A blogger named Hemant Mehta writes a column at patheos.com which he calls “Friendly Atheist.” On June 18, 2015 he wrote about a scientific article published in the journal Public Understanding of Science by Christopher P. Scheitle of West Virginia University, and Elaine Howard Ecklund of Rice University. The original article is:

The influence of science popularizers on the public’s view of religion and science: An experimental assessment (2015)

The blog at Friendly Atheist is titled “New Research on the Science vs. Religion Debate Looks at the Effectiveness of Different Science Popularizers” (June 18, 2015)

Dr. Francis Collins

Dr. Francis Collins

The atheist blogger does not like the scientific results of the study, which find that Christian scientist Francis Collins is more effective at persuading people that religion and science are compatible, than New Atheist scientist Richard Dawkins is at persuading people that religion and science must be in opposition to each other. But what caught my attention here is how this blogger attributes the difference to “social prejudice” against atheists. The self-proclaimed “Friendly” Atheist is taking a page from Ken Ham’s playbook at Answers in Genesis. Young-earth creationists routinely claim to be persecuted for their views, and here is “Friendly” Atheist claiming the same thing:

The one thing this suggests for me is that scientists who are known for being atheists will have a hard time moving the public with them because of social prejudice.

The word “prejudice” means pre-judgment. No, “Friendly” Atheist is wrong. It is a case of simple judgment. When the general public sees Professor PZ Myers pulling an offensive stunt like The Great Desecration of a communion wafer, it’s easy to draw the conclusion that New Atheists are very dislikable people. If some of the public, religious or not, encounter his foul-mouthed ranting on Pharyngula, the judgment is confirmed. Word gets around. Very few voters want a Mayor or Senator like PZ Myers in public office.

Dr. Richard Dawkins

Dr. Richard Dawkins

Just about every presentation of young-earth creationism I have seen features a few inflammatory quotations by Richard Dawkins, sure to provoke outrage among the Christian fundamentalists. YEC activists are savvy enough to know that Dawkins moves their target audience away from science. Richard Dawkins is the best friend that young-earth creationism has ever had.

And it’s not just the prominent New Atheists who are ill-mannered and uncouth. The “Friendly” Atheist was unable to comment on the historical Adam without including the f-word in his post:

“There Was No Historical Adam” (June 2011)

I love how some Christians are debating things that secular science figured out a long fucking time ago.

The social problems of the New Atheists are entirely of their own making. Now of course we know that the First Amendment protects free speech. Hemant Mehta is free to fill up his “Friendly” Atheist blog with insults, cuss words, profanity, and foul language. Then he can claim “social prejudice” against the New Atheists and their causes. But nobody else will be surprised if the general public (outside of his blog followers) doesn’t buy it.

The unfortunate part of this situation is that most atheists (lower case a) will inevitably be stereotyped by the uncivilized behavior of the few prominent New Atheists. None of my friends have to use the f-word when discussing a theological matter. It’s up to the mainstream atheists to distance themselves from the ill-mannered activists.

The influence of science popularizers on the public’s view of religion and science: An experimental assessment

The research and publication by Christopher Scheitle and Elaine Howard Ecklund is far more interesting than the “Friendly” Atheist would have you believe. They used Francis Collins as the archetype of the religious scientist and Richard Dawkins as the archetype of the atheist scientist. Francis Collins is the director of the National Institutes of Health and an evangelical Christian. Richard Dawkins is an evolutionary biologist at Oxford University and one of the New Atheist activists.

For the relationship between faith and science, the researchers considered three philosophical models:

  • Conflict: Faith and science must be in opposition to each other.
  • Independence: Faith addresses questions of morality, while science discovers how the natural world works.
  • Collaboration: Faith and science influence and guide each other toward better results.

Scheitle and Ecklund note that “While this conflict narrative receives a great deal of attention, a relatively small proportion of the US public states that they personally see religion and science as in conflict (Baker, 2012).” Young-earth creationists and New Atheists most commonly hold the Conflict model.

Harvard paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould is well-known for advocating the independence model with his “non-overlapping magisteria.” Theistic evolutionists hold the Collaboration model (such as Francis Collins, Ken Miller, John Polkinghorne, and Karl Giberson).

