Is New Atheism Antagonistic to Scientific Research?

 

One of the main arguments of New Atheism against religious belief is the supposed detrimental effect religious belief has on the acquisition of scientific knowledge. Religious faith is portrayed as being a viral delusion which undermines reason and contradicts that which gives us the only source of reliable knowledge – scientific research. And yet, when one considers the record of New Atheists on scientific research, it would seem being a New Atheist leader is quantitatively antagonistic to scientific research. Consider for a moment the research publication record of various New Atheist leaders:

Richard Dawkins – Last date of publication, 2004

Jerry Coyne – Last date of publications, 2007

PZ Myers – Last date of publication, 2002

Sam Harris – Last date of publication, 2011, the only paper in the last three years.

And of course Christopher Hitchens, not being a scientist, has never published research.

It seems the pattern with New Atheists is to get a degree in some scientific field, write a few popular books on a scientific subject, and then abandon scientific research all together to pursue the advocacy of atheism. In fact these folks aren’t particularly notable for their ground breaking research in a field of science; they are more notable for their popular books and their strident advocacy of atheism.

Of course nothing prevents them from pursuing what they consider to be the most reliable form of truth, scientific knowledge. Amongst the myriad of blogs advocating New Atheism there is a constant din concerning the value of scientific knowledge –and very little attempt to actually acquire such knowledge or utilize it in any practical way. Instead there is mostly a critique of religious belief (mainly Christianity) and practicing scientists who don’t throw in with the New Atheists. New Atheists spend as much time or more discussing religious beliefs as do religious people; certainly more time doing so then they do discussing hard science.

In the end the objective reader is forced to conclude that pursuing scientific knowledge is not nearly as important as wrangling over metaphysical issues; a conclusion with which I would heartily agree.

This is however unlikely to be the conclusion the New Atheists desire.

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26 Responses to Is New Atheism Antagonistic to Scientific Research?

  1. Tristan Vick says:

    Actually, Richard Dawkins has been retired for quite a while now. It seems weird to site lack of recent publications for someone retired from decades of being an expert in his field.

    It is sort of like saying none of Richard Feynman’s scientific contributions matter because he hasn’t published a scientific article since his death, or because he was an atheist. Just strange.

    Also you just hand picked the four horsemen but neglected Dan Dennett, who is currently doing an active study. You mention some biologists but neglect all the atheistic geneticists, physicists, computer engineers, neuro-scientists, geologists, chemists, doctors and so forth who are doing research and or work related to their individual areas of expertise. How this makes their personal worldview antagonistic to their utilization of the scientific method beats me.

    I can’t even to pretend to understand your meaning in this post. If I were editing this, I would suggest you expound your reasons in support of your thesis instead of merely tossing out obscure generalizations and seemingly irrelevant claims. Show your reasons, develop your arguments, and work toward the conclusion of your thesis. As it is, there is no descenible rhyme or reason to any of this; that I can tell of.

  2. Justin says:

    I would say that a byproduct of atheism – materialism – is counterproductive to science since it presupposes conclusions prior to experimentation.

    Jerry Coyne and PZ Myers aren’t part of the typically referenced “four horsemen”. You’d have Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens normally in their place. PZ Myers isn’t retired and neither is Coyne as far as I know.

  3. Tristan Vick says:

    @Justin

    They are all gnu atheists, but that’s not what I was pointing out. I was pointing out that their is no relevant connection between the ubiquity or availabily of their publications and their personal worldviews as was implied.

    Perhaps what Jack was intending was that their research which impliments the scientific method stringently isn’t always applied to their personal beliefs with the same exacting rigor.

    He just went about expressing it in a strange sort of way. As for the rest I can’t make heads or tails of it. With some added clarification I’m am sure the meaning, whatever it turns out to be, would get across much easier.

  4. jackhudson says:

    I am not sure what part you don’t understand Tristan. What the record seems to show is that as New Atheists ramp up their activities as New Atheists, their research publication falls off.

    I also concluded that based on what I have seen, that very few New Atheist bloggers spend much time discussing ‘science’; they spend most of their their time and blog space obsessing over what Christians are saying or not saying or their previous experience as Christians (or Mormons, or whatever). I admit this latter claim is somewhat anecdotal.

    If it is true that the best way of knowing is through scientific research, and that such knowledge is the best hope for mankind’s forward progress, then why wouldn’t the New Atheists devote all their time and energy to that pursuit? I certainly would if I believed that to be true.

    The fact that they spend most of their time discussing metaphysical issues indicates to me that they share my belief that what is most important is something beyond mere knowledge of the natural world.

    Clear enough for you?

  5. Wally says:

    That’s a funny claim about Coyne, cause when I search Pubmed (i.e. the largest online database for biological publications and data) for “Coyne JA”, I get articles from 2010 and ’11 (in the journals Science and Nature, no less) published from his lab. Sure, he’s last author, but that’s the norm in science, as those who instruct graduate students in their research get last author credit in papers. Ditto with Sam Harris, he’s had many neuroscience publications in the last few years.

    As for PZ, he’s in a small teaching university in Minnesota….hardly a giant publication producing university. There are many ways to advance science, and teaching the next generation of scientists is one of them.

    Lastly, perhaps the reason why these men blog so much about Christianity and religion is because they are disgusted by the creeping anti-science and anti-intellectualism that is taking over America and the rest of the world. Well-funded and politically influential creationist groups have long made it their mission to abolish the teaching of the science of evolution in schools. I think it’s entirely understandable that these men, who have devoted their lives to understanding the science of life, might be a little peeved when some creationist dolt exclaims that evolution is impossible because their magic book says otherwise.

  6. kenetiks says:

    That’s a funny claim about Coyne, cause when I search Pubmed (i.e. the largest online database for biological publications and data) for “Coyne JA”, I get articles from 2010 and ’11 (in the journals Science and Nature, no less) published from his lab. Sure, he’s last author, but that’s the norm in science, as those who instruct graduate students in their research get last author credit in papers. Ditto with Sam Harris, he’s had many neuroscience publications in the last few years.

    As for PZ, he’s in a small teaching university in Minnesota….hardly a giant publication producing university. There are many ways to advance science, and teaching the next generation of scientists is one of them.

    Lastly, perhaps the reason why these men blog so much about Christianity and religion is because they are disgusted by the creeping anti-science and anti-intellectualism that is taking over America and the rest of the world. Well-funded and politically influential creationist groups have long made it their mission to abolish the teaching of the science of evolution in schools. I think it’s entirely understandable that these men, who have devoted their lives to understanding the science of life, might be a little peeved when some creationist dolt exclaims that evolution is impossible because their magic book says otherwise.

    ^What he said.

    /thread

  7. I second the motion. Wally hit the nail on the head. Also he disproved Jack’s point. Not all New Atheist scientists have ceased publishing scientific research. There is no major decline of scientific contributions to society by the New Atheists.

    Although I agree with Jack that many non-scientist New Atheists do harp on the negative aspects of religion more than applying science to expose the superstitions within religion, given the circumstances can we really blame them?

    At the same time, formal criticisms are a type of tool which helps develop critical thinking, allowing us to test the merit of specific claims and expose any fallacies or weaknesses, and is where literary theory overlaps with scientific method.

  8. jackhudson says:

    That’s a funny claim about Coyne, cause when I search Pubmed (i.e. the largest online database for biological publications and data) for “Coyne JA”, I get articles from 2010 and ’11 (in the journals Science and Nature, no less) published from his lab. Sure, he’s last author, but that’s the norm in science, as those who instruct graduate students in their research get last author credit in papers. Ditto with Sam Harris, he’s had many neuroscience publications in the last few years.

    In my defense, I was going off his own CV. But for the sake of argument I will concede that Coyne is one of the busier New Atheists.

    Lastly, perhaps the reason why these men blog so much about Christianity and religion is because they are disgusted by the creeping anti-science and anti-intellectualism that is taking over America and the rest of the world. Well-funded and politically influential creationist groups have long made it their mission to abolish the teaching of the science of evolution in schools. I think it’s entirely understandable that these men, who have devoted their lives to understanding the science of life, might be a little peeved when some creationist dolt exclaims that evolution is impossible because their magic book says otherwise.

