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Must science declare a holy war on religion?

The so-called New Atheists are attacking the mantra of science and faith being compatible. Others in the science community question the value of confrontation.

August 11, 2009|Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum | Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum are coauthors of the new book, "Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future."

This fall, evolutionary biologist and bestselling author Richard Dawkins -- most recently famous for his public exhortation to atheism, "The God Delusion" -- returns to writing about science. Dawkins' new book, "The Greatest Show on Earth," will inform and regale us with the stunning "evidence for evolution," as the subtitle says. It will surely be an impressive display, as Dawkins excels at making the case for evolution. But it's also fair to ask: Who in the United States will read Dawkins' new book (or ones like it) and have any sort of epiphany, or change his or her mind?

Surely not those who need it most: America's anti-evolutionists. These religious adherents often view science itself as an assault on their faith and doggedly refuse to accept evolution because they fear it so utterly denies God that it will lead them, and their children, straight into a world of moral depravity and meaninglessness. An in-your-face atheist touting evolution, like Dawkins, is probably the last messenger they'll heed.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Monday, August 17, 2009 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 19 Editorial pages Desk 1 inches; 37 words Type of Material: Correction
New Atheists: An Op-Ed article Tuesday on the battle between religion and science referred to fanatical Catholics who were addressed by science blogger P.Z. Myers. The word "fanatical" should have been in quotation marks as Myers' characterization.

Dawkins will, however, be championed by many scientists, especially the most secular -- those who were galvanized by "The God Delusion" and inspired by it to take a newly confrontational approach toward America's religious majority. They will help ensure Dawkins another literary success. It's certainly valuable to have the case for evolution articulated prominently and often, but what this unending polarization around evolution and religion does for the standing of science in the U.S. is a very different matter.

It often appears as though Dawkins and his followers -- often dubbed the New Atheists, though some object to the term -- want to change the country's science community in a lasting way. They'd have scientists and defenders of reason be far more confrontational and blunt: No more coddling the faithful, no tolerating nonscientific beliefs. Scientific institutions, in their view, ought to stop putting out politic PR about science and religion being compatible.

The New Atheists win the battle easily on the Internet. Their most prominent blogger, the University of Minnesota biologist P.Z. Myers, runs what is probably the Web's most popular science blog, Pharyngula, where he and his readers attack and belittle religious believers, sometimes using highly abrasive language. Or as Myers put it to fanatical Catholics at one point: "Don't confuse the fact that I find you and your church petty, foolish, twisted and hateful to be a testimonial to the existence of your petty, foolish, twisted, hateful god."

More moderate scientists, however -- let us call them the accommodationists -- still dominate the hallowed institutions of American science. Personally, these scientists may be atheists, agnostics or believers; whatever their views on the relationship between science and religion, politically, spiritually and practically they see no need to fight over it.

Thus the American Assn. for the Advancement of Science and the National Academy of Sciences take the stance that science and religion can be perfectly compatible -- and are regularly blasted for it by the New Atheists. Or as the National Academy of Sciences put it in a recent volume on evolution and creationism: "Today, many religious denominations accept that biological evolution has produced the diversity of living things over billions of years of Earth's history. ... Religious denominations that do not accept the occurrence of evolution tend to be those that believe in strictly literal interpretations of religious texts."

A smaller but highly regarded nonprofit organization called the National Center for Science Education has drawn at least as much of the New Atheists' ire, however. Based in Oakland, the center is the leading organization that promotes and defends the teaching of evolution in school districts across the country.

In this endeavor, it has, of necessity, made frequent alliances with religious believers who also support the teaching of evolution, seeking to forge a broad coalition capable of beating back the advances of fundamentalists who want to weaken textbooks or science standards. In the famous 2005 Dover, Pa., evolution trial, for instance, the NCSE contributed scientific advice to a legal team that put a theologian and a Catholic biologist on the stand.

Long under fire from the religious right, the NCSE now must protect its other flank from the New Atheist wing of science. The atheist biologist Jerry Coyne of the University of Chicago, for instance, has drawn much attention by assaulting the center's Faith Project, which seeks to spread awareness that between creationism on the one hand and the new atheism on the other lie many more moderate positions.

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