John Durant on “millitant atheism”

This is another archival repost from the old blog — this one from feb 2008.

Somebody in the Nature Podcast editorial team is clearly not a fan of “new atheists”. The “guest rant” spot, or whatever it is they call it — podium, I think — has been given to a succession of lectures on the “new atheists” and the compatibility of science and religion. Take John Durant, director of the MIT museum and self-contained pun, who took the spot on February 21. Durant tells the story of atheist Darwin and Asa Gray, American Christian botanist (a botanist who happened to be Christian, that is. I don’t mean “Christian Botany” like “Creation Science”.) and populariser of evolution. Darwin and Gray were, shockingly, good friends and correspondents, despite their overwhelming incompatibilities. Not like these days, when we “Darwinists parade [our] science under the banner of militant atheism.” Oh yes. He played that “militant atheism” card with style.

Indeed, can you imagine screechy Richard Dawkins being friends with, say, his local Anglican bishop? And what on earth could drive Dawkins to such shrillness anyway? Why can’t he be more like those polite politicians in the Commons, who never raise their voices and argue? I mean, just look through any newspaper. All of those columnists being calm and keeping their opinions to themselves. Why do these atheists think that they alone have the right to start a public discussion?

Whatever. You get the point. It has been argued to death already, and if Durant is too unimaginative to spot the absurdity of his argument, and too lazy to actually look at the responses that the “militant atheists” have already made to the argument, there’s not really much point in me wasting your time going over old ground. But the real reason that I couldn’t let his rant pass is his conclusion:

If there were more Darwins and Grays in the world of science today, discussions about evolution and creation could continue within science, instead of being relegated to the lunatic fringes of the so-called culture wars.

WHOA! Hang on a moment! Discussions of creation have a place within science? Now you’ve really lost me, and I think you may perhaps have lost some of your fellows in the “militant atheists are too screechy” camp, too. And it’s not like I can be accused of misinterpreting “creation” in this instance. Durant is not talking about discussions of abiogenesis or the anthropic principle. He is talking about the sort of “creation” that is currently on the “lunatic fringes”. Like seeing the signature of the Almighty creator in mitochondrial proteins, or asserting that the universe was created on a pleasant September afternoon in 4004 BC?

We do have modern Darwins and Grays. None of them think that polite discussions of creationism belong in science.

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