    This of course is a bunch of baloney; scientific knowledge is more widespread than ever, and it has nothing to do with New Atheism. There is no creeping anti-science or anti-intellectualism; it’s a bogeyman New Atheists use to scare people into accepting their hysteric rhetoric.

    Interestingly though the New Atheists actually inflame even the mildly religious by insisting that true scientific knowledge is inseparable from atheistic beliefs. If they were simply interested in advancing science one wouldn’t expect them to attack other scientists for not attacking religion.

  9. kenetiks says:

    This of course is a bunch of baloney; scientific knowledge is more widespread than ever, and it has nothing to do with New Atheism. There is no creeping anti-science or anti-intellectualism; it’s a bogeyman New Atheists use to scare people into accepting their hysteric rhetoric.

    This is pure unadulterated denial.

    You should get out more Jack.

  10. jackhudson says:

    Or maybe some should spend a little time around Christians rather than reading about them on the internet. I don’t know any that sit around talking about how they are going to ‘stop science’.

    My oldest daughter placed in the state science fair and started college at age 16; I am not sure how that could be interpreted as either ‘anti-science’ or ‘anti-intellectual’.

  11. kenetiks says:

    Or maybe some should spend a little time around Christians rather than reading about them on the internet. I don’t know any that sit around talking about how they are going to ‘stop science’.

    My oldest daughter placed in the state science fair and started college at age 16; I am not sure how that could be interpreted as either ‘anti-science’ or ‘anti-intellectual’.

    You made an awful lot of assumptions there Jack and are flat our wrong on all counts.

    That aside. I’m quite happy for your daughter and you should be very proud yourself. She sounds quite remarkable. Of course to you that probably goes without saying. 😛

    Anyway, there in fact are a great many christians that do not believe in evolution and what’s more is that they are actively pursuing getting creationism taught in our nations schools. One can only stand in slack jawed horror at the ongoing debacle with the Texas School Board. In fact just turn to some nationally syndicated christian radio broadcasts. I listen to them nearly daily.

    In fact most people I know in life are christians in varying degrees and inevitably most of them tend to fall in line with other christians. Nearly daily I run into christians all too ready to have conversations about creationism until they find out I’m not one of them and then either they really get ramped up and start yelling or storm off refusing to speak further(This includes my own father). In point of fact, in real life, I have never even met another atheist in the flesh that I know of. Most of what I have to say about christians are from first hand experience, not hearsay or speculation.

    You’re simply putting your head in the sand as to what your coreligionists are up to. The christian conservative lobby is a massive machine. Turn on the TV and watch Fox News, check out the commentary shows. I listen to them on the call in radio shows by the hundreds and they are seriously causing me to reconsider the future of our species.

    We need continued support for real education and to leave bible study and sunday school for the church to handle and not the public school system.

  12. Mike D says:

    This of course is a bunch of baloney; scientific knowledge is more widespread than ever, and it has nothing to do with New Atheism. There is no creeping anti-science or anti-intellectualism; it’s a bogeyman New Atheists use to scare people into accepting their hysteric rhetoric.

    Yeah, you tell ’em Jack! It’s not like 40% of Americans are young-earth creationists, or that anti-evolution bills are working their way through the congresses of six states this year alone, or that Kentucky just gave tens of millions in taxpayer dollars so Ken Ham’s young-earth creation museum could build a full-scale replica of Noah’s Ark, or that religious believers reacted with incredulity to Hawking’s demonstration that mathematical models may demonstrate that the universe did not require a creator. Nah, the theists are totally on board with science, even if it contradicts their beliefs – which of course they will gladly change if or when science proves them wrong!

  13. jackhudson says:

    Yeah, you tell ’em Jack! It’s not like 40% of Americans are young-earth creationists, or that anti-evolution bills are working their way through the congresses of six states this year alone, or that Kentucky just gave tens of millions in taxpayer dollars so Ken Ham’s young-earth creation museum could build a full-scale replica of Noah’s Ark, or that religious believers reacted with incredulity to Hawking’s demonstration that mathematical models may demonstrate that the universe did not require a creator. Nah, the theists are totally on board with science, even if it contradicts their beliefs – which of course they will gladly change if or when science proves them wrong!

