Richard Bernstein has written an article in the International Herald-Tribune that discusses the militant atheism of Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris. For both of these men, it is not simply a question of having a respectful disagreement with people of faith; instead, they are on a kind of secular crusade of open attack against all forms of religion. According to the article,
Sadly, this intolerance by these militant atheists on the one hand, and intolerance of religious fundamentalism on the other, are essentially the opposite side of the same coin. Not only do both groups manifest the same kind of intolerance, but both seem to share the same basic assumptions about what religion is about. Somehow, progressive faith gets lost in the shuffle. For the militant atheists, certain straw men raise their ugly heads and confuse the issue as a result.
But at least a few atheists are now actively, angrily, passionately trying to persuade the religious to their point of view, none more conspicuously than Sam Harris, a graduate student in neuroscience whose book "Letter to a Christian Nation," another recent New York Times best seller, portrays Christianity as a kind of malign nonsense. Harris is engaging in no polite parlor discussion, showing due respect to the views of others. For him, as he puts it, the grievous harm caused by religious conviction "is what makes the honest criticism of religious faith a moral and intellectual necessity."
The mood can be found elsewhere. The New York Times reported a couple of months ago on a conference at the Jonas Salk Institute in California during which participants, who included Dawkins and Harris, called on scientists actively to combat religion, with the physicist and Nobel laureate Steven Weinberg delivering this summary of the mission: "Anything that we scientists can do to weaken the hold of religion should be done and may in the end be our greatest contribution to civilization."
The use of straw men by the anti-religionists is clear when they equate religion with scientific ignorance. The article says,
To atheists like Weinberg, Dawkins and Harris and their many avid readers, it is clearly disappointing that in America, unlike in most of Europe, rationalist, scientific ideas have not become the norm. Harris gloomily recites poll figures on this point: 53 percent of Americans, he says, believe in creationism, which to scientists is like believing that the sun revolves around the Earth.The straw man here, of course, is the assumption that religious people necessarily hold all mythological stories to be literal truths. It is true that Christian fundamentalists are likely to believe in creationism and other expressions of scientific ignorance. But in that case, the point should be to oppose ignorance, not religion per se. This is actually an issue that could serve as the basis of an alliance between rational, thinking Christians and rational atheists, as both groups of people have a stake in promoting good science in American education and culture. But Dawkins and Harris would have none of any such alliance, as they lump rational Christianity together with the irrational, and treat them all together as his enemies.
That isn't the only straw man that crops up. The very next sentence in the article reports,
In what he sees as an illustration of mass self-delusion, 80 percent of the survivors of the Katrina disaster claim that the hurricane and flood strengthened their faith in God — rather than serving as powerful evidence, as it does for Harris, that God does not exist.Harris in this case assumes, incorrectly, that all people of faith must necessarily hold certain views about the nature of God's interaction with the universe, and that natural disasters somehow "refute" belief in God based on that.
Religion isn't about scientific ignorance or naivety about Divine intervention. Certainly people can be scientifically ignorant and also religious, but that is always secondary to the real function that religion serves, as a kind of poetry for the human soul. Dawkins and Harris simply do not see the value in religion for human beings. That is their right, of course. But to judge others on the basis of what works or doesn't work for them personally shows a dogmatic intransigence and a refusal to comprehend that they cannot speak for the entirety of the human experience. In so doing, they really miss the point in claiming that science and religion are incompatible. The ability of religion to point people's visions upward and outward towards something greater and more magnificent than themselves, to inspire us to a greater purpose and to transform us in the process--that is something that escapes them. What they fail to see is that this is a benefit of religion that science can never accomplish.
As for scientific ignorance, I will only mention that next Sunday will be Evolution Sunday, a day in which many churches around the United States will be celebrating the compatibility of religion and science. This may not fit into the convenient stereotypes about religion that Dawkins and Harris have concocted, but there you are.