Who are more stubborn? Fundamentalists or atheists?

Recently (on 12 Feb 2013), well-known MIT physicist Max Tegmark, together with co-authors Eugene Lee and Meia Chita-Tegmark, released results of a new study on science, religion and origins. See also Max Tegmark’s Huffington Post article summarizing these findings.

It is well-known that, according to a recent Gallup poll, approximately 46% of Americans believe that God created humans in their present form within the last 10,000 years. But the authors of the MIT study went further to study how various religious denominations view evolution, big bang and other origins questions.

The results were quite surprising. They found that only 11% of Americans belong to a religious denomination that openly rejects evolution. In other words, as the authors conclude, “the main divide in the origins debate is not between science and religion, but between a small fundamentalist minority and mainstream religious communities who embrace science.”

These results also suggest that mainstream religious denominations might be seen as allies to science in fighting the lingering fundamentalism that results in so many Americans having such scientifically unrealistic views on these origins-related questions.

One week after the initial MIT study announcement, Tegmark posted another article in the Huffington Post, entitled “Religion, Science and the Attack of the Angry Atheists.” He mentioned that he had been cautioned by friends that if they proceeded to release the results of their study, that they would be inundated with hate mail from religious fundamentalists insisting that the universe really is less than 10,000 years old.

Indeed, Tegmark reported that he did in fact get lots of angry, intemperate and often rather uniformed email, but most of it was sent from angry atheists. As he noted, this is particularly remarkable since Tegmark is not at all religious himself.

Tegmark levels three criticisms at these “angry atheists”:

  1. They help religious fundamentalists. This is because they alienate even moderately religious people, who could be allies in fighting creationism.
  2. They could use more modesty. Tegmark notes that if he has learned anything as a physicist, it is how little we know with certainty. He illustrates this with the well-known conundrums of the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics. He then notes:

    Let’s compare the ontological views of Niels Bohr to those of a moderate and tolerant religious person. At least one of them is incorrect, since Bohr was an atheist. Perhaps neither is correct. But who’s to say that the former is clearly superior to the latter, which should be ridiculed and taunted? Personally, I’d bet good money against the Copenhagen Interpretation, but it would be absurd if I couldn’t be friends with those believing its ontology and unite with them in the quest to make our planet a better place.

  3. They should practice what they preach. Tegmark notes that the scientific world has always favored rational, careful and thoughtful discourse over bluster and intolerance. Yet many of his emails were filled with caustic comments, in many cases by persons who clearly had not even bothered to read the report that they were criticizing.

Tegmark’s article is available here.

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