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Book review: Science and Nonbelief, by Taner Edis

I wrote a review of Science and Nonbelief, by Taner Edis, when it appeared in 2006. A revised paperback version was published by Prometheus Books in 2008, and I've recently read this in the Kindle version which I downloaded from amazon.co.uk.

I don't think there is any need to revise my earlier review of the book (something I don't normally do anyway) but I think it may be worth making few comments in the light of recent developments in the ongoing 'war' between science and religion.

Those authors who are sometimes referred to as the New Atheists (Richard Dawkins, Daniel C. Dennett, A.C. Grayling and others) continue to take an uncompromisingly hard line on religion, which they regard as incompatible with the world view that science gives us. Religion is for them a collection of irrational beliefs which in some cases are positively harmful, and it should therefore be resisted and if possible eliminated.

Other nonbelievers, such as Tim Crane and David Sloan Wilson, are less extreme, while the late Stephen J. Gould regarded science and religion as "non-overlapping magisteria", meaning they were talking about different things so were not in conflict. A non-confrontational attitude seems to be popular among scientists in the USA, many of whom are unwilling to identify themselves as frank nonbelievers, at least in public.

This is not exactly Edis's case. He does state that he is a nonbeliever (a term he prefers to atheist, nontheist, Bright and others that are current today) but he does not expect that scientific thinking will displace religion. As he wrote in The Ghost in the Universe, "It is scientific thinking, not religion, which is profoundly unnatural for us; no matter how science progresses, most of us will be most comfortable explaining the world through the actions of personal agents ... For most people, learning to go without a God is a costly undertaking for no clear benefit."

Edis's books don't seem to have attracted as much attention as those of the New Atheists. This isn't surprising; the media love confrontation and aren't much interested in balance, but I think it's a pity. I enjoy reading books by Dawkins and Dennett, who are brlliant controversialists, while Dawkins seems to me to be one of the best prose writers around today. But I'm not sure how successful they are at keeping alive the values of the Enlightenment, which I think is something we need to do at all costs. It's too easy for critics to accuse them of being atheist dogmatists.

Dogmatism of all kinds—not just in religion—is in vogue today and its effects are bad. Tolerance of differing views is what the Enlightenment gave us. We cannot assume unquestioningly that it will always be there. To quote Barbara Ehrenreich: " What we call the Enlightenment and hold on to only by our fingernails, is the slow-dawning understanding that the world is unfolding according to its own internal algorithms of cause and effect, probability and change, without any regard for human feelings." [Smile or Die: How Positive Thinking Fooled America and the World]

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