Has science made religion useless?

July 17, 2020 • 1:30 pm

The Big Think seems obsessed with the relationship between science and religion.  I can’t think of how many posts I’ve done about their interviewees discussing this issue. The 14-minute video below features a number of prominent people weighing in on the question, “Has science made religion useless?” That’s a question different from, “Is there a clash between science and religion?” Religion can still be falsified by science, as it has been, and still be “useful,” though I agree with Sam Harris that finding something useful that’s palpably false is not a good way to live.

The discussants include Frans van de Waal, Reza Aslan, Francis Collins, Robert Sapolsky, Alain de Botton, Penn Jillette, Bill Nye, Rob Bell, and Pete Holmes (I didn’t know Holmes, but guessed he was a believer from his remarks below. It turns out he’s a comedian who not only makes jokes about god and religion, but also believes in some kind of deity. I didn’t know of Rob Bell, either, but he’s an author, a former pastor, and certainly a believer.

Actually, nearly all the respondents say that yes, despite science, religion is still useful. A couple of folks, including Sapolsky and Aslan (one an atheist, the other a mushy believer), float theories about why religion could have been evolutionarily or culturally adaptive.  Culturally, yes, in the tautological sense that religion fulfilled or fulfills some social need.  But something has made religion more useless than before, for, at least in the West, belief in gods is waning rapidly. And, truth be told, we have no idea why religion arose in the first place. We know only how it’s perpetuated. As for Aslan’s claim that there are genes for religion that have evolved by natural selection, well, we have no evidence for that. He’s just making stuff up, as he does so often.

You can find the complete transcript of this discussion here.

By the way, if you want the source of Nye’s claim that a good value for π is given in the Bible, go here.

Some selected quotes (indented) and my brief take (flush left).

ASLAN: Religious thinking is embedded in our cognitive processes. It is a mode of knowing. We’re born with it. It’s part of our DNA. The question then becomes why. There must be some evolutionary reason for it. There must be a reason, some adaptive advantage to having religious experience or faith experience. Otherwise it wouldn’t exist.

This is arrant nonsense. Religion could have hijacked other evolved tendencies of humans, such as the tendency to believe our elders or to attribute agency to natural happenings. There need be no explanation of “why believers had genes that left more copies than those in nonbelievers.”

DE WAAL: Our current religions are just 2,000 or 3,000 years old which is very young and our species is much older. And I cannot imagine that, for example, 100,000 years or 200,000 years our ancestors did not have some type of morality. Of course the had rules about how you should behave, what is fair, what is unfair, caring for others. All of these tendencies were in place already so they had a moral system. And then at some point we developed these present day religions which I think were sort of tacked onto the morality that we had. In societies with 1,000 or several thousand or millions of people we cannot all keep an eye on each other and that’s maybe why we installed religions in these large scale societies where a god kept watch over everybody and maybe they served to codify them or to enforce them or to steer morality in a particular direction that we prefer. And so instead of saying morality comes from god or religion gave us morality, for me that’s a big no-no.

De Waal is reasonable here, but again, we do not know that religions got off the ground by hitchhiking on morality that already existed, though of course that’s what they do today. But he’s absolutely right in making the Euthyphro argument.

PETE HOLMES: It’s not about literal facts or the unfolding of what happened in the life of Jesus of Nazareth. It’s a story because sometimes you need an explanation and sometimes you need a story. And a story is going to transform you and symbols are going to transform you. You see this in our culture. Batman is a symbol. Go out on the street and look at how many men, especially are wearing Batman shirts. It’s a symbol. It’s something that speaks to our psyche about the pain of a boy who lost his parents using his wound to become super and try and change his reality. That’s a symbol. That’s a Christ story. That’s a hero story and we need those because it’s not about at the end of the day winning a televised debate or finding DNA on the Shroud of Turin or proving his burial was here. I’ve been to Israel. I studied in Jerusalem. They’re like he was crucified here and then they’re like well, he was crucified here. Guess what? We didn’t start writing that down until 150 years later because nobody gave a shit. It wasn’t about that. It was about your inner transformation. You. Yours. I don’t care how you get there. It can be photos from the Hubble telescope. It can be Buddhism, atheism, agnosticism, Catholicism. It doesn’t matter. Who fucking cares. Whatever gets you there because we’re talking about something. An energy that you can feel and be quiet to and respect, but most importantly you can flow with and dance with and feel and listen to and attune to.

