The journal Nature explains why science is, like religion, based on faith

August 23, 2012 • 5:08 am

I was frankly surprised to see the pages of Nature occupied by an extremely lame and pointless attempt to not only accommodate science and religion, but assert that religion is in some ways better.  The short essay, which at least by citation seems to have appeared in the print issue of the journal, is called “Sometimes science must give way to religion,” and was written by Daniel Sarewitz, described as “co-director of the Consortium for Science, Policy and Outcomes at Arizona State University, [based] in Washington DC."

As far as I can tell, Sarewitz made a trip to Angkor Wat in Cambodia, saw the temples, and had an epiphany that led him to realize that both science and religion are based on faith, and that religion can answer the Big Questions that elude science.  This is based on the following statements:

  • “Visitors to the Angkor temples in Cambodia can find themselves overwhelmed with awe. When I visited the temples last month, I found myself pondering the Higgs boson — and the similarities between religion and science.”

The epiphany:

  • “The overwhelming scale of the temples, their architectural complexity, intricate and evocative ornamentation and natural setting combine to form a powerful sense of mystery and transcendence, of the fertility of the human imagination and ambition in a Universe whose enormity and logic evade comprehension.”

Yes, but one can get that feeling with secular buildings, too (although Sarewitz really needs to look up the meaning of the word “enormity”).  And does the size (not “enormity”) and logic of the universe really evade comprehension? It seems to me that we’ve made pretty good progress understanding the age, size, and workings of the universe.  What Sarewitz is really feeling here is what one can get from looking at the stars, at a cheetah in pursuit of a gazelle, or even at Notre Dame.  I call it awe, but it invokes in Sarewitz feelings that are numinous and spiritual. And, he goes on, science is not only impotent to invoke such feelings, but is just as irrational as faith (all bold emphases in his quotes are mine)

  • “Science is supposed to challenge this type of quasi-mystical subjective experience, to provide an antidote to it. The Higgs discovery, elucidating the constituents of existence itself, is even presented as a giant step towards the ultimate cure: a rational explanation for the Universe. That such scientific understanding provides a challenge to religion is an idea commonly heard from defenders of science, especially those in more militant atheist garb. Yet scientists who occupy that ground are often too slow to recognize the irrational bases of their own beliefs, and too quick to draw a line between the scientific and the irrational. Take, for example, how we come to know what science discovers. Most people, including most scientists, can acquire knowledge of the Higgs only through the metaphors and analogies that physicists and science writers use to try to explain phenomena that can only truly be characterized mathematically.”

What?  What is irrational about our own “beliefs” (I presume by “beliefs” he means “scientific facts”)? I thought that the Higgs boson was predicted mathematically, but detected experimentally, and through instruments, not via “metaphors and analogies.”

Then the whole essay breaks down, as Sarewtize denigrates the Higgs discovery simply because, in describing it, The New York Times used an analogy resembling something in Hindu cosmology:

  • “Here’s The New York Times: ‘The Higgs boson is the only manifestation of an invisible force field, a cosmic molasses that permeates space and imbues elementary particles with mass … Without the Higgs field, as it is known, or something like it, all elementary forms of matter would zoom around at the speed of light, flowing through our hands like moonlight.’ Fair enough. But why ‘a cosmic molasses’ and not, say, a ‘sea of milk’? The latter is the common translation of an episode in Hindu cosmology, represented on a spectacular bas-relief panel at Angkor Wat showing armies of gods and demons churning the ‘sea of milk’ to produce an elixir of immortality.

If you find the idea of a cosmic molasses that imparts mass to invisible elementary particles more convincing than a sea of milk that imparts immortality to the Hindu gods, then surely it’s not because one image is inherently more credible and more ‘scientific’ than the other. Both images sound a bit ridiculous. But people raised to believe that physicists are more reliable than Hindu priests will prefer molasses to milk. For those who cannot follow the mathematics, belief in the Higgs is an act of faith, not of rationality.”

I have read this four times and am still baffled.  The NY Times writer was using a simile, and it’s not even clear that the writer (Dennis Overbye) knew about the Hindu stuff: there’s certainly no reference to it in his article. But the scary part is what I’ve put in bold (it’s also highlighted in the side of Sarewitz’s column).  Trusting the consensus of scientific experts is not an act of “faith”, at least not in the way religion construes “faith”: belief in the absence of evidence.  All of us put our trust in areas of science where we have no expertise: the theory of relativity, the triplet nature of the genetic code (how many of us can recount the molecular biology that led to that conclusion?), or in even our willingness to accept medical treatments when we’re ignorant of their evidential basis.  That is not faith, but confidence—confidence that the community of scientists who do their research has policed each other sufficiently well to arrive at a solid consensus.  To equate that with religious faith is, to use Judge Jones’s terminology, “an act of breathtaking inanity.” The community of the faithful has arrived at no such consensus.What they’ve arrived at is a conflicting farrago of assertions that cannot be resolves.

What Sarewitz is doing here is using a bait-and-switch technique to equate the methods science and religion, thereby justifying the latter.  I would have expected this from a theologian, but not from someone writing in the pages of Nature. The equating of science and faith is, of course, the forte of the John Templeton Foundation, and it may not be irrelevant that Sarewitz was named a Templeton Research Fellow in 2007-2008.

In further aping the methods of theology, Sarewitz explains why religion can put us in touch with the Bigger Truths:

  • “Science advocates have been keen to claim that the Higgs discovery is important for everyone. Yet in practical terms, the Higgs is an incomprehensible abstraction, a partial solution to an extraordinarily rarified and perhaps always-incomplete intellectual puzzle.By contrast, the Angkor temples demonstrate how religion can offer an authentic personal encounter with the unknown. At Angkor, the genius of a long-vanished civilization, expressed across the centuries through its monuments, allows visitors to connect with things that lie beyond their knowing in a way that no journalistic or popular scientific account of the Higgs boson can.”

