There is never any shortage of people telling atheists how sensitive the feelings of religious people are and that we need to be careful about what we say to them. The reasoning behind these pleas is based on the belief that if we tell such people directly that science contradicts religion, they will retreat to religion and reject science.
Take for example Murray Peshkin, a physicist at Argonne National Laboratory. In the wake of the possible sighting of the Higgs boson, he writes in the November 2012 issue of Physics Today (p. 12):
Calling the Higgs boson the “God particle” is a mistake that we need to avoid.
Science is under serious and increasingly successful attack in the US by religious extremists who are concerned mainly with the teaching of biological evolution in public schools but are also generally anti-science and anti-intellectual. The majority of Americans have some religious beliefs that are important to them. I have been speaking to various churches, social clubs, and other groups, trying to explain to them what science is about; why science, correctly understood, does not threaten most people’s religions; and why we can’t afford to teach anything but the best science we know in our schools. I’m not trying to convert extremists. I’m trying to arm reasonable, mostly intelligent but uninformed people against simplistic arguments like “It’s only a theory” or “Why not teach all sides?” They listen to me because I respect their religious beliefs even though I don’t share them. They tune out scientists who offend their religious sensitivities.
We need such people to be our allies. Offending them by using “God” flippantly is just throwing gasoline on a fire. It’s encouraging a fight we cannot win, and we should stop doing it.
There are many scientists, and I include myself, who hate the label of the “God particle” for the Higgs boson because it needlessly and unproductively drags religion into a purely scientific issue. So I agree with Peshkin that we should avoid that use.
But I would challenge Peshkin’s statement that the attacks on science are increasingly successful. I do not think that is true. What is true is that the attacks are increasingly strident since science has become a partisan political issue, an issue that I discussed in an earlier post.
The other proposition is that if we want to wean religious people from anti-science attitudes we should tell them that “science, correctly understood, does not threaten most people’s religions”. But what if we don’t believe that? I, for example, am convinced that science, correctly understood, is clearly incompatible with religion. Should we keep quiet?
The assumption that if religious people are told that science and religion are incompatible they will choose religion over science and retreat to a harder creationist/anti-science stance has, as far as I know, not been really tested. But I am willing to concede that when people are told that the views they hold about anything at all are wrong, they will defend and retain them in the short run even if presented with overwhelming contradictory evidence. But that qualifier is the key. People hate to admit they are wrong to the person who tells them so. It is losing face. But I think that the arguments, even if summarily rejected, do have an impact in the long run. Over time, some of the people will come around to the conclusion that science is the better option. But if they are never forced to confront their beliefs in that stark way, they may never change their minds.
My own suggestion is that people should tell people what they truly believe and not worry about what others are saying. If you believe that science and religion are compatible and that is the way to convince people to become pro-science, then go right ahead and make your case. If you think that the two are incompatible and that people need to face that, then you should go ahead too. One argument will work with some people, the other will work with others. But it is all good.
The people I find hard to understand are those who think that science and religion are incompatible but feel that we should not say so publicly because it will turn people away from science. We should not subordinate truth to expediency in order to achieve tactical victories.