Krista Tippett on science and faith

April 12, 2010 • 2:15 pm

I don’t know much about Krista Tippett, who does the Speaking of Faith program on NPR, but I’ve just received a free copy of her new book, Einstein’s God: Conversations about Science and the Human Spirit.  I’m intrigued enough to read it, although I’m not excessively hopeful after seeing that one of the “conversations” is with John Polkinghorne and is called “Quarks and Creation: On the complementary nature of science and religion.”  I heard her exactly once, while driving in North Carolina. She was spouting some accommodationist nonsense on NPR, and I petulantly turned off the car radio.

Before cracking the book, I did a quick Google search, and this video came up:

This is not promising:

@4:50 “I actually interviewed an Australian astrobiologist recently for a program we’re doing on the religious sensibility of Albert Einstein, and he says that theology is the midwife of science. And he points out that in Western culture, and even names that we wrongly think of as being opposed to religion—Galileo, Newton, even Darwin himself, and into the twentieth century, somebody like Albert Einstein— you know, especially Darwin, Newton, and Galileo: they thought that what they were doing with science was understanding God better. They went from the premise that, you know, the Americans you just heard a moment ago, hold, that God created the world, that they believed that Nature, that the created world, is the works of God, and in understanding nature and the world as it is, they could understand the mind of God. And that is an impulse that even today is consonant with the way many scientists approach their work, whether they are kind of traditionally religious or not. And that’s being lost in the way that science is being set up as an enemy to religion. . . .

Actually, I know a lot of scientists, but have never encountered a single one who seems motivated by the desire to understand the nature of God. Maybe Newton did that, but certainly not Einstein and Darwin.  To claim that those two guys did science as a way of getting inside God’s mind is the most blatant form of factual distortion in the service of accommodationism.  Of course science is an enemy of religion, for its method is doubt, empirical testing, and the rejection of ideas for which there’s no evidence.  If religious people practiced their faith using those principles, in a very short time there would be no religion.

Is this the kind of stuff I can expect in her book?


Oh, and a big hat tip to Greg Mayer and Matthew Cobb for putting up some great posts during my well-deserved feed in Paris.

56 thoughts on “Krista Tippett on science and faith

  1. Until Science can explain EVERYTHING,Religion like the poor, will be with us always. Wasn’t it Arthur C. Clarke who pointed out that science, if far enough advanced, would carry a mythological mystery with it?

    1. More precisely, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”
      Arthur C. Clarke, “Profiles of The Future”, 1961 (Clarke’s third law)

      Seems like Apple’s copywriters may have been taking a leaf out of Clarke’s book…

    2. There is neither a need for science to explain everything nor a fundamental reason to believe that science can ever explain everything. Nor are the limitations of science any condition for the acceptance of superstition.

      Clarke wrote that any sufficiently advanced technology may be seen by those unfamiliar with it to be magical. One such example is that of the Cargo Cult of Papua New Guinea. However, at this point in time it is difficult to imagine any technology which would be considered magical by the human population as a whole. Humans have learned an awful lot in the past 600 years; far more perhaps in the past 200 than throughout the remainder of history and prehistory.

  2. I don’t know how one can be intellectual honest and say a method of knowing that seeks to falsify itself (science) has anything in common with dogma that defends (sometimes violently) it’s improbable presuppositions (religion).

  3. If you can actually get through her book, let us know what you think about it. Mixed reviews over at

  4. Slightly off the main topic, but related to accommodationism in public broadcasting: I watched Nature on PBS last night, and the photography was brilliant, just brilliant. I’m very glad I saw that show; it was awe-inspiring. BUT. The narration seemed sometimes to jump back and fourth across the line separating the way scientists actually talk and something that toes the line of accommodationism. Not that I think “Nature,” which can be enjoyed by all, should be atheistic or ideological in any way. But at key points in the narration when I was anticipating the words “adaptation” or “evolution” to be used, I was treated to sentences about an animal being “well-suited” to its environment, or “ingeniously designed” (which came uncomfortably close to “intelligent design” for me. In fairness, the words “adaptation” and “evolution” were eventually used, and there was no effort to fudge the age of the earth and no direct mention of creation (although the way “nature” seemed purposeful and personified, it would have been a short step for a theist to trade out “creator” for “nature” and feel totally justified). Maybe I’ve just gotten to be hyper-vigilant, overly critical, and pedantic. If anyone else saw the show and feels that way about what I’m saying, please feel free to say so. I just thought, after reading last week about how results of American ignorance of evolution (and the Big Bang) have been covered up, those in the education business don’t do viewers any favors by pandering to an ambivalence about how organisms got here.

