Dispelling Myths and Other Adventures in Atheist Literature

18 10 2010

Science vs. Religion: What Scientists Really Think by Elaine Ecklund (published this year by Oxford University Press) dispels the atheist’s much ballyhooed myth that scientists are overwhelmingly atheist or agnostic. As it turns out, Ecklund’s extensively researched (over 1,700 social and natural scientists surveyed, with nearly 300 personally interviewed) and heavily footnoted book found that nearly half (47%) of all scientists at America’s elite universities have formal religious affiliations, and another 20% consider themselves spiritual. Come again? You mean the majority of scientists at the nation’s top universities believe in some sort of transcendence? Appears so. Go figure. As Ecklund writes, “The ‘insurmountable hostility’ between science and religion is a caricature, a thought-cliché, perhaps useful as a satire on groupthink, but hardly representative of reality.”

I had a recent personal experience that seems to point to this fact. Last Sunday after church I was talking on the close with another parishioner, a graduate student at Caltech who is doing his research in optics, specifically in the sub-fields of plasmotics and quantum optics. He told me that he has never been made to feel squeamish about his religious views among his colleagues, and though he knows that some of his professors are atheists, not all of them are, and for the most part, people tended to keep their religious view to themselves. I was also gratified to hear that he didn’t even know that Richard Dawkins had spoken on campus a few weeks earlier.

And then, as I was perusing Amazon for the latest and greatest material on atheism ~ my modus operandi is always to hear the best arguments against my positions ~ I ran across a book I hadn’t heard of before, from a former Christian who was now an ardent atheist. As I read the reviews of Why I Became an Atheist: A Former Preacher Rejects Christianity by John Loftus (of the 50 reviews total, nearly 40 of them gave the book 4 stars or above), my heart began to beat a little faster. Here’s a sampling of the comments:

“This is by far the best single volume criticism of Christianity you can buy!”

“The Outsider Test for Faith chapter should earn Loftus a permanent place in the history of critiques of religion.”

“Of the spate of books coming from the so-called “New Atheists” that have appeared in the past few years–Hitchens, Dawkins, Harris, et al–John W. Loftus’s critique of Christian theism is by far the most sophisticated.”

“Indeed, unlike, say, Sam Harris or Richard Dawkins, Loftus is a fully-informed insider who knows what he’s talking about. He was fully immersed in making the very case for Christianity that he now tears down. He was trained by the best, is well-read in the field, and gets all the nuances that apologists accuse pop atheists (like Harris and Dawkins) of missing.”

“I doubt any honest, rational, informed Evangelical can remain in the fold after reading this book. Even though any Christian could pick at bits, the overall force of his case is, IMO, invincibly fatal.”

High praise! Needless to say, I was very excited to read the book. And so I did… well, at least I started to. Oops.

Instead of an extensive rebuttal of Loftus’s points, which I couldn’t do because I barely made it through the first thirty pages (other reviewers of the 1- and 2-star variety do quite well enough in that area, anyway), I’ll simply say this: atheists deserve better. Pick up Hume’s Dialogues and Natural History of Religion, or Feuerbach’s The Essence of Religion. Now there’s some good materialist grist for the mill. Take those books and digest them. They are good tonic for an inquisitive mind, and they will challenge many a believer. But if you must pick up Loftus’s book, then do yourself a favor. Read the free excerpts available on Amazon first. You might just find, like I did, that you’ll pocket the money and spend it on something far more worthwhile… like the new pumpkin spice latte at Starbucks, or a used DVD of South Park. Either way, don’t be hoodwinked by the reviews. Honestly, if this is the best that atheists can do…

To be fair, there will be those who fault me for dismissing a book I barely cracked open, and under most circumstances, it would be fair criticism. But do you really need to sit through all 90 minutes of, say, My Stepdad’s a Freakin’ Vampire! to know that it won’t be winning any Oscars? Like someone once said, you don’t need the weatherman to know which way the wind’s blowing.

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