Hitchens & the ‘Warfare’ Thesis of Science & Religion

One of the most important books in the New Atheist canon.
One of the most important books in the New Atheist canon.

In his most infamous work, the talented (if acerbic) Christopher Hitchens opines,

“All attempts to reconcile faith with science and reason are consigned to failure and ridicule…I read, for example, of some ecumenical conference of Christians who desire to show their broad-mindedness and invite some physicists along. But I am compelled to remember what I know – which is that there would be no such churches in the first place if humanity had not been afraid of the weather, the dark, the plague, the eclipse, and all manner of other things now easily explicable. And also if humanity had not been compelled, on pain of extremely agonizing consequences, to pay the exorbitant tithes and taxes that raised the imposing edifices of religion.”

Such reflections clearly place Hitchens (may he RIP), along with most of the other “New Atheists,” solidly in the “warfare” camp among competing models of the relationship between religion and science.  Like Dawkins, Hitchens seems to assume that robust science and faith cannot coexist.  In the section from which the above quote is culled, Hitchens goes on the cite a number of famous scientists (Newton, Hoyle, and others) who had more deist than classicly monotheist religious views – folks who, I think he reasonably argued, are not religious in any functional sense.

But who do advocates of the warfare thesis do with, say, evolutionary theists? Take someone like Francis Collins, previously in charge of the Human Genome Project, now head of the NIH.  Collins writes eloquently of how his experience with the genome was an experience of worship, and his “BioLogos” perspective rejects both Creationism and Intelligent Design and instead defends evolution as the explanation for human origins that Christians can not only accept but celebrate.

Does the presence of Collins and others like him (say, Alister McGrath or John Polkinghorne), devoutly religious persons who fully accept modern scientific methods and conclusions, negate the “warfare” thesis defended by Hitchens, Dawkins, and others? Why or why not?

[Source: Christopher Hitchens, God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything (New York: Twelve Books 2007), 64-65.]

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Drew McIntyre

A guy spoiled silly by grace. A follower of Christ and a leader in his flock. A husband, a writer, and thought leader. Blessed. Also blogging at drewbmcintyre.com

One thought on “Hitchens & the ‘Warfare’ Thesis of Science & Religion”

  1. There are a couple of factors in play here that influence the strength of anti theism in the atheist community. The first, a philosophical term called Non Overlapping Magisteria that some folk with a theological background might be familiar with, [NOMA] and the concept of secular pluralistic society, set up by the US Constitution.

    But first some ephemera. If it were not for the perpetual efforts by the religious to codify privilege for the church into law, anti-theism would be at best a fringe element of atheism. Personally speaking, it would be a perfect world in which I didn’t feel it necessary to center my identity around the rejection of god as a direct response to a society determined to force/coerce me into a “relationship” with one. So a strong case could be made that “New Atheism” wouldn’t exist today, but for the faithful. And for those who say “I don’t care what you believe” then structure their society so that non compliance to the observance of church canon is criminalized by “blasphemy” laws or overt hostility are quite frankly either deluded or outright liars.

    For those not familiar with (NOMA), it is the view advocated by Stephen Jay Gould that science and religion each have “a legitimate magisterium, or domain of teaching authority,” and these two domains do not overlap. Science makes truth claims about the directly observable, testable, and measurable attributes of the universe, and religion makes truth claims about the metaphysical realms that are not in any sense observable, measurable, or testable. So in the world of justified truth those things that can be verified are true and those that can’t are believed by some to be true without evidence.
    Confirmation and corroboration form the gaping chasm between science and religion. One can’t realistically assert a metaphysical explanation as a truth claim for a naturalistic environment. Ever. By the same token, science is useless in providing explanations of the supernatural. It shouldn’t try.

    The other factor is the struggle between secular pluralism and theocracy. In a pluralistic society, citizens assert the right to be free from religious rule and teachings, or, in a state declared to be neutral on matters of belief, from the imposition by government of religion or religious practices upon its people. Public activities and decisions, especially political ones, should be uninfluenced by religious beliefs and/or practices. In such a system, people are free to practice whatever beliefs they hold dear without the fear or reprisal or control from those with differing beliefs. One tide floats all boats, as it were. Equality for all. A theocracy on the other hand, imposes a form of government in which God or a deity is recognized as the supreme civil ruler, the God’s or deity’s laws being interpreted by the ecclesiastical authorities and priests/clergy claiming a divine commission. If there is “freedom” in that, it is to feel free to worship how the government directs you to. No equality for all. We have examples of varying degrees of theocracy from Islamic states to the United States.

    It should be no surprise to anyone then, that people wanting to live in a free society would be anti-theistic in regard to a theocratic environment, not just atheists. Thomas Jefferson is quoted, “History, I believe, furnishes no example of a priest-ridden people maintaining a free civil government. This marks the lowest grade of ignorance of which their civil as well as religious leaders will always avail themselves for their own purposes.”

    I apologize for the length of my reply, but I felt it important that people understand that anti-theism isn’t just about the differences between religion and science or their potential compatibilities.

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