    1. Sadly, the problem you’re describing is rampant in nature shows in the US. The Discover Channel version of Life does exactly the same thing.

  5. theology is the midwife of science

    Let’s just take this analogy to its natural conclusions: now that science has been born and finished nursing, theology isn’t needed anymore.

    1. Theology, generally, means the study of religion. More narrowly, theology can mean the study of god.

      Ironically, many serious theologians are non-theists while others have defined god as the values one lives by. There are even serious humanists who call their values system a religion.

      While I agree that the old time definition of theology–a creating and controlling God–is invalid, many serious people continue to use it with an evolved meanings.

      When criticizing others who alter definitions based on new insights, scientists should use caution as they have a history of doing the same.

      1. Scientists base their changes to ideas on evidence; religion does no such thing. Science is inherently cautious, while religion is accustomed to making grand claims with absolutely no evidence to support the claims. So what is this caution you’re saying science should use?

        1. “religion is accustomed to making grand claims with absolutely no evidence to support the claims.”

          Something like the above. The truth of your comment depends on your definition of religion. Mine is drawn from the works of Campbell, Jung, Crossan, Geering and others who have spent their lives considering the human psyche and the role religion plays in human life. Religion in its basic form is how we link human life to the whole, the way we see ourselves functioning both apart from and as a part of a greater whole. Those who are unconcerned with their place and function in the world are unreligious. Those who see theri life as a part of something greater than themselves are religious.

          Today, religion is too often narrowly defined by the organized groups–Judaism, Christianity, Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism, Humanism, Islam, etc.–which are in fact Religions, but they are not, do not constitute the whole of religion.

          Science is also a discipline of the mind, but when one speaks of science, which sciences are included? Wikipedia has a list of Fields of Sciences at

          which includes engineering as an applied science. As an engineer I do not think of engineering when I speak of science.

          The care I refer to is that of being clear in descriptive language. That’s all.

          We can disagree in our views, but being accurate in our discourse reveals this difference clearly.disagreement

  6. Actually, I know a lot of scientists, but have never encountered a single one who seems motivated by the desire to understand the nature of God. Maybe Newton did that…

    Oh, Newton did for sure. And it wasn’t terribly uncommon several centuries ago.

    In my opinion, invoking the religious views of anyone pre-Darwin is even less than an Argument from Authority. Prior to Darwin, there was a real elephant-in-the-room-type question that nobody had a decent answer to (namely, “where did all these fucking animals come from?!?”) and even very smart people could be forgiven for a lapse of intellectual rigor when pondering this frustratingly large gap in human knowledge. Their opinion doesn’t even count.

    1. As reported in the Eighth Day of Creation by Horace Judson, which you should rush out and read if you haven’t already, Francis Crick’s choice of biology as a field of research was motivated by his atheism.

      “An important reason Crick changed to biology, he said to me, was that he is an atheist, and was impatient to throw light into the remaining shadowy sanctuaries of vitalistic illusions…”

      1. A second on Reginald’s recommendation of Judson’s book. It’s one of the finest histories of biology I’ve ever read.

        1. Well, you guys convinced me. I looked up the book after those two recommendations, and have placed an order oline.

          Thanks guys!

  7. You have to love Newton’s courage though to confront the incoherence of the Trinity and deny the divinity of Jesus.

    1. Actually, as I understand it, Newton was very careful to hide the fact that he was an Arian as he could have gotten into serious trouble if it had become known. Arianism was considered heresy by both the Roman Catholic Church and the Church of England in his day. AFAIK, it only became known after his death.

