There is a debate taking place right now between the New Atheists (most notably in the writing of the Four Horsemen: Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, and Daniel Dennett) and so called “accomodationists” about how to approach dialogue between science and religion. This debate isn’t new, but has flared up from time to time, most notably in 2010 when members of the Atheist community were divided over whether outspoken New Atheists, such as the four horsemen, were advocates of reason or anti-religious bullies (or perhaps a bit of both). An earlier salvo in this debate took place shortly after Sam Harris’s The Moral Landscape, helped to ignite debate between Harris and political journalist Chris Mooney. Posted on the now derelict richarddawkins.net is a portion of the Mooney’s comments on faith in America, surrounded by Sam Harris’s response, as excerpted from The Moral Landscape.
I take issue with a few points of Harris’s argument and with the New Atheist stance on accomodationism in general. Firstly, I feel that Harris based his entire counterargument on, Mooney’s assertion that, “America is a very religious nation, and if forced to choose between faith and science, vast numbers of Americans will select the former.” Harris appears to isolate this as the only reason why accommodation is necessary, calling it, “naked condescension motivated by fear.” The problem with this characterization of Mooney’s position is that Mooney never suggests that the American penchant for faith is a reason a cordial dialogue needs to continue between faith and science. My reading of this single paragraph of Mooney’s work is that Mooney believes a false dichotomy between faith and science could have dire consequences for the cause of scientific literacy. Mooney is suggesting not that we avoid forcing religious adherents to choose between their faith and science out of fear, but that such a choice need not necessarily be made at all.
Mooney makes this point himself immediately after the diagnosis Harris fixated upon:
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.
I suspect that Mooney and Harris would disagree over whether Atheism is indeed “logically inevitable” when scientific reasoning is applied, but the fact remains that many American scientists do not feel that it is. If Harris does in fact believe that scientific reasoning begets disbelief in deity, then increasing scientific literacy, and creating space within the conversation for people of faith to continue in their tradition as they learn concepts of empiricism, peer review, theory, and experiment should in fact cause religion to die a natural death.
Harris argues that “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,” but to whose goal is he referring? Surely Harris would say that scientific literacy is one of the goals central to New Atheism (the plethora of books by Dawkins and many others outlining the principles of the natural world seem to suggest that scientific literacy is indeed a priority). If “the goal” is to increase the cultural value of reasoning and educated discourse, he must first create a safe space for the 133,713,600 non-college educated Americans who create that culture (approximately 42.72% of the U.S. population, all of whom have received no college education).
Harris has a specific reason to want value scientific reasoning, he continues, “Doubt about evolution is merely a symptom of an underlying condition; the condition is faith itself—conviction without sufficient reason.” Does Harris imagine he can jolt people from their faith by forcing them to choose between it and contradicting ideas that further undermine their culture, childhood, tradition, and sense of security in the universe? This is where Mooney’s former statement, the one upon which Harris fixated as a reason for accomodationism, comes into play. Mooney is not commenting on the compatibility of science and faith, he is commenting on New Atheist’s tactics. Confronting people with a polarizing choice already weighted with significant bias rarely yields the desired results. In other words, saying “the way you think is wrong,” rarely convinces people they are indeed wrong.
I am not well versed in Mooney’s work, but in the paragraph excerpted by Harris, it appears that his desire for accomodationism isn’t motivated by fear and condescension at all, but by practicality, and a genuine belief that atheism is a likely outcome of being well versed in scientific reasoning, but not inevitable.
And this is where I personally break with New Atheists as well. I don’t think atheists need to pretend to find traditional faiths plausible, but I do not believe empiricism and critical reasoning are mutually exclusive to tact and compassion.
More on the Debate between Accomodationists and New Atheists:
- PZ Myers, Jennifer Michael Hecht, and Chris Mooney – New Atheism or Accommodation?
- What’s New About The New Atheism (philosohpynow.org)
- The Angry Atheists vs. the Accomodationists (patheos.com)