Whatever you do, don’t call them militant
Blimey, it’s a lot worse than I thought. I had worried somewhat that I had unfairly prejudged the Reason Project in my Nature Muse, suggesting (mildly, I thought) that this might be the same old line of seeking out the worst in religion to expose the urgent need for its destruction and then imagining that this can be done by simply telling people the facts, so far as we currently know them, about the origins of humanity and the universe. But on current showing, that is precisely what it seems to be.
As a firm atheist, I don’t particularly object to that. I just find it a bit over-optimistic, and a tad intellectually lame. It reminds me of the old deficit model that used to motivate the Public Understanding of Science movement: just give people the right facts, and then they’ll agree with us. I am in favour of any movement that campaigns to kick out of schools the invidious misinformation of creationism, intelligent design and the rest of the shoddy fundamentalist agenda. I am very much in favour of a movement that aims to denounce religious intolerance and that attacks the kind of harmful and ignorant nonsense that seems increasingly to be coming from the Vatican. And I believe I said that in my article.
But what depresses me is that the Reason Project and many of its supporters are so sure of the battle-lines that they have lost the ability of basic English comprehension. It is this that has earned me the delightful honour of a place in the Reason Project’s Hall of Shame, no less – because it has decided that I am placing the irenic BioLogos Foundation, the Templeton Foundation, and other apologists, on a pedestal, making them the nice, friendly good guys who only want us all to get along. Does my article say that? No, it simply quotes from the BioLogos mission statement (just as it quotes from the Reason Project mission statement). That this is taken as registering approval is a bit disturbing. The fact that I suggest the Reason Project in some respects ‘should be applauded’, and say no such thing about the BioLogos Foundation, doesn’t seem to be noticed. (The fact is that I’m utterly indifferent to the BioLogos Foundation. I find its aims uninspiring and its current statements about the relation of science and religion somewhat shallow.)
Did I say (as most of the comments on the Reason Project page imply) that science and religion are compatible? No. They are systems of thought that seem to me to stem from quite different axioms, and are bound to run into logical contradictions. But humans seem remarkably good at living with contradictions. We all do it. It is not a particularly laudable attribute, but it is what we are like (most of us). Many people (not me) are apparently able to reconcile religious belief with a deep trust in science. I’m not sure how, but they do. I suspect they just take the bits they like and ignore the bits that clash. On current evidence, this seems to offend a lot of people associated with the Reason Project.
There doesn’t seem to be much to be gained from responding to the various comments on the Reason Project site, since they are so lamentable. (A sample: ‘It is sad to see that, in their desperation to recapitalize, a journal with the prestige of Nature is whoring around looking for some of that Tempelton prize money. Go write and editorialize for a religious newspaper or magazine if you want to espouse religious viewpoints.’ ‘Dr Ball essentially states that while religion, admittedly, wrongly picks on certain aspects of science, religion and science can coexist, and thus we should not eliminate religion.’ ‘I find it particularly disturbing that this article [sic] was in a science magazine. Once again we have a document declairing [sic] ignorance as a right of passage.’ ‘I found this part objectionable, “atheistic absolutism works as long as it ignores what people are like.” I feel it misses the point that people are not like anything. It is the memes that make people believe in sky fairies and all the other wishful thinking crap.’ ‘Philip Ball says it himself—“religion is a social construct.” Science is not. In defending faith without evidence, does he really not see the irony in this statement?!’ [Oh yes, the irony!] ‘Philip Ball presents Francis Collins as a happy peacemaker vs the “militant atheists.”’ Stop now, it’s too depressing.)
But hey, that’s the blogosphere for you. If I was Sam Harris, however, I’d be worried. And what truly depresses me is that this may actually reflect the level of comprehension and reflection found ‘at the top’ of the Reason Project. I think we haven’t heard the last of this yet.