THE LEADING EDGE by Phillip E. Johnson
As I write this installment of “The Leading Edge” just before Thanksgiving Day of 2006, I have many things to be thankful for. For one thing, I am making splendid progress in coming back from a second major stroke. Far from being confined to a wheel chair, I am walking at least a mile every morning when the weather permits, and working out regularly at a local gym.
Of course, a third stroke might finish me off at any time, but two strokes have made me very health-conscious, with the result that my weight and blood pressure are both down, and I am confident that my new self-discipline is a surer protection against arterial clogging than the carotid surgery I relied upon after the first stroke.
With Gloves Off
A second blessing I derive from my Internet reading. It tells me that the world’s most uncompromising scientific atheists, intoxicated by the unbroken record of success they think science has achieved in explaining the world without need of the God hypothesis, and by their own success in selling books and gathering publicity, but maddened by the persistence of creationism and the new challenge from the Intelligent Design movement, have decided to demolish what Dawkins calls “the God delusion” before it can damage their dream of bringing the whole world under the sway of scientific rationality.
To that end, they are entering the public arena with the gloves off, determined to complete the demolition by landing whatever blows, high or low, are needed for the purpose. I’ll describe briefly three articles that have told me this entertaining story.
1. Time magazine’s cover story in early November 2006, titled “Science vs. God,” featured a debate over God’s existence between Richard Dawkins, the aggressively articulate Oxford University scientific atheist and popularizer of the “selfish gene” version of Darwinism, and Francis Collins, the mild--mannered theistic evolutionist who fills the lofty position of Director of the US government’s Human Genome Project.
As is so often the case, the debate was interesting less for what was actually said than for how the issue was defined. Since Dawkins says that science and religion (that is, belief in God) are antithetical, and Collins says they are not, Time’s defining the subject as “God versus science” was virtually to award the victory to Dawkins in advance. Probably Time’s editors assumed that their readers would know, without having to be told, that “God versus science” means “religious belief versus reality.”
Moreover, Collins is a gentle and reflective man, not a verbal gladiator. Dawkins has told me that he loathes lawyers, but he has some of the personal traits of a trial lawyer himself. Despite Dawkins’s advantage, a jury might have found Collins more persuasive, because Dawkins, who relies heavily upon ex cathedra pronouncements and intimidation, tends to come across as a bully rather than a man of reason.
2. Wired is a magazine for technophiles. The cover of its November issue featured a provocative article by Gary Wolf, “The Church of the Non-Believers,” about a handful of book-writing scientific materialists, led by Dawkins, who are mounting a crusade against belief in God. The target of this verbal jihad is not only the believers but even the lukewarm agnostics, like Gary Wolf, who are told that “we are called out, we fence sitters, and told to help exorcise this debilitating curse: the curse of faith.”
The New Atheists will not let us off the hook simply because we are not doctrinaire believers. They condemn not just belief in God but respect for belief in God. Religion is not only wrong; it’s evil. Now that the battle has been joined, there’s no excuse for shirking. Three writers have sounded this call to arms. They are Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Daniel Dennett.
One thing “to enlist in the war against faith” would mean, Wolf learned, is revising some of our views about human rights and family relationships. Dawkins is willing to allow adults to believe whatever they like, but not to teach their religious beliefs to their children, because such beliefs consist of “manifest falsehoods.”
Although I disagree with Dawkins about as much as anyone could, there are some things about the man I can’t help liking. One of these things is his irrepressible habit of saying what he thinks to be the truth, even though he knows that his in-your-face atheism horrifies his more prudent allies, who think that the only way to overcome public opposition to a materialist theory of evolution is to soft-pedal or disguise its religious implications.
Another thing is that he has a way of directing attention to the right question, although he usually has the wrong answer. For example, he is one of those atheists who can’t stop talking about God, and so he continually reminds his listeners of how important God is. This is not the way to remove God from people’s minds.
Gary Wolf considered joining the new atheist crusade, but in the end he backed away because the atheists couldn’t offer enough of a positive program to satisfy him.
3. On November 21, the New York Times, in an article by George Johnson titled “A Free-for-All on Science and Religion,” reported on a science and religion forum held at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla, California. Suddenly, the conference departed from the usual banalities and began to resemble the founding convention of a political party built on a single plank: In a world dangerously charged with ideology, science needs to take on an evangelical role, vying with religion as a teller of the greatest story ever told.
The story made clear that there are considerably more people in the scientific community eager to launch an anti-religion crusade than just the few described by Gary Wolf. It also showed, however, that any such project will draw opposition from scientists who, whether or not they believe in God, regard Dawkins as a shallow popularizer and think that science should not get into an open fight with religion.
From this I conclude that the new atheist crusaders are dangerous only to themselves. Once they step out of the protected haven called “science,” they invite the public to examine their philosophical biases and lay themselves open to a devastating rebuttal that will readily be forthcoming.
That is why I look forward to the prospect of an intellectual battle in which the evolutionary naturalists are no longer able to cloak their vulnerabilities in the manifest falsehoods of the “Inherit the Wind” mythology that they have exploited for so long. •
Phillip E. Johnson is Professor of Law (emeritus) at the University of California at Berkeley. He is the author of Darwin on Trial, The Wedge of Truth, The Right Questions (InterVarsity Press), and other books challenging the naturalistic assumptions that dominate modern culture. He is a contributing editor of Touchstone.
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