    2. Huh? Newton’s heresies weren’t discovered until long after he was dead. It is not even clear if he ever mentioned it to anyone – it is possible that he never did since he is fairly well known to be extremely secretive. The Church of England and the ruling classes of the era would happily have Newton drawn and quartered if his dabbling in the occult were ever publicly known.

    1. I’m not sure stupid is the right word. I think ‘naïve’ is a better description. I doubt he ever imagined that the things he’s said would be twisted into supporting the idea of a personal, interventionist god. He specifically said that he doesn’t believe in that kind of god, but the quote-miners would never include that.

    2. When you’re a genius like Einstein, even off-the-cuff remarks are treated as serious considerations, so the poor sod would have had problems cracking a joke without some dickwad putting it down as if meant seriously.
      This in particular if it was an observation about the idiotic concept ‘god’.

  8. One isn’t likely to encounter scientists today that are motivated by a desire to know god, but in previous centuries it was rather common. For scholars in both Christian Europe and the Islamic caliphates it was widely believed that in addition to scripture god could also be understood through the study of nature, which is believed by those people to have been created by their god. In other words, understanding god’s creation can produce a fuller understanding of god than if one were relying on scripture alone.


    The likes of Richard Dawkins and the New Atheists have said far stupider things about religion than Einstein ever did.

    1. She is talking about NOW, not in previous centuries:

      “And that is an impulse that even today is consonant with the way many scientists approach their work, whether they are kind of traditionally religious or not.”

      And indeed, from studying God’s creation one can deduce that he not only loves beetles, but is also a bungler, since he makes a lot of species that he then destroys, so he’s impatient. He’s also basically incompetent because he designed things like the prostate gland.

      1. According to the recent Einstein biography, Einstein did say things like “were I creating the universe, what would I have done” and used that principle to guide some of his inquiry.

        Of course, the same biography made it clear that he did NOT believe in a “personal deity” but he also denied the “atheist label” (but accepted the “agnostic” label)

        This, of course, is not anything like a desire to “know the mind of a Jehovah-like deity”

    2. Reginald, like what? What does a study of nature tell you about a god? Because I have to say, it was the Christian scriptures that first made me profoundly skeptical about the existence of the Christian god, and it was my study of nature (mostly second-hand through reading science) that convinced me that god adds nothing to our understanding of existence and that the universe looks more than anything as if there is no god behind it at all. You seem to imply that to this day, there is something profitable to be gained theologically from studying revelation and nature, and I wonder if you could be more specific? All of these of course leaves aside your knee-jerk diss of New Atheism, which seems to be more of a reflexive cough than a statement meant to assert anything substantial.

      1. Your reply, I think, is directed to the author of that post–Gibbon, not Reginald. Gibbon simply put Reginald’s name there because he was replying to him.

    3. The ones who really say stupid things about religion are the religious, as they claims are unsubstantiated, and their ideas unreal.
      Added the underlying nastiness toward any who question their superstition, their beliefs are not only stupid, but also malicious.

      1. Greg Peterson: The point was not about god having any merit in explaining nature, but rather that those religious scholars in previous centuries, having already believed that their deity created the universe also believed that a greater understanding of the creation could provide insight into how their deity behaved. The basic idea was that scripture revealed the mind of god while nature revealed the actions of god.

        John Mero: Religious people may often say stupid things about religion, but again, so do the New Atheists. The conflict thesis is stupid, and also unsubstantiated. The idea that the Northern Ireland Troubles would not have occurred without religion (as Dawkins claimed in The God Delusion), is also stupid. So too is Sam Harris’ comment that without Islam Arabs would have no reason to object to US military placement in Saudi Arabia (which he stated in a Point of Inquiry podcast). And a really absurd statement is the idea that religion is not a legitimate field in which one can claim expertise (from The God Delusion).

        My point is that if you’re going to be selective on which of Einstein’s comments about religion you are going to believe, simply because they are not consistent with what the New Atheists say on the subject then you’re not exactly being objective; dismissing Einstein’s comments as stupid suggests that you’re doing so because of confirmation bias more than anything else. What makes that confirmation bias all the more likely is the fact that I have seen no New Atheist reject as stupid the claims such as those I have repeated here, which are clearly stupid. And a lot of the arguments that the New Atheists have put forward do not in fact stand up when judged on their own merit; more often than not they demonstrate a profound misunderstanding of actual events, and tend not to be supported by any evidence.