What, exactly, is an “authentic personal encounter with the unknown”? We know something about when and why the Angkor temples were built (a 12th century Hindu monument to Vishnu), so their provenance is hardly unknown. No, Sarewitz means that such encounters help people realize that there are “ways of knowing” beyond science:

  • Challenges to the cultural and political authority of science continue to rise from both ideological and religious directions. It is tempting to dismiss these as manifestations of ignorance or scientific illiteracy. But I believe instead that they help to show us why it will always be necessary to have ways of understanding our world beyond the scientifically rational.

So what, exactly, are those “ways of understanding” and what have they helped us understand? As is usual with such claims (heard far more often from theologians than atheists like Sarewitz), he doesn’t answer. Since he’s a nonbeliever, all I can guess is that he gets a warm and fuzzy feeling of awe from Angkor Wat that he doesn’t feel from the Higgs boson. But how in the world does that mean that science is based on faith, or that there are ways of knowing things that don’t rest on reason and observation? What are those things?

One is left with Sarewitz’s infuriating and meaningless final paragraph:

  • I am an atheist, and I fully recognize science’s indispensable role in advancing human prospects in ways both abstract and tangible. Yet, whereas the Higgs discovery gives me no access to insight about the mystery of existence, a walk through the magnificent temples of Angkor offers a glimpse of the unknowable and the inexplicable beyond the world of our experience.

I am sorry for Sarewitz if he doesn’t see the Higgs boson as the final piece in validating the Standard Model of particle physics, an amazing intellectual tour de force that gives many of us insights into the “mystery of existence”—the attempt to understand why things are the way they are. And the Higgs is a real answer, not a fake one.  The Higgs boson exists; God does not.

One gets the sense that Sarewitz is sad about this, and wishes there were a god.  But yet what is his last sentence but an expression of belief in something divine, something “unknowable and inexplicable beyond the world of our experience.” Is that not the expression of confidence in a spiritual world? How does he know that that unknowable stuff even exists? Yes, there are scientific questions that we might not be able to answer, but I have the feeling that that’s not what Sarewitz means.

The biggest unknowable and inexplicable mystery is why this drivel got published in one of the world’s premier scientific journals.


I also didn’t look at the readers’ comments until I’d written this post, for I didn’t want to be influenced by the reactions of others. Predictably, most of the commenters take Sarewitz apart. But Nicholas Beale, collaborator with the theologian John Polkinghorne, appears in one comment to claim that there is evidence for both Christianity and Islam.  Of course he doesn’t tell us what that evidence is, nor how one can have evidence for two faiths that make absolutely conflicting claims.

h/t: Steve


Sarewitz, D. 2012. Sometimes science must give way to religion. Nature 488: 431 doi:10.1038/488431a

112 thoughts on “The journal Nature explains why science is, like religion, based on faith

  1. I really love the great religious monuments of the world (Cathedrals in Europe, the Pyramids of Egypt and Central America, the Buddhist sites of SE Asia, Tibetan monasteries, etc.) as examples of great artistic acheivements.

    But, hey, my reaction is never: “ooh, too hard for mere men, must have been aliens did it!” or, “Wow, science and religion are the same!” Or even, “Hmmm, Einstein, eh? Space and time curved, eh?”

    No, my reaction has always been: “whoa, dudes! NICE STACK OF ROCKS!”

      1. Or the sheer sense of wonder and awe I felt when I watched the Higg’s seminars live over the internet from CERN this July.

        This is not faith, it is wonder at the achievement of all those thousands of people who laboured to build and use such an immense machine to produce evidence for such an abstract prediction of theoretical physics as the Higg’s boson.

        Evidence based knowledge not faith, the difference is the big E epistemology. Faith has no epistemology apart from revelation and that is useless without evidence.

  2. Sounds like Sarewitz needs a few sessions of therapy to relieve his depressed attitude and to help clear up his fuzzy thinking. He also needs to learn the definition of science.

  3. This is where he goes wrong:

    “Science is supposed to challenge this type of quasi-mystical subjective experience, to provide an antidote to it.

    No it’s not. That’s like saying studying music theory destroys one’s ability to appretiate the subjective experience of music that you like.

    1. Yeah. You stole my thoughts. Anyone who really thinks that has either taken it on faith from somebody else, or just is not paying attention.

      I feel sorry for them that they are missing out on so much awesomeness. They are turning their back on the very thing that can consistently provide them with the experiences that they claim to be yearning for.

  4. “there is evidence for both Christianityn and Islam”

    Duh! No kidding. I know many Christians and Muslims and I have copies of their magic books and I have attended numerous Christian religious events. Clearly, there is plenty of evidence that Christianty and Islam exist.

    No, as to the claims of Christianity and Islam … that I am still waiting for.

    It really is quite funny how these types will prate on and on and on about “there really is quite a lot of evidence” for the claims of religion — wouldn’t be good if there were too much (that one kills me), religion gives us other truths (deeper ones of course — seriously? Do they mean discovered in a deep-sea submersible??).

    And yet … they just never can come out with any! Never any evidence, never any “deeper” truths. As you noted — the “deeper” truths of various religions are in conflict with each other (on all non-trivial points) so they cannot be true! (at least more than one of them — and how to decide?!) Unless you set aside logic or go for “whatever is true for you” crap.

    That was the beauty of Hitchens’ challenge about moral acts by believers and non-believers, it was extremely hard (impossible?) to evade.

  5. Here are the first three definitions of ‘enormity’ from Merriam-Webster Online:

    1: an outrageous, improper, vicious, or immoral act
    2: the quality or state of being immoderate, monstrous, or outrageous; especially : great wickedness
    3: the quality or state of being huge : immensity

    So it seems #3 comports with the author’s usage, does it not?

    1. We can’t know with certainty that the author meant immensity instead of enormity. The former is the only correct usage for his purpose. I’m willing to cut him some slack and presume he intended to describe a measure of proportion instead of a degree of wicked intent. But any opinion article intended to support existing capacity for woo, which lacks any measurable evidence for same, snuffs out any inclination toward benevolence on my part. Use of meaning 3 is a failure of execution by the author, as is the whole of the piece.

