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I find the rise of ‘militant atheism’ a rather fascinating development, with the likes of Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and Daniel Dennett directing their intellectual strength towards the abolition of religion and the promotion of science and reason in its place. My personal feeling is that – like modern skepticism – the militant atheists don’t realise that they can’t win ‘the war’ when they antagonise more people than they win over. As a case in point, I find myself more interested in rebutting the points of militant skeptics and atheists, even though I am probably closest aligned philosophically with them rather than ‘believers’ (whether in God, or UFOs etc).

Anyone that similarly enjoys the debate over science and religion should definitely check out this email discussion between Sam Harris and writer Philip Ball. The debate began when Ball wrote a column in Nature about Harris’s “Reason Project” (titled “How Much Reason Do You Want?”). Harris responded (rather aggressively I thought, given the mild comments in the article) by “hurling” Ball into the Reason Project ‘Hall of Shame’. Ball replied in kind with a blog entry, “Whatever You Do, Don’t Call Them Militant“, which finally inspired the lengthy email dialogue.

It’s all worth reading because there are numerous good points made by both Harris and Ball, although you also get a feel for how the ‘champions of reason’ are going to struggle winning over the public, when they act aggressively even to someone with Ball’s (rather similar) point of view. Ball touches on what may be the root of the problem in his final email:

One somewhat frustrating aspect of this exchange for me has been that you seem to insist that any disagreement with your point of view is not genuine disagreement as such but is missing the point. My sense is that you cannot conceive how any sane, rational person can hold a point of view different from your own, so that if they insist on doing so, they are obviously being either obtuse or stupid.

Which is very much the major problem with religious fundamentalists – that they consider other points of view as untenable. Lots of great points in the whole discussion, too many to quote here – so go read it if you have the time.

On a sidenote, it was rather amusing to see Harris bring up Rupert Sheldrake’s name in the debate, when attacking Nature:

If ever there were a place to call a spade a “spade,” it is in the pages of the world’s most authoritative scientific publication. Let me remind you that the physiologist Rupert Sheldrake had his scientific career neatly decapitated, in a single stroke, by a Nature editorial. Did his vaguely “woolly” thesis about “morphogenetic fields” deserve at least a ride in a tumbrel? Perhaps. Was his book, ‘A New Science of Life’, as flagrantly unscientific as Francis Collins’, ‘The Language of God?’ Not by a long shot.

Regular readers will know that Rupert is often the arch-nemesis of the militant skeptics – and has recently had a run-in with Harris’s co-Reason Projector Richard Dawkins – so I’m not sure how long it will be before Harris is pulled aside and talked to about his ‘unreasonable’ interest in fringe/psi research

Previously on TDG: