By now, it should be obvious that New Atheists believe that religion will be replaced by scientific materialism. This worldview has two notable elements – scientism and materialism. Materialism is the belief that there is no non-physical reality. Everything is composed of objects that could, one day, be quantified, measured, and described by physicists. Whatever cannot be described by science is not real. So you do not have a soul, your mind is nothing other than your brain in action, and no divine power governs this universe.
Scientism is the belief that the scientific method is the only way we can discover the truth about whatever is real. The arts may make life bearable, but if we want to know the truth about the universe we need to use the scientific method. Everything that exists will ultimately be described in the language of biology, physics and mathematics. A Theory of Everything will explain why the universe exists with just the laws that it has. Consciousness and moral values will turn out to be events in, or functions of, the human brain.
Of course, if you only ask certain kinds of question you’ll only receive certain types of answer. If someone insists that scientific questions are the only questions worth asking they are determining, in advance, the types of answer that they will receive. Scientific answers are tied to the language of mathematics, and tend to avoid the language of purpose, meaning and value. If you will only listen to scientific answers then you will inevitably conclude that the universe lacks purpose meaning and value. That’s exactly the conclusion that the New Atheist wanted to reach; so science becomes central to his worldview.
When Richard Dawkins was accused of cowardice[i] for refusing to debate philosopher William Craig, many of Dawkins supporters insisted that Dawkins need not respond because Craig is not a scientist. This is reminiscent of “Dan the Illogical Scientist[ii]”, a character who appeared all too briefly in Scott Adam’s “Dilbert” comic strips. Dan would stroll into a room, and pick up a proposal. “This proposal won’t work”, he would declare “I can tell because I’m a scientist!” If an engineer protested, “But you haven’t even read my proposal!” Dan would reply with a smirk, “Apparently, you don’t understand science.!”
The New Atheism’s naïve and uncritical adoration of science is similarly embarrassing to watch. It faces three immediate problems. First, historically most scientists have not believed in scientism. Looking for physical causes when you perform experiments does not preclude you searching beauty in art, meaning in a text, blame when someone commits a crime, or asking another person to make a decision! Second, science does not teach scientism or materialism. Scientism cannot be found in any scientific theory, and it is not found in any experimental result. When many New Atheists ask us to believe only what science teaches, we might remind them that science doesn’t teach scientism – or atheism for that matter!
Finally, when Dawkins insists that the existence of God is a scientific hypothesis, his misunderstanding is enough to make an informed person wince. Theism is not a scientific hypothesis. It does not attempt to explain some carefully specified feature of the physical world using observation, experiments or measurements. If we want to treat theism as a hypothesis, we must treat it as a metaphysical hypothesis.
In less academic language, theism is a world-view: an attempt to explain everything. Why does the physical world exist? Is there more to the world than objects that science can discover? Is there right and wrong? How can I know? Why am I here? How should I live? If we are to understand everything there is we need to refer to everything we know. We need to reflect on the success of science, and the lessons that science has taught us. We also need to examine literature and art, history and theology, philosophy and our own hearts. But, of course, the human heart can be a dark and desperately wicked place; so perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised when people express a preference for safer fields of study!
[i] http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/religion/8511931/Richard-Dawkins-accused-of-cowardice-for-refusing-to-debate-existence-of-God.html#disqus_thread (retrieved Mon 15th May 2011)
[ii] You can meet Dan here: http://search.dilbert.com/search?w=the+illogical+scientist&view=list&filter=type%3Acomic