Here Holmes expresses the idea that it doesn’t matter whether Biblical stories are true, but they are of value because they bring us solace in time of need. All well and good, but does Holmes think that the stories need to be true to be efficacious? Apparently not, but this ignores the fact that the majority of religious people really do adhere to factual claims that are either false or untestable. (For Christians, it’s that Jesus existed, was the son of God, and was crucified to expiate our sins. If you don’t believe that, how can you adhere to Christianity?) My own take is that if believers really knew that the foundational truth claims of their faiths were wrong, they’d give up those faiths.

BELL: This idea somehow that faith and science are in opposition I’ve always found to be complete insanity. Both are searching for the truth. Both have a sense of wonder and an expectation and exploration. They’re each simply naming different aspects of the human experience. One thrives in naming exteriors – height, weight, gravitational pull, electromagnetic force. The other is about naming interiors – compassion, kindness, suffering, loss, heartache. They’re both simply different ways of exploring different dimensions of the human experience.

. . . Everything is driven by the desire to know the truth. There’s an exploration. There’s a wide-eyed sense of wonder. If you talk to the best scientists they have this sort of gleam in their eye like ‘This is what we’re learning. And we don’t know what’s actually around the corner.’ And if you talk to the best theologians and poets and scholars they—ideally—have the same gleam in their eye which is ‘Look what we’re learning. Look what we’re exploring.’ And so to me they’re not enemies. They’re long lost dance partners.

No, religion and science are not naming different “aspects of the human experience”—unless you conceive of the cosmos as an “experience”. One field makes up stuff to make people feel better, and makes claims about reality that are either falsified, untestable, or unlikely. The other, science, helps us understand how the Universe works.  Just because scientists and believers share a “sense of wonder” does not mean that seeing their conflict is a form of “complete insanity.” And as for “the desire to know the truth”, well, science has ways to figure out if it’s homing in on the truth. Religion does not. Each faith has its own distinct “truth” (they often conflict), and our understanding of the nature of gods or divinity, assuming that they exist, has not changed in millennia. Christianity, for instance, is not an iota closer to the truth than it was 1900 years ago.

COLLINS: Part of the problem is I think the extremists have occupied the stage. Those voices are the ones we hear. I think most people are actually kind of comfortable with the idea that science is a reliable way to learn about nature, but it’s not the whole story and there’s a place also for religion, for faith, for theology, for philosophy. But that harmony perspective doesn’t get as much attention. Nobody is as interested in harmony as they are in conflict I’m afraid.

You can always make up ways that religion and science are in harmony. You can assert that there are religious scientists (like Collins himself). You can say that most liberal faiths accept science (generally true, though Catholicism, which claims to accept evolution, is at odds with it in several important ways, like the position of Adam and Eve.) But in terms of knowing what is true about the Universe, there is no harmony. Theology and religion are useless in that endeavor (even when trying to know about whether God exists and what He/She/It is like). Science is the only game in town when your aim is to find out what’s true about the universe.

h/t: Rick

58 thoughts on “Has science made religion useless?

  1. Similar to what you said, I think that the difference between religion and science is that science is rooted in the scientific method, grounded in skepticism and repeated observation, while religion manufactures truth through social pressures and social currency. A fascinating debate that interests me are the differences between a religion, a cult, and a philosophy. Personally, I think all religions are just a label away from being a cult: that’s why I don’t identify with any. Considering how the progressive left has begun to literally dismiss science in the name of anti-racism, it seems like the new religion of the Woke Left is on the rise.

    1. Good point – woke being like religion. They share having a priori assumptions, they appeal to emotion, and mistrust reason.

