A formal definition of religion is notoriously difficult to formulate, but it must surely involve reference to a particular way of life, practices oriented toward a conception of how one should live. “You must change your life,” as the broken statue of the god Apollo seems to say in Rilke’s poem. Science does not—it isn’t designed to—recommend approaches to what Emerson calls “the conduct of life.” Nevertheless, Richard Dawkins claims that religion “is a scientific theory,” “a competing explanation for facts about the universe and life.” This is—if you’ll forgive my theological jargon—bullshit.
Science and religion ask different questions about different things. Where religion addresses ontology, science is concerned with ontic description. Indeed, it is what Orthodox theologian David Bentley Hart calls their “austere abdication of metaphysical pretensions” that enables the sciences to do their work. So when, for instance, evolutionary biologist Jerry Coyne and pop-cosmologist Lawrence Krauss dismiss the (metaphysical) problem of how something could emerge from nothing by pointing to the Big Bang or quantum fluctuation, it is difficult to be kind: Quantum fluctuations, the uncertainty principle, the laws of quantum physics themselves—these are something. Nothing is not quantum anything. It is nothing. Nonbeing. This, not empty space, is what “nothing” signifies for Plato and Aquinas and Heidegger, no matter what Krauss believes. No particles, no fluctuation, no laws, no principles, no potentialities, no states, no space, no time. No thing at all.
Atheists: The Origin of the Species seems to have been born out of frustration with these and other confusions perpetuated by the so-called “New Atheists” and their allies, who can’t be bothered to familiarize themselves with the traditions they traduce. Several thoughtful writers have already laid bare the slapdash know-nothingism of today’s mod-ish atheism, but Spencer’s not beating a dead horse—he’s beating a live one, in the hope that Nietzsche might rush to embrace it. Several critics have noted that if evangelical atheists (as the philosopher John Gray calls them) are ignorant of religion, as they usually are, then they aren’t truly atheists. “The knowledge of contraries is one and the same,” as Aristotle said. If your idea of God is not one that most theistic traditions would recognize, you’re not talking about God (at most, the New Atheists’ arguments are relevant to the low-hanging god of fundamentalism and deism). But even more damning is that such atheists appear ignorant of atheism as well.