Science vs. religion: comparing their progress

June 12, 2013 • 4:23 am

The lovely figure below is from Crispian Jago’s website, The Reason Stick.  If religion really is a way of finding out truths about the universe, as many of its adherents claim, it should progress in its understanding of its subject: the divine. But Jago shows that that doesn’t happen, and any “progress” simply involves changing church doctrine to conform with changing secular morality.  Those changes happen because “religious” morality is swept into the modern era by the currents of modernity described by Steve Pinker in The Better Angels of our Nature.

As for understanding whether there is a god, whether—if there is—there’s more than one of them (viz. Hinduism or the Christian Trinity), what is the nature of any god, and what he/she/it wants us to do, we know not one iota more than did Aquinas or Augustine. That is, of course, precisely what we expect given religion’s unworkable “ways of knowing,” which, in the end, come down largely to revelation.

If, on the other hand, the more Sophisticated Faithful say that religion doesn’t make epistemic claims, then they become susceptible to the devastating question, “How do you know that, then?” There is no answer that will satisfy rational people, forcing the faithful to take refuge in theological inanities (viz., Alvin Plantinga).


As a direct result of the inbuilt progress limitations inherent in religion, what religious progress we have seen over the last 50 years broadly falls into 2 camps.

Firstly there is the recognition that mainstream religion needs to catch up with modern views on items such as the equality of women and homosexuals. Despite lagging behind the rest of society, many progressive people within mainstream religious organisations recognise the need for equality beyond that originally foreseen by their religions’ founders and the need to upgrade their religion accordingly.

Alas, the second type of religious progress highlighted by the diagram above shows an ugly form of religious progress that is becoming more and more familiar. When modern society is seen at odds with religious teachings many look to progress their faith towards a more literal interpretation of their scripture. Many faiths have regrettably progressed over recent years by branching out at the fringes to a more fundamentalist stance. Hence the chart below is littered with progress in the form of new creation museums, opposition to life saving medical procedures and numerous landmark cases of bigotry and discrimination. Not the sort of progress to be proud of.

Check this out (click to enlarge), and share it on your Facebook page! What will it be, ladies and gentlemen: the eradication of smallpox or The Creation Museum?


52 thoughts on “Science vs. religion: comparing their progress

  1. I have serious doubts whether Alvin Plantinga really knows what he is talking about, he uses all kind of complicated and, in my eyes. nonsensical states which are hardly to understand. However, it’s clear that he defintely doesn’t understand evultion (see his attempt to “refute” methodological naturalism through evolution).

  2. Are Facebook, Youtube and the Rubik’s Cube really scientific progress? Well, I suppose it’s all subjective. And there’s just so much that you couldn’t really fit it all in.

    Wasn’t it during the 70s that the Mormons concluded that black people do actually have souls? That’s probably quite a significant form of progress for [a] religion I suppose.

    1. I didn’t say I agreed with everything on the “science” side, but geez, finding a few outliers hardly invalidates the thesis that science has progressed more than religiion. And yes, there’s a lot more on the science side.

      Mormons concluded that black people can be in the priesthood (don’t know about the soul bit) because given the currents in American society, they looked retrograde and racist with their old policy. So the leader had a “revelation” that blacks could be full participants. That’s moral progress, but it didn’t come from religion: it came from the kind of secular morality Peter Singer describes in The Expanding Circle. And the idea that God suddenly changed his mine at an apposite time is hilarious.

      1. My apologies, I didn’t mean to sound as cantankerous as that clearly came across. I wasn’t trying to suggest the thesis is invalid at all. I don’t think any reasonable person could. I was simply expressing surprise at some of the suggestions. But like I said, it’s all subjective. Perhaps the author is simply a massive Facebook fan!

        Thanks for the clarification on the Mormon point. It’s not a subject I know a great deal about.

      2. And I suspect that the Mormons will soon have another “revelation” where their god tells them that gays are human beings and must be accorded equal treatment under the law.

        Isn’t religion wonderful ?

        1. The Mormon’s god is a bit like SCOTUS: happy to endorse civil change once everyone else has.

          But you have to give MormonGod some credit: racial equilaty in the 1970s was only about 10 years lagging behind the civil rights movement and only 110 years lagging behind the civil war. He’s doing a lot better than RCCGod, who tends to lag a lot more….

  3. Good fun, but the comparison is absurd.
    There cannot be any progress in religion; at least not in our bearded-guy-in-the-sky common garden varieties.
    Religions based on “revelation” claim “eternal truth”: immutable once and for all. The very concept of progress is alien to religion.
    By that yardstick, one could take any half-century, or century, or half-millennium, or millennium period, and the results in the right column would be similar: zilch.