    Mike, but when I say something like “scientific knowledge is more widespread than ever” the way you counter that is not to say “But hey, look, there are still people who believe X, Y. Z beliefs, beliefs I hold to be anti-scientific!” because the latter statement does not contradict the former statement. What is required is to compare current beliefs to former beliefs – if the current beliefs on the whole are less scientific than the former beliefs, then you might have a point. Is it too much to ask for some basic logic from those who hold themselves up as defenders of logic and reason? How do you expect all those stupids Americans to get their act together Mike, if you address these polls with some logic and reason?

    Your idea that “40% of Americans are young-earth creationists”, appears to be wrong, because you are making vague reference to a poll you didn’t seem to read or represent accurately. In the 2010 Gallup poll you are referencing, pollsters asked respondents, “Which of the following statements comes closest to your views on the origin and development of mankind“:

    Humans evolved, God guided process

    Humans evolved, God had no part of the process

    God created humans in present form within last 10,000 years

    40% chose the latter. Now ‘Young Earth Creationism’ would seem to at least include the idea that the earth is ‘young‘ don’t you think? But the poll didn’t ask about the age of the earth. The poll did make reference to how old respondents thought humanity was, but it only gave one option!

    So essentially the poll asked people to choose whether they were an atheist, a strict darwinist, or whether God uniquely created humans as humans sometime in the recent past. In didn’t give them other time periods to choose from, so the poll really wasn’t about the age of anything.The fact that they chose the last response isn’t too suprising given the vast majority of Americans are Christians. It tells us that there views of humanity reflect their religious beliefs. It tells us almost nothing about their views of science.

    So I hold to my statement that “scientific knowledge is more widespread than ever” until someone actually points out that there is less widespread scientific knowledge today than there was at some point in the past. Or that Christians oppose ‘science’, meaning they have some problem with teaching that important information is gained through the employment of hypothesis, observation, experimentation and replicability of experimental results.

  14. jackhudson says:

    @kinetiiks

    First off I need to point out that even if everything you say is true about Christians, it doesn’t mean that the contention of my post, that New Atheists seem to have little interest in pursuing actual science, is wrong.

    Christians can and do hold to the idea that non-Christians can practice good science. That ‘good science’ from a Christian perspective doesn’t require one to be a Christian or hold that the Bible is true. While I (and I imagine most Christians) find ways to reconcile the Christianity and science, it doesn’t necessarily mean that we require others to hold to the theologies and or philosophies we employ to bring about such a reconciliation. We may consider certain scientific ideas to be flawed, but that isn’t in and of itself mean one is antagonistic to science itself. In fact scientific thinking itself suggests that all scientific theories are flawed to some degree!

    On the other hand, New Atheists generally hold that ‘good science’ is incompatible with religious beliefs. In other words, to accept their view of science is to accept their metaphysical beliefs. It is in fact an imposition of atheism. New Atheists harass not only Christians, but any scientist who holds that science and religious belief occupy separate magesteria. They even have a name for those folk – ‘accomodationist’. It reminds me of the old Stalinist regime where one group of Marxists accused another of not being Marxist enough.

    So on one side we have Christians whose views on the subject of science and faith range widely, and who generally accept the scientific method and differ on the particulars on questions of origins. The most extreme may influence a few schools boards, and apparently some cable tv and am radio stations. And on the other side you have the New Atheists, who find the proper understanding of science to be completely incompatible with even the tolerance of religious beliefs, whose books occupy best seller lists, and whose views currently dominate some nations, and who have great influence in our own secular universities.

    So who is really ‘anti-science’? While I certainly don’t hold the couple of billion Christians to be perfect in this regard, I have to say given the choice of the two, in my mind (and experience) New Atheists are certainly more likely to impose their metaphysical beliefs on others and twist science to suit their agenda, particularly as they see any other metaphysical belief to be incompatible with actual science. Their view of proper science requires atheism. Given that, I am not sure how others see it differently.

