Among the Disbelievers

Imagine it’s Paris in the spring of 1789 and you have
just announced that you are an inveterate foe of tyrants
and kings. Obviously, your message is not going to fall
on deaf ears. But now that you’ve made it clear what
you’re against, what are you for? Do you favor an
aristocratic constitution in which power devolves to the
provincial nobility? Would you prefer a British-style
constitutional monarchy? Or do you believe in all power
to the sans-culottes? How you answer will shape both
your analysis of the situation and the political tactics
you employ in changing it. It may also determine whether
you wind up on the chopping block in the next half-
decade or so.

This is the problem, more or less, confronting today’s
reinvigorated atheist movement. For a long time,
religion had been doing quite nicely as a kind of minor
entertainment. Christmas and Easter were quite
unthinkable without it, not to mention Hanukkah and
Passover. But then certain enthusiasts took things too
far by crashing airliners into office towers in the name
of Allah, launching a global crusade to rid the world of
evil and declaring the jury still out on Darwinian
evolution. As a consequence, religion now looks nearly
as bad as royalism did in the late eighteenth century.
But while united in their resolve to throw the bum out–
God, that is–the antireligious forces appear to have
given little thought to what to replace Him with should
He go. They may not face the guillotine as a
consequence. But they could end up making even bigger
fools of themselves than the theologians they criticize.

Richard Dawkins is a case in point. It is no surprise
that, along with Sam Harris, author of The End of Faith
and Letter to a Christian Nation, and Daniel Dennett,
author of Breaking the Spell: Religion As a Natural
Phenomenon, he has emerged at the head of a growing
intellectual movement aimed at relegating religion to
the proverbial scrapheap of history (which by this point
must be filled to overflowing). He’s bright, obviously,
a lively writer–his 1978 book The Selfish Gene is
regarded as a pop science classic–and as an
evolutionary biologist, he’s particularly well equipped
to defend Darwin against neofundamentalist hordes for
whom he is the Antichrist. But Dawkins is something else
as well: fiercely combative. Other scientists have tried
to calm things down by making nice-nice noises
concerning the supposedly complementary nature of the
two pursuits. Einstein famously said that “science
without religion is lame, religion without science is
blind,” while the late paleontologist Stephen J. Gould
once characterized the two fields as “non-overlapping
magisteria” that address different questions and have no
reason to get in each other’s way. But Dawkins, to his
great credit, is having none of it. Although he does not
quite come out and say so, he seems to have the good
sense to realize that no two fields are ever truly
separate but that, in a unified body of human knowledge,
or episteme, all overlap. Conflict is inevitable when
different fields employ different principles and say
different things, which is why an evolutionary biologist
can’t simply ignore it when some blow-dried TV
evangelist declares that God created the world in six
days, and why he’ll become positively unhinged should
the same televangelist begin pressuring textbook
publishers to adopt his views.

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