Democracy and The New Atheism

Tina Beattie in openDemocracy:

The 19th-century confrontation between religion and science was largely fuelled by a power-struggle between men of science and men of God, most of them members of the Victorian ruling classes. Whereas the clergy and the Church of England had previously ruled the roost of English public life, in the mid-19th century the dynamics of power shifted, and scientists began to wrest much of the authority from their clerical counterparts in shaping intellectual enquiry and values. But just as this “war” masked a much more amicable and creative dialogue between scientists and theologians in a society which was still largely Christian in its beliefs, so today the attempt to portray the relationship between science and religion as one of irreconcilable conflict is a distortion of a more pluralist intellectual and religious environment.

Many scientists see no fundamental conflict between science and faith, and some argue that quantum physics challenges any attempt to maintain a strict distinction between scientific and philosophical or theological knowledge. Some scientists – such as the head of the human-genome project, Francis S Collins – have converted from atheism to Christianity as a result of their scientific research. Many members of the scientific community have sought to distance themselves from the self-publicising polemics of Richard Dawkins and his fellow “new atheists“, for they see the fact that Dawkins in particular has become so dogmatic and ideologically driven in his militant atheism as a betrayal of the very scientific values which he claims to represent.

The attempt to stage a war between religion and science – whether fuelled by religious or scientific fundamentalists – is part of the problem and not part of the solution with regard to the times we are living in. If we seek to preserve our liberal western values, then we need to resist the spirit of aggression and confrontation which is becoming increasingly characteristic of public debate – in Britain and the United States especially – concerning the role of religion in society.