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Atheists often too judgmental

College students encounter many different points of view and backgrounds when they arrive as freshmen. But perhaps one of the most striking discoveries for new students at Stanford is how many nonbelievers there are on campus – and at many campuses – these days.

I particularly recall the ‘Crossing the Line’ event my freshman year, when only around 15 percent of the students from my dorm crossed to indicate they believed in a higher power. I don’t come from a religious background and yet I was surprised.

While many different religious persuasions are represented on campus, they form a collective – the believers – that is the minority. And this minority is thrust into interactions with others who test and challenge their religious beliefs, from professors in lecture halls to students in their dorms. Indeed, politics and religion are ever-popular topics in the hallway at 3 a.m. Typically, debates and discovery about these personal issues are good things, but sometimes the tone can take a turn for the worse.

This past week, for example, one of my dear friends sent me a link to a Templeton Foundation Web site, where scholarly responses were posted (including that of Stanford’s Robert Sapolsky) to the question of whether science renders God obsolete. It made me think of the kind of militancy on campus I have sometimes seen when it comes to dealing with religious belief.

The passion with which some atheists scorn faith can mirror the militancy with which missionaries proselytize their religion.

Those trying to disprove God’s existence point to developments in biology that categorically disprove Creationism. They also point to developments in neuroscience suggesting that God may well be the product of the human mind.

Their arguments, rooted in science, are often reasonable. So why do they get so angry when they talk about them?

Part of the answer may simply be that we nonbelievers want people to believe the truth (as we understand the truth), and it frustrates us when they don’t see as we see it. But I think it is more than this. Many skeptical students view religion as something that supplants empiricism and therefore makes believers averse to scientific advancement.

This view is not without historical foundation. From the time Galileo was forced to renounce his discovery that the Earth is not the center of the universe to the regular debates that my home state, Texas, has about evolution’s place in textbooks, religious institutions and individual believers have proven resistant to scientific discovery.

What is more, people with deep religious views are players in the American political world, meaning their beliefs impact all our lives. Policy arguments on a host of topics like stem cell research, abortion, school textbooks, gay marriage, teen pregnancy prevention and more are often infused with religious arguments, and the secular world can become very frustrated.

So what is to be done? Do we need to stamp out God in order to distribute condoms in Africa’- or, a little closer to home, at the University of Notre Dame? If that were the case, I would be very pessimistic about the future of contraception. Importantly, however, God isn’t going away any time soon.

The reality is that the country as a whole remains deeply religious, despite the arguments and scientific advancements that, to nonbelievers, render God obsolete. And when religious views have come into conflict with science, those views have often proven unusually resilient. In fact, in a Gallup Poll conducted in February to mark Charles Darwin’s 200th birthday, only 39 percent of Americans said they believed in evolution.

So how can we accelerate society’s acceptance of scientific advancements? Not by trying to stamp out religion. The hostility of some attacks against faith does more to alienate believers than to foster a critical reflection on religious doctrine. The secular world needs to realize that it has a much better chance of reforming doctrine when it is not scorning faith. Indeed, progress in religious doctrine will come when overall faith doesn’t feel threatened.

In Dostoevky’s ‘The Idiot,’ Prince Myshkin points to the distinction between faith and doctrine in speaking of an atheist he encountered: ‘He doesn’t believe in God. Except one thing struck me: he didn’t seem to be talking about that at all, the whole time, and this struck me precisely because whenever I’ve met disbelievers before, and no matter how many of their books I read, it has always struck me that they seem to be speaking and writing about something else, though on the surface it seems to be that.’

Atheists are not very successful in eradicating faith because faith is not built on arguments about human origin or the human brain; science has convinced a few that God does not exist, but only a few. Can faith and scientific advancements coexist? Yes, they can.

But for that to happen, nonbelievers must stop treating faith with militant scorn. When they no longer alienate believers with their zeal to destroy faith, secular and religious ethics will become more closely aligned.

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