    To make things worse, any theological prestidigitator worth his salt could point out the materialistic bias of any such comparison, embroider a few New-Agey flourishes about the “incommensurability of the individual spiritual journey” etc., and finish with a large serving of standard NOMA pablum.
    What’s the point of this exercise? We know what we know, and a benighted believer won’t budge one iota.

    1. Thank you for saying that this exercise is pointless. I always enjoy being told that I’ve posted something useless.

      But of course I disagree, because, as I’ve pointed out several times, many prominent theologians tout religion as a “way of knowing.” Indeed, some have compared it explicitly to science in its methodology and ability to discern reality. So it’s useful to show that one area progresses and the other doesn’t.

      As for the claim that things like this won’t make the “benighted believer” budge one iota, perhaps you’re misunderstanding at whom this chart (and, indeed, everything said by New Atheists) is aimed. They’re aimed at those waffling, those on the fence, and young people.

      I have a gazillion quotes by theologians claiming that theology finds truth progressively—indeed, some even recognize that it’s far inferior to science in doing this. Here’s a quote from David Jenkins, a Christian, from the Glory of Man:

      “Throughout, my aim will be to seek an understanding based on a careful assessment of phenomena as the guide to reality. . . I cannot regard theology as merely concerned with a collection of stories which motivate an attitude toward life. It must have its anchorage in the way things actually are, and the way they happen.”

      . . . “The nesting relationship of successive scientific theories gives the subject its character of a cumulative advance of knowledge. A very ordinary scientist today possesses, in consequence, much greater overall understanding of the physical world than was ever possible for Sir Isaac. . . The theologian of the twentieth century enjoys no presumptive superiority over the theologians of the fourth of sixteenth centuries. Indeed, those earlier centuries may well have had access to spiritual experiences and insights which have been attenuated, or even lost, in our own time.”

      If you’re really looking for stuff that will convince the benighted believers, you shouldn’t be reading this site.

      1. Jerry, I’m very sorry if I have hit a raw nerve.

        The exercise of which I failed to see the point was the one originally undertaken at The Reason Stick. You rebuked me for saying so. You appear to have taken my criticism as a questioning of your judgment. Again, I’m sorry. Hurting your feelings would be the last thing on my mind.
        On the other hand, pique against my comments aside, I find that your additional explanations have enlightened the point you were striving to make. Especially the quote from David Jenkins.
        I’m still unconvinced, but I see what you mean.
        Also, I am certainly not “looking for stuff that will convince the benighted believers”, and you know that.

        The most valuable lesson I have retained from my journalist days is the use of that rare beast, a really good editor, the one who asks you “What do you mean?” and “Clarify!” when you’re dead certain you’ve made your point, and who occasionally draws a squiggly line alongside a paragraph: “This can go.” The use of an editor is something the solitary host, master and commander of a website must presently do without. But even the best and most experienced writers could, now and then, do with an editor’s oblique glance sending them back to their draft. To some extent, readers of a website such as this can act as an editor ex-post, provoking their host to bring his best arguments forward. Incurring the host’s momentary displeasure seems an unfortunate price to pay, but the quality of the host’s response may mitigate the original sin.

        However, I promise this was my last transgression here. It took me nearly three hours to type these few lines. As I’m getting too ill to continue posting here, I bid my fond farewell to you, Jerry, and to everyone whose vicarious company I’ve enjoyed so much. And yes, I shall continue to read this site for as long as I can. Thank you!

    2. That’s one of the things that I think should cause theists to question their religion more than it apparently does. Religion should never need updating, and frustratingly, adherents will actually say as much. They’ve got the eternal truth. And then something like what lanceleuven describes above happens. The religious must have a quirky definition of “eternal”.

      But I think “progress” in this graphic, at least on the religion side, is meant sarcastically. As in “no, this isn’t really progress”.

      1. I should’ve written “some adherents…”

        As Jerry points out, theologians often do and believe wildly different things from your average theist.

        But you can still ask the theologian why god doesn’t simply reveal the unabridged truth to begin with. No, religion really shouldn’t need updating.

      2. The religious try to look at the issue as if the religion has been right all along … and only now are we puny humans managing to set our egos aside well enough to see what we ought to have seen right away. The image is that of God as a patient teacher who has been dealing with a self-important, swaggering student who only paid half-attention — till something clicks. And this just happened to have happened during the believer’s own era! Remarkably lucky for them, truly.

