HUNTINGTON, Ind. (Our Sunday Visitor) – There are many words that could be used to describe Richard Dawkins. Subtle is not one of them. "[The God of the Old Testament] is a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully," wrote the Oxford University evolutionist in his most recent best-seller, The God Delusion.
In case that didn't make his thoughts on God clear enough, in recent months Dawkins also compared God to a small child's imaginary friend – a little purple man with a tinkling bell to be exact – and religious education to "brainwashing."
The latter remark was uttered at a conference last November in La Jolla, Calif. That conference, "Beyond Belief: Science, Religion, Reason and Survival," brought together an international collection of scientists who made Dawkins look downright politic.
"The world needs to wake up from its long nightmare of religious belief," proclaimed one of the conference's keynote speakers, Steven Weinberg, a Noble laureate in physics.
"Science is a philosophy of discovery; intelligent design is a philosophy of ignorance," chimed in another speaker, Neil deGrasse Tyson, director of the Hayden Planetarium in New York City and an adviser to the Bush administration on space exploration.
Although most of the speakers at the "Beyond Belief" conference did little more than preach to the choir, their chorus has been singing with increasing fervor and volume as of late. From a flood of books bearing titles such as The End of Faith: Religion, Terror and the Future of Reason to the recent founding of the Center for Inquiry Transnational, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank dedicated to opposing the interference of religion in legislative decision-making, the world of science appears to be gearing up for an all-out assault on the world of religion. But, as the adage goes, appearances can be deceiving.
According to author and University of Delaware physicist Stephen Barr, the first deception is the most basic: This seeming war between science and religion is not between science and religion at all, but rather between atheism and religion.
"The problem is atheists, not scientists," said Barr. "There are far more scientists who are religious than scientists who consider themselves opponents of religion."
Barr credits record-high levels of atheism and religious indifference in the West, as well as the specter of religious fundamentalism raised by Islamic jihad, with creating a moment of opportunity that atheists like Dawkins have been quick to seize. And they're seizing it, he said, by repackaging age-old arguments against religion and passing them off as the reasoned conclusions of science.
Science as religion
Barr also believes atheism's longstanding war against religion takes the appearance of a war between science and religion because for many atheists, including those at the La Jolla conference, science is not just science. Rather, it is a religion in its own right, a religion that has the power to free man from disease, hunger and even death.
Real religion, on the other hand, with its moral obligations and ethical imperatives, is an obstacle to the unlimited (and unchecked) scientific progress in which they've put their faith.
"They do not believe that the church proclaims truth, but they are fearful that what it does proclaim as true is contrary to science," said Father Thomas Weinandy, executive director of the Secretariat for Doctrine and Pastoral Practices for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
"They have a psychological investment in making religion appear as hateful as possible," added Barr.
They also have an investment in stopping those who believe in God from voicing any opinions that differ from their own. That investment has taken concrete form in the recent establishment of the Center for Inquiry Transnational. Founded by the well-known atheist Paul Kurtz, the center lobbies against the influence of religion in legislative decision-making on Capitol Hill.
According to Kurtz, the center doesn't deny the rights of Christians to have an opinion on issues such as abortion, stem-cell research and AIDS prevention, he just doesn't think they have any business inserting their opinions on those issues into policy debates.
"We believe in liberty of expression," Kurtz told Our Sunday Visitor. "But to impose a moral perspective on these issues, issues that are matters of scientific inquiry, is illegitimate."
Unlike scientists such as Kurtz who fear that religious faith will undermine scientific truth, the Catholic Church doesn't fear that scientific truth will undermine religious faith. In fact, experience has shown just the opposite.
"Modern science – especially physics and cosmology – have shown us how deep the beauty and orderliness of the universe are," said Barr.
From ecclesiastics such as St. Albert the Great, Jesuit Father Angelo Secci (the founder of modern astrophysics) and the Augustinian monk Gregor Mendel (the father of genetics) to devout Catholic laymen like Copernicus, Blaise Paschal and Louis Pasteur, centuries of Catholics have demonstrated the compatibility of faith and science. And the church sees no reason for that to change anytime soon.
"Whatever is true ultimately finds its source in God," Father Weinandy said. "So there can't be a conflict between what is scientifically true and what is revealed as true in revelation."
For now, with Dawkins' book still climbing the best-seller list, and Kurtz's public-policy group lobbying hard in Washington, the mythical war between science and religion will more than likely continue to make headlines. But in the end, Barr expects the most lasting damage caused by Dawkins and company's war will be damage to the reputations of those waging it.
"In the long run," he said, "fanatics always hurt their own cause."
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Emily Stimpson writes from Ohio for Our Sunday Visitor. .
Republished with permission by Catholic Online from the Nov. 2, 2007, issue of Our Sunday Visitor newspaper (www.osv.com) in Huntington, Ind., a Catholic Online Preferred Publishing Partner.