind of people on important, time-critical issue such as climate change. Because to them, irrationally, nothing is as important as first wiping off religious belief from existence. Which begs the question — why the irrational hatred?

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If I were a US citizen, I’d find it hard to vote Republican right now, given its capture in recent decades by big business and social conservatives. If only the electoral system allows more than two parties to flourish! But reading FrumForum always gives me reason for hope — there *are* rational voices on the center-right, though alas they are a minority in their own party. Which is a shame for all of us, regardless of party affiliations or political convictions.

The recent post by Michael P. Stafford on capital punishment is a good example:


Today, the criminal most likely to be executed is a poor minority, represented by a public defender, convicted of killing a Caucasian in the South. It is impossible to separate this fact from the implications inherent in its historic context. In the words of David Gushee, “the death penalty is a public policy that fails the most basic standards of justice.”

Cardinal McCarrick, Archbishop of Washington, has written that “…the death penalty diminishes all of us, increases disrespect for human life, and offers the tragic illusion that we can teach that killing is wrong by killing.”

There is evidence that the death penalty is applied in a discriminatory and arbitrary fashion within the United States today. There is an unacceptable risk that innocent persons will be executed. And even the very worst criminals among us never cease to be human beings.

An eye for an eye is already against the faith imperative to be charitable; there is a difference between seeking justice and seeking revenge. It makes it worse that some eyes are more equal than others…

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That’s what Mano Singham, writing in the Chronicle for Higher Education, would have everyone believe. In his article, The New War Between Science and Religion, he said this about us:

The former group, known as accommodationists, seeks to carve out areas of knowledge that are off-limits to science, arguing that certain fundamental features of the world—such as the Heisenberg uncertainty principle and the origin of the universe—allow for God to act in ways that cannot be detected using the methods of science. Some accommodationists, including Francis Collins, head of the National Institutes of Health, suggest that there are deeply mysterious, spiritual domains of human experience, such as morality, mind, and consciousness, for which only religion can provide deep insights.

Rather typical of the “new atheists” to attempt to paint everyone who disagrees with them with the same brush. Or rather, two brushes: one is either an “accomodationist” or a “religious fundamentalist”. The article also insinuates that accomodationists are just cowardly refusing to let go of their faith — well, what about agnostics and atheists who also advocate a reconciliation with moderate religion? Secular humanists of all stripes are divided on this issue, this is more than just between scientists who hold religious delusions and those who have been “enlightened”. Just look at, for example, the recent secular humanism conference, and the heated exchange between Chris Mooney and PZ Myers. And from one of the key new atheist, Richard Dawkins’ own article on the Beyond Belief conference:

For others, the idea that it is somehow unacceptable for scientists to maintain a religious belief was going too far. “They’re doing science, they’re not a problem,” said Lawrence Krauss, a physicist based at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio. Scientists are not a special class of humanity, he pointed out, so it is hardly surprising that a small number of academy members are also believers. “It would be amazing if that figure were zero,” he said. “Scientists are people, and we all make up inventions so we can rationalise about who we are.”

Krauss himself is not religious; you don’t need to be to seek an understanding with religion. See what he has to say for yourself: science should enrich faith by moving us beyond faith. It is incompatible with blind belief, but can inform faith. We don’t need to respect all aspects of faith, but criticize it when that is called for (e.g. the earth is not 6,000 years old, and if one’s faith is based on that then one is in trouble!).

It seems like Krauss and mainstream Christians would be both reviled by the fundamentalists; I’d highly recommend Sinclair Lewis’ novel Elmer Gantry for examples of unfortunately all-too-typical diatribes by the latter against higher criticism, and anything not justified by a narrow, subjective, moralistic interpretation of the Bible. Religious fundamentalism is not new and is, unfortunately, part of every faith tradition; likewise, militant atheism is not new either — just look back at the French Revolution’s Cult of Reason.

Let’s look at another claim Singham makes:

Accommodationists frequently brand us new atheists as “extreme,” “uncivil,” “rude,” and responsible for setting a “bad tone.” However, those accusations are rarely accompanied by concrete examples of such impolite speech. Behind the charges seems to lie the assumption that it is rude to even question religious beliefs or to challenge the point of view of the accommodationists. Apparently the polite thing to do is keep quiet.