        1. Yes, in some of the more progressive, liberal flavors.

          But, to return to lanceleuven’s example, Mormons believe changes in doctrine come from god itself. Yet they are convinced that whatever the current doctrine is is the infallible, eternal truth, source of morality, yadda yadda yadda. And then another change comes along and they somehow manage to ignore or otherwise rationalize their previous certainty that the doctrine was god-given, eternal truth.

          It’s just a huge confusing mess.

  4. Jerry, your first three paragraphs are an excellent example of the nail being firmly clouted head-on, clearly and straightforwardly.

    If your forthcoming book is in this vein it’s going to be a great read.

  5. Hi Jerry, many thanks for sharing.

    Please check back again soon, my next series of blogposts will be on evolution v creationism.


    1. Good point.

      Here in Canada there has been a recent religious push back against reproductive rights for women using a faux concern for gender based abortions.

      1. Those Canadian christians are wrong, wrong, wrong. Even though the christian gods have been performing abortions on women at a remarkable rate, the women have a very long way to go before they even come close to the number of abortions seamen have undergone.

    2. Yes, but read what Jago says about it as well as musical beef’s reply in @3. The author is intentionally using the word ‘progress’ not to mean ‘improvement’ but rather just ‘movement’ or change. You’re using the term in a more normative sense.

  6. What will it be, ladies and gentlemen: the eradication of smallpox or The Creation Museum?

    My vote goes to the latter:
    The eradication of The Creation Museum.

    1. My vote goes to eradication of smallpox. Let people freely museum-ize whatever they choose.

  7. One of my favorite examples of religious “progress” are those painstaking attempts to look back at history and claim that religion and religious attitudes were directly responsible for democracy, science, human rights, and the modern ideal of peace and progress: humanism, iow.

    I mean, really — all atheism ever leads to is nihilism and violence and sitting around doing nothing because you’re going to die anyway. Humanism and all the values of the Enlightenment are theirs. Fact.

    All right, I lied. I hate that line of reasoning.

    1. You’re so right, just consider how for 1800 years the atheists oppressed the Christians, until the Christians finally gained enough influence to abolish slavery.

    2. claim that religion and religious attitudes were directly responsible for democracy,

      Personally I was amused when Sherri Shepherd took this line of reasoning to its ultimae expression – claiming Christians (no genercised ‘religion’ for her!) predated the Athenians.

      When the pretension gets that, uh, thick, I figure you have to stop being upset at it and just laugh at it instead.

  8. I would add as a progress allowing by Catholic Church eating meat other than fish during Christmas Eve around circa 2005.
    (Not seriously of course.)

  9. As repugnant as the fundamentalist religions are, they may push more to abandon religion altogether – an “either or” ultimatum that literal translations of the bible, etc. espouse often moves thinking people radically away.

  10. Yeah! Ken Ham made the list of “highlights.” That can only mean one thing: we have them on the ropes.

  11. What the graph shows is how little progress there has been in philosophy and general clear thinking among people who espouse scientism over the past 100 years.

    Science is a means of discovering facts and patterns of facts, comparable in that sense to history, mathematics, the Law, Wikipedia, gossip, and opening the window shades. These are the activities to which it should properly be compared.

    Religion is best understood as the set of “ultimate concerns” that people espouse. Ultimate concerns include views of reality that rely on different means of finding things out — including all those listed above — also existential commitment to truth of some sort, even if it’s just the purported truth that “I’ve only got one life to live, so I’m going for the gusto!”

    So in that case, what ought to be compared is not “religion” with “science,” but different religions — Christianity, Pure Land Buddhism, Secular Humanism, Marxism-Leninism, Objectivism, Hedonism, Nihilism, etc — with one another.

    And then, of course, there is the issue of cherry-picking and mockery as a substitute for genuine historical reasoning. (Click on the “History” icon below for my poor attempts here — this still is a blog, after all.)

    Nope. Can’t get much dumber and intellectually stuck-in-the-mud than this chart.

    1. What the bloody hell is this about? What does this have to do with people who espouse scientism?

      As for your claim, “Religion is best understood as the set of ‘ultimate concerns’ that people espouse,” who made you the arbiter of how religion is best understood? You can take the modern “no-god” stance, but lots of people have a “best understanding” that is different from yours. That “best understood as” thing is ludicrous.

      If you’ve been reading this site, you’ll know that plenty of theologians and other religious people (I’ve provided quotes) make claims that religion tells us what is real about the universe, and its truth claims (e.g. the resurrection of Jesus, an afterlife, the truth of the Qur’an) are absolutely essential if people are to believe. The “ultimate concerns” stuff is just Sophisticated Theological bullpuckery.