    2. Can’t wait for John McWhorter’s upcoming book entitled “Anti-Racism As A Religion.”

  2. Once again the debate is marred by modern views being accepted as the basis for discussion.

    You could make a reasonable argument that belief in folk spirits was a natural way for people to explain hidden causes. Religion is something more… it’s folk spirits commercialised and organised providing jobs for the priests and reassurances for people.

    So ask if science is compatible with folk spirits (spoiler: no) before you ask if science is compatible with the later commercial exploitation (spoiler: even more no).

    1. Wasn’t it Seneca the younger who said that religion is truth to the masses, false to the educated, and useful to the rulers.

      1. Or, as Gibbon similarly put it: ‘The various modes of worship, which prevailed in the Roman world, were all considered by the people, as equally true; by the philosopher, as equally false; and by the magistrate, as equally useful.

  3. Religions were, and are, political tools. Why did Constantine institute Christianity in Roman empire? Why did Mohamed create Islam? Why are Catholicism in Poland and Hungary flourishing, idem for the Orthodox Church in Bulgaria and Russia. Religions are tools to control society. Even Trump knows this. The naivite of so-called scholars and some intellectials is really astonishing.

    1. Religion has always been useless.

      That was my first thought, but then I remembered that lots of people find Buddhism useful. I know that lots of WEIT readers seem to discount it because it doesn’t seem particularly tied to belief in gods, but I take that instead as a sign that a definition of religion in terms of belief in gods is broken.

      1. You gotta have some way to refer to the ideas that involve deities and other non-drinkable spirits.

    1. Well, there’s a correlation between bad outcomes from Covid-19 infection and obesity, so maybe she’s (accidentally) onto something with the fasting…

  4. COLLINS: “…but it’s not the whole story and there’s a place also for religion, for faith, for theology, for philosophy.”

    Spot the odd one out. Yes of course here’s always a place for philosophy, but naughty of Collins to try to sneak the other three in under its flag.

    1. FWIW I lump all of those in the “useless” bin, if there is no empiric basis they are equally much fantasies.

  5. After living through the last four years of con-man for president I don’t know why people still search for the reason we have religion. Religious genes or not, people are suckers for just about anything and they prove it everyday. Evidence for existence only seems to apply in science, otherwise it is tossed out the window with the other trash. Full time lying is a respectable career in this world and religion is always looking for your money.

  6. What is always missing from these “science vs religion” discussions is a an adequate definition of “religion.” Inevitably the people who want to make religion compatible with or complimentary to science simply define religion in a way that does just that. The result is hopeless ambiguity.

    As I have said before, any “religion” that is compatible with science is indistinguishable from a secular philosophy and so calling it a “religion” is just annoying and anti-helpful.

  7. Important to realise that religion only has meaning for a few, even though many people are dragged along with it, but are largely indifferent to it.
    My take is that civilisation and the success of humankind is owed to the felicitous development of an important minority in any society anywhere that maintain a social conscience, and work for the good of the Group, even though it would be practical for them to grab what they can. That important minority share a sense of a hierachy of authority, which is a very middle class (white collar) sensibility. That minority is to be found in the clerical-admin-educational spectrum. Therefore evolution has given society a powerful subset who are able to… for example…stretch out food for all during times of shortage. It has always been a puzzle why the monority who run our societies, as medics, judges, teachers, social-workers, and administrators are prepared to lay down their lives for little reward. This is where religion serves a purpose by justifying that all-important hierarchy of authority. Because the idea of a hierarchy of authority is pure fiction, the invention of gods completes the fictional picture. As for that civilising minority, their sensitivity to their ‘hierachy of authority’ has evolved a notional head authority-figure, and so the gods were brought into being. It is strange that fictional gods were a necessary invention in developing a civilisation out of uncontrolled mob of greedy people, who would all have perished if it wasn’t for those do-gooders who developed schools, hospitals, the law, and the ideas of fairness and justice. Religion has proved a useful fiction, but now has become a dangerous encumberance upon civilisation.

