Main Site         

Why New Atheists invent false polarities

2011 April 14
by Paul Vallely

The row over the Astronomer Royal and the Templeton Prize for science and religion has thrown interesting light on the increasingly proactive tactics of the New Atheists in their opposition to religion in any aspect of public life. The annual £1m prize was denounced by several prominent evangelical atheist scientists as an “underhand” attempt to promote religion by linking it with science. Quite how publicly giving away £1m can be described as underhand gives a clue to the attempts at redefinition that are going on here.

There are many kinds of atheism but the noisy fundamentalist type, which arrogantly proclaims itself to be the default position – and fools an ignorant mainstream media into agreeing – is that religion is irrational and dogmatic and is therefore inimical to scientific reasoning.

This is not the position of all atheists; many, perhaps most, adopt the position that science and religion are, in the words of Stephen Jay Gould, “non-overlapping magisteria”, or NOMA to use the short-hand from Gould’s Rocks of Ages: Science and Religion in the Fullness of Life. Most people accept that science does not generate its own moral values and can be used for good or ill.

But even if science and religion concern different domains of existence – with the former dealing with ‘how’ queries and the latter with ‘why’ questions – that doesn’t mean there is no scope for a conversation between them, which is what the  Templeton Prize implies.

Alan Billings was interesting on this on Thought for the Day this week. He began by saying that atheists like Lord Rees, and even Baroness Warnock, see a social value in religious custom which is to be respected. That can be seen in the way that people of uncertain religious conviction turn to the familiar rituals of the church at times of mourning or celebration. They find those articulate something for which their lives can find no other expression, joining with others to express thoughts and emotions in ways that have power to move and inspire.

People also look to religion as a vehicle for morality. It is perfectly possible to have morality without religion, but for many people, in these relativistic times, religion makes ethics easier, which is why the atheist Voltaire wanted his attorney, tailor, servants and wife to believe in God, so he would be robbed and cuckolded less often. Or, as Roy Hattersley once acerbically noted, you don’t find all that many atheist soup-kitchens around.

Organisations like the British Humanist Association want to pretend all this is not the case. They want to make out that the debate is polarised between hard-edged believers and non-believers. That is why they were so keen to cast the question on religion in the recent census in such a reductionist light.

But the truth is that the vast majority of people sit in a grey area. They don’t see religion simply as belief in dogma. Nor do they see the Bible as an instruction manual on how to be good, as A C Grayling clearly does from the way that he has cast his hubristic, and yet stunningly banal, secular bible The Good Book, with its preposterous verse-numbering and beribboned place marker.

The real Bible is, by contrast, the account of a people’s interaction with God through the ages, shifting and developing, moving through misconceptions and misunderstandings, foolishness and sin, blind obedience and wilful rebellion, goodness and grace. It is far more profound than a primer for ethical etiquette.

Most of the population has an intuitive understanding of that, and of much else about religion. That is why the evangelical atheists are so determined to force the debate into their false polarities. But it is an intellectual deceit. It is important that we do not succumb to their unquestioned definitions.

from The Church Times

Comments are closed.