I used to think that atheism is based on some form of rebelliousness: atheists don’t like the idea of a cosmic authority (the philosopher Thomas Nagel was explicit about it). But I also think that atheism can also be based on authority as well: scientific authority.
You see it in the outrage at someone challenging evolution or global warming, when “arguments” consist of statements like “no educated person with a proper respect for science can deny evolution/global warming. The evidence is everywhere, it’s absolutely pat.” Lots of educated people say this sort of thing. Rarely do they actually trot out the evidence *. I’m not convinced that many of them could. Instead they rely on scientific authority.
Atheists are often quite angry. It might be easy to see why when we consider pagans (of an atheistic variety: many pagans are, as I discovered in my interactions with them), the LGBT community, punk rockers, hippies, libertarians, anarchists, and others who just hate the restrictions and perceived oppression from religions. But what about academics? Most of them aren’t punk rockers, in the LGBT community, involved in the occult, anti-government, etc. Why are they so pissed off?
This is speculation, but my guess is this: scientific authority is not being respected. I remember asking my students if they would reject Jesus’ resurrection if, say, the whole of the scientific community rejected it, and claimed to have good arguments for not accepting it. Almost all of the Christians in class refused. They didn’t care what those highfalutin’ scientists like Richard Dawkins think, nor what the evidence they present seems to show. They just don’t care. This could anger atheist scientists and academics.
How should religious people deal with this? There’s nothing wrong with challenging authority when warranted. But if you want to challenge authority, you need to do it the right way: you need to hear its supporting reasons. Ask the scientist types to spell out their evidence, clearly and succinctly. It might put them off; be ready for it. Many scientists won’t be able to provide a succinct case for evolution or, for that matter, the perceived ridiculousness of theism. In fact, I was a biology major as an undergraduate at UC Irvine, a good school with world class scientists. None of them actually spelled out the case for evolution, the entire time! In any of my classes! Not even in the evolutionary biology class! They described evolution, applied evolution, and used it as a framework for interpreting evidence, but that’s it! That is, they assumed evolution. They didn’t argue for it. They didn’t feel the need. Tell them there is a need.
People often think the case for something is so obvious as to not need argument. An example: you think you know what a chair is. I challenge you to define it precisely. Is evolution like this? Perhaps. Is atheism, interpreted in the anti-theistic way scientists often practice it? Absolutely. Still, what opponents to evolution should do is, whenever confronted with this kind of attitude, humbly (please, otherwise you will come off as a cocky punk, and deserve any anger you receive), ask for a concise explanation for why evolution is a fact. If they aren’t able to do it, then they are relying on authority just as much as you are, and you might point this out. Do this humbly, of course, for they have the PhD, not you. Regarding atheism, do the above also. See what they come up with. Regarding both of the above, if they accommodate, truly listen and think about it — don’t just react. Then give a thoughtful reply, or even better, just say “I’ll have to think about it.” I think that if more religious people did this, they would earn more respect for themselves and there wouldn’t be so much anger/contempt from academics toward them, and, hopefully, more openness to religion.
One more thing about atheist scientist anger. I don’t think that they interpret religious people ignoring “the evidence” or a challenges to their views as personal insults. Most scientists are above that. But they might be seen as insults to the authority they have devoted their lives to. And this authority is, according to them, based on reality. Or more accurately, it’s an authority based on cooperative human observation and careful reflection. They don’t think religious authority is. And they are right: religion is not based on sensory observation (though there is plenty of cooperative reflection in religion). It’s based on revelation. I can’t answer here which is a better authority: I think you have to make a bet on one when they conflict, as neither is known with anything like certainty. But that’s just my view.
The anger is there, no question. As a theist I must accept that challenges to scientific authority will sometimes be met with anger. As the Bible says, it’s a challenge to an authority, a power, a ruler in heavenly places. We follow a different authority. Theirs is cooperative human observation and reasoning, aka secular humanism, extrapolated into infinite domains. Ours is also that in some earthly mundane areas, but over that is revelation from the Lord. On my view, theirs is a beautiful and powerful angel who should be given due respect. Ours is the God that created her, who also should be given due respect.
One final note. What if the atheist scientist is an arrogant asshole**? In that case, you won’t get an open, back and forth, reasoned discussion, as he will probably try to intimidate you and make you feel stupid. You may end up nervous, flustered, and not at your best (I speak from experience. I’ve been the intimidated noob, and I’ve been the arrogant academic asshole ). Wise people are only so if they are humble enough to listen: this person is not worth talking to. Don’t cast pearls before swine, lest they trample them and you as well. Most importantly, don’t let his contempt for you bother you one bit: condescension and ridicule is not genuine argument, though they are often a cover up the lack of such.
* Of course, there are books that go through the evidence, like Kennith Miller’s Finding Darwin’s God. Miller is a Catholic biologist and an opponent to creationism. I think the book is good except his interpretation of observations of micro-evolution (such as mutating viruses) as proof of macro-evolution.
** In the technical sense, see Aaron James’ Assholes: A Theory