  8. “My own take is that if believers really knew that the foundational truth claims of their faiths were wrong, they’d give up those faiths.”

    That’s why so many go to such lengths to avoid knowing that the claims are false. “Mental gymnastics” is a very apt term. As a recovered Mormon, knowing the grief I went through and the years it took, I have some sympathy. The human brain didn’t apparently evolve to seek truth for its own sake.

    1. I am very happy for your loss, religion that is. But do not think everyone on the planet gets hit with the religious germ or gene. Mostly it all comes down to parents. You were likely Mormon because your parents were. Same goes for kids of all other parents. I was lucky and did not have particularly religious parents. That is the real difference and why I have been an atheist since the beginning. It does happen so I need none of your sympathy.

      1. Mostly. But people change. In 1826 there were no Mormons at all. By 1870 there were something like 120,000, most of them converts from some other religion. My mother died a… (I’m not sure if this is right label or not) a kind of American Hindu believer, having previously spent time as a Christian Scientist. Before that she was Lutheran, which was her parent’s faith. My dad’s father was a freethinker but he married a Catholic woman, so my dad was Catholic. I got baptized Catholic and raised Lutheran, and just shrugged it off when I became a teen realized it was all woo.

        We still don’t know enough about religion to say if there are heritable roots to it. It seems to me almost certain that there are. But it is also clear that people have the ability to put two and two together when given a chance to escape their parents’ worldviews.

        1. The only way I see it inheritable is if brain washing is inherited. You can always find the odd reasons why some did whatever but a clear majority are born into the religion because of the parents. My mother has some connection to Presbyterian but she did not push it. I recalled being forced to go at about 5 years old for a few weeks and then I said, enough. My one year old older sister took the bait and has tried several religions. The two younger kids also said no and did not become religious. If both parents are into religion you are pretty much screwed at least until you reach the age of reason. Religious parents send their kids to religious schools if they can afford it. Those kids are pretty much lifers.

          1. You need to distinguish particular religions from a more vague religiosity. The former is obviously not going to be influenced much, if at all, by biology. The latter, however, seems to me very much the kind of thing that arises from biologically grounded behavior of brains. This same way the ability to reason has to be grounded in the way brains work. That working is always a mix of biology and environment.

            1. Yes, but it is still not clear that inherited vague religiosity confers an advantage to its hosts. It could be just pareidolia on steroids. Our species has a strong pattern recognition ability and a huge desire to explain things, both of which give us obvious advantage in our fight for survival. Religiosity, the combination of those two abilities, might just come along for free.

              1. It doesn’t have to convey selective advantage to be heritable. It might be a side affect of something else that does. It is still heritable (to some unclear degree).

              2. That’s what I was trying to suggest: Religiosity as a side-effect of two other presumably heritable behaviors or capabilities, (1) strong pattern matching and (2) the ability and motivation to explain things. Both of these give clear advantage but the side effect could be neutral or a disadvantage. Right now, our host and many of his readers consider religiosity a disadvantage, though it might not have always been.

              3. Well I certainly consider it disadvantageous! It is, IMO, worse than the incredibly stupid design of the prostate gland.

        2. Dang, Greg, with all that complex family history, for a second there I thought you were sampling Ray Stevens: 🙂

            1. Dan Hicks and His Hot Licks (and the Lickettes) were fantastic. I saw them open for Linda Ronstadt on the USC campus around 1974. I had never heard of them. He was a very funny guy besides being a fantastic musician. I always remember when he announced a song with, “This song is about … five minutes long.” It’s a stupid joke but he delivered it so well it brought the house down, at least that’s how I remember it.

              1. I discovered them from The Sopranos. There’s an episode where AJ collapses while playing football and this delicious Dan Hicks song comes on(‘Where’s The Money?’ I think it was).

                That show had the best soundtrack of anything I’ve ever seen. I discovered so many little musical nuggets over its run.

