Biographical Piece: Peter Atkins [AHS Newsletter]

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Of all those identified with “new atheism” – a term more than anything neatly embodying the victim mentality of theocrats unused to criticism during the lull they’ve experienced since the last grassroots atheistic wave faded in the 80’s, and some theists’ surprise at the ferocity of irreligiosity online – perhaps the former Oxford professor of chemistry Peter Atkins is the most strident, even more so than the four central figures of the populist movement at the time of its inception. The etiologically-named four horsemen, of course alluding to the Christian apocalypse, were Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, and Daniel Dennett and these men captured utterly the public consciousness with books like God is Not Great and the God Delusion.

What drew people to Peter Atkins and the “new atheist” movement as whole in the first place was his passion for, and skill in, popularising his field through works like Galileo’s Finger: The Ten Great Ideas of Science and On Being within which clearly demonstrated his belief in the value of science and technology. Especially in an age when non-theists continue to be demonised, the recent mass demonstrations against them in places like Bangladesh being testament enough to this, scientists and the unifying breakthroughs they bring to humanity are seen by many as modern blessings to be treasured in a world where they are only hindered by the archaic paroxysms of interreligious conflicts that scar secular harmony.

The desire to try and explain everything through science and the methodological naturalism it entails is therefore inspired by wish to both illuminate and liberate society, and the loyalty each of us has to scientific advancements is seen as pre-determining our decision should we ever be forced to choose between them and religious beliefs. Said magisteria, religion and science, were often described as non-overlapping (NOMA) in what was arguably an attempt by so-inclined intellectuals to shelter mysticism from the rationalising effect of the Enlightenment and Scientific Revolution. Whilst these two areas might be fundamentally disconnected in some regards, Atkins reaffirms the unequivocal preferability of empirically rooted evidentialism in a sea of excessively emotive pedagogy and fideism.

Peter Atkins’ commitment to the sciences, and their incompatibility with religion, has earned him his fair share of critics. Colin Tudge when reviewing John Lennox’s book God’s Undertaker in the Guardian went as far to describe Atkins’ views as “non-scientific” in themselves, in an article that stated that the metaphysically transcendent is apparent in the natural world. What the proponents of such critiques fail to grasp is that while some religious and scientific claims might be truly incommensurable (which has no inherent bearing on either of their truth-values), or connote no contradiction, what most of Atkins’ supporters simply ask is that sensory observations are never allowed to be trumped by detached theorising that proposes the efficacy of undetectable agencies. Why should intelligent design be given equal attention to evolutionary biology simply because some consider “transcendence” to be necessarily immaterial and unexplainable in spite of evidence to the contrary?

As long as the substitution of falsifiable explanations by deities and magical beings is permitted in any corner of the world, either at home or elsewhere, Atkins’ words will continue to sway the hearts and minds of young idealists and those passionate about creating a world in which the idea of knowledge is respected and the elimination of religious privilege enshrined in government is not confused with the curtailing of its adherents’ human rights. Those who want to prevent non-heterosexuals from staying in whatever hotels they wish, or prevent trained biologists from practising their profession, are worthy of every bit of the opposition that their actions incur.

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