    2. Some dictionaries are too readily willing to add incorrect definitions that reach a certain level of popularity.

      The third meaning is just wrong. So many people use it that way that it will probably lose its original, correct meaning, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t struggle against that outcome today.

    3. †3.3 Excess in magnitude; hugeness, vastness. Obs.; recent examples might perh. be found, but the use is now regarded as incorrect. – OED 3rd edition

  6. Sarewitz, like so many others, seems not to recognize that feelings of awe, etc., are fully and only within us, in our body chemistry. We can enjoy them, but not try to give them an alternate reality.

  7. Nice take down.

    I think often a fundamental issue with these types of discussion is the vague use of the words ‘faith’ and ‘believe’. I believe in the validity of scientific discovery because I have faith in the power of evidence. Whereas many religious types will say they have faith and belief simply because they ‘just know’. Perhaps there are better words to describe the first situation?

  8. It sounds like he’s saying (aside from this “unknowable” nonsense) we need metaphors to help our brains understand things & that science doesn’t provide them, only cold hard facts. He seems to be missing the part of science where we are able to those facts, leading to things like evolutionary theory that help us understand our origins. Religion had a stab at that too & it failed.

  9. I read that piece online and was really amazed that Nature published such rubbish! If a student had presented this as an essay, I would have refused it because of its banality, and because of the weakness (not to say: the lack) of any real argumentation.
    What is the matter with that magazine – or its redaction team ?

    1. What first came to my mind was: there is Templeton-money involved in this. But then I rejected this thought because of my high opinion of that magazine.

  10. “When I visited the temples last month, I found myself pondering the Higgs boson — and the similarities between religion and science.”

    Well, both were devised by human beings, and both can engender beliefs in human brains. What I find far more interesting than their similarities is their differences. Faith vs Evidence. Revelation vs Empirically Tested. Navel Gazing vs Experimentation. Look to the Past vs Look to the Future. Impede Advancement vs Empower Advancement. Benny Hinn vs Jonas Salk. Pope Ratzinger vs Richard Feynman. Alvin Plantinga vs Jerry Coyne.

  11. “Science is supposed to challenge this type of quasi-mystical subjective experience, to provide an antidote to it.

    What??? Science is supposed to describe how the universe works. How we feel about how the universe works is entirely up to us.

    This is the sort of idiotic statement I might expect from some anti-science fundie. ‘Science sucks the awe out of life!’ That’s not its purpose. And for most of us, that is not what it does.

    Yet scientists who occupy that ground are often too slow to recognize the irrational bases of their own beliefs,

    Yeah, that must be why the scientific community is the one to stress the importance of reproducibility as a self-correcting mechanism (in fact one of several we stress). Because clearly, we are slower than the folks who rely on revelation to realize that the human mind might contain biases. [/snark]

  12. I just saw Notre Dame a few months ago, and I felt a sense of awe. I was awestruck at how much obsessive effort and ingenuity have gone into reinforcing utterly wrong, degrading ideas. And I had the urge to laugh out loud at the cartoonish symbolism plastered everywhere. I guess that counts as an epiphany.

    1. “…how much obsessive effort and ingenuity have gone into reinforcing utterly wrong…” Your statement is more correct than most suspect. Gothic cathedrals (as opposed to the earlier Romanesque ones) employ two innovations, the pointed arch and the flying buttress. While it is difficult to over use the former, the latter is far overused. However, it is not clear that the builders understood why the flying buttress; it appears they stumbled upon it. As such they employed too many, increasing the costs in both labor and material. That is, they employed an ingenious design in an obsessive manner. They did so not because they understood what they were doing, but because they had no idea what they were doing. They only knew it worked and that was good enough for them. Sort of like religion, it works, (at pacifying the populace) we don’t now why it works but we won’t investigate the underlying principles.

      1. Are you sure about all this? It feels wrong to me. The individual flying buttresses became more elegant over the centuries ~ far, far less ‘clunky’. The idea was to create an interior filled with ‘panels’ of light by having as wide & high an area of glass as one dared. The builders aimed for the minimum of non-glass between the ‘panels’ & it’s in those positions that one finds the flying buttress on the outside

        The feeling I have about Gothic cathedrals is that the interior was the stage & the outside is where one finds the rude mechanicals.

        I checked Wiki & in essence it says this:-

        Early flying buttresses were usually much heavier than required [see Chartres c. 1210]

        Much later the flying buttress were brought down to the thickness of voussoir with a capping stone above it (see Amiens, Le Mans and Beauvais]

        1. People! Stop analysing the beauty & the splendour of the architecture! You’ll destroy its meaning!
          Geez, you science guys just don’t understand majesty & stuff.

          But really, please do continue the discussion – understanding how things work is how I get my majestic kicks 🙂

          1. Lol tried to put a fake html end-tag of “/Sarewitz-esque” in to emphasise the irony in the first paragrah, failed.

    2. I haven’t been to Notre Dame, but I’ve been to the Cologne cathedral. There is certainly a sense of awe when entering the vast space under the expansive vaults.

      It is similar to, but don’t think it rivals, the sense of awe felt when entering a redwood forest, or standing at the edge of the grand canyon, or staring at the vastness of space.

  13. Maybe Nature is goin’ retro like back when Maddox was editor and he published a topic on the Loch Ness!!!! lolz.

  14. Accepting science does require faith, not in a god but in the ingenuity and creativity of humanity. It does not require an understanding of physics and math to understand the significance of finding the Higgs boson experimentally. It proves that the mathematical theories are working, and that science is on the right path. What could be more awe inspiring than that? I’ll take the magnificence of the LHC over a temple any day.

  15. When writing for publication, I always tend to worry way too much on whether what I am writing is good enough. Thank you for reminding me once again that, given that even Nature will publish such rubbish, however bad a job I do mine will never be the worst publication out there.

    And as an archaeologist, I actually find such meaningless writing about Angkor rather annoying. Sure, its monuments are awe-inspiring, but so is the universe, so are ant colonies, so is our immune system, so is almost everything else worth studying and researching. I see Angkor and I see questions in need of answers, questions about artistic and religious influences and development, questions about ritual practices, statecraft and propaganda, about resources and manpower and the economic system of the Khmer state that made these monuments possible, about the sociopolitical organization and evolution of states and empires, and many more. But apparently just sitting back and going “Gosh, isn’t it grand and mysterious!” will get you published in Nature.

