New Atheists, Science, and the Roots of Religious Intolerance

How the New Atheists abuse the limits of science with intolerant attacks on religion.
This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at

As the darkness of Good Friday approaches, I eagerly await the dawn of Easter morning. Christ is risen indeed!


Any other comments are less important than the one I just left, but your thoughts and questions on Dr. Snobelen’s column are still welcome.

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What gives traction to the New Atheists is the constant drum beat of Religious Extremism ruining people’s lives, if not whole countries…

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In many ways you are right. Pushing creationism in science class and forcing taxpayers to fund a silly gigantic landlocked Ark Park do not help the situation.


This atheist didn’t find much to object to here at all–with the significant exception of the section about Peter Medawar. Can he really assert definitely that science could never answer the questions mentioned? Maybe it could. And maybe it couldn’t, but it is a given that “metaphysics, imaginative literature, or religion” have, will, or could? Those examples are pretty tough questions. Despite considerable brainpower spent on them over the years, I don’t recall seeing any definitive answers to them. They may well remain unanswerable far into the future. For the latter two, the answers could even well be “for no reason whatsoever”. Think about such things all you want, I’m all for it, and I’m not saying you’ll never answer them, but trying to claim some kind of special ability to answer them is disingenuous. The whole idea smacks of trying to carve out a gap where religion might survive wedged in with philosophy and safe from intrusion by science.


Thank you for sharing your viewpoint.

I think you’re partly misinterpreting that quotation from Medawar. Yes, he’s convinced that there are some tough human questions that science can’t answer; there you disagree with him. But, I don’t think he’s saying that those other areas of inquiry (metaphysics, etc) are capable of producing certainty either. It’s more about what science doesn’t possess the ability to do–remember the book is called The Limits of Science (and IMO it’s a very good book that you might want to read). Science self-consciously limits its scope of inquiry to things that are measurable and observable, whereas many other areas of knowledge (I’ll call them knowledge, recognizing that you might not) explore the rest of reality. Art would be a nice example that Medawar didn’t include in that passage. I doubt that biochemistry can tell us anything helpful at all about Guernica, e.g., whereas Picasso certainly did (IMO).

The elephant in this room might be C.P. Snow’s old idea of the “two cultures,” namely the sciences and the humanities, which possess different methods and examine different subjects. In his opinion (which I mainly share), folks educated in one of the two cultures often don’t understand (and don’t appreciate) what happens in the other culture. In my own case, I was like that in high school: I knew I wanted to be an astrophysicist and that I literally hated the humanities. That’s why I chose to study at a technical university rather than a liberal arts college (I was admitted to both). I didn’t discover the humanities until a few years later.

So, I think your final sentence is misplaced. Medawar wasn’t interested in “carving out a gap” for religion and philosophy to be safe from science. Rather, he was advising his fellow scientists that they were simply over-reaching, a conclusion he believed was fully consistent with the nature of scientific knowledge.

Thank you for your kind response Ted.

I’ll take you up on the book recommendation, it does sound up my alley :slight_smile:

I understand that science is limited to the measurable and observable. But can you say with certainty that those things will always unalterably stay so in this case? Is there any reason that science should leave this area forever out of reach of measurement and observation?

What does it mean that he’s not saying “those other areas of inquiry (metaphysics, etc) are capable of producing certainty either”. What CAN they do is the question, it seems to me. Obviously the question can be analyzed by any means of rational thought, not limited by the ordinary bounds of science, or by metaphysics etc.

Art is art. It’s beautiful in many ways, and I love it in many ways, but what does it have to do with this issue?

I don’t understand the parochial desire to lay claim on this particular field of knowledge. Let’s face it–we don’t know much about it. We can speculate, or guess, and we seem to be good at writing stuff down–but we don’t know.

If that meshes with “Medawar wasn’t interested in “carving out a gap” for religion and philosophy to be safe from science”, I would think that was cool. However, I can’t see how science is over-reaching. I’m not even sure what that means. What has science asserted to be true about it?

