Dawkins: why science isn’t a religion

July 19, 2011 • 5:30 am

One of the common mantras of accommodationists, be they secular or religious, is this: “science is a religion just like any other faith.”  No lie: I have heard this from scientists who are sympathetic to religion!  I could respond at length why this characterization is completely bogus, but Richard Dawkins has already done so.

In case you weren’t aware of his response, “Is science a religion?”, it was published in the 1997 Humanist, and is the transcript of a talk Richard gave when accepting the Humanist of the Year award from the American Humanist Association.

It’s an excellent piece, and presages many of the themes later discussed in The God Delusion: religion as child abuse, the divergent “ways of knowing” practiced by science and faith, and so on.  Towards the end, he muses about whether we should admit that science is a faith anyway, just so it can be taught in religious education classes.

I want to return now to the charge that science is just a faith. The more extreme version of that charge — and one that I often encounter as both a scientist and a rationalist — is an accusation of zealotry and bigotry in scientists themselves as great as that found in religious people. Sometimes there may be a little bit of justice in this accusation; but as zealous bigots, we scientists are mere amateurs at the game. We’re content to argue with those who disagree with us. We don’t kill them. But I would want to deny even the lesser charge of purely verbal zealotry. There is a very, very important difference between feeling strongly, even passionately, about something because we have thought about and examined the evidence for it on the one hand, and feeling strongly about something because it has been internally revealed to us, or internally revealed to somebody else in history and subsequently hallowed by tradition. There’s all the difference in the world between a belief that one is prepared to defend by quoting evidence and logic and a belief that is supported by nothing more than tradition, authority, or revelation.

I have little to add to what Richard says, but would add three other points:

  • If science and religion are both conceived of as a “search for truth,” then the faith- and revelation-based methods of religion have failed to converge on single, agreed-upon answers. Different religions have different “answers,” and even within a single faith different people diverge in their notion of religious “truth.”  In contrast, scientists—regardless of religious creed, ethnicity, or nationality—converge on single, agreed-upon answers (of course there is still scientific disagreement about many cutting-edge issues). Water has two hydrogen and one oxygen molecules whether you’re a chemist in Africa, Eurasia, or America.  DNA in the nucleus is a double helical molecule consisting of sugars and nucleotide bases. Evolution is a fact for scientists in every land, for they can all examine the massive evidence supporting it.  There are many faiths; but there is only one science.
  • The fact that different people from different backgrounds converge on the same scientific answers also implies that there really are objective truths about the universe, decrying the postmodern notion that all truths are subjective.  In contrast, if there were objective truth about God and his ways—truths revealed by God to people through revelation, dogma, and authority—you might expect that everyone would be of the same faith.
  • The Oxford English dictionary defines religion as “Action or conduct indicating belief in, obedience to, and reverence for a god, gods, or similar superhuman power; the performance of religious rites or observances.”  Even if you maintain that scientists “worship” reason and empirical truths, our discipline does not rely on or exhibit belief in and reverence for gods or the supernatural.

84 thoughts on “Dawkins: why science isn’t a religion

  1. This is one of the silliest rejoinders that any religious person can make. Don’t they realize they run down religion by equating it with, what they perceive to be, its hostile apposite?

    But, outside of Fundamentalists and Mega-Church Post-modernists, I don’t see many religious people claiming this.

    1. It’s usually an argument of desperation. I see it in creationists all the time: once their arguments have been dismantled, they’re reduced to postmodernism, arguing that all truths are equally valid so creationism is just as good as evolution. It’s not an argument put forth in good faith, it’s just a frantic squirt of ink before jetting out of the feeding frenzy.

      1. More accurately, it’s an incorrect attempt at using a tu quoque logical fallacy.

        It’s not merely wrong …

  2. Religion is not a search for truth. It is a declaration that the believer has the “truth” and all other concepts are automatically considered false, no matter the evidence supporting them. This is antithetical to science.

  3. I am frequently asked by religious people, mainly Christers, “What would cause you to believe?”

    My answer: I will give Christianity serious consideration when 98% of all Christians everywhere agree with EACH OTHER about what “the truth” is. L

      1. Sorry, 50/50 is still chance. Maybe I’d reduce the 98%, but the level of agreement would have to at least be statistically significant. L

        1. Sure, 50/50 is still chance, but with several thousand religions/sects/cults kicking around, getting 50% of them to agree is as close to zero probability as you can get.

        1. The sunni and shia are only 2/3 of islamic sects. You also have the suffi, the shamans of islam. The true outcasts of allah according to most muslims.

    1. Personally, I wouldn’t make it a number game. Even if 100% of all Christians would believe EXACTLY the same things in great detail, I STILL wouldn’t give it any consideration.

      As mentioned often, truth and reality is not determined by vote.

  4. Like Linda’s possible cause for belief in god. Bit mean to the poor deluded christians, but funny.

  5. It’s not just that different religions come up with different answers.

    It’s that each faction of each religion passionately asserts that all the others are worng.

    If you’re a Catholic, the Episcopalian ordination of women and homosexuals is a lie, a slap in Jesus’s face. If you’re a mainline Christian, the Moron teachings are false heresies probably planted by Satan himself to lead good people into worshipping false gods. If you’re a Muslim, the Christians are so worng that they deserve eternal hellfire and brimstone for their worngness.

    Religion isn’t a quest for truth so much as it’s a paranoid crusade against the rest of the world for perpetuating the exact same style of lies as you yourself espouse — the only difference being that your unique lies are somehow better than everybody else’s.



    1. When I was seventeen, I spent several weeks going to various church youth groups, a different one each week.

      What struck me was that they were all saying exactly the same thing, which was: We’re right, and all those other people out there are WRONG.

      I found that repulsive when I was seventeen, and I find it ten times as repulsive now. L

      1. When I was a kid, a friend of mine wanted to take me to his youth group so we’d both get a candy bar. Then I was treated to a kind of youth sermon, where they tried to convince us to convert to their correct thinking, which they seemed to define simply as being a member of their church.

        I don’t think I’d ever been so uncomfortable in a church, and it showed me how little respect even individual churches have for each other… they’re all just poaching from one another, trying to make the most money.

        1. I once went to what was advertised as a film about a female guru, which interested me at the time, but it proved to be Hari Krishnas, and before we could see that film we had to watch an interview (in a car, driving around Los Angeles) with the current guru of the HKs, who was then quite young. The interviewer asked “What of the saying that there are many ways up the mountain?”

          “Pish, posh [or words to that effect],” said the guru, “false teachings, false teachings,” and I immediately thought “Presbyterian!” and of course I never went back – in fact I didn’t stay for the second half.

        2. When I was a kid, the dominant Presby church in the neighborhood had a gung-ho youth group, some members of which invited the son of one of the very few observant Jewish families in the area to go on a ‘retreat’ with them. Lou told me later he’d been having fun till they played a game in which everyone had to line up as either Christian or Heathen…

      2. But don’t you think, now, that all those various church youth groups were wrong, and that you’re right? 😉

  6. One huge difference: nothing will allow for Christians to conclude that Jesus wasn’t raised from the dead and still remain the same faith.

    On the other hand, science can change its mind about what it believes to be true at the moment because of new evidence.

    1. There are plenty of Christians who maintain that such essential dogmas as the virgin birth and Jesus’s resurrection aren’t really such an essential requirement for Christianity after all (and are/were quite willing to give up such notions, but still consider[ed] themselves good Christians).

    2. Remember a couple of years or so ago, when a purported tomb of Jesus was discovered. I thought it was interesting insofar as that it might be proof that he actually existed. Then I saw on a news program a priest being quoted saying “Christianity stands or falls on the resurrection of Jesus Christ”.
      I was a bit flabbergasted – even at that late date, I was so naive as to think it had something to do with, you know, values or something.

  7. I know quite a number of religious people and none of them claims that science is a religion. Frankly, this proposition looks to me like a straw-man, not worthy of particular attention. Shame on Dawkins and shame on you, Jerry ;-).

    The issue really worth addressing when talking to the religious is “why atheism isn’t a religion”.

    1. You haven’t been around much, have you?

      You can’t go one week without this claim being raised somewhere in the internet-o-sphere.

      No kidding, it’s not a strawman when there are real, live, recorded examples of exactly this argument.

      For example, right-wing political columnist Charles Krauthammer just recently published a column claiming that global warming science was a “religion”.

      That’s one example out of thousands and thousands and thousands.

      I invite you to do the research and educate yourself.

      1. Kevin,

        Just because I’ve been around for a while :-), I think one has to choose one’s battles.

        Of course it’s ironic when people on the religious right, trying to discredit a particular scientific finding (evolution, global warming, whatever), call it a “religion”, as if it were the biggest insult they can think of.

