The thought that most frequently pops into my head when I read diatribes by militant atheists is “Why won’t you read a book?”Of course, put thus, the thought is implausible. The militant atheists who get interviewed in newspapers presumably have read books. Christopher Hitchens had certainly read a lot of books. But there are good books and there are bad books, and then there are necessary books. And, clearly, they haven’t read any of the books that should, in a cultured society, be presumed necessary for participation in public debate.
…There is no such thing as “religion.” Some words are fine to use in everyday discourse, but become completely useless if one is trying to be conceptually precise. “Religion” is one of them. Religion is probably the most complex, the most variegated, and arguably the most profound human phenomenon. It stretches into the realms of personal experience, dogma, myth, storytelling, social organization, belief, and practice. Militant atheists often use the term “religion” as a shorthand for “dogma,” but in reality many, if not most, religions do not have dogmas. Militant atheists deride the literalistic interpretation of sacred scriptures, but, putting aside the fact that “literalism” in this sense is itself a modern phenomenon and is sidelined by many great theistic scriptural traditions, many religions do not in fact have scriptures.…Religion and science sometimes do, and sometimes don’t, conflict. Krauss is known for his opposition to the idea of “non-overlapping magisteria” — that is to say, the idea that science and religion are simply about two different things, and that therefore there is not, or should not be, competition between the claims of science and religion.…For the record, the position of most of the great developed theistic traditions, at least in the West, is that if you see a conflict between science and religion, you’re dealing either with bad science or with bad religion (as I said, within Catholicism, this is treated as an axiom). For example, in the late 19th century, the theory of polygeny — that different human groups had evolved from different origins — an offshoot of Darwinism, was used to promote so-called “scientific racism.” Christians who objected on the grounds that the Bible describes all the human race as descending from Adam and Eve were dismissed as obscurantists. The problem in the conflict was bad science. By contrast, the post-Renaissance Biblical exegetes, mostly found within Protestantism, who objected to heliocentric theories on scriptural grounds were doing bad religion.…Some people claim that only scientific claims are meaningful, but this is clearly nonsense. Scientific claims are one specific type of empirical claim, but, for starters, there are plenty of other meaningful empirical claims one can make.…And then there are metaphysical claims. Metaphysical claims are claims based on a certain type of logic — metaphysical logic. For example, the claim that a universe of finite causes cannot explain its own existence and so must find its source in some infinite ground of existence, an uncaused cause, is a logical claim, which can be debated using a specific set of logical tools, just like mathematical claims. Maybe it’s wrong. But it’s a logical claim, not a scientific claim.…And this is the basic error: Because science can only adjudicate empirical claims — and indeed only one specific type of empirical claim — it cannot, by definition, adjudicate non-empirical questions, such as why empirical claims are possible to begin with. Theistic claims about the creation of the universe are logical claims; these claims may be wrong, but they cannot be adjudicated with science. (And in this specific sense, certainly, the magisteria do not overlap.)
Here’s the problem with all these false dichotomies: At bottom, they come from, and reinforce, illiteracy. And while sophisticates can, and too often do, produce their own exquisite forms of barbarism, widespread illiteracy probably inexorably leads to barbarism. A scientist who doesn’t understand anything about epistemology, or religion, or philosophy, and gets on his soapbox is a joke. A scientist who does all these things and as a result is on best-seller lists and gets published in The New Yorker is a symptom of a serious social disease. Never mind the science-versus-religion “debate,” such as it is — widespread confusion about science’s epistemological framework is producing a lot of shoddy science, and that should have us all concerned.
…That Krauss, while singing the praises of an epistemic of doubt, blithely evinces absolutely none about the nature or value of human life — he only needs to know what “religious” people oppose to know what he’s for — merely shows that he’s ignorant and intellectually lazy. That he can write this in the pages of a magazine that is supposed to be a beacon of American intellectualism without rebuke, or even throat-clearing, from his ideological fellow-travelers shows that the illiteracy is widespread and cultural.… The institutions we live in and through, whether the scientific revolution or liberal democracy or the concept of human rights, were built and explored by great thinkers, who in turn were grounded in great traditions of rational speculation (that is to say, of philosophy), and it is mystifying and, frankly, very scary that we have arrived at this moment of what can only be called cultural amnesia — an amnesia so profound that we have not only forgotten, we’ve forgotten that we’ve forgotten.
All too often I encounter militant atheists who are so intent on attacking religion that they are blind to their own epistemic errors.