A bogus reconciliation of science and religion from Nautilus

December 10, 2018 • 1:01 pm

Nautilus Magazine is an online site that bills itself as “a different kind of science magazine.” And indeed it is—for it’s partly supported by the John Templeton Foundation (JTF). The Foundation is largely dedicated to showing that religion and science are compatible,—even in harmony—for Sir John left his dosh to the JTF to fund projects showing how science would reveal the divine. Thus the magazine publishes accommodationist articles, like this one from last July, and now we have a new one by Brian Gallagher, editor of the Nautilus blog Facts So Romantic and a “Sinai and Synapses” (oy!) fellow.

Here he purports to find a reconciliation of science and religion, but provides nothing of the sort. Have a read: it’s short (click on screenshot):


As we see so often, quotes are taken from Einstein and even Stephen Hawking to show that they had some simulacrum of religion, although Gallagher at least admits that Einstein’s views on religion weren’t that clear. Gallagher first quotes Elon Musk, who reportedly said, “I believe there’s some explanation for this universe, which you might call God,” and then trots out Albert and Stephen:

Einstein did call it God. The German-Jewish physicist is famous for many things—his special and general theories of relativity, his burst of gray-white hair—including his esoteric remark, often intoned in discussions of the strange, probabilistic nature of quantum mechanics, that “God does not play dice.” A final or ultimate equation, describing the laws of nature and the origin of the cosmos, Einstein believed, could not involve chance intrinsically. Insofar as it did—it being the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics—it would be incomplete. (The consensus now among physicists is that he was wrong; God is indeterminate. “All evidence points to him being an inveterate gambler,” Stephen Hawking once said, “who throws the dice on every possible occasion.”)

That, of course, implies that Hawking believed in God.

But Einstein was at best a pantheist who was in awe of the laws of nature, but never accepted the kind of theistic God that everyone wanted him to. And as for Hawking, well, reader Dave, who brought this piece to my attention, told me this:

Hawking wrote in his latest and last book:

If you like, you can call the laws of science “God”, but it wouldn’t be a personal God that you would meet and put questions to. … We are each free to believe what we want, and it’s my view that the simplest explanation is that there is no God. No one created the universe and no one directs our fate.
(Hawking, Brief Answers to the Big Questions, pp. 36-8)

The warped selectivity by Nautilus never fails to impress.

Indeed, Hawking was an out-and-out atheist.  But Gallagher argues that Hawking and Einstein demonstrate that there’s no conflict between science and religion. How? Read on:

Benedict Spinoza, the 17th century Jewish-Dutch philosopher, was also in his day confused for an atheist for writing things like this, from his treatise Ethics: “All things, I say, are in God, and everything which takes place takes place by the laws alone of the infinite nature of God, and follows (as I shall presently show) from the necessity of His essence.”

In 1929, Einstein received a telegram inquiring about his belief in God from a New York rabbi named Herbert S. Goldstein, who had heard a Boston cardinal say that the physicist’s theory of relativity implies “the ghastly apparition of atheism.” Einstein settled Goldstein down. “I believe in Spinoza’s God, who reveals himself in the lawful harmony of the world,” he told him, “not in a God who concerns himself with the fate and the doings of mankind.”

What that amounted to for Einstein, according to a 2006 paper, was a “cosmic religious feeling” that required no “anthropomorphic conception of God.” He explained this view in the New York Times Magazine: “The religious geniuses of all ages have been distinguished by this kind of religious feeling, which knows no dogma and no God conceived in man’s image; so that there can be no church whose central teachings are based on it. Hence it is precisely among the heretics of every age that we find men who were filled with this highest kind of religious feeling and were in many cases regarded by their contemporaries as atheists, sometimes also as saints. Looked at in this light, men like Democritus, Francis of Assisi, and Spinoza are closely akin to one another.”

So, as Einstein would have it, there is no necessary conflict between science and religion—or between science and “religious feelings.”

