Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum have published an article in Newsweek [Defenders of the Faith: Scientists who blast religion are hurting their own cause].
The subtitle reveals that Mooney and Kirshenbaum just don't get it. I am a scientist who "blasts" religion. My "cause" is to demonstrate that religion is superstitious nonsense and should be abandoned. There are many people who share my opinion and they aren't all scientists. The fact that I am a scientist isn't really relevant.
The position that Mooney and Kirshenbaum adopt would be equivalent to saying that Christopher Hitchens should back off because he's hurting the "cause" of journalism, or that Rickey Gervais is hurting the "cause" of comedy, or Bill Gates is hurting the "cause" of making tons of money. They make the assumption that atheist scientists are only interested in promoting science (to the American public) and everything else is secondary.
This point has been explained to them hundreds of times. I don't know whether they are deliberately ignoring the facts order to frame the argument in their own terms or whether they are incapable of grasping the distinction we are tying to make.
There are times when Mooney and Kirshenbaum seem to be on the verge of understanding. The Newsweek article contains such an example. After the typical rant about how great Francis Collins is and how evil PZ Myers is, they go on to say ....
The public's willingness to reject science for religious reasons is certainly lamentable. But by arguing that science contradicts religion and makes it untenable, many atheists reinforce the very concerns that are keeping people from accepting science to begin with. Someone like Collins, by contrast, can convince those who think science conflicts with their beliefs that this needn't be the case.This is the same old story we've heard before. Yes, it's true that someone like Francis Collins, who claims that science and religion are compatible, can be a great comfort to people who long to hear this. But that's not the point. The point is whether science and religion really are compatible. That's the question that certain atheists are asking and it won't be settled by pointing to Francis Collins. That's about as absurd as claiming that incompatibility is proven by pointing to Neil deGrasse Tyson or Jerry Coyne.
But wait. Here's where Mooney and Kirshenbaum offer us a glimmer of hope. They come very close to recognizing that the real question is whether science and religion are compatible and not just whether Collins thinks they are. They recognize that there's an "intellectual" question that might be important.
And Collins's approach isn't just good as a strategy to get the public to better appreciate science. The idea that science and religion can be compatible is strong on the intellectual merits as well. Granted, it depends how you define your terms: if your religion holds that Genesis must be read literally, then you are in direct conflict with scientific findings about the age of the Earth, the diversity of life on the planet, and so on. Yet if we consider religion more broadly—in its own considerable diversity—we find many sophisticated believers who've made a peace between their belief and the findings of modern science. It's not just Collins; consider the words of the Dalai Lama: "If science proves some belief of Buddhism wrong, then Buddhism will have to change."Oh dear. Close but no cigar. They're still relying on the argument from authority—in this case the Dalai Lama—and their "evidence" still depends on the fallacy of The Doctrine of Joint Belief. And there's those mysterious "sophisticated believers" that we hear so much about but never actually encounter. Where are they hidden?
Still, there's a glimmer of hope. Keep trying, Chris and Sheril. One of these days you may see a frozen waterfall and everything will become clear.
UPDATE: James Hrynyshyn draws your attention to the same passage from the Newsweek article but he puts a different spin on it [Science v. Atheism: the Dalai Lama gambit]. Imagine that Francis Collins makes the same kind of statement that that Dalai Lama made. Collins would say, "If science proves some belief of Christianity wrong, then Christianity will have to change."
How many Christians want to hear that their religion might be wrong and might have to change?
[Hat Tip: RichardDawkins.net]