By the way, don’t know if this is your thing, but the Discourse implementation here is really cool.

That Medawar quote regarding “child-like” questions about first and last things caught my attention as a simple reflection about things taken by some to be beyond science. I think a difference of approaches is that he is being descriptive rather than prescriptive about what science can do. I.e. the prescriptive approach tries to tell science “thou shalt not tread on this holy ground” where as the descriptive approach is simply an observation about the kinds of questions that can be addressed by the tools of science.

If I’m trying to cook dinner and I find that my automobile owners manual is useless to help me perform that culinary task, it isn’t that I’m trying to “carve out” some protected space out-of-reach from my car owners manual – it is more that I’m just observing that it isn’t designed for that task and I’d be better off consulting a cook book.

That said, science is a much broader “manual” and it is hard to know exactly where its limits might be; (one might even say that is yet another unknowable question that science cannot determine for itself). Would it be fair to say, science is welcome to study and go as far as it can? If I think that science will never discover a square circle it isn’t because I’m afraid it will or that I want to prevent it from doing so. It’s because (on non-scientific grounds) I strongly suspect such a thing is impossible and science will just never be able to go there. But if somebody wants to mount a research campaign to find that square circle, more power to them! It can always delve yet another millionth of a second into the big bang event – already vastly further than many expected. But it just means that the new “first thing” is still there waiting to be explained. Short of the unsatisfying infinite regression (which in itself is just a “throwing up of the hands”) there will always be Medawar’s “first thing” pulling at our curiosity.

Even though this is beyond the scope of the discussed article, I would venture that the answer to the “so what CAN they [humanities] do” question is that they propose a lot of things all along the spectrum that runs from speculation to certainty. It would be uncharitable in the extreme to insist that all things addressed by the humanities are nothing but blind speculation.

Thanks for your thoughts.
[edit about square circle added in above.]

It is. :slight_smile: You catch that, @BradKramer?

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He’s gone rather farther than that though. He seems at once to be asserting that these specific questions are beyond science, and that they in some way define the limits of science.

Has rational thought solved these questions? It seems to me that the answer must be no, so then might we not equally say that “The existence of a limit to rational thought is made clear by its inability to answer childlike questions…”

I don’t understand his reasoning or accept his conclusion here. I understand that this was a short quote, and I would like to read the book to see what Dr. Medawar was saying or objecting to more exactly.

That’s how it appears that it must be to us from our vantage point, but who can say what paradigm might be resulting in our reality? I haven’t heard a convincing rational argument that would break out of the regression. This in fact is the primary reason that I call myself an atheist, though I’m agnostic in the sense that I recognize that I don’t have these answers. I will go as far as to say that some answers might include something that is godlike, but I have yet to be convinced by any earthly speculation about such a god’s nature. I’m all ears to such arguments by the way, but attempts to resolve the conundrum seem to me to be limited by insufficient information in much the way that a strictly scientific analysis would be. I think that such questions are beyond our current understanding of the universe, and though I want to know, I can accept that my knowledge in the area is limited.

However, who knows what we will learn in the future? Surely it is possible that new, scientifically revealed information about the universe may grant us new insight. Or that rational thought might, as well. Why try to delineate these questions in this way? If a specific argument, scientific or otherwise, is based on faulty reasoning, by all means it should be called out. I don’t see the point of putting down lines on the field in advance.

I agree, and it needs to be said that Christianity from its very beginning, considered that all men/women of goodwill had access to the truth. It is not the delineation of knowledge that is put forward by Christianity, but instead who may confess the faith - granting faith is God’s doing, and I do not know why some, who are sincere, are atheists, and why others are theists. Be that as it may, seeking the truth is an impulse given to all humanity from God.


I’m with you there. My own approach (whether or not Medawar would end up agreeing --and it would surprise me if he didn’t) is that we aren’t trying to define limits (prescriptively) so much as noting that there appear to be things (however nebulously or vaguely understood) that aren’t really empirically addressable questions. Science has free reign to go as far in those directions as it can, though. No artificial delineations need be put in the sand by any Christian since they think God is sovereign over all such things anyway regardless of how much of a handle science may or may not have on it.