I don’t know whether to laugh or cry when I see this kind of dissimulation. Spinoza may have been a real pantheist, seeing some kind of ubiquitous divinity in the universe, but that’s beyond my pay grade. Einstein, however, is another matter. He rejected the idea of a theistic God: the one that Americans believe in, who interacts with the world and has a personal relationship with His flock. What Einstein means by “religious feeling” is simply “awe before the universe”, or that deeply ambiguous word “spirituality.”

When Gallagher, then, says that this shows there is no necessary conflict between science and religion, what he’s really saying is “there is no necessary conflict between science on one hand and awe at the wonder of the universe on the other.”

“Religious feelings” in Einstein are very different from the “religious feelings” of those 70% of Americans who believe in God. To say that Einstein—and Gallagher—have effected some kind of accommodation between science and religion is simply a lie based on a deliberate conflation between conventional religion and “awe and wonder.”

Another Nautilus fail, but one that keeps those Templeton bucks flowing.

54 thoughts on “A bogus reconciliation of science and religion from Nautilus

  1. Hence it is precisely among the heretics of every age that we find men who were filled with this highest kind of religious feeling and were in many cases regarded by their contemporaries as atheists, sometimes also as saints. Looked at in this light, men like Democritus, Francis of Assisi, and Spinoza are closely akin to one another.”

    Nice try sausage.

  2. Also, it’s irrelevant what even Einstein or Hawking personally felt.

    The Faithful—that authoritarians lot—have to understand first that formulas and theories in science aren’t revealed wisdom we believe because someone with a lab coat told us to. They are widely accepted because they turned out to be good approximations of truth that help us understand how things work.

  3. Spinoza, the 17th century Jewish-Dutch philosopher, was also in his day confused for an atheist …

    Or maybe he actually was an atheist? He was certainly excommunicated by the Jewish community for atheism.

    As for Einstein’s “God of Spinoza” comment, it was deliberately tactful. Einstein didn’t want to alienate American Christians at a time when Jews in Europe were under such threat. To Einstein, the “God of Spinoza” was simply nature, but it sounded enough like “God” to mollify the Christians.

    1. Dear Rashid,
      Your blog looks very interesting. It is great that you have reposted Jerry’s original post. I’m sure that many readers here would love to hear the reactions that you get.
      Cheers and good luck,

  4. Whether Einstein believed in god is completely irrelevant to the broader, semantic and existential questions regarding god.

    I think Brian Gallagher’s interest goes beyond showing that Einstein reconciled religion with science. I think he intends this to to strengthen the general argument that science and religion are compatible.

    If Brian Gallagher wants to show that science and religion are compatible, he should be addressing statements that religions make about the natural world — the inconsistencies are clear.

    People like Brian Gallagher avoid the big question; they are not interested in it.

    1. It’s the usual obfuscation of fact and feeling. Because theists put so much personal weight on God’s existence they’re eager to co-opt virtually any deep emotional experience or value and call it “God.”

  5. Gallagher’s envoi — that “there is no necessary conflict between science and religion—or between science and ‘religious feelings’” — does not follow from the body of his brief essay.

    Sure, there is no conflict between science and religion if that “religion” does away with the concept of god altogether, or defines “god” so abstractly as to denude it of all content. But then, the gnomic phrase “life is a fountain” is true for some definitions of “fountain” — and about as meaningful.

  6. Einstein grew up in Germany, and his mother tongue was German. What people do not realise is that Germans use (or used) the term “Gott” in a much wider sense, and more frequently than English or French speaking people do. With “der liebe Gott” (the lovable God) they mean destiny or things they don’t control themselves, such as the forces of nature. So the expression, “God doesn’t play dice” does not mean anything else than what English-speaking people might say, “Mother nature doesn’t play dice.”

    1. Speak of which, Thomas Altizer (sp?) the God is Dead theologian just died this past week, IIRC. Back in the old days, it came to pass that some magazine (Reason?) had a newspaper type notice: God Is Dead in Georgia, Eminent Deity Succumbs. I had that page lying around at the bottom of my inbox when working, to startle the secretaries who plopped something down for me to do. Of course, they rarely saw it since the inbox was almost always full.

