Ball State University (BSU) is in full spin mode trying to defend the use of a book, What Is Your Dangerous Idea?, as the sole textbook in one of its courses, “Dangerous Ideas.” The book is cited in an article in the Muncie Star Press, “Lawmakers probe religion vs. science at BSU.” BSU spokesman Tony Proudfoot tries to defend the course on the grounds that the book includes religion-friendly chapters, and therefore isn’t a polemic against religion. In fact, BSU has badly misrepresented the hard-to-miss anti-religious goals of the book, as well as the three supposedly religion-friendly chapters it cites. I’ll elaborate more below, but of the three chapters BSU cites as being religion-friendly, one has nothing to do with religion and the other two are explicitly anti-religious.
First, some background. What Is Your Dangerous Idea? is framed, billed, and marketed as a book of ideas by leading new atheist-types. The intended readership seems to be intellectual atheists, as its cover advertises the fact that the introduction is by new atheist (and evolutionary psychologist) Steven Pinker, and the afterword is by leading new atheist Richard Dawkins.
Indeed, the man behind What Is Your Dangerous Idea?, who served as its editor, is John Brockman, has been called one of “the 25 most influential living atheists.” He was the literary agent and main promoter of Dawkins’s 2006 book The God Delusion (and other books by Dawkins). In the acknowledgments of The God Delusion, Dawkins thanks Brockman for his “help in the preparation of this book” and states that Brockman’s “whole-hearted and enthusiastic belief in the book was very encouraging.” (p. 6)
Brockman is well-known for founding the website Edge.org, which Superscholar.org describes as “an effort to integrate humanistic and scientific thought that excludes traditional religious belief.” All this gives you a little idea of Brockman’s worldview, style, and intent, but this isn’t just a stray fact, for it was Edge.org which led to the creation of Brockman’s book What Is Your Dangerous Idea? Each year, Edge.org poses an “Edge question,” and the 2006 question was “What is your dangerous idea?” Answers to that question from various thinkers were compiled into the book. Many of the essays in the book also appear at Edge.org, where John Brockman introduces those essays by explaining that their primary consensus is that intelligent design is wrong:
What you will find emerging out of the 119 original essays in the 75,000 word document written in response to the 2006 Edge Question — “What is your dangerous idea?” — are indications of a new natural philosophy, founded on the realization of the import of complexity, of evolution. Very complex systems — whether organisms, brains, the biosphere, or the universe itself — were not constructed by design; all have evolved. There is a new set of metaphors to describe ourselves, our minds, the universe, and all of the things we know in it.
No wonder the copy on the back of What Is Your Dangerous Idea? advertises it as promoting the idea that we exist in “a universe in which we are utterly alone.” The book’s title is explained on the back cover as well: “Many thoughts that resonate today are dangerous not because they are assumed to be false, but because they might turn out to be true.” Many of the 108 short chapters deal with technological, economic, or scientific ideas that are far removed from religion, but many chapters promote ideas that are said to be “dangerous” specifically because they threaten religious beliefs that are widely held. The article in the Star Press mentions a contribution by new atheist Sam Harris titled “Science Must Destroy Religion” (Chapter 53), but many other chapters oppose traditional religious beliefs. For example:
- Steven Pinker’s introduction claims that “the foisting of ‘Intelligent Design’ on biology students” is “ludicrous” and one of the “travesties” of contemporary society. (p. xxv) He further observes that “many” of the essays in the volume “are versions of Copernicus’s original dangerous idea — that we are not the center of the universe, literally or metaphorically.” (p. xxxiii)
- Chapter 1, “We Have No Souls.”
- Chapter 2, “The Rejection of Soul.”
- Chapter 4, “The Differences Between Humans and Nonhumans Are Qualitative, Not Quantitative.”
- Chapter 7, “Marionettes on Genetic Strings,” by new atheist Jerry Coyne, which states we may just be “selfish replicators” with no free will.
