Science, History and the Myths of New Atheism

by Graham Veale

New Atheists seem wedded to a secularist myth, a “meta-narrative” for technophiles. For example Jerry Coyne recently reacted angrily to Ross Douthat’s critique of contemporary secularist thought:

Douthat is wrong. The cracks are not in the edifice of secularism, but in the temples of faith. As he should know if he reads his own newspaper, secularism is not cracking up but growing in the U.S. He and his fellow religionists are on the way out, and his columns are his swan song. It may take years, but one fine day our grandchildren will look back on people like Douthat, shake their heads, and wonder why some people couldn’t put away their childish things.”

This led Douthat to comment dryly:

For a man who believes in “a physical and purposeless universe” with no room for teleology, Coyne seems remarkably confident about what direction human history is going in, and where it will end up.”

Secularist mythology teaches that, just as science has grown in knowledge, and just as technology has become more and more advanced, society is also becoming more enlightened, moving in a definite, desirable direction. The advance of science seems to be correlated with the withdrawal of religion. Therefore, as progress marches on religion will retreat, a casualty to the victory of reason over superstition. If history is necessarily moving onward and upward to greater things, this result can only be welcomed.

The myth acknowledges that religion was once useful as “social glue” to held society together. The gods were the personalisation of human social values: they provided a basis for social order. Religion also functioned as a primitive explanation for mysterious events: our first, faltering attempt to comprehend the cosmos. Over time, however, the world was disenchanted. Just as managerial techniques and sophisticated bureaucracies removed the need for religious authorities, scientific explanations replaced creation narratives.

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Given the destructive power of modern weapons, our ravenous exploitation of natural resources and our amoral policies to less developed nations, it is difficult to argue that the secular West has made a great deal of moral progress in recent decades. Furthermore, there is no logical connection between the growth of science and the demise of religion. Many contemporary scientists and philosophers have argued that there is a deep coherence between theism and science[i]. Significantly the doctrine that Christendom has perpetually warred with the sciences has been rejected as a fable by historians.

For example, in an essay which argues that it is much too simplistic to say that Christianity alone gave birth to modern science, Noah J Efron points out that:

To be fair, the claim that Christianity led to modern science captures something true and important. Generations of historians and sociologists have discovered many ways in which Christians, Christian beliefs, and Christian institutions played crucial roles in fashioning the tenets, methods and institutions of what in time became modern science…today almost all historians agree that Christianity (Catholicism as well as Protestantism) moved early-modern intellectuals to study nature systematically.”[ii]

It’s easy to overlook the importance of this Christian contribution. After Faraday and the second industrial revolution, it seems axiomatic that scientific discovery brings technological progress. However, when the pioneers of science set out to examine nature this was not at all obvious. Knowledge of the natural world was pursued simply because it was considered to be good in itself. This particular pursuit of knowledge makes sense if we are “thinking God’s thoughts after him” by studying his creation. Intellectuals would have been less inclined to study a world produced by the random movement of meaningless atoms in the infinite void…

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Science, History and the Myths of New Atheism – Saints and Sceptics


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