      You are cherry-picking what religion is, and trying to say that religion is something different from what most believers think it to be (remember that 70% of Americans believe in hell, and an equal proportion in angels).

      Oh, and I see you’ve already posted this comment, word for word, on your own website, described as “mapping the universe from a Christian perspective.” Please don’t do that again; it’s duplication of comments, possibly in an attempt to get traffic.

      Finally, since you’re apparently religious, the rules here say that before you can post again you have to present us with the evidence that your Christian perspective is true. Thanking you in advance for that . . . .

      Can’t get much more arrogant than someone telling us the best way to understand religion–a way that is espoused only by academics and extreme liberals.

      And really, you think humanism is a religion, as is nihlism. That’s about as dumb as it comes. I’m surprised you don’t classify atheism as a religion

    2. Posted the exact same thing at Crispian Jago’s place as well.

      David, leave a few bits free for someone else might need to copy something important, at least a few bit free for your god. Damn!

    3. what ought to be compared is not “religion” with “science,” but different religions — Christianity, Pure Land Buddhism, Secular Humanism, Marxism-Leninism, Objectivism, Hedonism, Nihilism, etc — with one another.

      Dammit, what gave it away? Was my altar to Secular Human too big? I guess I shouldn’t have put it so close to my burnished statues of Hedon and Nihil.

  12. Religious progress:

    Ooops, Jesus didn’t show this year like we predicted. The rapture will be next year.

  13. Not sure if anyone here is aware of it, but there is a huge child sex scandal brewing in evangelical Christianity right now similar to but smaller in scope than the pedophilia scandal in the Catholic church. It involves the “New Calvinist” movement and their hyper-authoritarian control of their congregations. One of the prime movers in this movement, a man by the name of C.J. Mahaney, who ran an organization for over two decades called Sovereign Grace Ministries oversaw a group of churches that have been accused of many instances of child molestation, rape and abuse of lay members. The leaders hushed up the scandal and tried to keep the conflict in house while keeping the legal authorities at bay claiming that the church should handle these types of matters and dole out discipline internally. Some of the children (as young as four) were required to meet their molesters face to face under pastoral authority and forgive the men to assaulted them. Men like Al Mohler, the president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, have stepped forward to support Mahaney while claiming that some of the accusers are just after money or are defying the god-given authority of god’s leaders.

    You can find a few links to get started on this page:

    Hardly anyone I speak to (I am a former evangelical myself) knows anything about this, but it is coming to light and will cause a seismic shift in the current evangelical world when the details become well-known.

    1. James,

      I too have heard about this scandal and it’s astonishing to see how few evangelicals even know about it. It is more astonishing to see how various big names such as Mohler are supportive of Mahaney and the Sovereign Grace organization.

      I have read the court reports of what happened and its absolutely disgraceful. There are stories of children being handed around to pedophiles like toys, cover-ups where pastors would make sure that past actions of sex-offenders were swept under the table, victims being forced into a room with offenders to “forgive” them because that is godly, and wives who were told that they did not fulfill their duties as godly women which is why their husbands became pedophiles.

      The case is disturbing. The result of the first case is equally as disturbing. Mahaney and his ministry associates are celebrating not because they proved any allegations false but because they won the case. The sad fact is they won simply because the statute of limitations had expired.

      One of the last threads that was holding me into the Christian community was the idea of morality. As I’ve researched, I have found that morality is much more a social construct than I ever thought. I figured there was an objective source and that could be found in Christianity. However, if that is the case, how can something like this scandal start (nonetheless continue in conspiracies and cover-ups)? It’s sad and I’m at the point of, “I just don’t know what to think anymore!”

      Thanks for listening to me vent.

  14. Imagine that NASA noticed a 10 km wide asteroid heading straight for Earth but didn’t have the technology to deflect it quite ready. In this scenario could religious thinking over the past 2000 years be blamed for hindering scientific progress so much that we weren’t in time to save humanity from a Hadean end ?
    A smaller asteroid could leave a few survivors trying to pick a living from a ruined planet, wishing that we had all been ready & lamenting that humans hadn’t recognized the scriptures to be primitive guesses.

