09/27/2013 08:36 am ET Updated Nov 27, 2013

The Rising Antiscience

New atheism refers to a set of ideas presented in a series of bestselling books that appeared between 2004 and 2007. Today it remains a strong but minority view among atheists. Basically, new atheists differ from the old atheists by being more willing to challenge religious beliefs that contradict science and reason, and engage in intellectual, moral, and political disputes with even moderate believers.

The old atheists criticize these positions as too uncompromising. They say we need to be more accommodating, be careful not to offend "deeply held beliefs," and to work together with moderate religious groups if (for example) we are to keep creationism out of the schools. This view is commonly found among those atheists who are also scientists, if they think about it at all.

Of course, new atheists don't want to see creationism in the schools any more than the old atheists did. But they don't regard this as such an overarching problem that we should ignore the even greater damage that is done to society by the irrational, magical thinking associated with religion, which penetrates all areas of human life. Creationism is not the cause but the effect of such thinking.

Most working scientists and scientific organizations, notably the National Academy of Sciences, are accommodationist. They carefully avoid confronting religion for fear of losing public support for science. But let me tell you something. They're losing it anyway. Spurred on by the antiscience of the religious right, political support for science is lower now than at any time in memory.

The Bush administration restricted what government scientists could report to the public. Similar actions are currently being implemented with a vengeance in Canada by its Prime Minister, Stephen Harper. It is to be noted that both Bush and Harper are evangelical Christians.

The Obama administration is more favorably inclined toward science, but this has not translated into the maintenance of adequate support for scientific research, which in all fields, including space, environment, energy, and health, comprises just a few percent of our military spending.

Once America was the foremost nation in science. Today the most important discoveries are being made elsewhere. Few fresh science PhDs in the U.S. have much hope of getting a post-doctoral appointment and virtually none of making a career in the academic world.

In the meantime, our schools are producing a generation of science illiterates. The US is 29th among developed nations on a list that ranks the science literacy of 15-year olds.

Many who write on the subject blame American scientists for doing a poor job of communicating science to the public. While it's true that scientists are generally not great communicators, most of the public doesn't learn about science from scientists but from non-experts such as teachers, journalists, and popular authors. Furthermore, polls show a continuing high level of respect for the role science plays in improving human lives with medicine and technology.

So, you might ask: What's the problem? Where does all this hostility to science come in?

I think the answer is clear. The hostility is not directed toward the practical applications of science, as in medicine and technology, but with the challenges that basic science brings to the religious views held by the majority of Americans. Unfortunately most Americans do not seem to realize that basic scientific research is the foundation of the welcome applications.

Let's take a look at some of the conflicts between science and religion that have an important impact on society. Of course, evolution is the most familiar; so let me cover that first. In a survey of 33 countries in Europe plus Japan, only Muslim Turkey had a lower belief in evolution than the United States.

Evangelicals and fundamentalists see evolution as a threat to their belief in the inerrancy of scripture, which indeed it is. No compromise is possible here. However, the Catholic Church and moderate Protestant churches say they accept evolution.

But that is simply not true. Listening to what both church leaders and their flocks actually say they believe shows that it is not evolution as understood by science. Christians from the Pope on down all insist evolution is God-directed. That's not evolution. That's intelligent design. The whole point of Darwin's theory of evolution is that it works with random variation. There's no God in Darwinian evolution.

Of course, evolution is not the only battleground these days between science and antiscience. The second big combat zone is climate change. There can be no factual disputing that the carbon dioxide level in the atmosphere is far above what is expected naturally and is caused by the burning of fossil fuels. And the simplest physics tells us that this will lead to global warming by the greenhouse effect.

Much is being made recently of the fact that the average global temperatures have not risen significantly in the last decade or so. But this is too short a period to indicate a trend since the fluctuations in temperature are large from year to year. In fact, climate models predict that flattening of the plot will be seen occasionally as the result of natural cooling cycles in the oceans, especially the Pacific, which carry so much of Earth's surface heat.

We simply have to look at all the data, not just a cherry-picked sample that supports our preconceptions. Arctic ice is still retreating. The Northwest Passage is now open to commercial traffic. The U.S. is experiencing record heat.

For years climate scientists have been predicting that global warming caused by human activity is going to lead to an increasing frequency of violent weather. Consider recent events in my state of Colorado. We have experienced two unusually destructive wildfires, a tornado unheard of this close to the mountains, and now an almost biblical flood. And recently there were hurricane Sandy on the East coast, the massive tornado in Oklahoma City, and Katrina.

