There was an article in The Chronicle of Higher Education last week by Tom Bartlett that caught my eye. Bartlett reports on a growing group of atheist scientists who are challenging what they regard as the New Atheists’ (Dawkins, Hitchens [RIP], Dennett, et al.) unscientific approach to religion. David Sloan Wilson, a professor of biology and anthropology at SUNY Binghamton, is one of the leading figures in the movement. According to Wilson, when it comes to religion, the New Atheists “don’t understand the nature of the beast” and nevertheless “go on and on in an ignorant fashion.”
In particular, Wilson believes that Dawkins and his friends fail to give the differentiated account of the effects of religion that a more objective (more “scientific”) investigation would lead to. That is to say, the New Atheists, in Wilson’s view, overplay the negative effects of religion. They tend only to focus on the data that confirm their hypothesis.
This is not a new accusation. But the fact that it is coming from fellow atheists who are also scientists and proponents of evolution, this I think is newsworthy. (I have to confess that I don’t keep regular tabs on the debate with the New Atheists, so if I’m behind on things, please let me know.)
As atheists, Wilson and his like-minded colleagues have obviously already made up their minds about God. But apparently this does not make a difference for them with respect to the study of religion or its value (this approach to religion is also not new).
Recognizing this fact, Bartlett wonders whether the truth about God’s existence is all that important and suggests that it may be more important to consider merely what effects belief in God has. He writes:
Maybe we should stop asking whether God exists and start asking whether it’s useful to believe that he does.
I don’t see a good reason to ignore either question. Both are important to find answers to. In fact, I would argue that knowing the truth about God’s existence is even more crucial than knowing what my belief in him does for me or others (although, the latter, again, is still important). Suppose I said: “Let’s stop looking for a cure for cancer and just study the effects of the belief in a cure.” The case may not be perfectly analogous but I think it does help us to see the point.
Furthermore, let’s say that Wilson and his fellow atheists did eventually conclude not only that religion has positive effects but that, of all undertakings in which human beings can involve themselves, it has the most positive effects such that it’s better to be religious than not. Surely, Wilson and his friends (or some of them) would — as good scientists — find religion quite attractive at that point. Would they then decide to behave as believers in all ways save in the point about believing in God’s existence? Why behave as if God exists when you have decided (or “know”) that he doesn’t? I assume that they would see the absurdity of this prospect and would therefore take the question of God’s existence quite seriously. But, once again, I think this hints at the importance of the question from the very start.
It goes without saying, of course, that this is a question that science (in the modern understanding of this term) cannot answer.