This epistemic humility is appreciated and shared. Ted reminded us that the humanities were not here claimed to be offering certainty either, but it does highlight to me a difference in how knowledge is approached by, say, “pre-Cartesian believers” and today’s modernist commitments often shared by believer and non-believer alike.

I am in the midst of composing for my classroom time-line a “placard” summarizing Descartes’ deep influence on modern western thought. Before Descartes, knowledge was assumed to objectively exist and most importantly be authenticated by higher authority [God]. Descartes changed the focus of this authentication from being external [higher authority] to internal [what can I be certain of?]. He may have experimented with this switch innocently enough [Catholic as he was], resolving to discard all so-called certainties to see where he could get from scratch. But the switch-over was profound. Now knowledge became a matter of rational certainty located within (not revelation from without). Even theologians [thinking of Schleiermacher and no doubt many since] followed this, making religious convictions now based on the subjective and experiential evaluations – authority to validate truth now resides in each person. Empiricists would build on this (since pure philosophy can only get you so far along with certainty --we want to “know” more than just that we ourselves exist). And here modern science came into its own. Instead of proof, we can more realistically discuss probabilities in proportion to empirical evidence. But the locus of evaluation for all that still (in the philosophical sense) resides inside each appraiser who will decide for themselves how trustworthy all such evidential appraisal is.

Modern science [if we may pretend it is some monolithic thing] actually agrees with the original believers about the existence of objective truth, and maintains a healthy suspicion if not rejection of subjective assertions. But thinking believers [many of us around here I hope!] who are willing to reflect on these influences can, I think, keep the best of this rationalist approach while still hearkening back to a conviction [we would say a warranted one, recognizing your disagreement in this] that there is an external authority and there are important revelations that we can respond to and embrace without demanding Cartesian philosophical certainty, and with varying degrees of warrant in the broadly empirical sense.

Believers are instructed to walk by faith and not by sight. Jesus seems to have presupposed that we of course choose to walk by daylight when we have it instead of stumbling around in the dark. So I think it is safe to say that Christians are not supposed to shut their eyes and then think this is what it means to trust God in faith. We use our eyes to the fullest extent we can, of course. Science helps those eyes see even more and further. Who would object to that? So science is welcome to do whatever it can. We believers are still left to trust in God who underlies all things both in daylight and veiled in darkness.

And now my ramble is mercifully cut short by a need to head off for an Easter celebration. Blessings to you, and thanks, John, for your patient conversation that provokes me to think out loud here along with you. May it continue.

To echo Ted’s celebratory comment somewhere above: He is risen indeed!

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Thanks to you as well Mervin for the response, very interesting and informative. I hope to have the opportunity to talk and listen further as well. A Happy Easter to you.


@John_Dalton and @Mervin_Bitikofer,

This is a good example.

Famously, Polkinghorne and others are fond of giving this example: why is the kettle boiling? There are at least two entirely correct answers that do not overlap at all. (1) b/c the water molecules are moving very fast, and enough of them are escaping into the atmosphere to produce visible and audible steam. (2) b/c I want a cup of tea. Science knows (1) but not (2).

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I like (and have used) that example too, Ted. It is lumped together in my memory with “Russell’s Teapot” orbiting somewhere between Mars and Jupiter. (Try putting those two analogies together!)