        1. Maybe I didn’t focus well enough on your actual point, and if that’s the case, I do apologize. For the record, though, for the life of me I can’t understand why anyone would care one way or the other what Einstein thought or said about God. I certainly wouldn’t quote-mine him to try to make some point, because I hope most of the people I would try to make the point to would be too smart to fall for the logical fallacy that because Einstein said it, it’s awesomely true. By the same token–and I know this was your point, and think it’s totally valid as the point you were making, I’m not discounting that–but I don’t care what the ancients thought they were doing. Revelation doesn’t reveal anything about gods; it does have quite a bit to teach us about human need. And the natural world, far from gesturing toward the divine, appears in every way at ever level to be just that: natural. So I get what you are saying about religious scholars in previous centuries, and I don’t doubt for an instant that they were carrying on exactly as you say. But so what? They were mistaken. It’s an historically interesting quirk, what they were up to, just as astrology and alchemy are historically interesting quirks on the road to astronomy and chemistry, but that’s all.

          As to all this talk about New Atheists, I was an atheist a good decade before that term was trotted out, and like a good ancient religious scholar, I came to my conclusions on the basis of scripture and the natural world, with no help from Dawkins or Harris or anyone else. If anything, I felt vaguely disappointed to learn that all the ideas that I painstakingly came up with “on my own” were in fact widely known, if narrowly held. I thought I’d come up with some truly novel objections to religious faith. Turns out they’re not novel, or new, at all…and little of what the New Atheists says is, either. That is because the central objections to theism have been around for ages, and perhaps no single one of them represents a silver bullet against faith, the summed effect of them is profound. I understand that for those who, for whatever existential reasons, insist on religious faith, will always find a way to believe. It involves ever more baroque work-arounds and excuses. It was coming to the point where I realized that God adds nothing…nothing at all…that I was able to release the notion and relax. Atheism has its own discontents, there is no question about that; who wouldn’t love some ultimate justice? But at least I escaped with some integrity and a clear vision of what life is and can be.

  9. It is a typical strategy of religious apologists to attempt to subsume and assimilate science these days. They try to claim it for themselves, put it under religion, and push it into the service of moronic religious ideas. It’s also amusing that lolly-heads like this woman actually think there is some kind of “conversation” going on between science and religion. What a childish world of deluded self-importance they live in.

  10. Bleh, Krista Tippett really bugs me. Some interesting ideas are brought up on her show, but always investigated with fuzzy, new-agey, uncritical, circular thinking so that it all confirms her view that faith is the most wonderful thing.

    She excels in taking metaphorical descriptions by scientists like Einstein’s use of “God” or equations that are so good they are “miraculous” and twisting them in to validation for faith. It is a show defined by obfuscation and faux-analysis.

    Massimo Pigliucci has commented on her a few times on his blog, including this nice intro:

    ”I have commented before on one of the most annoying broadcasts from National Public Radio: Krista Tippett’s ‘Speaking of Faith.’ Tippett is by far not the most egregious offender to rationality I can think of, and she really tries to be as open minded as possible (though remember Carl Sagan’s warning that being too open minded carries the risk of your brain falling out…).”

  11. I wouldn’t waste a cent on her book. She can pay me $500 to take a copy though and another $6000 or so to read it. Religiotards like to make the false claim that Einstein was religious despite the fact that no less than Einstein himself said (and wrote) otherwise. Einstein was more of a naturist (though without human sacrifice and other rituals). But even ‘naturist’ wouldn’t be quite right because Einstein never imbued nature with mystical powers; nature was difficult to understand and in that sense mysterious, but Einstein believed we could discover rules about how nature worked. In fact Einstein was so hung up on discovering fixed rules that he struggled with the idea that randomness could be part of a rule – Einstein liked his sharp lines and not the fuzzy ideas of modern Quantum Mechanics. It was a strange position to take since his own equations allow for the very randomness/uncertainty which he hated so much (though that would be a more modern interpretation of his equations).

