Atheists have appealed to science in defence of their atheism since the first avowedly atheistic manuscripts of the mid seventeenth century. However, as the German expert on atheism Winfried Schroeder has shown, the relationship between early modern atheism and science tended to embarrass rather than strengthen the fledgling atheism's case.
This was partly due to the fact that the early atheist critiques of scientific theories which were recruited into the service of defending religious belief were often merely destructive and could not put anything in the place of the current scientific explanations which they attacked. In the field of cosmology, for example, the early clandestine atheists sought to prove that the model of creation from nothing was contradictory. However, despite much criticism they were poorly equipped to provide any scientifically serious counter-theories to the preferred theistic one. The atheist Meslier, for example, was cautious about arguing for the scientific superiority of atheism, and limited himself to the mere observation that both theism and atheism have a problem explaining the origin of the cosmos.
With respect to atheism and science, theism is widely regarded by historians as having had the best scientific arguments on its side well into the eighteenth century. The renowned Denis Diderot, atheist and deist in turns, could still say in 1746 that science posed a greater threat to atheism than metaphysics. Well into the eighteenth century it could be argued that it was atheism and not theism which required a sacrifice of the intellect. As Schroeder has pointed out, atheists were scientifically retrograde until at least the mid eighteenth century, and suffered from their reputation as scientifically unserious.
Some modern atheists, including the New Atheists, while accepting the adequacy of this historical portrayal of the relationship between science and atheism until the late eighteenth century, still tend to insist that this all changed from the nineteenth century onwards. The determinism of classical physics which appeared to dispense with free will and the possibility of divine action, the fossil record in geology in the decades prior to Darwin's Origin of the Species which undermined the Genesis narrative of creation, and pre-eminently the publication of Darwin's Origin in 1859 and the establishment of evolutionary theory which dispensed with the traditional argument from design appeared thoroughly to undermine religion. Dawkins' himself commented that Darwin made it possible for the first time to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist (The Blind Watchmaker p. 6). Furthermore, the nineteenth century saw the birth of the social sciences, which in their classical form at least would offer powerful reductionist explanations of religion in social and psychological terms.
Thomas Henry Huxley (1825-95)
etched by Leopold Flameng (1831-1911) 1885 (etching) by Collier, John (1850-1934) (after)
The Royal Institution, London, UK/ The Bridgeman Art Library.
However, historians now broadly concur that any simple story of the supposed conflict between science and religion (and for that matter any simple story of their harmony) is problematic. As John Hedley Brooke has pointed out, for every nineteenth century person considering these issues who followed figures such as Thomas Henry Huxley or Francis Galton in regarding evolution as devastating for religious belief, there were others, such as the Oxford theologian Aubrey Moore, who regarded Darwin's evolutionary theory as an opportunity for religion.
At the beginning of the twenty first century the situation remains very similar: for every atheistic scientist who supposes that science supports (or does not undermine) their atheism, there is a religiously inclined scientist who supposes that science supports (or does not undermine) their theism. Thus the atheist simplifies the very complicated and much contended question of the relationship between science and atheism/religion if they suppose that the evidence provided by the scientific study of the natural and social world unequivocally points to atheism. This is evident in each of the main branches of science, both natural and social, which have some relevance to the issue of the truth or falsity of atheism/religion.
The Oxford Handbook of Religion and Science, edited by
Philip Clayton and Zachary Simpson. Oxford: Oxford University Press,
The Blind Watchmaker. Harlow: Longman, 1986.
Ursprunge des Atheismus: Untersuchungen zur Metaphysik- und Religionskritik des 17. und 18. Jahrhunderts. Tubingen: Frommann- Holzboog, 1998.
↑ See Winfried Schroeder, Ursprunge des Atheismus: Untersuchungen zur
Metaphysik- und Religionskritik des 17. und 18. Jahrhunderts (Tubingen:
↑ Ibid., 291.
↑ See Ibid., 79-80.
↑ Ibid., 79.
↑ Richard Dawkins, The Blind Watchmaker (Harlow: Longman, 1986), 6.
↑ John Hedley Brooke, "Contributions from the History of Science and Religion," in The Oxford Handbook of Religion and Science, ed. Philip Clayton and Zachary Simpson (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006), 293.
↑ Ibid., 293-94.