So here is what Scheitle and Ecklund did. They analyzed the Religious Understandings of Science (RUS) study. Respondents to the study were asked if they had ever heard of a scientist named Dr. Richard Dawkins, or Dr. Francis Collins. If not, then some respondents were given a short description of that scientist, including their position as Conflict or Collaboration between faith and science. Others were given no description (and presumably were left forever wondering why the survey would ask about that scientist). Finally the survey respondents were asked to state their preferred position; and if Conflict, which side they personally were on. Table 2 shows the results for Richard Dawkins [Scheitle and Ecklund 2015].

Table 2: Richard Dawkins

View Group No description Given Description Change
Conflict – on side of religion Young-earth creationists 15.6 14.7 -0.9
Conflict – on side of science New Atheists 10.7 12.4 +1.7
Independence Gould 35.8 34.4 -1.4
Collaboration Theistic science 38.0 38.6 +0.6

The researchers say that these small changes are not statistically significant, and since I’m not a statistician I’ll take their word for it. Nevertheless, Dawkins seems to increase his New Atheist position by a small number (+1.7%), at the expense of the Gould Independence position (-1.4).

Table 3: Francis Collins

View Group No description Given Description Change
Conflict – on side of religion Young-earth creationists 15.4 10.3 -5.1
Conflict – on side of science New Atheists 12.5 11.2 -1.3
Independence Gould 36.8 28.7 -8.1
Collaboration Theistic science 35.3 49.8 +14.5

Francis Collins makes the numbers change. The researchers state that the changes in Table 3 are statistically significant. Collins reduces the New Atheists by a small amount (-1.3%). But the big message here is that Francis Collins takes significant portions of Young-Earth Creationists (-5.1%) and Gould Independence advocates (-8.1%), and converts them to his own Collaboration model (+14.5%). And all by just a short description of his professional status and religious views. That’s remarkable!

Why is Francis Collins more convincing than Richard Dawkins?

Why does Francis Collins have more convincing power than Richard Dawkins in the RUS survey? Scheitle and Ecklund suggest:

  1. Familiarity. Although Richard Dawkins may be unknown, his Conflict position is familiar from media coverage of religion and science. Readers are neither surprised nor swayed by the Dawkins description. It follows that the New Atheists can manage to convince about 12.4% of the population that their Conflict position is correct, but that’s about all they will get.

    Francis Collins, on the other hand, presents a surprise to many survey respondents. Table 1 of the original paper notes that 21.4% of the respondents had heard of Dawkins, while only 4.3% had heard of Collins. It follows that theistic scientists can convince 49.8% of the population that their Collaborative position is correct, if we can just get the word out.

  2. Perceived credibility. Scheitle and Ecklund state, “research has shown that the US public is generally distrustful of atheists and view them more negatively than most other ethnic, religious, and minority groups (Edgell et al., 2006; Gervais et al., 2011).” This is the point that “Friendly” Atheist Hemant Mehta calls “social prejudice” in order to deflect the blame elsewhere. Yet episodes like PZ Myers and The Great Desecration at his blog Pharyngula show that this distrust is well-deserved. We never know what offensive stunt the New Atheists are going to pull next.
  3. Tone and Openness. The researchers suggest that Francis Collins’ message is more appealing to the public. Richard Dawkins’ message, and the combative way he expresses it, does not appeal to anyone not already in his camp.

I will suggest another reason: 4. The Conflict model of Dawkins, Myers, and Jerry Coyne is just plain wrong. The very existence of Francis Collins, a world-class scientist and evangelical Christian, disproves their thesis of inevitable conflict. And if he were not enough, the thousands of scientific papers published annually by religious scientists provide sufficient evidence that there is no necessary conflict between faith and science.

The “Friendly” Atheist blog of June 18, 2015 is another example of atheists vehemently rejecting science when they don’t like the results (see Between Migdol and the Sea, Chapter 6). In this respect the New Atheists are much like their opposite counterpart, the Young-Earth Creationists. Science does not mix well with ideology, no matter what extreme position is the source of that ideology.

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