- Chapter 11, “We Are Entirely Alone,” argues, “There is no God, no Intelligent Designer, and no higher purpose to our lives.” (p. 33)
- Chapter 22, “Our Universal Moral Grammar’s Immunity to Religion,” argues that our “moral instincts” are “evolved” and not “the insignia of divine creation” (p. 60). It states: “What is dangerous is holding on to an irrational position that starts by equating morality with religion and then moves to an inference that a divine power fuels religious doctrine.” (p. 61) According to the chapter people should “search for inspiration outside the church,” turning instead, for example, to “the Darwinian pulpit.” (p. 61)
- Chapter 25, “We Will Understand the Origin of Life Within the Next Five Years,” argues that would mean there is “one less task for God to accomplish” and “No miracle or immense stroke of luck was needed to get it started.” (p. 68)
- Chapter 53, “Science Must Destroy Religion,” by leading new atheist Sam Harris, argues that “Religious faith — faith that there is a God who cares what name he is called, that one of our books is infallible, that Jesus is coming back to earth to judge the living and the dead, that Muslim martyrs go straight to Paradise, and so on — is on the wrong side of an escalating war of ideas.” (pp. 149-150)
- Chapter 54 argues that “Doubt that a supernatural being exists” is so obviously called for that it’s “banal.” (p. 152)
- Chapter 55, “The Greatest Story Ever Told,” hopes that someday “the role played by science in the lives of all people” should be “the same as that played by religion today.” (p. 153) The author envisions “a Church of Latter-day Scientists” where the “high priests” are “the biologists, the physicists, the astronomers, the chemists” and “today’s museums, exposition halls, and planetaria may become tomorrow’s houses of worship,” thereby replacing “formal religion.” (pp. 154-155)
- Chapter 56, “This Is All There Is,” attacks traditional religious views about human life, stating: “The empirically testable idea that the here and now is all there is and that life begins at birth and ends at death is so dangerous that it has cost the lives of millions and threatens the future of civilization. The danger comes not from the idea itself, but from its opponents, those religious leaders and followers who ruthlessly advocate and defend their empirically improbable afterlife and man-in-the-sky cosmological perspectives.” (p. 159)
- Chapter 61, “Myths and Fairy Tales Are Not True,” attacks religious beliefs, stating: “Just as my patients adapt to difficult realities by creating metaphorical substitutes, it appears to me that beliefs in angels, deities and eternal souls can be understood in part as wish-fulfilling metaphors for an unpleasant reality that most of us cannot fully comprehend and accept.” (p. 173)
All of these chapters were assigned to students by BSU professor Paul Ranieri in his honors course “Dangerous Ideas.”
In the Star Press article, BSU’s spokesman defends the use of this book in Ranieri’s course by claiming it has religion-friendly chapters with titles like “Science May Be Running Out of Control,” “Science Will Never Silence God,” and “Religion is the Hope that is Missing in Science.” BSU might be getting its talking points from Jerry Coyne, who cited some of these same chapters as “pro-religious” on his blog the day before the Star Press article came out. Whatever the case, BSU has grossly misled the public by citing these chapters. A charitable interpretation would be that Mr. Proudfoot hadn’t read the book or talked with anyone who did before discussing it, but had only looked at the table of contents. In each case, the chapter’s content isn’t what its title may seem, and certainly isn’t religion-friendly as Proudfoot suggests (or as Coyne does).
“Science May Be Running Out of Control” has nothing to do with religion. It’s concerned with political and ethical questions like whether it is possible for governments to regulate scientific research, and the over-focus of medical research on cancer and heart ailments — diseases that tend to afflict Western countries — to the neglect of “infectious diseases endemic in the tropics.” (p. 36)
The second chapter BSU cites, “Science Will Never Silence God,” isn’t at all what the title prompts you to expect. It’s actually a stridently anti-religious essay by evolutionary psychologist Jesse Bering, author of books like Why Is the Penis Shaped Like That? and Perv: The Sexual Deviant in All of Us. In 2012, Bering appeared on the “Ask an Atheist” podcast, where he said, “I’m an atheist,” and “we don’t need God to understand our human existence,” while claiming God is an “illusion,” and that people believe in God only because natural selection has predisposed them to do so. His chapter in What Is Your Dangerous Idea? takes much the same tone. He opens by saying:
With each meticulous turn of the screw in science, with each tightening of our understanding of the natural world, we pull more taught the straps over God’s muzzle. (p. 167)
The chapter’s title doesn’t mean the author is happy that science will never be able to muzzle God. Rather, he views the fact that “Science Will Never Silence God” as a lamentable reality about the future. (This is thus an example of one of those ideas the book says are “dangerous not because they are assumed to be false, but because they might turn out to be true.”) He’s upset because (in his view) the persistence of religious belief will hinder science. He explains:
From botany to bioengineering, from physics to psychology, what is science, really, but true revelation — and what is revelation but the negation of God? It is a humble pursuit we scientists engage in: racing toward reality. Many of us suffer the harsh glare of the American theocracy, whose heart still beats loud and strong in this new era of the twenty-first century. We bravely favor truth, in all its wondrous, amoral, and meaningless complexity, over the singularly destructive Truth born out of the trembling mind of our ancestors. But my dangerous idea, I fear, is that no matter how far our thoughts vault into the eternal sky of this progress, God will always bite through his muzzle and banish us from the starry night of humanistic ideals. (p. 167)
He further fears, “There will never be a day when God does not speak for the majority. There will never be a day when he does not whisper into the ears of most godless of scientists. This is because God is not an idea, nor a cultural invention, nor an ‘opiate of the masses,’ nor any such thing. God is a way of thinking that has been rendered permanent by natural selection.” (pp. 167-168) His chapter concludes, “As scientists, we must toil and labor and toil again to silence God.” (p. 168)
The third chapter BSU cites, “Religion Is the Hope that Is Missing in Science,” is also not at all what it sounds like. The author is another evolutionary psychologist, Scott Atran, who in the book states that he is “an atheist” (p. 169). In another book, What We Believe but Cannot Prove: Today’s Leading Thinkers on Science in the Age of Certainty, also edited by John Brockman, Atran expounds his view that “[t]here is no God that has existence apart from people’s thoughts of God.” (p. 47)
In Atran’s 2002 book In Gods We Trust: The Evolutionary Landscape of Religion, he argues that religious beliefs are “counterfactual” and “implausible,” and that belief in a traditional concept of God — “a sentient and emotional being with no body” — is “counterintuitive.” (p. 4) Atran even writes that “[a]ll religions … involve counterintuitive beliefs in supernatural beings.” (p. 9) Like Jesse Bering, he maintains that people believe in God because natural selection made them do so, not because God exists, since “God concepts extend” from an “evolutionary program for avoiding and tracking predators and prey.” (p. 78)
All this is consistent with his chapter in What Is Your Dangerous Idea? Atran writes that rather than having been given to us by God, “Religion … is an evolutionary byproduct of various mental faculties of the human brain.” (p. 169) He argues that religion exists in society not because its truth claims are correct, but rather “Religion thrives because it addresses people’s deepest emotional yearnings and society’s foundational moral needs.” (p. 170) Indeed, Atran affirmatively argues that “Human beings are accidental and incidental byproducts of the material development of the universe” (p. 171), and religion exists simply to help us cope with the harsh reality of that supposed truth.