Hm. We have PZ Myers calling Francis Collins a “clown”, and people who don’t share his “truth” “liars”. Not mistaken, or deluded, mind you. It’s as if there’s a giant anti-science conspiracy out there, and us moderate religious folks and moderate scientists are a fifth column! And surely one does not have to be religious to see the desecration of a faith’s precious symbols (Myers again) to be “rude” and “uncivil”? Sure, Myers burned a book of Dawkins’ God Delusion book as well to claim he’s impartial. But I’d suggest a closer parallel would be smashing down a statue of Richard Darwin, or Isaac Newton, or Albert Einstein. Figures that are revered in the scientific community — secular saints, almost, though naturally it does not follow that what they say are automatically true. Even in my most agnostic phase I’ve always been Kraussian in feeling that gratuitous attacks on religion are counterproductive at best and a sign of fanaticism at worst! And I happen to feel strongly against book burning, no matter which book it is: people still burn books in America today, and it’s bad form to encourage them.

One has to suspect that tactical considerations are at play here. The majority of Americans subscribe to some form of faith tradition. Some scientists may fear that if science is viewed as antithetical to religion, then even moderate believers may turn away from science and join the fundamentalists.

The only nod Singham makes towards seeing us as anything but illogical people. While the religious scientists are holding two incompatible positions in their head, the agnostic ones like Krauss are insincere and just tactically wish to appease moderate believers for fear of radicalizing them. Needless to say, it’s a sad misunderstanding, showing a lack of familiarity with moderate religious traditions, where one does not blindly apply one’s interpretation of scripture. The history of Christianity is one of tension between dogma on one side and reason on the other; in the American context, even the early Puritans, who are dogmatic in their anti-Papism, gave rise to the Congregationalists (now part of UCC) and the Unitarians (now part of UUA), two of the most liberal denominations there are. My own Anglican / Episcopal tradition is likewise quite progressive, and preserve rich rituals from our long church tradition, showing that reason and tradition can be intertwined harmoniously. There is a rich tradition of Torah commentary in Judaism, and while the interpretations of the historical rabbis necessarily have much authority, like the writings of our Church Fathers, as long this is a living tradition rather than a dead one, with followers blindly applying pronouncements made centuries ago to their daily lives, we have much to gain from both our religious traditions *and* our scientific tradition.

As George Santayana said,

Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.

Us religious folks should not blind ourselves to the possibility that morality is impossible without a belief in God; if we believe that we are all God’s creations, then surely God in His/Her wisdom imbue us with a conscience that is not the same as that instinct for religion that, apparently, some people lack? As Frans de Waal observed in his New York Times article Morals Without God?, even primates and some other animals are capable of altruism; and they most probably do not possess the intellectual capacity for religious belief! If they can be altruistic, surely we can be moral creatures.

Likewise, those of us who are scientists should refrain from adopting the worst tenets of fundamentalism and seeing things only in black-and-white terms. Some of us, rather than trying to show that one *can* be moral without God, tries to go further and say that since there are moral atheists, therefore religion is completely wrong and should be dismantled! When the common mindset is dualistic — science vs religion, right-wing vs left-wing, etc. — sadly it is the voice of reasoned moderation in the middle that all too often get trampled by both sides. But whoever said faith (likewise, science) was supposed to be easy?

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From the Economist’s Democracy in America:

Twenty words you can’t say in Alabama

EVERY politician says something he has to walk back once in a while. In the case of Bradley Byrne, a Republican candidate for governor of Alabama, it was

I think there are parts of the Bible that are meant to be literally true and parts that are not.

We at Christians for Scientific Inquiry obviously stand by Mr. Byrne’s original statement, and regret that the vagaries of polarized politics as practiced in the US of A means that he had to recant this statement, which, hard as it might seem to outsiders, is a courageous one to make as an Alabaman Republican.

This sort of ignorance is precisely what CScI was founded to counter. All too often, fanaticism combines with (relative) illiteracy. Anyone who has perused St. Joseph’s purported genealogies, according to St. Mark and St. Luke, would realize that the bible cannot possibly be “true. Every word of it.” (according to Mr. Byrne’s recantation). Any Muslim who can bother to Google would find that the term Allah is not exclusive to Islam, and in fact predated it, having been used by pagans, Jews and Christians in Arabia before Islam existed.

Sadly, people go to extremes in order to maintain archaic dogmas. In ancient, pre-scientific times, it might make sense to extrapolate from the claim that some writings or prophecies are divinely-inspired, to the claim that therefore they are infallibly true, word for word; in this day and age, these kind of assertions are not only quaint, they are decidedly dangerous.

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