  12. While skiing yesterday, someone mentioned that book to me on the chairlift. I was uncomfortable, not having even heard of it until that point, but of course I was a captive audience (where are you gonna go on a chairlift?). Apparently one of the other theses of the book is that you have to have a sense of spiritual wonder (almost like religion) to be a scientist. Not being sure if the person was conveying the book accurately, I only said that a scientist’s sense of wonder at the unknown was far richer than religion can provide. Especially when most religions claim to have the answers already.

    1. Yuck. I hate that religious claim about a “sense of wonder”. Scientists are curious; religion dreads curiosity. Scientists are awed by what they discover (wow – look what I can do, or look at what I discovered!) Religions say “praise the great bogey man!” In short, religions worship and perpetuate ignorance while science is forever trying to learn more. There is nothing significant in common with scientific wonder and religious wonderment.

  13. “An Australian astrobiologist”? What does he do all day?

    And I agree with Reginald Selkirk. While Einstein was certainly one of the most original and productive minds the world has ever produced, he did talk a lot of shit when he wasn’t doing physics. More people need to say this when an appeal to his authority is made, instead of just trying to claim him as one of us.

    The latter response is factually correct, but it misses the point when the real intent is to puncture an appeal to authority.

    1. Einstein on religion, Exhibit A

      Perhaps you have heard this snippet: “science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind.

      This was not an off-the cuff remark, but appeared in a prepared essay.

      It is true that the quote is taken out of context by supporters of theism, and that Einstein decries the silliness of belief in a personal God in the very same essay. But to expect theists to respect such context is blindness to their record.

      But now let’s look at the context; here is the full paragraph from which the snippet was taken:

      Now, even though the realms of religion and science in themselves are clearly marked off from each other(1), nevertheless there exist between the two strong reciprocal relationships and dependencies(2). Though religion may be that which determines the goal(3), it has, nevertheless, learned from science(4), in the broadest sense, what means will contribute to the attainment of the goals it has set up. But science can only be created by those who are thoroughly imbued with the aspiration toward truth and understanding. This source of feeling, however, springs from the sphere of religion(5). To this there also belongs the faith in the possibility that the regulations valid for the world of existence are rational, that is, comprehensible to reason(6). I cannot conceive of a genuine scientist without that profound faith. The situation may be expressed by an image: science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind.

      1) This is NOMA. If the line is so clearly marked, why is it so frequently crossed?

      2) Such as?

      3) Why should religion, with its poor track record of finding truth, be assigned the task of setting any goal?

      4) Some religions are notably lacking in their record of learning from science.

      5) WTF ALERT!!!! Aspiration toward truth and understanding springs from the sphere of religion? DANGER WILL ROBINSON!

      6) That the world is somewhat orderly and is comprehensible to reason does not require faith. It is a reasonable and (of course) provisional conclusion which can be drawn from over half a millenium of scientific inquiry. This “faith” word is overworked, find a different and more specific term.

      Lots to disagree with there, and that’s just one paragraph.

      1. You have to remember, when it comes to religion Einstein used very different definitions for words than most people. When he said “religion”, he didn’t mean religion as most people use the word, he basically meant “everything other than science”. So what he is saying here is true, by the definition of religion he used. It’s like Humpty-dumpty from Alice in Wonderland, the words means whatever he wants them to mean.

        1. “different definitions for words” is a significant part of the problem in the science/religion discord.

          My reading of Einstein’s views differs from yours, but you have defined your understanding. I don’t think he meant “everything other than science.” My reading is that he meant how he related to the comprehension beyond reason.

          Thanks for making you use of words clear. I am convinced that Einstein was obsessed with the mystery of the universe and would call him a nature mystic which you could call a religious orientation or not as you choose.

      2. That the world is somewhat orderly and is comprehensible to reason does not require faith. It is a reasonable and (of course) provisional conclusion which can be drawn from over half a millenium of scientific inquiry.