        But that’s my point exactly. The right wingers claim that certain facts are not supported by science (as in your example), at the same time using terms like “creation science” to support their point of view. Get into a discussion with any creationist, and they will flood you with arguments based on what they call “science”. They do not attempt to discredit science in general, they simply state that science is on their side. According to them, there is even “science” in the Bible.

        1. Yes, they certainly do all that.

          And then, in the next breath, they’ll also frequently dismiss science as merely another religion.

          No, they don’t see the ironing in their statements. They have a very poor grasp of ironing, so that’s hardly surprising.

          Do a Google search for “scientism” and you’ll find plenty of relevant example.



          1. My response to their allegation that what they are doing is “science” is always to ask a question.

            “Are you willing to be wrong?”

            If the answer is no, then it isn’t science.

            When you draw your conclusion first, and look for your evidence afterwards, you have abandoned the scientific method. L

            1. Whether it actually is or isn’t science has no bearing on whether or not they apply the “science” label to it. Remember, they’re waging a battle of rhetoric, not logic.

              And…I don’t think your method of determining whether or not somebody is doing science is optimal. It’s a not-bad heuristic, but it’s quite a ways away from the root of the problem.

              I’d personally start with evidence. “What evidence do you have to support your position? What types of evidence would falsify it, and what do you know about the probability of the existence of such evidence?” That should be plenty.



              1. I agree that starting with evidence is optimal, but for me, part of evidence is replicability, which is somewhat procedural.

                The point at which replicablity becomes predictive validity is the point at which something is believable, and even then, I’m still watching. (I hope that’s true, and it is for the most part. But, I do get tired and sloppy, too.) L

        2. Its a way of feeding a threat into a pre-existing mental coping mechanism, since I’m sure they all recognize that their are other religions, and they all claim to be true. “Science is a another religion” essentially tells you to treat science with whatever mental gymnastics allows you to accept that other religions exist. Which ignores that science is much more threatening to a religious world view than other religion ever could be, because it works.

    2. It is a favorite ploy of religiosos to claim that science is faith-based because science (and math for that matter) starts with certain assumptions (axioms and postulates in math).

      Well, as The Good Book says, “By their fruits ye shall know them.” That is, evidence. That is, science and math work (re: Eugene Wigner).

      “I know quite a number of religious people and none of them . . . .” How many is “quite a number”? Sounds like what Dawkins describes as “The Argument from Personal Incredulity.”

      The “miracle” of bumblebee flight has been a favorite utterance from the pulpit. Then, surely the flight of a Boeing 747 is a “miracle,” a matter of faith? Scientifically illiterate (willfully non-curious) passengers might as well consider it a miracle.

      1. How many is “quite a number”? Sounds like what Dawkins describes as “The Argument from Personal Incredulity.”

        Except that I’m not trying to (dis)prove the existence of God or evolution based on my intuition; I’m simply reporting on the observed behavior of the believers I’ve met.

        “Quite a number” refers not only to my personal acquaintances, but to an internet forum where I’m a regular and where discussions about religion are quite common, even though it is mostly a social group, gathering people from all walks of life. Admittedly, most of the several hundred participants are Catholic and European and they are all very strong proponents of the concept of non-overlapping magisteria. They more or less understand how science works and they find it useful in everyday life, they just not see it as the only way to discover the complete truth about the world (in their view, the other way is divine inspiration). I guess that hard-line religious fundamentalists in the US could be different in that respect, although my limited experience with creationists has been exactly as I described above: rather than dismissing science, they insist that their claims are supported by it.

        Based on these observations, I made my generalization that equating science with religion is not so widespread as to deserve our (and especially Richard Dawkins’ or Jerry Coyne’s) attention. I think calling atheism just another religion is much more common and it takes more skill to refute. You can call my experience “anecdotal evidence”, but, in the end, it is either that or hard statistical data. Can you support the opposite claim (namely, that the proposition “science is a form of religion” is commonly put forward) with hard statistics? If not, I can accept your anecdotal evidence, just don’t dismiss mine.

    3. @ Brygida

      I agree with your rephrasing but I’d like to point out that there are plenty of fundamentalists who use science and atheism interchangeably.

      While I’ve seen posts by people who say science/atheism is a religion, the only people who I’ve meet in person who say that have been my atheist friends. Once in a while I’ll post stuff from SSA on my FB. My friends have said that I shouldn’t do that because it makes me just as bad as a Jehovah’s witness. These guys don’t want to talk about what makes atheism or science not a religion. They think trying to convince someone is a bad thing, and they don’t understand why atheism isn’t a religion.


