From Steven Pinker
Steven Pinker is Johnstone Professor of Psychology at Harvard University. His most recent book is The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century
Faith Versus Fact: Why Science and Religion Are Incompatible, Jerry Coyne, Viking Penguin, New York, 2015. ISBN: 0670026530.
Between 2005 and 2007, a quartet of bestsellers by Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Dan Dennett, and Christopher Hitchens launched the New Atheism. Emboldened by the growing success of science in explaining the world (including our own minds), inspired by new research on the sources of religious belief, and galvanized by the baleful influence of religion in world affairs (particularly 9/11 and its aftermath), these Four Horsemen of the New Atheism — as they came to be called — pressed the case that God does not exist and that many aspects of organized religion are pernicious.
Though in the ensuing decade a growing sliver of the population has become disenchanted with religion, the majority of Americans still believe in God. Indeed, even many intellectuals — including scientists — are not ready to let go of religion. Few sophisticated people, of course, profess a belief in the literal truth of the Bible or in a God who flouts the laws of physics. But whether it comes from a loyalty to family and tribe, a fear of alienating purse-string-holding politicians and foundations, or a reluctance to concede that nerdy scientists might be right about the most fundamental questions of existence, many intellectuals have proclaimed that the new atheists have gone too far and that key components of religion are worth salvaging.
The backlash against the New Atheists has given rise to a new consensus among faith-friendly intellectuals, and their counterattack is remarkably consistent across critics with little else in common. The new atheists are too shrill and militant, they say, and just as extreme as the fundamentalists they criticize. They are preaching to the choir, and only driving moderates into the arms of religion. People will never be disabused of their religious beliefs, and perhaps they should not be, because societies need unifying creeds to promote altruism and social cohesion. Anyway, most people treat religious doctrine allegorically rather than literally, and even if they do treat it literally, it’s not these folk beliefs that serious thinkers should engage with, but rather the sophisticated versions of religion worked out by erudite theologians.