Although this is anecdotal, I have looked at a range of data and statistically we definitely have had an increase in violent storms across the world over the last decade or so. So it sure looks like this particular scientific prediction may be bearing out.

Yet we still hear people saying that the whole global warming thing is a hoax, cooked up (no pun intended) by unscrupulous scientists in order to get more government funding. What have scientists actually done to deserve such mistrust? Nothing but present facts that conflict with the "deeply held belief" of many Christians that God would never allow such a thing.

In 2009, John Shimkus, Republican of Illinois, and a member of the Energy and Commerce Committee of the U.S. House of Representatives, argued that climate change is a myth because God told Noah he would never again destroy Earth by flood (Gen 8:21-22). He is seen on video as saying, "The earth will end only when God declares it's time to be over. Man will not destroy this earth. This earth will not be destroyed by a flood. . . . I do believe God's word is infallible, unchanging, perfect."

Now, it's not a surprise that the fossil-fuel barons and the politicians they support financially are behind all this global warming denial propaganda. They have adopted many of the disinformation techniques that were developed by the tobacco industry a generation ago in order to cast doubt on the scientific evidence connecting smoking to cancer and other diseases. These include (1) raising doubts about even the most indisputable scientific evidence and (2) promoting scientific spokespeople who misrepresented peer-reviewed scientific findings or cherry-picked facts in their attempts to persuade the media and the public that there is still serious debate among scientists that burning fossil fuels has contributed to global warming and that human-caused warming will have serious consequences.

Perhaps it is not surprising that oil and coal companies would resort to dishonest tactics to protect its investments--the cutthroat business world being what it is. What is surprising is how many ordinary people fall for their lies. You would think most people have nothing to gain and everything to lose by opposing measures to lessen the impact of climate change.

Here again, few scientists and accommodationist atheists are willing to publicly acknowledge the role of religion. But the facts speak for themselves. A recent poll showed that only 31 percent of evangelicals believe there is any global warming at all, while 58 percent of those unaffiliated with any church not only believe Earth is warming but agree it is the result of human activity.

Let's try to see what the religious objection to anthropogenic global warming could possibly be. An organization called The Cornwall Alliance for The Stewardship of Creation recently issued what it calls "An Evangelical Declaration on Global Warming." Here are some selected quotations from that document:
  • We believe Earth and its ecosystems--created by God's intelligent design and infinite power and sustained by His faithful providence--are robust, resilient, self-regulating, and self-correcting, admirably suited for human flourishing, and displaying His glory. Earth's climate system is no exception. Recent global warming is one of many natural cycles of warming and cooling in geologic history.
  • We deny that Earth and its ecosystems are the fragile and unstable products of chance, and particularly that Earth's climate system is vulnerable to dangerous alteration because of minuscule changes in atmospheric chemistry. Recent warming was neither abnormally large nor abnormally rapid. There is no convincing scientific evidence that human contributions to greenhouse gases is causing dangerous global warming.
  • We deny that carbon dioxide--essential to all plant growth--is a pollutant. Reducing greenhouse gases cannot achieve significant reductions in future global temperatures, and the costs of the policies would far exceed the benefits.

Global warming denialism is just one part of the growing mistrust for science in America, which I have described, and is not limited to evangelicals and conservatives. Science is viewed by many people, including many liberals, as a special-interest group that does not always serve the public's best interest.

No doubt some members of the scientific community, such as those working for polluting industries and agricultural giants, have not always acted for the common good. Honest scientists have to expose them and work harder to regain the public's trust. They have to come out of the comfort of their labs and defend science--their own profession--for their own and the public's good.

Corporate profits are the force behind the denial of climate change. But denialism would not be so effective if its proponents were not able to exploit the antiscience inherent to religious faith.

Faith would not be such a negative force in society if it were just about religion. However, the magical thinking that becomes deeply ingrained whenever blind faith rules over facts warps all areas of life. It produces a frame of mind in which concepts are formulated with deep passion but without the slightest attention paid to the evidence that bears on the concept.

From its very beginning in prehistory, religion has been a tool used by those in power to retain that power and keep the masses in line. This continues today as religious groups are manipulated to work against believers' own best interests in health and economic well being by casting doubt on well-established scientific findings. This would not be possible except for the diametrically opposed world-views of science and religion.

I have an urgent plea to scientists and all thinking people. We need to focus our attention on one goal, which will not be reached in the lifetime of the youngest among us but has to be achieved someday if humanity is to survive: That goal is the replacement of foolish faith and its vanities with something more sublime--knowledge and understanding that is securely based on observable reality.

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