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Religion, Science and the Attack of the Angry Atheists

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I'd been warned. A friend cautioned me that if we went ahead and posted our MIT Survey on Science, Religion and Origins, I'd get inundated with hate-mail from religious fundamentalists who believe our universe to be less than 10,000 years old. We posted it anyway, and the vitriolic responses poured in as predicted. But to my amazement, most of them didn't come from religious people, but from angry atheists! I found this particularly remarkable since I'm not religious myself. I have three criticisms of these angry atheists:

1) They help religious fundamentalists:
A key point I wanted to make with our survey is that there are two interesting science-religion controversies: a) Between religion & atheism b) Between religious groups who do & don't attack science

Some forces pushing for creationism in US schools try to conflate the two so that they can pretend to represent the majority, and taunting religious groups that don't attack science can play into their hands. In contrast, I think that drawing attention to b) is the most effective way to weaken the anti-scientific fringe and improve the prospects for future generations.

Although 46% of Americans believe that humans were created less than 10,000 years ago according to a Gallup poll, our survey showed that merely 11% of Americans belong to a religion openly rejecting evolution or Big Bang cosmology, so the mainstream religions representing the majority can be a powerful ally against the anti-scientific fundamentalists.

2) They could use more modesty:
If I've learned anything as a physicist, it's how little we know with certainty. In terms of the ultimate nature of reality, we scientists are ontologically ignorant. For example, many respected physicists believe in the so-called Copenhagen Interpretation of quantum mechanics, according to which a fundamentally random process called "wavefunction collapse" occurs whenever you observe something. This interpretation has been criticized both for being anthropocentric (quantum godfather Niels Bohr famously argued that there's no reality without observation) and for being vague (there's no equation specifying when the purported collapse is supposed to happen, and there's arguably no experimental evidence for it).

Let's compare the ontological views of Niels Bohr to those of a moderate and tolerant religious person. At least one of them is incorrect, since Bohr was an atheist. Perhaps neither is correct. But who's to say that the former is clearly superior to the latter, which should be ridiculed and taunted? Personally, I'd bet good money against the Copenhagen Interpretation, but it would be absurd if I couldn't be friends with those believing its ontology and unite with them in the quest to make our planet a better place.

3) They should practice what they preach:
Most atheists advocate for replacing fundamentalism, superstition and intolerance by careful and thoughtful scientific discourse. Yet after we posted our survey report, ad hominem attacks abounded, and most of the caustic comments I got (including one from a fellow physics professor) revealed that their authors hadn't even bothered reading the report they were criticizing.

Just as it would be unfair to blame all religious people for what some fundamentalists do, I'm obviously not implying that all anti-religious people are mean-spirited or intolerant. However, I can't help being struck by how some people on both the religious and anti-religious extremes of the spectrum share disturbing similarities in debating style.

All my ideas may be wrong, including those I've expressed here, and I don't mind if you criticize me. All I ask is that, before you do, you please read carefully what I've written, make an honest attempt to understand my point of view, and articulate your criticism carefully and thoughtfully. Otherwise you may be undermining your own ideals.

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