    1. I think this silly-ass opinion piece serves a couple functions:
      a) as others have noted, it’s good for attention
      b) it offers Brits another chance to scoff at the Yanks across the pond.

      There’s a lot of tongue-in-cheek device b) in BBC programming; I think the same cynicism has crept into Nature. Stimulates all kinds of chatter, from “isn’t that nice”, to “crikey, another American religious nutter”.

      For Nature, it’s a win-win… reputation-be-damned.

      1. It’s just kickback against a torrent of crap Hollywood films that have misrepresented the English for almost 100 years


        ** Flawed English criminal masterminds foiled [usually] by blue collar American patriots
        Barry Norman on Films

        ** Sexually repressed English fops

        ** The history of military campaigns rewritten in film with the Allied non-American contributions ignored, reduced, parodied or even reassigned to American forces who were not even present

        P.S. I’m not being entirely serious here & I’m not English so no axe to grind. I think the Brits themselves play into the myth with such garbage as Notting Hill

          1. Thank you for that link ~ wonderful! Weird to hear TT using the term “Matriarchy” ~ that gives me a flashback to my unsubbing from a dozen [mainly FtB blogs] earlier this year 🙂

            When I first saw that film as a lad I didn’t know the word “bosoms” ~ right over my head so to speak

  16. I think science and religion are similar in the fact that we “trust” those at the top of their fields.

    We can trust scientists because we see them proving their work. We see them make mistakes, but we also see them correcting them. We see them show humility by admitting when they don’t know something, or have serious doubts, or even telling us what those doubts could be. We see practical applications of things they learn and pass on. When one scientist intentionally does something wrong, we see other scientists refuting the bogus claims. Any of us could, at least in principal, repeat their experiments and get similar results. Of course these things can take a long time to play out, but trend is always towards better knowledge.

    We trust religious leaders because… ummm, help me out, I seem to be stuck.

      1. We can trust that for the most part religious leaders make sure their leadership efforts are richly rewarded in this world (as insurance in case that future reward doesn’t pan out).

    1. We trust religious leaders if we don’t know any better. They’re nice and comforting, so how could they be wrong about god and heaven? lol

  17. I actually was shocked that a respectable science magazine would publish such transcendental silliness and this is just another example of how the science establishment is letting the religious and political movement take the U.S into the dark ages. If scientists and science writers do not get more actively involved in politics, PR initiatives and lobby groups, things are going to get worse not better.

  18. That being confronted by something grand evokes a sense of awe and wonder, and that this excites our curiosity, is pretty basic to human nature. And it is this very aspect of our nature that has inspired and motivated science, the quest to dispel mystery and answer questions. We could probably say that people invented religion because they didn’t have science. Because they didn’t have science they used their imaginative and storytelling abilities to create a system of “explanations” to satisfy this sense of mystery and wonder, to satisfy this curiosity. To pretend that the human instinctual feeling of awe is a sign of god gets things exactly in reverse.

    It’s truly remarkable that an article based on a premise that most thinking people have to sort out by the end of adolescence should be published in a serious scientific journal. The fact that stars are nuclear fusion reactors is something I can only know by receiving messages from a variety of trustworthy sources that corroborate one another. This is not the same as faith; I like the way Sean Carrol puts it: this is warranted belief. Faith is belief without evidence, belief that requires a leap into the unknown that is essentially an abandonment of critical faculties. Not the same as evidence based warranted belief at all.

    It’s hard for me to believe that somone could be an atheist without having grasped this difference at least in some degree. How could a person feel confident that god doesn’t exist unless they understood how forming beliefs based on overwhelming evidence is fundamentally different from forming beliefs on no evidence at all other than traditional narratives and authoritarian pronouncements? There is abundant evidence that tradition and authority is highly subject to error, primarily because it is based on very shallow and incomplete observation of nature, including the various aspects of human nature.

    1. Based on this article I too am skeptical of Sarewitz’s claim that he is an atheist. The grand, but nebulous, style he exhibits in this article is indistinguishable from that of a Sophisticated Theologian™. This grand, but nebulous, style is what results when someone is trying to explain something that they feel very strongly about, but about which they are unwilling to attempt to give concrete explanations for because, a)they have not been able to think of any, or b)they know they would not stand up to serious scrutiny.

      He may not be a theist, but he sure seems to think that there is some mystical aspect to our existence that can not be interrogated by the methods of what we have come to call science. Perhaps if he had a better understanding of scientific methodologies, and the implications of the results realized from their application throughout our history, he might see how unnecessary his mystical beliefs are.

      And I always wonder, have these people read anything of scientists like Darwin, Einstein, Feynman, Sagan and so many other examples? These scientists were consumed by the awesomeness and grandeur of the universe and dedicated their lives to using the methods of science to satisfy their craving for transcendent experiences!

      What is a more inspiring read, the “Bible” or Feynman’s “The Pleasure of Finding Things Out”?

  19. I like JAC’s notion that science is not based on faith, but on confidence. (I would have said “informed faith”, but that’s semantics.)

    Indeed, traditionally, a lot of folk have had religion be the field where they work out existential “big” questions about meaning-in-life, the search for wholeness and tranquility, etc. etc. However, some of us do it through literature and other venues. That’s why there are now folks talking about “secular spirituality”, etc.

    He can’t have it both ways. He cannot say that belief in the Higgs is for laymen not an act of rationality, AND say we need to have ways to understand our world beyond the scientifically rational.

    I believe there is a confusion among these folks between the rational and the measurable/quantifiable.

  20. “For those who cannot follow the mathematics, belief in the Higgs is an act of faith, not of rationality.”

    As a non-scientist, statements like this are really quite insulting. Reading a book on evolution without personally examining the fossil record does not mean I’m accepting evolution on faith! I accept rational, well-defended arguments that are supported with evidence. Religion may offer “answers”, but the “answers” religion offers are about as reliable and likely as saying that the meaning of life is 42. (And at least that was done by a computer!)

    And how can he write that “the Higgs discovery gives me no access to insight about the mystery of existence”. How can furthering our understanding of most fundamental particles and forces in nature not help to explain existence? The temples of Angkor Wat may be beautiful, but they say nothing about the “mystery of existence” except that there were some very talented architects and sculptors in medieval Cambodia. What a profoundly stupid thing for him to write.

  21. Neither science nor religion can answer the important questions like “Who was the smartest of The Three Stooges?”

  22. Faith is something or other; the unknowable is knowable; and, the inexplicable has lots and lots… and lots…. of words.

  23. Faith is acceptance of a proposition without evidence. Religion is a matter of faith. Our confidence in science is not remotely like that, because the propositions of science are based on evidence. Science leads to a provisional, but powerful certainty about the material world. It requires advanced training to practice science. To be a preacher, on the other hand, requires almost no education. In some cases one does not even have to be able to read to do it.

  24. Here we go again. This is just the old “faith in science is the same as religious faith” equivocation. He’s equivocating with two different meanings of the word “faith” – one means belief without evidence; the other means trust based on sound methods and experience of what works. He applies definition #2, and then says that means you also accept definition #1.

    The fallacy is to say that unless we have personally performed every scientific experiment in the history of the world, then we have faith (like religious faith) if we accept scientific knowledge. Replace “faith in science” with “trust in science” and the fallacy is fixed.

  25. It has been pointed out innumerable times to no avail that science is not based on the type of belief religious people usually mean by “faith.” In fact, I suggest that when someone says they are the same type of belief they are mixing apples with oranges and telling us they’re peaches. At least in Christianity as found in the bible, faith is defined as believing without physical evidence, indeed in spite of it. Here’s one example: Hebrews 11:1 (New International Version) “Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see. 2 This is what the ancients were commended for. 3 By faith we understand that the universe was formed at God’s command, so that what is seen was not made out of
    what was visible.” In short, belief that the universe was created by an invisible god is based on faith, not on observable evidence. As if to underscore that, the anonymous writer lists several people to whom
    promises in the physical realm were made and went on to say: Hebrews 11:13 (NIV) “All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance, admitting that they were foreigners and strangers on earth.” Faith, then, is continued belief despite failure of the theory and despite evidence to the contary. Any scientist who persisted in that type of thinking would not last long in the scientific community.

  26. While thinking of something that is capable of veneration like, say… a soap dish, lightly move the fingers of one hand over the hairs on your other arm several times in succession. You should experience a quicky numination. If it doesn’t happen then you should probably strike a Templeton grant off your bucket list.

  27. Douglas Adams summed it up: “Isn’t it enough to see that a garden is beautiful without having to believe that there are fairies at the bottom of it too?”

    I got to wonder about the personalities of folks who insist on this trite perspective, of attributing a good scientific understanding to our not being able to feel awe. Perhaps they are into vicarious escapism?

    Since he is an atheist, I suspect his brain just can’t court the cognitive dissonance of religious beliefs, but he is not happy being without god belief–he needs a spark of mystery that his own brain can’t sustain so he shadow follows religious beliefs. He is, so to speak, on a diet so he can’t have his cake, but he sure can make a fuss about the ‘cake-eating’ habits of others. Moi, I feel my evidential perspective allows me to feast daily, so I am not pining for a rich diet.

  28. First, permit me to take a moment to apologize for my Alma Mater. ASU has actually done some really good things on matters pertaining to Big Questions, thanks to the Beyond Institute run by Paul Davies and Lawrence Krauss. I have no clue where this Sarewitz joker fits into things.

    And, if it’s mind-blowing personal experiences of the scale of the Universe you’re after, not much beats an observation of an eclipse or a transit of Venus. At such times, it’s not hard to construct a mental map of the scale of the inner Solar System…and, let me assure you, it’s unbefuckinglievably huge.

    No clue how one would go beyond that to personally experience the scale of the Solar System as a whole — let alone interstellar distances, let alone the galaxy, let alone intergalactic scale, let alone cosmological scale.



    1. …and then there’s the matter of the size of an electron, compared to the outer shell of the grapefruit, chock-o-block full of em–ensuring the grapefruit doesn’t fall through the kitchen counter.

  29. Daniel Sarewitz again. I came across an article of his being discussed on a Climate Sceptical blog a couple of years ago. The article in Slate was titled “Most scientists in this country are Democrats. That’s a problem.” The problem for Sarewitz was that far more Democrats than Republicans accepted the scientific consensus regarding anthropogenic climate change. Sarewitz suggested that the politics could be pushing the science rather than the other way round. The piece was nothing more than an idle and mushy piece of provocation.

    Now Nature are providing him with a vehicle for more of his idle mush. Thankfully I don’t subscribe.

  30. Reblogged this on barralopolis and commented:
    A good posting about a recent Nature (!!!) article about Science and Religion. Personally, I subscribe to Stephen Jay Gould’s idea of the two as “Nonoverlapping magisteria.”

    1. The problem with Gould’s NOMA is that religion is nothing but a non-stop stream of specific, empirical claims about the real world…and all of those claims were soundly debunked millennia ago.

      At the heart of all religions lie propositions such as that a pervasive personal creative force with great power wishes good things for humans, or at least significant subsets of humans. And, yet, without fail, every time we look, we find instances where even human beings of most modest means and bare-minimum civic-mindedness would have averted great tragedy…and, yet, tragedy still ensued. Great powers are claimed for the gods, but they’re never even half as effective as a young child with a cell phone.

      If you interpret NOMA to mean that science deals with observable reality and religion baseless fantasy, I’ll buy into it. But this “how” v why bullshit? Not hardly.



      1. Generally speaking, NOMA is a good prescription, in my opinion. With the notable caveat that morality and other important topics are needless ceded to religion, I think it is a good thing to push. On the other hand, as a description, NOMA is simply wrong.

  31. I love reading these half-assed, look-how-deep-I-am-now-that-I’m-in-college essays. Helps to know who you’re dealing with if you happen upon the person’s writing elsewhere. An atheist who expounds on religion without actually knowing anything about it, and expounds in a science publication without talking to any scientists who might illuminate what he does not understand. I’d love to hear what he has to say about the national economy, but honestly, I think I learn more from taxi drivers on any of the above.

    1. You certainly have not demonstrated that you have anything intelligent or constructive to say. Pretend you know everything, and say nothing. You must be pretty deep. You have committed yourself to nothing, except to being a jerk.

      1. It’s possible that you misinterpreted ManOutOfTime. Or equally possible that I have misinterpreted him, you or even both of you.

        1. Oops, maybe you’re right. He’s talking about Sarewitz probably.

          But this comment: “An atheist who expounds on religion without actually knowing anything about it” made me wonder. I thought he might be talking about Jerry or other comments here.

          Actually, many atheists have quite a lot of experience with religion before they reach the stage of atheism.

          And still, the post didn’t really say anything specific about what it objects to. It seems like disgruntled anti-intellectual resentment. Perhaps it’s directed at both Jerry and Sarewitz. Maybe my first impression had some merit.

          But I apologize for letting myself get angry.

          I’ve had a few great conversations with taxi drivers, and some strange ones too.

          But really, distinguishing between confidence in science and faith doesn’t take much education. Pretty much every religious person gives the game away when they use doctors and hospitals rather than faith healers. If your child is really sick, we learn what you really believe in, and what is just a traditional habit, an emotional addiction, and a tribal affiliation that must be defended at all costs.

    2. I thought “he” was Jerry in your comment at first, but I now lean towards Daniel Sarewitz 99%

      amiright? 🙂

  32. The scary part for me is that looking at his homepage at ASU, the guy claims to be an expert in science and technology policy. He has written several books and was even the science advisor to the Chairman of the House committee on Science, Space and Technology.

    He wouldn’t be my first choice.

    1. It would not surprise me if Sarewitz has no background in science to speak of. Maybe he is one of those cultural ‘scientists’ perpetrating what they call ‘science studies’?

      1. He has a PhD in Geology from Cornell and claims to have done field work on tectonics and mountain building – claims no publications in science – only science policy.

  33. Oh lord, here we go again, another MA white guy having an “epiphany” — there is actually a developmental hormonal reason for all of these. Why do these crackpot ideas get so much coverage? Nature?

    Let’s be honest you don’t see a lot of mid aged professional women claiming a hotline to the supernatural. Their brains stay pretty solid thru later life.

    There is no such thing as “science” as an ideology. The opponents of facts and evidence-based knowledge , who are ideologues, falsely label scientific activities as such. It just a dishonest rhetorical trick. But it works.

    Scientific activities are highly opportunistic, easily falsifiable, anti-dogma, IMPERSONAL and non-opinion based and rarely play to people’s feelings.

    Sure, journalists try to pump up research to capture eyeballs. Ideological/mythological/metaphors are the best “hooks.” That popular story telling and has little to do with scientific research.

  34. Daniel Sarewitz makes me feel like a New Atheist (for those who haven’t kept track: I’m ambiguous). He might have a higher IQ than I have – I never finished university – but he writes some dumb things. This one hit me at once:

    “Most people, including most scientists, can acquire knowledge of the Higgs only through the metaphors and analogies that physicists and science writers use to try to explain phenomena that can only truly be characterized mathematically.”

    Confirmed by indeed

    “For those who cannot follow the mathematics, belief in the Higgs is an act of faith, not of rationality.”

    In other words, because he and I don’t have mastered the math involved our ideas on the higgs-boson are based on faith, just like god. Yuck. If Sarewitz is serious about this argument he also has to consider that his computer is run by little demons, as he, just like me, doesn’t understand all its components either.

  35. The point is of course that Sarewitz and I are too lazy and/or have other obligations. But anytime we want we can purchase all the relevant books and articles, study and try to get a grip on the theory that proposed the higgs-boson or our computer. Then we can check and don’t need faith anymore.
    Sarewitz delivers more rubbish, but after this one I already have enough.

    “I can guess is that he gets a warm and fuzzy feeling of awe from Angkor Wat that he doesn’t feel from the Higgs boson.”
    Know what? I get that feeling when listening to some 19th Century Russian opera’s. Ha! Goddiddid. Stupid fellow villagers who don’t. Goddiddidnod for them, apparently.

  36. I echo lanceleuven: nice takedown.

    What are we to make of this guy’s claim to be an atheist, despite his complaint that science does not properly address the spirituality in the world, in the way that religion can? This reminds me of the oft-heard admonition from those who believe in God that only a religious person can have a proper sense of morality. Neither could be further from the truth. Many of us pursued science because of the awe we felt at our first encounter with nature: collecting tree seeds, photographing stained neurons under a microscope, estimating Avogadro’s number with drops of oil on water. And, these days, I cringe when I think of what people have done in the name of religion. So, I agree with you: this guy seems to be hiding his theism, whatever it is.

  37. While “enormity” does mean outrageous evil, in one meaning, it also means 3

    : the quality or state of being huge : immensity

    according to Merriam-Webster, which I would suppose was the Sarewitz’ meaning.

  38. Sounds like Sarewitz is a “lip-service” atheist, and perhaps a “closet” religionist, to boot. For me, the findings of science make this world all the more astounding and marvelous. I believe that all “science-bashing”, “atheist-bashing”, creationism, etc. all derive from one source: fear; everything from the fear of the embarrassment of having one’s cherished beliefs proven wrong, to the fear that if rationality were the preeminent basis for action in the world, that somehow, at best, the mystery in life would be “lost”; at worst, humankind would turn into deterministic, Mr. Spock-like Nazis who would run everything with a ruthless rationality. The BIG fear, of course, is that of turning one’s back on God, and finding out later that He DOES exist- Oooooops!

  39. Is this Arizona State University some sort of theology college? If not be interesting to see how long this charlatan keeps his job for.

  40. What is irrational about our own “beliefs” (I presume by “beliefs” he means “scientific facts”)?

    Possibly an erroneous presumption. A lot of scientists believe a certain amount of stuff that is not scientific fact, but irrational unjustified nonsense… and which even scientists are imperfect about keeping in distinct conceptual categories, and noticing when belief contributes to other inferences.

    I’d also note — relatedly — is that the foundations of rationality are lacking rational justification; axioms aren’t proven inferences, they’re simply taken as true. If you define “irrational” as “lacking rational justification”, whatever Münchausen-Trilemma-grade axioms are used here would qualify.

    Abstract axioms are belief in the absence of evidence, because empirical evidence at most indicates that the model does not correspond to the abstract mathematics. As such, they might meet this sense of “faith” — and scientists tend to forget their use of mathematics leaves them implicitly reliant on the underpinning “faith” of whatever axiom schema that is picked for a foundation. That said, not much beyond abstract mathematical axioms gets taken at this level of faith. (An axiom is needed to relate experience and abstraction, to allow inferring science. Some other axiom is also needed if one wishes to infer ordering of is-choices into ought-orders.)

    For those who cannot follow the mathematics, belief in the Higgs is an act of faith, not of rationality

    I’d agree, that “faith” is less accurate a term than “trust” — a provisional, probabilisitic inference, subject to revision based on further evidence or analysis, rather than an inherently unquestionable axiom. (I suspect some of the math on cryptography, proof theories, and certificate chains would be relevant.) The use of “faith” rather than “trust” seems to yield errors in inference due to equivocation — though it’s possible Daniel Sarewitz isn’t even conscious of where he’s doing this.

    I wonder if this apparent linguistic carelessness might itself serve as an example of the irrationality Dr. Coyne was asking about? Daniel Sarewitz was probably raised in the Western Culture, which from religious tradition is imprecise in delineating between the senses of “faith” and “trust”; as a result, Sarewitz is unaware of the irrationality of his implicit equivocation between the senses.

  41. I have a confession to make. Sometimes, yes, I do mentally cheer on (or at least smile at) commentators who flounce into science-land, furrow their eyebrows, point a finger accusingly, and start moaning dramatically about everyone being too sterile and buttoned down. Yay literature! Philosophy! Transcendent experience! You go ooey gooey, unquantifiable subjective experience in general! You should not be forgotten and your worth should never be discounted! Fill that beaker with jungle juice and get a little crazy, you sciencey types you!! Sorry. I had to get that out. Nothing to see here.

    That said, Sarewitz goes too far even for me. The molasses vs. milk metaphor, from what I can tell, boils down to “Well would you look at that. Science discovers things that are totally weird! Religion, also, contains things that sound totally weird! And people who believe in them both learned about them from other people, not directly! Therefore, they must be on par.” My impression is that Daniel really wants to ‘get’ what’s up with religious people (which is not, in and of itself, a bad goal,) and this is the most sense he could really make of their belief. Which, if I’m right, tells me he’s still kind of “Um, WTF?” about what might go through the mind of a fundamentalist, but is trying hard to make heads or tails of it.

    His point about the specific, amazing (to him) subjective experience inspired by his trip is interesting, although I don’t think this is in any sort of conflict with science. Rather, I think the topic of how things such as aesthetics and music influence our internal states is one of interest in some circles. Maybe there really is something special about the design of the Angkor temples that has the ability to inspire a certain internal experience. I don’t see that he’d get much resistance for such a hypothesis.

    I do sort of, kind of, understand where he’s going with the whole metaphor thing, although I disagree. I think he’s essentially making the postmodern-style argument about nothing being ‘true’, all of reality boils down to us choosing to connect the dots in a particular way. And yes, we often talk in absolute terms as if something is Logical, Rational, and Scientific, or Not. It’s true that the more closely you examine those lines, the fuzzier they become. Researchers don’t always agree on interpretations of results, and in the end they are just that – interpretations. Facts are more fluid than they seem and subject to constant change, expansion, and revision as more is learned. The puzzling part of this argument for me is always that leap where people seem to conclude “There are no immovable, perfect standards, therefore it’s all the same, why bother having any standards for truth at all! Mythology is just as good as research, the end.” It’s an odd detour to make in the middle of an otherwise interesting argument.

  42. Terry Pratchett was more honest about his Amgkor-Wat-type experience:

    So what shall I make of the voice that spoke to me recently as I was scuttling around getting ready for yet another spell on a chat-show sofa?

    More accurately, it was a memory of a voice in my head, and it told me that everything was OK and things were happening as they should. For a moment, the world had felt at peace. Where did it come from?

    Me, actually — the part of all of us that, in my case, caused me to stand in awe the first time I heard Thomas Tallis’s Spem in alium, and the elation I felt on a walk one day last February, when the light of the setting sun turned a ploughed field into shocking pink; I believe it’s what Abraham felt on the mountain and Einstein did when it turned out that E=mc².

    It’s that moment, that brief epiphany when the universe opens up and shows us something, and in that instant we get just a sense of an order greater than Heaven and, as yet at least, beyond the grasp of Stephen Hawking. It doesn’t require worship, but, I think, rewards intelligence, observation and enquiring minds.

    I don’t think I’ve found God, but I may have seen where gods come from.

    (I think I’ve posted this before, elsewhere on this bl— website.)


  43. Why does anybody, even before this, have any respect for Nature whatsoever? (And Science, for that matter?)

    Anybody remember the silly Wikipedia vs Encyclopedia Brittanica controversy in the pages of the former? Half the “articles” seem to be of the type where somebody with a big name found a groundbreaking study in a mid-tier journal, copies the conclusions into a one-and-a-half page review-like manuscript and presto! – another Nature/Science publication for them. (But just you or me try to do the same, ha.) And many of the others are simply windfalls, such as somebody happening to find a new species of mammal or so while they wouldn’t give a damn about a new species of fungus.

    And that is before we come to the bizarre observations by colleagues about what gets rejected and accepted by these journals and with what reasons. At least Science is on the record for not caring so much about the merits of a study but about whether its topic is going to be the big thing over the next few years, and I strongly assume that their output would look very differently if the authorship of manuscripts would be anonymous until the editor has decided on acceptance or rejection.