One thing I had meant to press on a bit further with above, @John_Dalton, was to think a bit more about the question of authority. Descartes roughly marks a shift from external to internal, but even within that latter [internal] locus now, it would be interesting to tease out the difference between the authority of “me” individually, and the authority of “us” as a group. I.e. Descartes’ philosophy was intensely individualistic. I can know that I exist – but as to whether you exist or not could be a matter of debate (strictly internal debate apparently! :expressionless: )

But none of us stays back there – we launch ahead with our multitude of presuppositions for a much more practical, evidential take on reality. And to do that efficiently we extend our “internal locus of authority” to a corporate one. Science does this – we call it consensus and are happy to lean on the consensus of others who specialize in things beyond us. Religious people do it too – thinking on this from a Christian perspective. One person is not supposed to come to think they can discern God’s will (or even understand Scriptures!) in perpetuated isolation. We are called to community; church community to be more specific. Spirits, prophecies, teachings, and interpretations get tested. The smaller the group this happens in, the more danger there is of radically erroneous group-think but unity is easier to reach. The wider that community umbrella gets the smaller the core of consensus will be and unity is harder to come by.

So our “internalization” of authority is really much messier than I made it sound. And that is probably true on the science side of things too, though it is messy in different ways – and due to the more accessible nature of its subject matter has a much bigger core of things we are happy to think we’re certain about!

I think that more is happening than these analogies imply. It would be one thing to say “various methods of inquiry have their strengths and limitations, and they can’t necessarily be applied in any given situation.” However, it seems to me that once you extend that to say “this method of inquiry isn’t applicable to question X,” you’ve assumed a number of burdens. First, you need to demonstrate that that is actually true. Second, it strikes me as very odd to say “science can’t be applied to this situation, so anything else is fair game”. It would seem that the same test should be made for any method of inquiry you care to apply. It doesn’t seem to me that Medawar has done either of these things, and could he? More to the point–what’s the point? It seems totally adequate to me to say “we have a number of intellectual tools that can be applied to resolve questions, and we can use any of them where they are applicable.” It would be one thing if someone were attempting to do so erroneously, and you were refuting them. But is that happening? I’m very skeptical of the need to make blanket delineations about specific questions–it seems selectively applied and self-serving.

@Mervin_Bitikofer, I have to admit that I followed your last post better than this one :sweat: Can I ask if it applies to what we’ve been discussing–that might help me put it together better–or were you speaking generally?

That was a bit more tangential off from where I / we started, and was more just me thinking aloud to anybody who might find something worth responding to. If you had trouble seeing much relevance, it might be because I failed to make it so. Don’t sweat over it! :relieved:

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Francis S. Collins, a scientist famous worldwide as Head of the Human Genome Project, has demonstrated that scientific brilliance is no obstacle to the abandonment of atheism. Quite the opposite. His example encourages us to encourage others to resolve their estrangement from the creator God who loved the inheritors of a cosmic speck of dust so much he entered into it as vulnerable flesh knowing and accepting the excruciating pain commensurate with our needs for forgiving grace.

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A (temporary?) case for this link

  1. The linked page is upfront in respect for BioLogos and repetitious in affection for Dr. Collins. It’s first three links are to BioLogos and its founder.
  2. The URL add-on, “dialogue-with-atheists,” was coined by Google, not me, and I am pleased it fits that page as a guest link to this BioLogos page.
  3. The main original essay, the linked page’s reason for being, generally addresses themes consistent with the article here: atheists’ celebratory anticipation of the GAP’s shrinkage, and their animosity to theist speculation trespassing there where nothing is provable. The lead for the essay is a link to a Washington Post article about limits of science. Theodicy is a motivating theme and, yes, existence is not ignored.
  4. “ this is not the right place for debates on God’s existence” ??? The article is about “Atheists” who are about “atheism” which is about (not) “existence.” Not?
  5. “discuss these important issues with charity and humility.” My “Gap speculation: Version 2” affirms God’s equal love for atheists and broadly excuses them from full responsibility for their unbelief.
  6. “Please do not put a link to your own blog or website in the first post in a new thread.” My fault I am a bundle of confusion in a sea of replies, but hope this qualifies as a second post.
  7. “sensitive to differences in educational backgrounds, faith traditions, cultural contexts, and levels of English language fluency.” Bless BioLogos for generously accommodating amateurism such as mine—no education in theology or science.

“Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone.” -Colossians 4:6

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