  15. The Judge says:

    You’re haggling, Jack. Your statement that “There is no creeping anti-science or anti-intellectualism; it’s a bogeyman New Atheists use to scare people into accepting their hysteric rhetoric” was truly demolished by Kenetics’s post, and you seem not to see that. Significantly, that statement is the perfect example of the bias which you so often display, and which makes for the least persuasive part of your arguments. No wonder, then, that it collapsed under Kenetics’ examples.

    I said this before, and I’ll say it again: you need to work on correcting this bias more urgently than on anything else. You’re an excellent critic of atheism, but you’re not nearly as convincing as a defendant of Christianity. Though perhaps this is evidence of the fact that it is easier to criticise an argument than to make one.

  16. jackhudson says:

    Interestingly, the same criticism was leveled at Chesterton -his response was Orthodoxy.

    I freely admit that part of my reason for being a Christian is because I came to find atheistic materialism and naturalism completely insufficient for living a fully human life. I think what we consider to be true is as much what we consider to be false as it is a positive proof of a particular idea.

    Being only left with the prospect of the existence of God, I was forced to choose amongst various ideas of God. The one that I found to be the most logically consistent with human experience and history and human nature, that best satisfies those short-comings of a godless life was Christianity. I landed on Christianity for a host of historical, cultural, logical, and personal reasons, many of which I have articulated in this blog.

    I don’t doubt Christians have shortcomings or that they have biases (every person does); I just don’t find that Jesus or His teachings shares those shortcomings, which is why my faith rests on Him and not Christians and the church.

  17. The Judge says:

    I freely admit that part of my reason for being a Christian is because I came to find atheistic materialism and naturalism completely insufficient for living a fully human life.

    On this subject, I don’t think that atheism is necessarily bonded with materialism and/or naturalism. I’d argue that something like Taoism doesn’t really believe in ‘God’ in the sense that we understand it, yet it’s an extraordinary source of spiritual wisdom. Extend this concept to Buddhism in general. Numerous modern artists and thinkers in the West have developed philosophies and concepts which are self-evidently spiritual, yet do not rest on the concept of a God. I’d argue that people like Nietzsche or Camus, despite being so vocally anti-theist, were in fact highly spiritual in their outlook (almost exclusively so).

    I agree that positivism is insufficient for a satisfying human life and that a spiritual path is indispensable. But personally I don’t reduce this question to the dialectic of ‘God exists YES or NO?’

  18. jackhudson says:

    To the degree that we know the history of such things, human brutality appears to have been a function of humans ignoring the moral law God made clear to them, and to the degree humans have been kind to one another it appears by and large to be because they are motivated by the same moral law.

    Whether or not one believes the particulars of Scripture, one cannot deny society would be a much better place if the teachings of Christ to love one’s neighbor as oneself, to forgive others for their wrongs committed, and to help those in need were followed.

  19. kenetiks says:

    To the degree that we know the history of such things, human brutality appears to have been a function of humans ignoring the moral law God made clear to them, and to the degree humans have been kind to one another it appears by and large to be because they are motivated by the same moral law.

    Whether or not one believes the particulars of Scripture, one cannot deny society would be a much better place if the teachings of Christ to love one’s neighbor as oneself, to forgive others for their wrongs committed, and to help those in need were followed.

    Except that this behavior precedes Christ. Which is damning enough unto itself.

    Your specific religion does not own a monopoly on ethical human behaviors nor does it demonstrate any ability to persuade the behavior of it’s adherents to conform to it’s garbled, edited and contradictory teachings.

    When all is said and done about the which trials, the inquisition, Stalin, Hitler, the usefulness or role of religion in societal histories, it makes no difference. The bible in all it’s glory and role in history is demonstrably a work of utter old school science fiction.

  20. jackhudson says:

    Except that this behavior precedes Christ. Which is damning enough unto itself.

    I don’t know why it wouldn’t precede Christ; moral law preceded humanity.

    Your specific religion does not own a monopoly on ethical human behaviors nor does it demonstrate any ability to persuade the behavior of it’s adherents to conform to it’s garbled, edited and contradictory teachings.