        For me, this is the point that defines the difference between faith and science. It is not just a “reasonable and provisional” conclusion – it’s absolutely necessary if you want to live! If the universe was not orderly and comprehensible, you might as well wake up and drink gasoline instead of coffee – after all, there’s no reason to believe that what was true yesterday (gasoline is poisonous, coffee is not – usually) will be true today.
        Religious faith, on the other hand is not necessary – it’s a choice. Obviously, a large portion of the world’s population exists without religious faith. The fact that it is a choice is what gives it meaning for those who believe.

        It simply isn’t possible to live without accepting the orderliness of the universe. For that reason, everyone is a scientist.

  14. I’m pretty sure that the astrobiologist to whom she referred is Prof Paul Davies, who once worked in Australia.

    1. Paul Davies was interviewed on the ‘Little Atoms’ podcast the other day. The interviewer was clearly an accomodationist himself – Davies was introduced as the 1995 winner of the “worlds largest prize for intellectual endeavor” – The Templeton Prize.
      Whats worse still is he let Davies make the most preposterous claims about religion’s role in science without challenging him.
      I’ll transcribe the worst bit to let you get an idea of Tthe sort of thinking that gets you a Templeton prize.
      “You wouldn’t by accident build the Large Hadron Collider and discover the Higgs Boson. It’s not something you would do just by tinkering around. You have to have in advance a clear idea of what you’re about and that is very much a cultural thing. That is a religious thing. It came out of a theistic world view, the notion of a creative world order with a rational plan that’s immutable and eternal. That’s a very specific cultural thing. You don’t find this in other cultures. You don’t find it in China, you don’t find it among the native Americans, you don’t find it among the Australian Aborigines. They have a completely different world view, a completely different view of nature so its something very much tied to Greek philosophy and Judaic Islamic Christian monotheism.”

      1. “You wouldn’t by accident build the Large Hadron Collider and discover the Higgs Boson. It’s not something you would do just . . . etc.”

        The last part of that is a very efficient way to induce vomiting in anyone mentally better equipped than a half-wit!

  15. Correction noted regarding Newton’s Arian beliefs and my use of the word “courage” in describing them. I should have said at least he adopted an idiosyncratic view on god that put him at odds with the superstitious sheep. His pursuit of alchemy and the elixir of life however made him equally as superstitious. His cognitive biases however seemed less influenced by an appeal to authority driven by group think.

  16. “Of course science is an enemy of religion, for its method is doubt, empirical testing, and the rejection of ideas for which there’s no evidence. If religious people practiced their faith using those principles, in a very short time there would be no religion.”

    Not many human relationships would survive those methods either.

  17. I think when we think of “religion” in this day and age of the Discovery Institute and Wahabi Islam, it is fair to equate the term with “dogma”.

    Dogma defends its presuppostions and as such performs intellectual suicide. It is the enemy of inquirty which science holds dear.

    Tippet is an accomodationist of the highest order because she reports on faith without embracing the dark elements at play in relation to today’s civilization.

  18. Tippett reports that the book contains the conversation she had with Janna Levin, an assistant professor of physics and astronomy at Barnard College of Columbia University. I recommend you check that part out. I haven’t seen the book, but I was impressed by Levin when I read the transcript of Tippett’s interview with her in 2008, which was rebroadcasted on 2010 March 11. I only read the interview’s transcript. It was so refreshing that I saved a copy of it. I’m sure I don’t want to listen to the podcast.

    Janna Levin is also a novelist — of course, she was doing an interview — an atheist, and doesn’t believe in free will.

    1. Thanks for the post. I smile at your tag… “and doesn’t believe in free will.”

      If free will is the “ability to choose without constraints”, I don’t believe it.

      But when free will means the ability to choose amongst alternatives, I believe it.

      See the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy at

      for an excursion through the free will weeds.

      1. Thanks for the link. I’ll check it out later. My tag was supposed to intrigue you so you would look up what Levin means when she says that in the transcript.

    2. Thanks for the link. I’ve listened to parts of it. The topic was Mathematics, Purpose and Truth. Too much of it was chatting.

      I will take more time to explore the Speaking of Faith website.

Leave a Reply