What’s revealing about Atran’s article is that he seems to assume that the reader of What Is Your Dangerous Idea? holds anti-religious, atheistic mindset, since he has to remind readers that religion isn’t always evil:
True, some people operating in the name of religion have been more explicitly savage and cruel toward others than most, but there are the likes of Lincoln, Gandi, and Martin Luther King, whose religion not only has given hope to so many but has thereby cumulatively enabled the lessening of human misery. (p. 170)
The irony in all this is that last September, Discovery Institute sent a letter to BSU pointing out the anti-religious language from many of the chapters discussed here, including one of the three chapters recently referenced by BSU as being pro-religion. So we notified BSU of the anti-religious content in What Is Your Dangerous Idea?, yet they still misrepresent it as religion-friendly.
To put it bluntly, What Is Your Dangerous Idea? is an unadulterated polemic against religion, especially traditional religion. Yes, there are occasional chapters by religious people. For example, Chapter 35, titled “A Marriage Option for All,” is by David G. Myers, author of What God Has Joined Together? A Christian Case for Gay Marriage. Another Christian, physicist Frank Tipler, also contributes a chapter, but it has nothing to do with religion. Instead, Dr. Tipler explains his fear that no future discoveries in physics will revolutionize our ability to produce energy. Not a single chapter I can find in the book promotes or advocates the validity of traditional religion. Virtually all the chapters that touch upon the subject argue that religion is false, a danger to society, and they assume that the reader will be inclined to agree.
The afterword by Richard Dawkins aptly summarizes:
This book presents to us 108 top intellectuals from the Edge online salon, famed for their good ideas (or, in one or two cases, notoriously bad ideas). What, then, are their dangerous ideas, and are they any good? I found that I could analyze the answers as a kind of poll. How many opt for doom, and similar apocalyptic jeremiads? By my count, 11, although some of these were anti-Jeremiahs whose dangerous idea is that dangers are exaggerated. I counted 24 whose dangerous ideas concern society, 20 whose dangerous idea touches on psychology, and 14 on politics or economics. Eleven chose topics that, in one way or another, concern religion, broadly defined. Six explore the cosmic angst that seems to follow from them, for example the belief that we are alone in the universe, or the belief that there is nobody at home in our skulls, nothing that could honestly answer to the name of “soul.” Six authors take a self-referential approach to the Edge Question, discussing as a dangerous idea the very idea of asking for dangerous ideas — or in one case, the very idea that ideas can be considered dangerous. (pp. 298-299)
Not one of those 108 essays in What Is Your Dangerous Idea? promotes the idea that traditional religion actually is true. If any of them had, you can be sure Dawkins would have protested, and Brockman would have excluded it. Without a doubt, What Is Your Dangerous Idea? is not the book that Ball State University administrators want the public — including the Indiana taxpayers who foot the bill for their salaries — to think it is.
Again, this book is the sole textbook for BSU’s “Dangerous Ideas” course according to the syllabus supplied to us by BSU through a public documents request. If it had been assigned along with readings from a different perspective, that would have been a different situation. Indeed, if BSU allowed other professors (like Eric Hedin) to present an alternative view about the compatibility of faith and science in their classes, then BSU could claim that this book is simply part of allowing a forum for various views, and that would be fine. But BSU cancelled Professor Hedin’s course — and now it is defending a course that uses as its lone textbook an anti-religious polemic.
The authors in What Is Your Dangerous Idea? have every right to express their views, and likewise, individual faculty at public universities may, generally speaking, critique religion. But when a state university permits religion-bashing in the name of science while censoring other views, that government institution has strayed into constitutionally treacherous waters.