  7. I suspect that trying to explain the divine to some atheists is a bit like trying to explain color to a person who has rods and no cones. Color is truly not a part of their universe, and it requires them to make a blind leap of faith to believe that color or anything like it actually exists for other people. And they would be quite correct to point out that the colors people think they see exist only in their minds.

    1. Try explaining “the divine” to this atheist John – a definition would be a jolly good start! I’m interested to see if you can do a better job than the dictionaries, the theologians & [some] philosophers.

      I dare you.

    2. The different wavelengths of light are scientifically detectable, even for the colorblind. The “divine,” no so much.

      The undetectable and the non-existent are asymptotically equivalent.

      1. Exactly Ken, octopuses have only one photo-pigment, but have good colour vision by using chromatic aberration.

      2. “Color,” as it is seen by people, is a figment or feature of human consciousness, not a wavelength of light.

        Obviously, a fully colorblind person could create experiments to prove that people with color vision can detect differences in light of different wavelengths. But this is not the same thing as knowing what it is like to see in color.

        Oceans of ink have been spilled on the distinction between seeing color and the physical predicates of color vision, too much to recapitulate here (you can start by googling “qualia,” if you want to know more).

        1. “…and it requires them to make a blind leap of faith to believe that color or anything like it actually exists for other people.”

          Now you’re moving your goalposts.

          1. I’m not moving any goalposts. I’m clarifying that the meaning of “color” used in my analogy is what most people refer to as color, namely, what appears in their minds (such as the sensation of redness), not wavelengths of light.

            1. You called something that can be measured scientifically “a blind leap of faith.” Those are incompatible. Now you’re arguing semantics. Classic proselytizer’s Fail.

              1. I have to go with JAH43 on this one. If one can’t see in color, it is hard for them to imagine what having color vision is like. Assuming you have color vision, just imagine trying to explain what it looks like to someone who doesn’t. Telling them the light frequency doesn’t help at all. After all, I sense red but I have no way of knowing for sure that your experience of red is like mine.

              2. There is a way, although it does not reflect completely color vision. You present the colorblind person two filters, one that passes red light, and one that passes green light. Then you present the person an apple that is red on one half and green on the other half. If you tell her that she is looking through the red pass filter, she will be able to tell which half of the apple is red, and vice versa.

              3. We single out sight because it’s so important to us. There are a lot of things we can’t literally see but still can measure and thus accept on the basis of data. I wouldn’t call accepting the existence of color even if we couldn’t see colors any different than accepting much of astrophysics.

                That the average person can’t see the world like a tetrachromat or UV like a bee, or hear frequencies (or sense odors) that a dog can doesn’t require a “leap of faith.” Other than “faith” in the sense of having confidence in our measurements, etc.

                Otherwise there would be myriads of things we experience each day that would require “a leap of faith” to accept.

              4. It’s the experience of seeing red, not the existence of red as a color that requires a leap of faith for a colorblind person. Both color-sighted and colorblind people believe red exists and may know a lot about it but only the former knows what it looks like.

              5. Well, I believe dark matter exists (last I heard anyway) but I haven’t seen any lately.

                Don’t forget that JAH43 is using “faith” in a different sense than you are. This is one of those things when the minor definition is trivial (faith = confidence) and true, while another def would be huge (belief in some supernatural being) but infinitesimally unlikely. (Dennet’s “deepity.”)

              6. My take on what JAH43 is saying is that it is difficult for Person A to understand what Person B believes if Person A is incapable of experiencing what Person B experiences. I am not sure the definition of faith really comes into it.

              7. OK, then, I guess we see things differently. Perhaps I’ve seen too many proselytizers trying to wedge their way into WEIT over the years…One does get cynical. Good discussion.

    3. “Color is truly not a part of their universe, and it requires them to make a blind leap of faith to believe that color or anything like it actually exists for other people.”

      No, that can’t be right. It’s easy to imagine how colorblind Adam could test Bob’s claim that there exists a property (color) apparent to Bob but seemingly not to Adam. No leap of faith required at all. Adam might well have a lot of trouble imagining what it would be like to see like Bob, but he could easily convince himself that Bob has powers of visual discrimination that he (Adam) lacks.

      The problem with carrying this over to “the divine” is that either “the divine” is so vaguely conceived that a test cannot even be defined, or conceived in such a manner as to be imperceptible in principle so that a test cannot be performed, or defined so as to be verifiable in principle, and tested, and soon refuted. Most of us atheists don’t find any of these kinds of divinity worthy of much consideration, let alone worship.

    4. 99.9 % of the human colour blind are dichromats to a greater or smaller degree. They can and do see colours, just differently from trichromats. Note, I can quite imagine what say a tetrachromat would see. However, a ‘dekatrichromat’, such as mantis shrimps is asking a bit much.

    5. Somebody who can only see in black and white can still measure the wavelength of light and can still do experiments to show that there are different types of cell in a normal human retina that respond differently depending on the wavelength of the photons that impinge on them. They may not be able to experience colour, but they can observe it in other ways.

      Now, tell us how to observe this “divine” that you claim exists.

    6. The easiest way to dismiss atheism is to diss atheists. They don’t believe in God because they’re narrow, damaged, small, and/or emotionally bankrupt.

      This insult has two merits: it avoids the issue and flatters the believer. By putting the people on the other side down, they simultaneously raise themselves up. THEY, in contrast, are perforce broad, mature, open, and capable of feeling and experiencing everything so, so deeply. One side (my side) can see color; one side (your side) cannot. Or, perhaps, we can drag out another popular comparison — atheists live in a one-dimensional flatland.

      And so you come here and peddle that to atheists. An Argument from Analogy based on the old “I’m just better than you, you wouldn’t understand.”

      Well — aren’t you special.

      Consider this: maybe theists and atheists are both living lives in color. Or, less likely but possible, it’s the atheists who see depth and color — and you do not. Consider this seriously. Because if you don’t, you’re guilty of prejudice, insult, lack of nuance, lack of compassion, and black-and-white thinking.

      Which tips the scale against your analogy.

      1. “Well — aren’t you special,” you say.

        I am very sorry that you feel belittled. I am sorry too that you feel the need to belittle me.

        Did you notice I said “the colors people think they see exist only in their minds.” Think about what that means in the context of my analogy.

        1. In the context of your analogy, your statement would suggest that “God” is a subjective feeling or way of interpreting the world. Presumably a deep and wondrous way of interpretation which colors and enriches one’s life, or it wouldn’t be called “God.” And, in the context of your analogy, atheists are incapable of (or refuse to use) this connection and their understanding, if not their lives, are impoverished.

          Two questions then:
          1.) How would you know? Human emotions run deep, and we are all human, all curious, all creators of meaning and delight. What makes you think one interpretation of reality is “color” but another interpretation is “color blind?” Atheists who once believed in God don’t report losing their ability to see or feel when they change their minds — nor is there less beauty or purpose in the world.

          2.) Do you really think your analogy isn’t belittling? Come on.

  8. I’m a bit fonder of describing Einstein’s non-belief as being non-belief in an anthropomorphic or personal God.

    I don’t quite get what is meant by not believing in a theistic God; Theos means God in Greek.

    1. I’ve always thought of “theistic God” as the traditional one that religionists believe in i.e. a separate entity to the Universe that created the said Universe. Einstein’s god is really another word for “Universe” or perhaps “laws of physics”.

  9. Just as Andrew Sullivan’s article expands the concept of “religion”, this guy wants to expand “God” to include anyone who used the word as a member of the faithful.

    Perhaps Einstein would have lived longer if everyone hadn’t kept asking him about God.

    1. I’m going to express your idea a little differently. A word represents a concept with that concept possessing a unique definition. The same word can represent multiple different concepts each with its own definition. When two concepts represented by the same word but sufficiently different in meaning are used interchangeably then one could be accused of at the very least of muddying the water if not at the other extreme of deliberately being engaged in the fallacy of equivocation.

