New Atheists are often proud of the fact that their familiarity with theology is so superficial. For example, philosopher Anthony Grayling rationalizes flippant dismissal of theology as follows:
For example, if one concludes on the basis of rational investigation that one’s character and fate are not determined by the arrangement of the planets, stars and galaxies that can be seen from Earth, then one does not waste time comparing classic tropical astrology with sidereal astrology, or either with the Sarjatak system, or any of the three with any other construction placed on the ancient ignorances of our forefathers about the real nature of the heavenly bodies.
Of course, such arrogance comes at a price and that price can be the flaunting of one’s ignorance. For example, Lawrence Krauss kicked off his WSJ defense of New Atheism with a quote that both Coyne and Myers embraced with glee:
My practice as a scientist is atheistic. That is to say, when I set up an experiment I assume that no god, angel or devil is going to interfere with its course; and this assumption has been justified by such success as I have achieved in my professional career. I should therefore be intellectually dishonest if I were not also atheistic in the affairs of the world. – JBS Haldane
Yet the Haldane quote demonstrates profound theological ignorance.
Haldane’s point is valid only for theists who embrace a trickster god who is constantly trying to cause problems for us mortals (do such theists really exist?). The Christian conception of God is that of a Law-Giver, a God who creates an orderly universe where actions have predictable consequences. So deeply ingrained is this understanding of God that some Christians in the past have rejected quantum physics because they think it contradicts the lawful order of creation.
Haldane, and those like him, take a rather childish view on miracles, thinking that if someone accepts a miracle, they are obligated to be on the constant lookout for miracles in everyday life. Yet in reality, miracles only make theological sense against the backdrop of an orderly, law-like reality. This is because miracles are not whimsical displays of divine power, but signs that signify a deeper reality. For example, the virgin birth and resurrection of Jesus were one-time events because they were associated with the singularity of the Incarnation. Since God does not incarnate on a regular basis, there is no reason to expect these miracles to repeat. What’s more, if God was constantly interfering with the laws of Nature such that Haldane could never do an experiment, the miracles of the virgin birth and resurrection would hardly stand out amid all the constant miraculous noise.
Because of their theological ignorance, scientists like Haldane, Krauss, Coyne, and Myers actually believe that evidence against a trickster god is evidence against the Christian God. They seem to believe that if God exists, there would be no laws of Nature and science could not exist.
There is also another serious problem with Haldane’s argument that has nothing do with theology. In this case, we have to wonder why Haldane is cherry-picking, as there are many attributes of the scientific approach that are important.
For example, what scientist would disagree with the following change to the first sentence of his quote?
My practice as a scientist is to be objective.
Okay, so let’s follow through on Haldane’s logic:
My practice as a scientist is to be objective. I should therefore be intellectually dishonest if I were not also objective in the affairs of the world.
What this means is that if we were to read the various blogs, magazine, and newspaper writings of various scientists, and found them to be biased in regard to “the affairs of the world,” Haldane’s logic would have us declare these scientists are intellectually dishonest. Are the New Atheists truly willing to expand all aspects of the scientific approach into all of their lives? Or has religion been singled out for special reason?