Jon: Of the New Atheists, most are scientists (Dawkins, Dennett, Harris, Myers). Is this trend meaningful? Does it simply signify that more scientists are coming out, or that scientists nowadays consider religion objectionable on scientific grounds? How can (should) non-scientists get in on this?
There are plenty of people who claim that this trend isn’t meaningful, that science and religion are compatible. However, I’m with Dawkins and PZ in thinking science and religion are not compatible (which I sort of touched on in Defeating Creationism). The trend we see isn’t just from atheist scientists coming out of the closet, but the fact that scientists are more likely to be atheists. An often quoted 1998 correspondence in Nature cited that about 72.2% of the members of the National Academy of Science did not believe in God, and 20.8% expressed doubt or agnosticism. That’s pretty significant when you consider that only 16.1% of Americans list themselves as “unaffiliated,” and only a fraction of that group explicitly call themselves atheists or agnostics.
Why do I think so many scientists are nonbelievers? Two things. One, the very basic necessity for understanding science is critical thinking. You need be able to observe things, test hypotheses, analyze your results, and draw conclusions in an unbiased manner. The scientific method inherently contradicts the “religious method”: take a dogma that someone else tells you, make observations, come to conclusions that conform to your preexisting dogma. Where would we be if the answer was just “God did it?” We still think that the world was flat, that Zeus is throwing thunderbolts, that life was created in an instance rather than over millions of years … whoops, people do still believe that last one.
And that leads to point number two. Science provides alternative, rational, tested explanations for things rather that supernatural explanations. As less and less is explained by religion and more and more is explained by science, people begin to wonder, “Well if that was wrong, what about everything else?” Science may not be able to explain everything, now or ever, but it certainly has a good track record. I know this point was particularly important for my atheism. I originally couldn’t wrap my head around how so much diversity of life could occur through natural means until I really sat down and tried to learn evolution. Once I did, I had my reasonable explanation. I didn’t need an unreasonable, supernatural one anymore.
This doesn’t mean non scientists are going to be left out of the loop – scientists are just getting a head start because this kind of thinking and knowledge is required of us. But as our society becomes more and more invested in science and technology, even non scientists will be expected to have a better grasp of science. And even if science isn’t for you, that doesn’t mean you can’t think rationally. I know liberal arts majors who are more logical than some of my fellow biologists. Heck, I almost majored in Fine Art, and look at me.