George Church: The overlap between science and faith is “vast and fertile”

May 31, 2011 • 5:39 am

George Church is a well known molecular geneticist who helped design the first “direct” method of DNA sequencing, and played an important role in initiating the Human Genome Project.  He has an  appointment at Harvard University and consults for several companies. His latest endeavor is the Personal Genome Project, designed to get DNA sequences from many individuals with the aim of curing genetic maladies.

Church also has a Reddit page in which he answers readers’ questions.  Sadly, there he shows a chronic and debilitating sympathy for religion:

Is there evidence of God in science?

Some people feel that science and faith have nothing in common. But a considerable amount of faith drives everyday science — and frequently religion addresses scientific topics (e.g. the physics/biology of miracles, ancient gods, Galileo). If faith had no impact on our physical brain, then by what mechanisms does it impact our spoken conversations. Billions of humans (in a very real scientific sense) have faith. The overlap is vast and fertile. As we learn more about nature, for many of us, this greatly strengthens rather than lessens our awe.

Sad, isn’t it, that a really smart scientist makes an assertion that “a considerable amount of faith drives everyday science.”

Let us once and for all make the distinction between the scientific and religious notions of faith—before they’ve become deliberately and permanently conflated by the faithful:

FaithSCIENCE :  Confidence, based on mountains of experience, that answers to questions about reality are best derived from a combination of evidence and reason.

FaithRELIGION : Confidence, based on no experience (indeed, even contrary to experience), that answers to questions about “reality” are best derived from personal revelation, authority, scripture, and dogma.

73 thoughts on “George Church: The overlap between science and faith is “vast and fertile”

    1. Trust, but verify.

      -[either an old Russian proverb or something Reagan saw in a movie once]

    2. I usually go with “epistemic confidence” when pushed to clarify what “faith” means in a scientific context (although I’d prefer to eschew its use entirely in that context) which I guess is probably just another way of saying trust. It emphasizes science as a way of knowing, though, which I think is important since knowledge is precisely what religious faith doesn’t, won’t, and can’t get us.

  1. Billions of humans (in a very real scientific sense) have faith.


    Billions of humans also have halitosis. Does that mean we should abandon dental hygiene?



  2. “If [fiction] had no impact on our physical brain, then by what mechanisms does it impact our [written novels].”

  3. Sad, isn’t it, that a really smart scientist makes a statement like “a considerable amount of faith drives everyday science.”

    The absurdity of this statement is obvious if you consider that science, as we know it was *born* in Milete (a colony of Greece in present-day Turkey) when Thales, Anaximander and Anaximenes rejected mythical or religious explanations for natural phenomena, such as earthquakes, by “natural” causes, based on rational explanations.
    So science was born by opposing religious belief.

  4. In his defense, I don’t see anything wrong with his actual response — it’s fairly indisputable that religious faith has motivated many, many people to do science. He doesn’t seem to be conflating the two kinds of faith you outline.

    But he is engaging in a kind of bait-and-switch, because he didn’t answer the actual question posed, which was “Is there evidence of God in science?”. I would guess that’s because he knows the answer is “No”.

    So instead he answered the question “Can religion motivate people to do science”. Which has a much more appealing response for his audience.

    1. Good point. He also shifted from “Does God have a detectable influence?” to “Does faith have a detectable influence?”. Of course it does, but that doesn’t tell you anything about whether that faith is warranted.

      However, in the last sentence in the quote, he makes yet another switch: he moves from “faith” to “awe”. This whole quote is just full of equivocation. You’d expect more from a scientist, who are generally expected to define their terms first and then stick to their defined meaning.

    2. Faith–the complete trust or confidence in something–exists (?) in many forms. While it is not limited to religion, it is often considered as such. Religion, while not requiring a theistic view, is often, especially among anti-theists, limited as such.

      The irony, for me, is the dependence by scientists on scientific evidence (scholarship) for scientific proofs and the ignoring of religious scholarship (if an intellectual pursuit of that for which there is no evidence can be thus) in characterizing religion.

