There is a middle-of-the-road report on the “new atheist”/”accommodationist” argument in The New Statesman, which, it seems to me, gives a pretty fair account of the dispute. Frankly, I am surprised that there has not been more objective media coverage of this very significant rift; if Lingua Franca magazine were still around, that would be an appropriate place for it, but where are other appropriate outlets, like the Chronicle of Higher Education?
Anyways, I didn’t speak with the New Statesman author, but it seems Barbara Forrest did:
Forrest argues that new atheists should respect the personal nature of faith, and nurture a sense of humility by recognising that scientific evidence does not rule out existence of the divine. They should accept that there is a wide range of views, she says, and stop insisting that everyone follow the “one true way” of atheism. Failing to do so only turns people off in droves.
Yet it seems unlikely that the new atheists have been this damaging. They have been an identifiable group and social force for five years only – starting with Harris’s The End of Faith in 2004, which was followed by Dawkins’s The God Delusion in 2006. More significantly, polls indicate that the proportion of the US public that subscribes to a creationist account of human origins has remained relatively constant for the past 25 years, hovering around 45 per cent. The previous era, which advocated greater respect for religion, does not seem to have won over hearts or minds. So who is to say that taking the opposite approach will drive anyone away?
I want to comment on this, because I think it contains some pretty big misconceptions about the nature of public opinion, and how we might detect changes therein.
We know there is a strong and unwavering subset of the public that embraces creationism, and that it is deeply entrenched, and has been for decades. That’s not in dispute. But there is a lot of questionable thinking about how the New Atheism, a very young movement, may or may not have affected this.
First, I don’t know to what extent that part of the population that embraces creationism views the New Atheism as something distinctly “different” from what came before. After all, creationists and the religious right were denouncing “secular humanists” long before the New Atheism came along. Creationist leaders are surely aware of the New Atheism, but for the creationist rank-and-file, who have long considered evolutionary science to be the equivalent an atheist plot (and have been told this repeatedly by said leaders), it is not clear to me that they will find any news here, much less change their views dramatically on that basis.
Therefore, even assuming that the New Atheists are having an impact somewhere, it is hardly obvious that the creationist ranks are the place where we would expect to detect it. For my part, I’m far more worried about alienation of the middle, and the thwarting of coalitions that might combat the creationists, as a result of the New Atheism.
Secondly, I find it highly dubious to judge past strategies to be a failure based on the lack of movement in the creationist polling numbers cited above.
In a longstanding culture war situation, like the one we have over the teaching of evolution, you often have to run to stand still. And in the “previous era,” at least one kind of undeniable stride was made that has nothing to do with polling numbers–namely, we won the court cases and got the legal precedents when it really counted. Moreover, in the courtroom, e.g., the Dover trial, “accommodationism” was the triumphant strategy.
These court victories don’t mean that the creationist numbers went down; they just mean the creationists didn’t get a stronger foothold in our schools–which itself was a pretty big achievement.
Throughout all of this, there has been a longstanding perception in much of America that science and religion are inimical to one another, and contradictory. This is a perception that the creationists have fanned for a long time (hence the “secular humanism” business), and that the New Atheists now also explicitly support. In a sense, it works to the advantage of both groups, at the expense to of the middle.
This “conflict narrative” or “conflict thesis” also happens to be a historically misinformed perspective, in my view, and one that is questionable on other fronts as well–but I think it is a dominant perception, and constantly reinforced by the mass media.
For those of us critical of the New Atheists, then, it is not because we think they have emerged and dramatically upset the culture war stalemate over the teaching of evolution in some way. Rather, it is because they are likely alienate the middle ground and aren’t a constructive response, in the present moment, to the need to defuse longstanding tensions over science and religion in America.