Does science require atheism?

In the atheist camp, there are two fundamentally different approaches to countering religious propaganda, irrationality and their attacks on science: the Dawkin-esque full out attack, and the milder “let-the-evidence-do-the-talking” technique that people like Eugenie Scott of the National Center for Science Education have adopted. Richard Dawkins obviously doesn’t like the latter “soft” approach and has repeatedly made himself clear on that respect, lately by criticizing Scott (and others) for being too “accommodative”*).

In a recent post of his, Prof. Massimo Piuglicci defends Scott and slams Dawkins as naive for thinking that more ridicule and sharper attacks are needed against the religious -who, after all, occupy that huge chunk in the relevant pie charts. Here is part of the Dawkins’ comment that prompted Massimo’s response:

I have from time to time expressed sympathy for the accommodationist tendency so ably criticized here by Jerry Coyne. I have occasionally worried that – just maybe – Eugenie Scott and the appeasers might have a point, a purely political point but one, nevertheless, that we should carefully consider. I have lately found myself moving away from that sympathy.

I suspect that most of our regular readers here would agree that ridicule, of a humorous nature, is likely to be more effective than the sort of snuggling-up and head-patting that Jerry is attacking. I lately started to think that we need to go further: go beyond humorous ridicule, sharpen our barbs to a point where they really hurt.

Michael Shermer, Michael Ruse, Eugenie Scott and others are probably right that contemptuous ridicule is not an expedient way to change the minds of those who are deeply religious. But I think we should probably abandon the irremediably religious precisely because that is what they are – irremediable. I am more interested in the fence-sitters who haven’t really considered the question very long or very carefully. And I think that they are likely to be swayed by a display of naked contempt. Nobody likes to be laughed at. Nobody wants to be the butt of contempt.

And here is Massimo’s commentary (in a post perhaps inappropriately titled “Is Richard Dawkins really that naive?“):

Scott — who is an atheist — has repeatedly said that one cannot claim that science requires atheism because atheism is a philosophical position, not a scientific one. She leverages the standard distinction between philosophical and methodological naturalism: if you are a scientist you have to be a methodological naturalist (i.e., assume for operative purposes that nature and natural laws are all that there is); but this doesn’t commit you to the stronger position of philosophical naturalism (i.e., to the claim that there really isn’t anything outside of nature and its laws).


both Genie and I [Massimo] do recognize that science is one of the strongest arguments for philosophical naturalism, and I suspect that in her case, as in mine, a pretty big reason for why we are atheists is because of our understanding of science.

Now, I never thought that science requires atheism per se, and I do agree that science is a very strong argument for atheism. That said, I am keen to take it one step further and opine that science inevitably leads you to atheism. Well, strictly speaking, and as I have said before, it can lead you to either atheism or madness:

Personally, I do not see how religion and science can coexist peacefully in one’s mind. Science regularly shreds to pieces religious ideas about our cosmos: from the creation of the world to the emergence of life, and from geocentric systems to flat earth ideas*, biblical (and other religious) accounts of cosmology, creation of life, astronomy, and basic biology come in direct contrast with scientific evidence. If one accepts such evidence (as one should) then faith in the holy scriptures (and therefore the relevant omnipotent, omniscient God-writer) must be shaken -if not abandoned altogether. Otherwise, schizophrenic mechanisms have to be employed in order to accommodate both reason and supernatural irrationality in the same mind! There are of course many people accepting the scientific explanation for the emergence of life and at the same time preserving some hints of faith as a matter of tradition, culture, or something socially relevant. But to accept both Evolution and Creationism at face value sounds a bit too weird…

[isn’t self-quoting a great thing?]

Back to the “debate”: Massimo’s got it right, but I don’t think his attack on Dawkins is fully justified. Dawkins did qualify his comments by saying:

I emphatically don’t mean we should use foul-mouthed rants. Nor should we raise our voices and shout at them: let’s have no D’Souzereignty here. Instead, what we need is sarcastic, cutting wit.


Maybe I’m wrong. I’m only thinking aloud, among friends. Is it gloves off time? Or should we continue to go along with the appeasers and be all nice and cuddly, like Eugenie and the National Academy?

So, is Massimo quote-mining here? :-) Naaah, two big contributors to science and the atheism ideals approaching the same issue from different perspectives. I think these “debates” will only do good in refining our techniques. By the way, I mostly agree with both parties here, since I believe it depends on who is sitting opposite you.

  1. * (by the way, this is reminiscent of the Southpark episode where, despite religion having been long eradicated, people still fight between them since they fall into distinct “cults” based on the different interpretations of the ideas of their great atheist ancestor that started it all: Dawkins :-). []