  10. For many people the “religious feelings” (if that’s what they are) of awe and wonder are accompanied by a corollary feeling–namely, gratitude. I suspect it’s this latter feeling that prompts such people to conflate Nature with a personal God, since gratitude is a more personal emotion than wonder and awe and almost by definition requires a being to be grateful to.

    1. Yes. “Appreciation” is very similar and more appropriate — “I appreciate my return to health after being sick so long” — but human beings are wired to think in social terms. It feels as if someone or something did you a favor. You can approach this whimsically (“Thank you, Bronchitis, for leaving “) or not (“Thank you, Universe, for taking away the bronchitis.”)

      We are all the main characters in the drama of our life. It’s too tempting then to see everything as a prop, and events as a script, written by a larger author than ourselves.

  11. Ironically it was precisely Einstein’s discovery of general relativity that lets modern cosmologist model the universe as a system – as solely mechanistic one.

  12. Looks like “God” and “science” can be reconciled if both are diluted sufficiently(both on content and their fundamentally disparate methods and standards of evidence), along with the actual views of the alleged reconcilers (Einstein and Hawking, really?), until what ghostly shades remain seem to be bridgeable, provided the roseate glasses are worn.

  13. Where has the famous “It was a lie” statement gone?
    “It was, of course, a lie what you read about my religious convictions, a lie which is being systematically repeated. I do not believe in a personal God and I have never denied this but have expressed it clearly. If something is in me which can be called religious then it is the unbounded admiration for the structure of the world so far as our sciene can reveal it”
    And then, even if he had been a believer, he was not infallible.

    It is a bit like these deathbed conversions, probably not true, but if true probably due to severe brain damage. They mean nothing.

  14. Those who take solace in the statement that Einstein believed in “Spinoza’s God” have likely never read Spinoza. The God of Spinoza has no personality or will. It is simply another expression for nature.

  15. Articles like this one, when viewed from our perspective, are making an argument not just for the reconciliation between science and religion, but for the existence of God. And I can discern several popular favorites.

    Smart people believe in God; believing in God is like feeling wonder; there are a lot of versions of God out there, you can find something like you already believe.

    The cumulative effect is not so much that God exists as that it’s okay to believe God exists. Not just okay, but good. Satisfying and easy. We’re *allowed* to believe. So atheists need to shut up.

    A lot of the more sophisticated apologetics seem to end with that conclusion.

  16. Spinoza explicitly and deliberately argues to the conclusion that god and nature are the same entity.

    This is heretical in most of the world’s religions.

    Moreover, he draws correct conclusions, like god cannot love you, explicitly answer your prayers, etc.

    (And also a few wrong ones, but …)

    He also, interestingly, says that god is infinitely unknowable by us because it has an infinite number of other infinite attributes besides thought and extension.

  17. And it is glaringly obvious from the below Einstein quotes that Einstein’s “religion” is exactly the same as today’s Christianity (at least for sufficiently uninformed believers).

    There goes the afterlife:
    “I cannot conceive of a God who rewards and punishes his creatures, or has a will of the type of which we are conscious in ourselves. An individual who should survive his physical death is also beyond my comprehension, nor do I wish it otherwise; such notions are for the fears or absurd egoism of feeble souls.”

    There goes divine morals:
    “I do not believe in immortality of the individual, and I consider ethics to be an exclusively human concern with no superhuman authority behind it.”

    Gawd whats you to beg:
    “If this being is omnipotent, then every occurrence, including every human action, every human thought, and every human feeling and aspiration is also His work; how is it possible to think of holding men responsible for their deeds and thoughts before such an almighty Being? In giving out punishment and rewards He would to a certain extent be passing judgment on Himself. How can this be combined with the goodness and righteousness ascribed to Him?”

    To essentially quote Douglas Adams, gawd promptly vanishes in a puff of logic:
    “I do not believe in a personal God and I have never denied this but have expressed it clearly. If something is in me which can be called religious then it is the unbounded admiration for the structure of the world so far as our science can reveal it.”

    It was not accidental that religious apologetics was expelled from science some 4 centuries ago, but religionists still haven’t been able to accept that. And it is the only reason why the John Templeton Foundation even exists.

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