By Jones, Dan
New Statesman (1996) , Vol. 138, No. 4974
It has been the year of evolution. To coincide with the anniversaries of both Darwin's birth and the publication of On the Origin of Species, Richard Dawkins published The Greatest Show on Earth: the Evidence for Evolution. And Jerry Coyne (an eminent evolutionary biologist at the University of Chicago) wrote Why Evolution Is True. Yet, amid the ongoing celebrations, a new storm has erupted. This is not the usual battle between creationist fundamentalists and evolutionists. The latest ruckus has broken out among scientists and philosophers who accept evolutionary theory as the explanation for the emergence of life's diversity.
Where they differ is on the public communication of science and evolution. Dawkins in particular is being rebuked for doing more harm than good to the public face of science. The basic claim--spelled out by the journalist Chris Mooney and the biologist Sheril Kir-shenbaum in their book Unscientific America, published in June--is that Dawkins presents an unnecessarily divisive choice: you can accept evolution and a scientific world-view more broadly, and therefore reject religion, or cling to religion and sacrifice scientific understanding.
This strategy, critics argue, alienates moderate religious people who might otherwise be receptive to scientific theory. Faced with a mutually exclusive choice between their private faith and the objective world-view of science, moderates will turn away from the latter. Science loses out.
It's not just Dawkins. Coyne and all the "new atheists" (including the Darwinian philosopher Daniel Dennett, the neuroscientist Sam Harris and the cultural commentator Christopher Hitchens) are charged with alienating people from science. Lining up against them is a group of "accommodationists", including Mooney, an atheist, and Kirshenbaum, an agnostic, who believe that evolution and religion can live happily side by side--at least under an entente cordiale, if not in a mutually supportive relationship.
Dawkins calls accommodationism "the Neville Chamberlain school" of evolution, and its proponents the appeasement lobby. Yet it is the official line of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the US National Academy of Sciences and the National Centre for Science Education, which is dedicated to promoting the teaching of evolution in American school curriculums.
The accommodationist critique has at least two strands. One is the increasingly common criticism that the new atheists are excessively mean to people of faith, "militant" in tone, and ironically fundamentalist in their non-belief. The accommodationist philosopher Barbara Forrest chastises the new atheists for combining rudeness with arrogance and closed-minded-ness. (Like Mooney and Kirshenbaum, Forrest is no friend of creationism; she was a critical witness at a 2005 trial in Dover, Pennsylvania, in which parents blocked the introduction of "intelligent design" theory into state-school curriculums--see the box opposite.)
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. …