      I know my mother loved me, but I have faith my father did because he didn’t kill me when I was fifteen.

      1. Scientific evidence does not consist of scholarship. Scholarship is how evidence is presented and shared, but is not the evidence itself.

      2. The main question, when it comes to religious assertions is – is it true?

        If it (religious belief) can’t be shown to be true or false, what point in is there in engaging religious scholarship?

        In fact, many religious beliefs have been shown to be false, and (so far) nothing to be true. So again, what point in engaging in any intellectual pursuit of religion or belief?

    3. “Which has a much more appealing response for his audience.”
      How do you know? He may as well disappoint his readers. Even the believers who are still waiting for the answer.

  5. Hear hear.

    I’m constantly told that I also have ‘belief’ – I believe in the theory of gravity, the theory of evolution, etc. But the word belief means two different things, in the exact same way that you offer two definitions of ‘faith’.

    1. Yes, that sort of belief is closer to what we’d call “trust”. And even so, those beliefs are warrented, as they are supported by science.

      1. I once had an argument on Twitter with Labi Siffre about this: He was astonished that I didn’t “believe” in gravity and admonished me not to take children to the roofs of tall buildings. His assertion was that religionists had arrogated “belief” and “faith”. But even if that were so, I’ve had too many arguments with fundies who wilfully — or ignorantly — conflate the religious and secular senses to think that we can use these words without being misconstrued, and thus we shouldn’t continue to use them, except in the religious senses.


          1. To be fair, Siffre is quite rational (and an atheist); it’s just that he’d happily say, “I believe in gravity,” although I’d say it’s not a matter of “belief.” I guess it’s because (or why) he’s a poet…


        1. No, no. The answer is not to give up words that have a perfectly good definition in the sense that we intend–it is to point out that somewhere in elementary school people should have learned that a whole lot of words have several, dictionary-listed meanings and that grown-ups of any intelligence at all understand this, have learned to take meaning from context, and will refuse to play infantile semantic games.

  6. Again, let me point out that those who declare that they have faith[religion] have nothing of the sort.

    Faith[religion] can be defined simply as belief in the absence of evidence. The whole story of Thomas fondling Jesus’ guts (props to Ben Goren) is the mythological path that permits the faith[religion]-ful to cling to evidence-free assertions. Indeed, this is considered a virtue — small wonder.

    However, in our modern times, there is not one single person of religion who relies on faith[religion] to support their beliefs (discounting the ground-of-being gods who do nothing and that no one believes in).

    They rely on the myths told in the “bible”. Without the myths, there would be no belief in Adam and Eve, no belief in an exodus, no belief in she-bears tearing 42 children apart, no belief in the existence of a magical half-god with superpowers.

    Those who declare faith[religion] have nothing of the sort. They have credulity. They accept some or all of these myths as being truthful. Despite the fact that none of them can be backed up in any way by non-mythological supporting materials. No archaeology, no history, no contemporary eyewitness corroboration whatsoever of any of it.

    Credulity. Not faith[religion].

    1. BTW: Same thing goes for all of the other god-based religions.

      All base their faith[religion] heavily on writings of primitives who did not understand the weather. Or, in more modern times, were pure charlatans — Joseph Smith and L. Ron Hubbard spring to mind.

      1. I don’t think L Ron was a ‘pure’ charlatan, I think there was a sizeable admixture of raving nutbag in there as well ;-).

        1. Yes, before Scientology, before Dianetics, there were is work on Magick with Aliester Crowley and attempts to breed some kind of devil child*.

          *not quite the expression. I got it from “Bare-faced Messiah” which has unaccountably disappeared from the library.

  7. Thanks for the clear statements of ‘faith’.

    He does seem in a muddle over this. When he says “religion addresses scientific topics (e.g. the physics/biology of miracles, ancient gods” – why stop at ancient gods? Or perhaps he includes ‘The Ancient of Days’ in that?

  8. I imagine he was redirecting the question on purpose to keep from creating a firestorm. My husband was asked at a forum what role his faith played in his research. He could have said, “I have no faith and think it is irreconcilable with science.” Instead he said(something like), “I do the experiments and see where the evidence leads. Science is an evidence based endeavor.” He was asked this in Cambridge, MA, no less and when the question was posed there was an intake of breath and a couple of chuckles.

  9. I think religious faith/belief = conditioning.

    That’s different to say experience and observation, or how scientific conclusions work, because truth depends on consistency, and not on pleasure/pain.

    That’s why reason and knowledge fail to change minds.

    1. there is very real “pleasure of knowing” that corresponds to a specific electro-chemical activity in the brain

      sam harris observed that state of “belief” are independent of the _substance_ of the belief

      you should be careful when you use the words like “truth”, “consistency”, “reason” and “knowledge”

      brains/minds have the quality of _plasticity_ that is the one of continuous forming of connectivity over the lifetime

      the degree of plasticity changes greatly with age: the younger we are the more plastic our brains

      if the integrety of knowledge is not addressed over formative years the individual will be not able to recognize the types and the content of the conditioning he was exposed to as a child

      we all have our idiosyncratic ways because we cannot chose our parents and environment we grow in

      but some of us were lucky to be exposed to certain ways of thinking early enough to enable our brain “to take charge” later on and “clean the house”

  10. Some people feel that astronomy and astrology have nothing in common. But a considerable amount of astronomy drives astrology — and frequently astrology addresses scientific topics (e.g. psychology). If astrology had no impact on our physical brain, then by what mechanisms does it impact our spoken conversations. Billions of humans (in a very real scientific sense) check the predictions for their starsign. The overlap is vast and fertile.

    Loads of non sense one way or the other science and religion overlap in the same way astronomy and astrology overlap… what does that prove ? Nothing.

    1. Yes, exactly. I can’t see why he doesn’t see this himself. But this is the problem with rushing out to “accommodate” religious sensibilities: not enough critical thinking.

      There is, for example, also a massive overlap historically between opium usage and poetry writing. This can neither be taken as recommendation of the wholesale use of opium, nor does it guarantee that opium indulgers will manage to compose anything that rises above the level of “Mary had a little lamb”.

      1. Also, heroin and jazz. And weed and reggae. The vast and fertile overlapping domains are everywhere!

    1. Ah, but what do you mean by ‘know’; is it possible to know[science] anything at all about religion?

  11. I like how when he says that “frequently religion addresses scientific topics” he mentions Galileo. Which is a nice way to say “frequently religion denies observable reality and threatens those who point reality out with torture”.

  12. I actually am coming to like this statement quite a bit, even if I’m putting my (angry atheist) interpretive hat on. Yes indeed the overlap between science and faith is vast: faiths make many claims which science can examine. (Which have all, to date, been refuted.)

    The statement that frequently religion addresses scientific topics: “the physics/biology of miracles, ancient gods, Galileo” are all instances of science firmly debunking religion.

    But mostly, ‘vast and fertile’ makes me think of a huge steaming pile of shit.

    1. A project manager asked one of his engineers what he thought of one of the products they were considering purchasing. The engineer gave him his frank and honest reply: “It’s a huge steaming pile of shit.”

      The manager thought it best to sanitize the engineer’s response in the report, so he summarized the product as, “a smelly pile of dung.”

      The middle manager who read the report didn’t think he could get away with telling the CEO that something was a pile of dung, so he euphemized it as “an aromatic heap of fertilizer.”

      The CEO, in his report to the Board, pulled out his thesaurus. “The product under consideration is potent, all-natural, and will hugely increase productivity.” The board unanimously approved the purchase.



  13. I should certainly hope that this vast overlap is fertile, considering the amount of bullshit that’s continually being spilled over it.

  14. “FaithRELIGION : Confidence, based on no experience (indeed, even contrary to experience), that answers to questions about “reality” are best derived from personal revelation, authority, scripture, and dogma.”

    Thank you for adding “even contrary” to this definition.

    I am fascinated by the process which allows believers to cling to their superstitions, even in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary. I am equally fascinated by the process involved in turning toward evidence and away from faith.

    What are the motivators? How can they be combated/encouraged?

    Real knowledge is replicable and predictably valid. (Hence the adage, “Trust but verify.”) Faith is a moving target, and the faithful decide FIRST what they believe and then go out looking for “evidence”, discarding any fact or experience which doesn’t comport.

    But sometimes, people become open to real information, despite their discomfort. I suspect that this process is at the heart of the “accomodationist” vs. “gnu” debate – what exactly is happening, and how can we move it along?

    And, for me at least, the answer to, “How can we move it along?”, varies with the situation and the people involved.

    My observation is that the most entrenched of the faithful will not be moved by much of anything, unless they have some kind of crisis which forces their hand, and even then it’s not very likely. But it is possible; I have been astonished on more than one occasion by the change in someone.

    OTOH, once people start asking questions, they’re not likely to turn back.

    It is depressing when accomodationism is spouted by people who should especially know better than most that faith has no replicability and no predictive validity.

    I think we should all start demanding some experiments. L

  15. Faith, faith, faith, but he never says faith in what until sneeking in scripture at the end. I dont know what you call it but scientist’s feel that a certain procedure they are undertaking, based on their prior knowledge, will prove fruitful and beneficial to their objectve. If he wants to call that faith instead of a feeeling or hope, OK. The faith that he cites at the end is based on a prior knowlegde of what he has read in the “scripture” about god,etc., which he has faith in that it is so. He believes (another intangible entity) in fatih and has faith in his beliefs. Catch 22?

  16. Hang on, according to NOMA, there is no overlap – so there’s nothing “vast and fertile”, only something vast and empty.

    However, I don’t subscribe to the NOMA nonsense – for me religions make testable claims and fail at every point. Where they make untestable claims, they don’t have the least vestige of evidence in their favor.

    To make sense of the claim of “vast and fertile” I would assume that religions make vast claims on scientific matters and that their claims are all bullshit – but the only thing fertilized by the bullshit is defective thinking.

  17. “Some people feel that science and faith have nothing in common.”

    Actually, they do have one important feature in common: They are both methods devised to deal with our intolerable ignorance of the universe around us.

    The more modern of the two is the scientific method.

    The more ancient method, and therefore the only one that was available to primitive man, is to simply make stuff* up.

    * – “Stuff” doesn’t quite say it.

  18. The overlap in science and religious faith is a vast and fertile ground for conflict, and science always wins, because science works.
    Wherever science goes, religion has to recede and make post hoc rationalizations to keep itself from losing all credibility in the eyes of most of its adherents.

  19. A practical illustration of the two types of faith (the ‘science’ one and the ‘religion’ one):

    1) you look at the dark cloudy skies in the morning and decide to take your umbrella with you when you go outside.

    2) you don’t take your umbrella, because you have faith that an umbrella will spontaneously materialize in your hands, if it starts to rain.

    1. The really odd thing is that the vast majority of ‘believers’ don’t have faith(2): they believe myths that assert such things in the past, and somehow that is enough. Puzzling.

  20. The overlap is vast and fertile because it’s the realm of fantasy. It might keep things interesting for the religiously inclined, but it’s mostly worthless from the science perspective.

  21. Exploiting the fact that many words in English have different meanings is one of the few options the religious have left, a semantic god-of-the-gaps argument.

    1. Hear, hear. And we should call them out on it by pointing out that it’s generally considered a minimal requirement of intelligence to grasp that simple fact. (That words frequently have multiple definitions that context makes clear.)

  22. He should clarify that, while such overlap may be fantastically productive in terms of fantasy writing and film making, it produces absolutely nothing in terms of scientific knowledge.

  23. Not only does directed evolution violate the Ockam, it contradicts rather than complements science,being no more than theological obfuscation!

  24. He doesn’t even answer his own question! The question is, “Is there evidence of God in science?” The question he answers (disingenuously) is, “Does science require faith?”

    The existence of “faith” – equivocated or otherwise – in no way indicates evidence for God.

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