    And Christianity is unique in world history in terms of producing individuals and cultures that exhibit the above mentioned characteristics. We take for granted the compassion and inherent concern about human worth exhibited in the Western world – the pagan world that preceded it was as brutal as the unChristianized world is today.

    And there is nothing contradictory about the teachings of Christ – they are often challenging, and occasionally require study and thought then most are willing to give them, but that doesn’t make them contradictory.

    When all is said and done about the which trials, the inquisition, Stalin, Hitler, the usefulness or role of religion in societal histories, it makes no difference. The bible in all it’s glory and role in history is demonstrably a work of utter old school science fiction.

    I am not sure why it would be ‘science fiction’; I would think an atheist would hold it to be pure fantasy. 🙂

    Christianity was not only ‘useful’ in creating the Western world and it’s progressive adoption of human worth and liberties, it was essential. There is no comparison to the cultures that existed before hand, or those that lack such influences. One doesn’t have to know much about the history or other cultures to see that.

  21. camasamuni says:

    ‘Christianity was not only ‘useful’ in creating the Western world and it’s progressive adoption of human worth and liberties, it was essential. There is no comparison to the cultures that existed before hand, or those that lack such influences. One doesn’t have to know much about the history or other cultures to see that.’

    But Christianity (the so-called) does have a problem with accepting that all life forms have souls. They have no problem slaughtering animals and cutting up forests, etc… Now if anyone doesn’t see that as leading to the complete/partial annihilation of bio-diversity and our compassionate nature they would be blind to a solid argument (as they usually are).

    ‘Lastly, perhaps the reason why these men blog so much about Christianity and religion is because they are disgusted by the creeping anti-science and anti-intellectualism that is taking over America and the rest of the world. Well-funded and politically influential creationist groups have long made it their mission to abolish the teaching of the science of evolution in schools. I think it’s entirely understandable that these men, who have devoted their lives to understanding the science of life, might be a little peeved when some creationist dolt exclaims that evolution is impossible because their magic book says otherwise.’

    The language of the above extract is an example of Atheistic Antagonism.This person has taken on blind faith that the theory of evolution is a proven fact. He accuses creationists of being ‘dolts’, but is entirely blind to any objective force levied by others. In his/her mind we must accept atheists/scientists as intellectually superior despite the great mess they have caused and are continuing to cause. Of course the great benefit of atheism is the freedom it gives to do any damn thing you want rational or irrational. The atheist is always in great danger of becoming the monkey for want of moral guidance.

  22. jackhudson says:

    But Christianity (the so-called) does have a problem with accepting that all life forms have souls. They have no problem slaughtering animals and cutting up forests, etc… Now if anyone doesn’t see that as leading to the complete/partial annihilation of bio-diversity and our compassionate nature they would be blind to a solid argument (as they usually are).

    That’s an interesting point camasamuni.

    I would agree that Christians don’t believe other life forms have souls, but I don’t think that necessarily means they have to be cruel, indifferent or wasteful.

    A proper understanding of man’s relationship with nature is that he is a steward over that which God gave him, and the teachings of Christ encourage us to be good stewards.

    The teachings of Christ also assure us that “not a single sparrow can fall to the ground” without God’s knowledge which implies we are to have the same concern for our impact on nature. So I don’t think a belief in non-human souls is necessary for concern about all life.

    Thanks for commenting.

  23. camasamuni says:

    Your right about the fact that Christians don’t have to be cruel or wasteful regardless of the belief in animal/plant souls. Unfortunately, the stewardship you mention is often in the form of gathering animals into compounds and breeding them for slaughter and consumption. I see the good stewardship that God wants in the beginning of the book of Genesis. I hope you have read it.

  24. jackhudson says:

    I certainly have, and I agree Christians could do more to bring agricultural practices and natural resource use in line with Biblical prescriptives.

    Unfortunately, we live in a society that no longer treats human beings as if they have souls, so garnering greater appreciation for other life may be difficult.

  25. camasamuni says:

    I have to say well said! The arguments you bring to our attention about the New Atheists are very much in line with my own. Thank you for your replies.

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