    You just cannot take them seriously as scientific journals at all.

  44. On second thought, if I were trying to sell more Nature subscriptions this is a great outreach to the massive, relatively, religious readership in the US. They have already saturated the serious science market.

    Religious folks can say — At last, there is a “serious” science journal that honors magical beliefs. Sounds like a money maker.

      1. Well, yes. As the necessary public funding of science shows — the only way to make money is to lie to the public, tell them what they want to hear, already believe and use ideological trickery.

        Blame the human brain.

  45. I have visited Angkor Wat, and they didn’t invoke epiphanies. And to put Sarewits right, their evocative ornamentation are rather showing off the human imagination of fertility. Yowza!

    When Sarewitz speaks of “militant atheist garb” here it means ‘those that say things I don’t like (and that I can pretend is pretending things)’. That is the weakest sense of “militant atheist” strawman possible.

    Speaking of putting Sarewitz right, I am amazed this was published in Nature:

    Without the Higgs field, as it is known, or something like it, all elementary forms of matter would zoom around at the speed of light, flowing through our hands like moonlight.’ Fair enough.

    Fair enough? That is completely wrong!

    The higgs field gives some fundamental particles mass, but not all. Of the Standard Model particles that are not massless, it doesn’t give neutrinos mass, or at least not directly.

    Moreover, only around 1 % of matter is given mass by the higgs field. Nearly all of our mass comes from quark-gluon interaction in the nucleons.

    What the higgs field does, is that it predicts the lower mass of the proton compared to the neutron, hence ensuring a stable atomic nucleus and so structure formation.

    Otherwise we would see a stable neutron soup. They definitely do not travel at speed of light.

    Yet, whereas the Higgs discovery gives me no access to insight about the mystery of existence, a walk through the magnificent temples of Angkor offers a glimpse of the unknowable and the inexplicable beyond the world of our experience.

    Or the higgs field could give us the first foundation for the next cosmology. A standard 125 GeV higgs, if that is what it is, predicts a quasistable vacuum if no new physics is found. More precisely the fields two main parameters are the result of finetuning.

    Douglas, with string theory grand master Susskind, see this as support for eternal inflation. The Standard Model would be the lowest energy freeze out after cosmological reheating as inflation ends. The simplest scenario would be a separate freeze out of supersymmetric particles at an energy scale a bit above that. (Predicting dark matter, by the way.)

    And then there is nothing more until the Planck scale. This would follow from the new “dominant eigenvalue” of eternal inflation, the longest lived vacuum which isn’t livable but attracts habitable universes like ours in a fractal and eternal pattern.

    What gives Sarewitz no insight about the mystery of existence gives Susskind et al insight in the utter absence of gods predicting the world of our experience.

    I think he was shortchanged by his “atheistic” epiphany.

  46. I forgot. This is also rich:

    For those who cannot follow the mathematics, belief in the Higgs is an act of faith, not of rationality.”

    Safeguarding common sense, are we? But for those who can follow the physics, or have x-rayed a crystal, belief in the solidity of a table is an act of erroneous interpretation and faith, not of rationality.

    1. Conflating the different meanings of the verb ‘to believe’ is quite popular in academic anti-science circles. Sometimes it is just symptomatic of poor language skills and then a good dictionary can be very helpful. But often it is an attempt to exploit the poor language skills of uneducated audiences. The message is that accepting (‘believing’) scientific facts like e.g the speed of light, the age of dinosaur fossils or the present warming of our planet has no better epistemological standing than belief (‘faith’) in supernatural agencies like gods or demons. Nowadays there are many academic parvenus who try to sell such fallacies to their students. They generally thrive well in second-rate cultural studies and science studies departments.

  47. Having also been to Angkor, one thing that stood out for me was the destroyed faces on all the statues. Over the centuries as religions went in an out of favour, the dominant culture would literally hack off the faces of the old gods. It actually disgusted me.

    But if you ignore all that I’m sure it’s very uplifting.

        1. There’s several dubious assumptions implicit to that question.

          They may be detrimental in themselves, but part of the necessary costs of a larger system which still maintains an overall net-benefit. They may even be neutral themselves, but result as a frequent by-product of another net-benfit system (“spandrel”). Or they may just be neutral drift — in most parts of the Western social environment, thinking the Earth is 6000 years old doesn’t significantly impact your chances of getting laid, especially if it doesn’t come up.

          1. In fact, just saw piece on this. “Selection”, which is a bad term, actually the inter-generational transmission of genes, can be measured, not in current procreation but in the future multi-generations.

            So there is some research that small families boost 1-2 generation’s wealth but hurt # of offspring in generation 3,4,5.

            But, by definition, I am assuming that there is a reproductive advantage to this behavior – much of which had to be preliterate and even pre-verbal.

            We can only look (really guess) backward.

    1. The question is two-fold: of truth and maturity.

      We know that the stories presented by religions are fiction. Those who present fiction, even religious fiction, as truth, are liars (whether wittingly or not). Lies on a scale as profound as those propagated by religion are deeply corrosive to society.

      A mature person, a mature society, is capable of knowingly embracing fictions for what they are while simultaneously accepting reality for what it is. You don’t need to lie to yourself that, for example, an ancient zombie enjoyed having his intestines fondled through his gaping chest wound, in order to build a positive and mutually supportive community — any more than you need to believe in Santa Claus in order to exchange presents and enjoy good music and good food around the time of the winter solstice.

      Indeed, not only do you not need to believe in Santa in order to tell and enjoy his story, believing in him is detrimental to all aspects of your life, including the ability to enjoy his story.

      These simple truths are not only not hard to understand, they are universally recognized. Just look at how many people today enjoy all sorts of aspects of long-dead religions, from the stories of the Greek gods to the daily horoscope to Easter egg hunts. You yourself enjoyed the stories your Navajo friend told you — as well you should have.

      The only disconnect comes when the stories become lies, as is universally the case with practiced religion.

      And that’s the problem that us Evil Atheists™ have with religion.



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