    No doubt before the asteroid hit you would have religious groups saying, ” We told the end was nigh, ” eventually, but they would be unable to magically design or make technology to save us. They would be busy working themselves into a frenzy, offering up a sacrifice of prayer.- useless

    On the other hand if humans were still stuck at the 1000 BCE stage of primitive religious thinking, accepting their lot as unalterable fate or waiting for the gods to magically improve quality of life then Homo Sapiens might have had a more long term future. If no industrial revolution had happened & we had the standard of life of 2000 years ago, life expectancy 40 yrs old and population of 1 billion, humanity might have continued for another billion years ? ( barring unlucky asteroid impacts )

    Can the human race agree to a management system that uses science & technology to preserve biodiversity & improves quality of life into the far future ?

  15. In the beginning God watched as the process of evolution formed life on Earth, then on the seven hundred thousand millionth day [ he lost count, it’s understandable ] he said, ” Well it’s going to take an almighty effort to cube this sphere to make it good.
    I was looking forward to a low maintenance garden where I could chill out in my old age and just enjoy the peace and harmony but instead I can see I am going to have to micro manage all the fucking or at least the fertility of all the humans so that birth rate – death rate imbalance doesn’t lead to a population explosion, degradation of habitat and war. Besides that I’ll have to control the fertility of all the insects which would parasitize humans, pity I didn’t think to tinker with human blood to make it noxious & repellent to all harmful insects. Some more tinkering might have made humans immune to harmful bacteria and viruses too.
    Wish I’d tinkered with the spiders to make them more effective at catching mosquitoes & houseflys.
    Then the more God thought about the situation the more snags he found on Earth and because he wasn’t too good at positive thinking he got so wound up that his core temperature ignited carbon fusion, causing a run away nuclear fusion and he exploded into a supernova.
    And that is why we haven’t seen God around to this very day. RIP

  16. Re: the “devastating question”, the book ‘A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century’ gives an example from an encounter between the Duke of Gloucester and Robert Hermit, sent to convince the English to join a Crusade.

    “When, at the climax of his peroration, the Hermit warned ‘Surely, whoever is or will be against the peace shall pay dearly for it be he alive or dead,’ Gloucester pulled him up with a sharp “How do you know that?” Robert could only answer by “divine inspiration” which left the Duke unimpressed.”

  17. It would be interesting to read some Thomas Kuhn. He holds that science is the only progressive human activity, and that this is because scientists have a shared paradigm. I haven’t read him in a while so I am probably over simplifying his thinking.

  18. “Religious readers may object that the harm in all these cases is done by perversions of religion, not by religion itself. But religious wars and persecutions have been at the center of religious life throughout history. What has changed, that these now seem to some people in some parts of the world to be only perversions of true religious belief? Has there been a new supernatural revelation, or a discovery of lost sacred writings that put religious teachings in a new light? No—since the Enlightenment there has been instead a spread of rationality and humanitarianism that has in turn affected religious belief, leading to a wider spread of religious toleration. It is not that religion has improved our moral sense but that a purely secular improvement in our moral values has improved the way religion is practiced here and there.” Steven Weinberg, Facing Up, pp. 255-256 (boldface is mine)

  19. The creator of that chart places civil rights on the “religion” side of the equation, noting the participation of MLK, Jr.

    In fact, freethinkers were at the forefront of the civil rights movement, from A Philip Randolph, the “grandfather of the civil rights movement”, who conceived of the March on Washington, to Bayard Rustin, who coordinated it, and, having introduced MLK, Jr. to the nonviolent resistance teachings of Gandhi, convinced him to join what was an already assembled team of atheist, agnostic and other freethinkers. Many of the list of Chairmen of the March were freethinkers: James Farmer, head of CORE, Walter Reuther, head of the AFL-CIO, Roy Wilkins, who headed up the NAACP, Whitney Young, head of the Urban League and, of course, Randolph (who, incidentally, opened and closed the event).

    Then, of course, there was Ella Baker & Diane Nash, co-founders of SNCC, James Baldwin, Julian Bond, W.E.B.DuBois, co-founder of the NAACP, James Foreman, Langston Hughes, and on and on and on.

    In fact, CORE, SNCC, the ACLU, and many other leading civil rights organization were founded by atheists and agnostics.

    It is a myth that the civil rights movement was a movement of the Black Church; it was a coalition of atheists, agnostics, humanists, progressive Jews and Christians and Muslims and others, working together for an utterly secular cause.

    MLK, Jr., himself credits “humanists” in the preface to one of his books, as allies without whom the movement never would have succeeded.

    We should know better, and teach better.

    1. Right on, dude. Susan Jacoby’s book “Freethinkers” has a lot of historical detail relating to the role of non-believers in the struggle for civil rights.

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