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July 2021 Special Article

This essay is the revised version of a talk I gave at St Andrew’s Cathedral in 2012.

In recent years, a group of writers has emerged onto the literary scene with a number of books vehemently criticising religion. These books have topped the best-seller charts and have provoked robust but mixed responses from all quarters. Described as the ‘New Atheists’ these writers – Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett and Christopher Hitchens – are the new crusaders of scientism determined to undermine religion in general, and Christianity in particular. The titles of their books clearly reveal their project: The End of Faith by Sam Harris, The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins, Breaking the Spell by Daniel Dennett and God is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything by the late Christopher Hitchens.[1] These writers, some of whom are scientists, insist that science is the sole basis of reliable truth because it is based on hard evidence and rigorous reasoning. This view presupposes that faith and reason are at odds with one another, and that reason alone, not faith, is the basis of truth. This view also presupposes that the scientific endeavour does not require the commitment of faith at all.

The New Atheists are in fact reviving the old and almost defunct ‘conflict’ or ‘warfare’ thesis promoted by two influential books that appeared in the nineteenth century: J. W. Draper’s History of Conflict between Religion and Science and A. D. White’s A History of Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom. Most historians of science now regard this once popular view that science and religion are in permanent and irresolvable conflict as unacceptable. Writers like Dawkins and Dennett, however, seem adamant to revive this view in order assert that faith is delusional and religion dangerous. Dawkins has gone so far as to compare scientists who promote a positive relationship between science and religion to the British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s attempt to appease Adolf Hitler,[2] despite the obvious ridiculousness of such a comparison. Through their peculiar version of Darwinism, both Dennett and Dawkins argue that religion is an ‘accidental by-product’ or a ‘misfiring of something useful’.[3] By promoting a version of scientism or naturalism, Dawkins and Dennett reject all religious faith as superstition. As the sole basis of truth, then, science is the enemy of faith.

How are we to understand the relationship between science and religion, especially Christianity? The answer to this question is complex, and can be approached from different angles and perspectives. In the compass of this brief lecture, I have elected to answer this question from the standpoints of history and philosophy. Firstly, we will examine the historical relationship between Christianity and the development of the natural sciences. Next, we explore the reasons for the secularisation of science and the scientific outlook, which gave rise to naturalism or scientific materialism. Then, we will analyse the claims of scientism or naturalism and expose their profound weaknesses. And finally, we will try to imagine what a dialogical relationship between science and Christianity might look like.

[1] Sam Harris, The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Religion (New York: W.W. Norton, 2004); Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (Boston: Houghton Mifflim, 2006), Daniel Dennett, Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon (New York: Viking, 2006), and Christopher Hitchens, God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything (New York: Twelve, 2007).

[2] Dawkins, God Delusion, 66-69.

[3] Dawkins, God Delusion, 188.

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Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor at Trinity Theological College (Singapore) and Theological and Research Advisor of the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity.