Equating science with atheism

A blog post by Dr.  just came up in my feed regarding the relationship between atheism and science. Giberson writes:

Equating science with atheism is one of the most dangerous byproducts of America’s culture wars. This strange polarization portends disaster, as the country divides into factions that cannot find common ground on the way the world operates. And it goes without saying that there will be no agreement on what should be done when scientifically significant issues need political action.

One of Giberson’s primary concerns is with claims that by supporting science, particularly with regard to evolution, that he is making a compromise with atheists. He has written about this issue previously, noting that the “rejection of science seems to be part of a politically monolithic red-state fundamentalism, textbook evidence of an unyielding ignorance on the part of the religious.”

Despite being an advocate for science, Giberson has received some criticism from prominent atheists like Jerry Coyne, who reviewed Giberson’s book Saving Darwin: How to be a Christian and Believe in Evolution. Although Coyne seems favorable to Giberson’s critiques of Creationism, he takes exception to Giberson’s failure to single out religion, instead blaming “two secular movements, populism and atheism.” He has a point. To quote Giberson:

Critics of creationism were often rude and dismissive and appeared to have agendas that went beyond the truth of various claims about the natural history of the earth…. These famous critics failed to grasp that creationists are also committed Christians and many of them are reasonable, generous, and motivated by the noblest of intentions. Thoughtful Christians sense something disingenuous about the mean-spirited lambasting that accompanies what should be a civil argument about science.

This quote is consistent with some Giberson’s other statements, such as that atheists should me more friendly and learn how to play in the same sandbox as the religious. Contrast Giberson’s position with Coyne’s, which is that for diplomatic reasons we all pretend that religion and science have a perfectly harmonious relationship:

Liberal religious people have been important allies in our struggle against creationism, and it is not pleasant to alienate them by declaring how we feel. This is why, as a tactical matter, groups such as the National Academy of Sciences claim that religion and science do not conflict. But their main evidence–the existence of religious scientists–is wearing thin as scientists grow ever more vociferous about their lack of faith.

From a sociological perspective, it seems to me that Coyne has the stronger argument. Whether or not religion and science are philosophically compatible is not of much interest to me. What is of interest to me is the relationship between atheism and science, and from a sociological perspective it is hard to deny that there is a much stronger relationship between the two than religion and science. I am not referring to the number of scientists who identify as religious “nones,” so much as I am the short distance separating atheism as a social movement and the Enlightenment ideologies that not only bolstered the development of modern science, but were integral to the popularization of science.

My own research finds a significant link between atheist activism and pro-science views. Other sociology of irreligion researchers have come to similar conclusions. As Jesse Smith writes in his article “Creating a Godless Community: The Collective Identity Work of Contemporary American Atheists”:

Although atheists cannot employ any clear institutional structure or set of ‘preexisting solidarities’ (Polleta and Jasper 2001) to motivate participation, a focus on science, education, rationality, evidence-based thinking, and other basic Enlightenment values clearly form part of the rhetorical repertoire through which they make their appeals—appeals that figure heavily in the ‘identity framing’ strategies discussed by social movement scholars. People distill these values by referring to individuals of historical/cultural import whom they think embody or represent them. For instance, many local meetings include presentations that highlight prominent scientists, authors, philanthropists, and other cultural elite (past or present) who are atheists, and who are generally viewed by the public as having positively contributed to society.

Atheists affirm Enlightenment values to a degree that is hard to find in religion, so, leaving aside the philosophical relationship between science and religion, it is fairly clear to me that the New Atheists are part of a tradition of pro-science activity that, at least as far as contemporary discourse is concerned, has played a prominent role in the development and popularization of science. In fact, as Coyne notes, it is hard to think of a contemporary biologist that has done as much as Richard Dawkins has to promote the public understanding of science.