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The Sciences

The Missionary Zeal of Some Atheists


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What do you think happens at death? This I don’t know, but I don’t think everything is resolved with the destruction of the body. What science has to say seems to me insufficient and unsatisfying.

This is from a Q & A with Saul Bellow, one of the literary giants of the 2oth-century. He might as well be speaking for much of humanity. In Myth and Meaning (a series of lectures first published in 1978), the great anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss wrote:

Since I was a child, I have been bothered by, let's call it the irrational, and have been trying to find an order behind what is given to us as a disorder.

Others, such as Clifford Geertz and Mircea Eliade, have sought to decipher the meaning and role of religion in human history. To wave away the persistent questions and yearnings that still drive the religious impulse as merely the last bastion of ignorant superstition is, as I wrote here, "inconsistent with the spirit of science." The assertion that religion and science are incompatible has become an article of faith for some--a kind of dogma that I recently discussed in this post. Aside from this being a form of fundamentalism, I also said that I saw no constructive use "in making an enemy of virtually the whole world" by broadly denigrating all religious believers. In his rejoinder to me, Jerry Coyne writes:

First of all, we’re not making an enemy of the whole world—only those religious people who cannot tolerate the merest criticism of their faith.

There is plenty else in my post that Coyne takes issue with, which I will leave for another day. But in the meantime, let's juxtapose his statement above with one that comes further down in his response. It is meant as a defense of one of the apparent missions of atheism as carried out by himself and Richard Dawkins:

Our writings and actions are sincere attempts to rid the world of one of its greatest evils: religion.

The zeal of a missionary takes many forms. You go forth with your crusade, Jerry. I'll keep checking back on occasion to see how successful you (and Dawkins) are in ridding the world of evil with your brand of "merest criticism."

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