    4. Just a few days ago Jerry did a post referencing Jason Rosenhouse posting about theology. In Jason’s part II of that post if you go down to the comments you’ll see someone saying almost verbatim:

      “Scientists worship reason as their deity”

      Another one had showed up in part 1 to explain to us that we take leaps of faith every day — one of his examples was “you have faith that your brakes work” (I shit you not, I suggested he take a driver’s safety course if he doesn’t check his brakes before pulling onto the road) — and went on to equate the “leap of faith” required to believe there is no God with the “leap of faith” required to believe there is a God.

      And these guys linked from Feser’s “sophisticated Catholic theology” blog I’m pretty sure, so this tactic isn’t limited to megachurch fundies.

      In other words, your experience is not wholly representative.

        1. And note the guy just a few posts downthread calling evolution a religion

          This is exactly the line of argument that I was referring to before: evolution is a religion, because it is “bad science” (not enough evidence and/or wrong interpretation of data), so it takes faith to believe in it. This argument doesn’t discredit science in general and it doesn’t equate it with religion, it just calls particular theories “unscientific”. I actually see it as an (admittedly limited) triumph of science: its position in the contemporary society is too strong to be openly and directly opposed. You hardly hear the religious say: “it doesn’t matter to me what science says”. Instead, the arguments against scientific facts/theories go along the lines of “my understanding of true science is better than yours”.

          1. This is exactly the line of argument that I was referring to before: evolution is a religion, because it is “bad science” (not enough evidence and/or wrong interpretation of data), so it takes faith to believe in it.

            Erm…you do know that the Theory of Evolution by Random Mutation and Natural Selection is one of the best-evidenced theories in all of science, no?


            1. Erm…you do know that the Theory of Evolution by Random Mutation and Natural Selection is one of the best-evidenced theories in all of science, no?

              Yes, Ben, I know that. The creationists that I was referring to don’t.

              For FSM’s sake, has my position in this entire discussion been that unclear?

              1. No, not “that” unclear…if it were, I’d’a let loose with both barrels, not just the one….

                Sorry — never mind me. I’ll go back to looking on from the wall. Carry on.


      1. In other words, your experience is not wholly representative.

        You may be right. As I just explained above, most of my experiences are with moderate Catholics, the ones that don’t have “faith” in their car brakes, they reserve “faith” for things spiritual.

    5. Instead of the direct identifucation of science as religion, I more frequently see it formulated as “science, like religion, requires faith.”

  8. I understand Dawkins has a new book coming out this fall that expands on this theme–the Magic of Reality. Looking forward to it.

    1. While it’s , no doubt, a wonderful book, it IS aimed at younger people (kids!). And mostly about science. Not religion.

      He introduced it at TAM9, briefly describing its goal, its audience (children), and then briefly mentioned what is touched on in each chapter).

        1. After all they do have the experience of reading their babel, oops bible through childish eyes.

  9. I’ve noticed from one or two philosophy threads that many philosophers are upset because atheists (Gnu ones in particular) disparage their works.

    Now while I recognise that philosophy may improve thinking skills, I observe that much of philosophy is not constrained by observation, nor does it converge towards the One True Philosophy(tm). Just like religions.

    Perhaps if we made a point of talking about philosophies and religions some people might get the hint?

  10. By coincidence, last night I read an article by
    Rabbi Avi Shafran, “Science, Blinded,” where the following gem appears. (Shafran’s apologia for Bernard Madoff made me ashamed to be a rabbi. But I got over it because, as the phrase goes, I “don’t pray in the same synagogue” that Shafran does.)

    Here is the link, and below that is the offending passage.


    >>> Nowhere in science, perhaps, does bias so blind as with regard to evolution.

    Species, over time, retain traits that serve them well, and lose others that don’t. The ill-adapted don’t survive; the advantaged do. That’s simple, and seen.

    But the appearance of a new species from an existing one, or even of an entirely new limb or organ within a species—things contemporary science insists have happened literally millions of times—have never been witnessed or reproduced. Ditto doubly for an organism emerging from inert matter—a “spontaneous generation” that evolution proponents assume began the process.

    The solemn conviction that life appeared by chance and new species evolved from other ones countless times remains a large leap of… well, faith. Which is why “evolution” is rightly called a theory—and might better be called a religion.

    1. But the appearance of a new species from an existing one, or even of an entirely new limb or organ within a species—things contemporary science insists have happened literally millions of times—have never been witnessed or reproduced. Ditto doubly for an organism emerging from inert matter—a “spontaneous generation” that evolution proponents assume began the process.

      <sigh />

      Speciation is well observed. Talk.Origins has a painfully overwhelming list of examples.

      The Theory of Evolution by Random Mutation and Natural Selection is not a theory of abiogenesis, so the fact that it doesn’t explain the origins of life is hardly surprising. But just because we don’t have all the details worked out yet doesn’t mean we’re ignorant of the broad picture, and there’s absolutely no faith involved in that. For an overview of that broad picture, again see Talk.Origins.



    2. Other theories that are simultaneously facts (and obviously not religions):
      -germ theory of disease
      -theories of special and general relativity
      -molecular theory of matter

      A “theory” is a unified system of logical inferences. Theories can be wrong (like Newtonian gravity), can have indeterminate truth value (like string theory), or they can be absolutely and obviously true (like the germ theory of disease).

      Evolution by natural selection is one of those theories that are absolutely and obviously true; I say so not because of religious faith but because:
      A) the logical inferences behind biological evolution are simple and clear
      B) the preconditions for those inferences are quite clearly satisfied by biological life
      C) the empirical evidence for it is overwhelming

      As far as new limbs and organs go, read up on some evo devo. You can pour a particular protein onto a developing embryo at the right time and cause extraneous features to form, or to suppress features that should be expressed. This will often but not always kill the embryo. Also, read this about sticklebacks becoming freshwater fish and losing pelvic spines in a fairly short amount of time (12,000 years is tiny in evolutionary terms):


      Unfortunately, clever philosophical arguments are no substitute for actually knowing something about the subject you’re criticizing.

      1. Hmmm…a nitpick.

        Newtonian gravitational theory isn’t worng; indeed, it’s one of the most right, most successful theories in all of human history.

        Rather, it’s not complete.

        The germ theory of disease is hardly perfect, either. Huge swaths of diseases have no germs in sight — genetic disorders of all sorts, toxins, malnutrition, radiation poisoning, most cancers, mesothelioma, autoimmune disorders…no, germ theory is invaluable, but it’s hardly the whole story.



        1. Ben, it was a long enough comment without having to qualify everything.

          Also, it is perfectly valid to describe Newtonian gravity as “wrong.” There is no force between two bodies as the theory asserts, the assumption that there is presupposes that there’s such a thing as an absolute frame of reference, and it fails to predict many facts of gravity such as gravitational lensing. And it gets the details wrong for the stuff it’s supposedly good at (precession of Mercury’s orbit). I understand the sense in which you’re saying it’s merely incomplete and I often phrase it the same way, but it’s not inaccurate to simply say Newtonian gravity is wrong.

          Are there diseases not caused by germs? Sure. Does the theory say there aren’t?

        2. Better: the key statements entailed in (“the”) Newtonian theory of gravitation are true to within a large margin of error (this is where partial truth comes in!) in a wide range of circumstances thus and so.

    3. “But the appearance of a new species from an existing one…” that’s a cataloging problem. Evolution is a gradual process with plenty of intermediates, but scientists have to group like forms somehow, and that creates the appearance of sudden jumps.

      As a thought experiment, take all the hearts from a deck of cards. Ace is low. Now separate the stack into two piles, high cards and low cards, as even as possible. Done… Good. Where did you put the seven? Its only one-off from six ( a low card if the instructions were clear) and one-off from eight (a high card). But you had to put it somewhere. Why?

      You could argue that you need to create a new pile for the middle card. That middle card is really a transitional form between the two groups, but by adding a new pile, you’ve created a new species of card. You still have cards that differ only slightly suddenly jumping into a new categories, so the problem of apparently “missing links” remains. And you’ve had to redefine your cataloging method. Scientists with millions of species to catalog don’t change their cataloging methods lightly.

      1. I’m so stealing this analogy. Don’t know if it would have worked in a recent conversation, but I was trying to explain the classification idea like you did.

        1. Glad you like it. Feel free to use it wherever appropriate.

          It would probably be more powerful to walk someone through it with real cards one at a time, saving the why question for the end.

    4. Hey look everyone, it’s the first person EVER to come here and paste that argument from someone else’s website.

      Perhaps you’re not aware that there is a book, written by the author of this site, called “Why Evolution Is True”. I strongly suggest that, if you honestly wish to understand the science of evolution, you read that instead of some ignoramus’ postulations. Then read Origin of species, Your Inner Fish, The Greatest Show On Earth … or maybe just take remedial 8th grade science. And pay attention this time.

      1. Maybe I’m reading him wrong, but I got the impression that Stephen was not in agreement with that excerpt. Am I just missing his exquisite irony?

        1. Diane is right. The guy who attacks me is wrong.
          When I wrote that Rabbi Shafran makes me ashamed to be a rabbi, I did not mean that I was agreeing with Shafran. To my dear anatagonist: Why were you befuddled?

  11. Science looks nothing like religion:

    Atheism and science fail to possess the key characteristics of religion:

    1. They are not systems of beliefs (which is the reason why it’s almost impossible to get atheists to agree; science is a tool kit.) One factor alone determines atheism: lack of belief in any God or gods (science: The god hypothesis is not required). Disbelief in any gods doesn’t constitute a religion any more than disbelief in fairies or trolls does. Of course, you may have some very vociferous and outspoken atheists who exhibit the metaphorical sense of religion: “he was religious in his rejection of all things supernatural.” Everyone understands this sense of the word to be a metaphor: derived from the fervor and ritual conformity exhibited by many religious people throughout time for long enough for the characteristic to become recognizable and memorable to all.

    2. Atheism (and science) does not include belief in anything supernatural (“beyond nature.”) If a religion does not entail belief in something supernatural, then metaphysically it is simply an acceptance of the natural world as fact. It makes no sense to call such a thing “religion.” It would rob the word of any meaning. We use the word religion to indicate belief in the supernatural: that is its function.

    3. Atheism (and science) does not involve worship of any sort. It does not imply any worship.

    4. There are no “priests” or “church” hierarchy in Atheism (or science). There are admired atheists; but their pronouncements are not taken as “holy writ” as in religions. Rather, they are subjected to the same scrutiny and skepticism as anyone else.

    5. There are no: creed, catechism, holy books, oaths, or liturgy associated with atheism (or science) in any way.

    6. There are no rituals, rules of conduct, taboos, ceremonies, or any other social hallmarks of atheism (or science; beyond the tool kit), as there are in religions.

    I’ve had interlocutors say, “hey, my religion doesn’t include point number X.” I don’t care, and I don’t state that all religions exhibit these features. They are common and noteable characteristics of religion, broadly viewed. And the point is that science (and atheism) exhibit none of these features.

    1. ref point 2: to many religious people (and believers in magic, for that matter) God is not ‘outside nature’, miracles are as natural as any other phenomenon. To them, god causing something to happen is no less natural than a human causing something to happen.

  12. Point #2 is truly historically, politically, nationalistically, and fascinatingly tremendous. Soviets/Russians from Eastern Xian Orthodox & Jewish & Muslim & Atheistic backgrounds, along with Germans of the same backgrounds, and Brits, and Americans, and on and on, Scientists all, have come to the same -remarkably identical – conclusions about the science & nature of the universe. (Except the poor slobs colored, influenced, kissing-up to the officers, government, political “believers”. Particularly the Soviets & Muslims & Xians.) Science is fact. Religion is faith. Diametrically opposing thoughts & thinking. That is it.

  13. A quote for Hawking:
    “There is a fundamental difference between religion, which is based on authority, [and] science, which is based on observation and reason. Science will win because it works.”

    Show me the airplane flying around on faith…

  14. I know there haven’t been too many “religious” people weighing in on this one so far, but I just want to share that the general polarization between “science” and “faith” saddens me. One of the Christian theologians that I value once stated something to the effect that “all truth is God’s truth.” He did not mean to say that if a scientific (or other) discovery did not line up with the religious viewpoints of the day that that discovery was therefore invalidated. Rather, he meant just the opposite: if a thing is discovered to be true, and if we believe in a God of truth (which most of us claim to do)then it must be that that thing is TRUE and is therefore “God’s truth” (sorry for the redundancy).

    Another theologian I value argued against the schism between the sciences and theology by arguing that splitting up those disciplines into separate “silos” gave people the mistaken idea that what is discovered as “true” in one discipline could be contradicted in another discipline. This obviously doesn’t make sense. If something is true, it is true whether you’re studying religion or algebra. The Earth is round for everyone–geographer and guru alike. Karl Barth, the theologian I’m referring to, didn’t mean that science (or any other discipline) ought to be hampered by “religion” at all, but rather that all the disciplines ought to properly work together to seek out the truth and so on.

    Now, I know that many of my brothers and sisters in faith (of whatever religious persuasion), have had, and continue to have difficulties with some of the things that science discovers. I understand that. I too, being a “layperson” when it comes to science, have my difficulties. That being said, I go back to my first point (rather long-windedly, I know), and reiterate that the polarization between science and “religion” is one that saddens me as a pastor. I am so grateful for the many scientists and religious people out there who genuinely seek to find truth together with their colleagues in other disciplines. I value very much the work of Thomas Torrance and others who seek to stretch our “faith” into new areas that agree with what we discover through science. I hope and pray regularly that someday the discussions we have will not be so much about “is science a religion or not?”, but more about how does this scientific discovery relate to our faith truly? Or, how does what this philosopher or theologian say affect how we implement the practical results of theoretical physics in a positive way?

    1. So how do you reconcile “God’s Truth” when scientific discoveries continually point to the non-existence of a God or Gods?

      1. Of course, one of the difficulties of answering your question is that everything that we discover is “interpreted” one way or another by someone, somewhere and somewhen. Nathan Shedroff in his 2001 book “Experience Design” suggests that there are categories of “knowledge” including data (facts without any context), information (data put into context), knowledge (information understood by people), and wisdom (information understood by people and generalized sufficiently successfully to be applied in diverse situations)–I’m paraphrasing a bit here.

        When a scientist or a theologian studies something (be it the centre of the universe, or the Bible) they initially start with data. Letters on a page, without human beings to interpret them are nothing but so many scribbles, just as the view through a telescope is just so many stars and galaxies without a human to interpret them.

        I’m sorry if I’m starting to sound at all patronizing. I really don’t mean to, and I’m just trying to be clear about where I’m coming from.

        Anyway, “Scott near Berkely” posts (just after you) some amazing facts about the brain. He takes those facts (including a somewhat debatable “fact” about the “soul” going unconscious under anesthesia–I’ll talk about that later), and “interprets” them altogether to mean that there is no soul and no God or gods either. I’m sure he has more facts on which he bases his interpretation than those, of course, but I read those same facts and say to myself, “Wow, isn’t God amazing for creating (and I don’t use that term in the “six-literal-25-hour-creation” sense, but in the sense of God being behind it all) our brains and bodies that way!”

        You, obviously, interpret many scientific discoveries as negating the existence of God or gods. I interpret those same facts as challenging our limited understanding of who God is and what God is capable of.

        1. The difference, of course, is the evidence.

          Specifically, science builds on empirically repeatable evidence whereas religion depends on personal revelation.

          The kicker is that science has shown that, in all contexts, including religion, the powerful emotional experiences that religious people use to justify their personal revelations are purely natural phenomena…and pretty much everybody knows that somebody who insists you trust them without (or especially in spite of) evidence is conning you.



    2. You may consider yourself a “lay person” when it comes to science, but if you truly are in search of “truth” then you must study the human brain (even without being a basic scientist, the study of how the human brain is constructed is easily absorbed…if slowly!)

      When you pick up a piece of copy paper, consider that the thickness is equal to 24 neurons in your brain.

      If you started counting the neurons in your prefrontal cortex, one per second, it would take 100 million YEARS to count them all.

      When human babies develop in the womb, they generate brain cells at the incredible rate of 500,000 per minute.

      The typical neuron in the brain contains over 1000 different proteins, by count. Some are there to help, others are left over from evolution (e.g. the protein that helps you stop bleeding from a cut is there, but does not perform that function in a brain context). Over 10,000 scientific papers have been written regarding different molecules used in the hippocampus, the area of our brain most responsible for the memory function.

      The question is, in the face of all this science, remains: why would a “soul” go unconscious under anesthesia, if in fact it is a non-chemical, non-biological entity.

      1. I think there may be a couple of things going on here. Many Christians today, (and other faiths too, I think) believe that the soul is really a separate thing “contained” as it were, within the body. This is not actually a Christian idea. It was a Greek idea that the early apostles and other early Christians tried to fight. The original Hebrew idea was that body and soul were one. Instead of thinking of the body as the container for the soul, a better comparison might be that the soul is an integral part of our being–some would even argue that it is our consciousness–and that whatever happens to our bodies happens, in some sense to our souls as well–they’re inextricable in almost all ways.

        However, be that as it may, I think there are some who would argue that the soul does not really go unconscious when under anesthesia. This is something that can never be absolutely “proven” one way or another, of course, because the person who argues that the soul doesn’t really go unconscious would argue, I imagine, that either people simply do not remember what their “souls” did while under anesthetic, or would argue, from various anecdotal evidence, that people’s souls do indeed stay conscious, as witness by numerous “out of body experiences”.

        I know that science tells us that those “out of body experiences” are nothing but chemical reactions in our brains to the stress of whatever our bodies are going through. But, as with SeanK, the whole thing is a matter of interpretation. You can interpret what happens to the brain as merely chemical reactions happening due to the stress on the body, or (I’m sorry to quote a popular movie–but I just saw it and it was really great) it might all be “in your head. But what makes you think that it’s not real?” There may be things that are happening there that science cannot currently (and maybe not ever) “measure” in any way. Either way, it is all a matter of interpretation. I’m sure you feel that your interpretation is better than one that includes the supernatural, and you may be right. However, it’s just an interpretation–not a fact.

        The “facts” about the brain you list are fascinating. But they can be interpreted many different ways.

        1. While that’s all pleasingly poetic…it has no bearing on reality. And you know this, I’m sure, even if you can’t bring yourself to admit it. It’s too obvious an elephant in the room to ignore.

          Think of anything about yourself that you consider to be an essential part of your soul, and it’s trivial to profoundly alter it with chemicals and / or electrodes and / or a scalpel.

          You don’t even need to be a neurosurgeon to understand this; all you need is a bottle of cheap booze or certain white powdery substances. And not just the medical literature but popular culture is replete with stories of people with brain injuries undergoing radical personality changes.

          Indeed, it quickly becomes clear that it’s impossible to measurably alter the brain without also measurably altering cognition — and in very predictable ways, too. A drug that binds to this receptor will cause the patient to get excited; damage to this area removes all inhibitions; a tumor in this location makes the patient extremely violent.

          Yes, there’re a lot of fuzzy areas on the map that we still need to fill in — but we’ve got all the continents clearly laid out, we know where the mountain ranges are, and the rivers are easy to spot.

          It seems most absurd to suggest that the gods are lurking in that one small forest over there that nobody’s bothered to wander around in yet.



        2. To say, “it is all a matter of interpretation”, is just another kind of postmodernist viewpoint.

          The fact is that the scientific interpretation leads to further falsifiable hypotheses and concomitant testable predictions; in short, we can corroborate the scientific interpretation. (Or show that it’s wrong.)

          The religious interpretation, however, leads to… well, nothing. Where is the coherent, falsifiable hypothesis about the soul that leads to testable predictions?

          In fact, as you admit above — “the work of Thomas Torrance and others who seek to stretch our ‘faith’ into new areas that agree with what we discover through science.” — the religious interpretation must continually change as new scientific interpretations are validated.

          If your notions of “God” &c. are so mutable, what is it that you actually believe in?


        3. Pastor Dan,

          If you want to make any argument about the so-called “soul”, you must first define it. If your definition assumes that the soul has nothing to do with our consciousness, feelings, memories, personality etc and it is completely separated from the material world to the point that it can’t be examined or studied in any way, or even experienced by the person it “belongs” to, then fine. There are still no grounds to assume the existence of such an entity, but at least this weird assumption is not in a direct disagreement with science. If, however, you define a soul as a function/a part of our consciousness and cognition, as you just did, then everything that Ben described (i.e. how this “soul” can be modified with disease, drugs or surgery) applies and it is not a matter of interpretation.

  15. I am still putting out there my own definition of what distinguishes a religion from other thinking: If the penalty for apostasy is severe (cast out of a community, or physical violence or death) then it is a religion. Science makes no such penalty. To denounce Joseph Stalin, on the other hand, could and did often mean death as a consequence. That is why the USSR of Lenin and Stalin should be considered “religious”.

    All my opinion.!

  16. I think that often the ‘science is a religion’ trope is a simple case of relativism.

    On occasion, though, I’ve read instances where it seems that the writer cannot actually conceptualize a ‘not religion’. This can go along with the ‘worshipping Darwin’ comment. In the same way that many fundamentalists have never tried to conceive of a system of morality that isn’t instituted by authority, they haven’t tried to puzzle through a non-belief system.

    If we could actually manage to instigate serious reflection on this point — how would a society without religion operate — rather than getting into the mud on dogma, we would make some serious inroads in numbers of believers, especially in teens. That is what comparative religion courses miss.

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