The Common Good

Tina Beattie on The New Atheists, Part 2: Faith and Reason Are Not Enemies (interview by Becky Garrison)

The New Atheists: The Twilight of Reason and the War on ReligionFollowing is a continuation of Becky Garrison's e-mail exchange with Tina Beattie, author of The New Atheists: The Twilight of Reason and the War on Religion. Click here for part one.

Elaborate on what you meant by this statement: "To understand the impact of [Darwin's] The Origin of Species and the ongoing struggle between evolutionary science and religion, we need to situate Darwin in a wider context with regard to the changing relationship between theology and science in Victorian England."

My argument is that the 19th-century conflict between science and theology in England in particular, which is being played out again today by the so-called "new" atheists, has to be understood as much in terms of power as in terms of truth, bearing in mind that, since the Enlightenment, the relationship between knowledge and power have gone hand in hand -- to quote Francis Bacon, "Knowledge is power." Until the mid-19th century, the institutions and values of English public life were to a very considerable extent dominated by the Anglican church, and theologians and clergy were custodians not only of knowledge but of considerable power and influence. When scientists sought autonomy from theology, they had to struggle against the vested interests of a church that wielded considerable power, and not surprisingly the struggle was sometimes expressed in militant and hostile terms. However, just as today militant atheism masks a much more fertile and mutually informative debate between science and religion and often involves scientists who are themselves religious believers, so in the 19th century, the vast majority of those caught up in the debate did not see it in terms of an irreconcilable conflict between science and religion, but as a struggle for meaning that was capable of encompassing both the truths of the Christian religion and the new discoveries of science, even if the latter demanded considerable rethinking of the former. I think that's still very much the tone of the debate today, even if we often don't hear the quiet voices of reason amidst the din of militancy on both sides.

It's also worth pointing out that this is a debate that plays out very differently in Britain and America. A 2006 survey suggested that atheists are more feared and despised in America than Muslims, gays, or lesbians. In Britain, there is no stigma attached to being an atheist, and British thinkers like Dawkins and Hitchens are somewhat dishonest when they present atheists as universally reviled. In fact, until the recent resurgence of religion in British politics during Tony Blair's government, British politicians were very wary about declaring any religious convictions. Certainly, atheism remains every bit as respectable as liberal Christianity in mainstream British society, and a good deal more acceptable than Catholicism, Islam, or any overt display of religious enthusiasm.

How has science been co-opted by intelligent design theorists and militant atheists?

Intelligent design theorists such as Michael Behe and William Dembski seek to challenge the teaching of evolution by natural selection in American schools, by offering a different theory of the origins and evolution of life based on the idea of an intelligent designer. Their argument is that some living organisms (e.g. the bacterial flagellum) are so complex and so finely tuned that their existence cannot be explained by evolution alone. Because this is a theory that ostensibly does not rely on any particular religious understanding of God, intelligent design theorists argue that it should be taught in schools as a scientific alternative to Darwin's theory. Intelligent design theory is not the same as creationism, which challenges Darwin's theory by appealing to a literal interpretation of the creation account in the book of Genesis. Atheists such as Dawkins argue that the theory of natural selection eliminates any need for an intelligent designer, because it suggests that, given enough time and enough cumulative evolutionary modifications, even the most complex life forms can be explained without recourse to the idea of God. However, intelligent design theorists are not the only ones to point to considerable inconsistencies and improbabilities in the Darwinian hypothesis, so that even if the theory of evolution is broadly correct, there is still much work to be done on accounting for the emergence of complex life forms and, most importantly, the evolution of human consciousness as a capacity to reflect on the laws and phenomena of the material world. Of course, if we bring physics as well as biology into the picture, then the vision of the universe that modern science lays before us is far more mysterious and elusive than we once thought. Some would argue that the boundary between philosophy and/or theology and science dissolves in the face of quantum physics.

Why do you think we might be at "the dawning of a near era of plurality, diversity and freedom, but it may also be the beginning of a long night of violence and conflict?"

We live on the brink of environmental disaster and in an era of proliferating threats of war. Our global economy is in crisis, largely thanks to the corruption, greed, and cynicism of those who have profited from the unfettered capitalism of the last 20 years. We know that many people in our world today are willing to resort to violence to achieve their political and ideological goals, whether that is the ruthless violence of the modern nation-state with its high-tech armies and increasingly repressive techniques of government and imprisonment, the anarchic violence of tyrants such as Robert Mugabe, or the chillingly unpredictable and suicidal violence of Islamist extremism. We also have opportunities as never before to communicate across divisions of race, culture, and religion, to use this as a time of opportunity for the transformation of our political and economic structures, and to insist that our politicians, religious leaders, and others in power channel the earth's limited but still abundant resources into the service of human life and dignity. Faith and reason are not enemies. They enable us to cultivate a vision of human dignity and purpose, and to create the social and economic structures that allow humans to flourish in many different cultural, religious, and geographical contexts. Only if we rescue democracy from its alarming decline, in which apathy and tyranny together are turning our modern societies into dystopian nightmares, might we find the collective resources to meet the challenges we face. Only hope can give us the energy we need to change, and whether we find that hope in secular or religious visions of the future, we all need to discover it before it's too late. I think our starting place must be our relationship to violence and our acceptance of war as "politics by other means," and this is a challenge to the modern nation-state as much as it is to the world's religious traditions.

Becky GarrisonBecky Garrison is the author of The New Atheist Crusaders and Their Unholy Grail.

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