  9. I think Pete Holmes comes quote close to explaining the appeal of modern liberal Christianity, and religion in general. He’s almost admitting that it’s a load of nonsense – not quite, but he comes close.
    Instead of trying to defend its truth value he’s saying that it serves as a way to arrange the chaos of our lives and the randomness of the natural world into something approaching a meaningful narrative.

    Everyone does this. I’m a materialist, I think the universe is completely meaningless. Morality, love, beauty: all these things are evolutionary epiphenomena. Free will is an illusion. That kind of stuff. The kind of thing that gets you uninvited from christenings.

    But I still lie to myself, and I still tell stories about myself and about the life I lead. I still tell myself that there’s a kind of stoic, upright dignity to these (non-)beliefs. I find myself imagining that there’s something quietly admirable about us atheists, a part of me thinks of rationalist atheism the same way Newton did, with this deathlessly beautiful quote:

    “I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the seashore…diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.

    I think even the most existentially honest materialist – the kind of person who knows there is no narrative order to life and the universe – likes to think of themselves in such a way. It’s a lovely quote. But the truth is this image of the truth-seeking atheist is another story we tell ourselves. It’s much more honest than the religious variant but it’s still a story.

    I’m not saying that Holmes is being completely honest himself here. But I think he gets closest to describing the messy, lazy truth of modern Christian belief. They like it because it’s a nice story, and they can place themselves inside it just by saying they believe in Jesus.

      1. Blessing really. Although I could do some damage if I went I suppose, which would be fun.

  10. “COLLINS : Part of the problem is I think the extremists have occupied the stage. Those voices are the ones we hear.”

    Oh, indeed, Mr. Collins, indeed. Not you though. Oh, no – not you.


  11. De Waal is onto something there. I think it was Murdock (or was it Alexander?) who showed that ‘moralisticity’ of beliefs increases with the increase of the size of societies.
    Religion as we know it, with all it’s moralisticity appears far from what our ancestors, living in small bands believed. In larger societies you need something to keep not closely related males from killing each other over, well, in the end, access to women. Hence rules about sexuality, property, inheritance, etc.
    I also think that a few in that video come close to Dennet’s ‘belief in belief’. Which comes close to the ‘little people’ argument. I do not (see paragraph above) completely dismiss that argument. Not as an ‘ought’ though, but as an ‘is’.
    Yet, they (our primitive ancestors) had to find explanations for phenomena they did not understand, hence angry gods throwing lightning and the like. I think that seeking explanations for things we do not understand/know is somehow innate, but I doubt that necessarily implies the supernatural, let alone religion
    I do not adhere to the NOMA (non-overlapping magisteria) that Collins appears to promote, anymore. Our host cured me of any tendency in that direction.
    I think Gilette is definitely too optimistic.

  12. No genetic evidence? I thought that Dean Hamer’s *The*God*Gene* showed fairly strong evidence that VMAT2 is a gene that leads to a tendency toward “spirituality” (whatever that may be). Do religionists use the traits that gene fosters to manipulate adults and force children into compliance with religious teaching, leading them to bypass rationality? Hamer didn’t test religion in mice, but did publish evidence that they can’t live without VMAT2. Was it selected to strengthen group harmony and then misused to make people think that magic is real? I’ve been looking for any work extending Hamer’s hypothesis, but have not found it, so far.

      1. More Zimmer on The God Gene:

        “Instead the book we have today would be better titled: A Gene That Accounts for Less Than One Percent of the Variance Found in Scores on Psychological Questionnaires Designed to Measure a Factor Called Self-Transcendence, Which Can Signify Everything from Belonging to the Green Party to Believing in ESP, According to One Unpublished, Unreplicated Study.”


  13. Given the uncertainties of life, I think it natural that we wish for some form of guardian angels. They do not exist, but people feel better if they can believe they do. Religions exploit this human weakness to get people in the door. Like snake oil sellers, they really do not have a product to sell except ritual and mumbo jumbo in some holy book. I would not call that a religion gene. A delusion gene perhaps.

  14. There is lots of suggestive evidence experimental evidence that De Waal has the right idea about religions serving to bind societies using omnipresent moral enforces. Data shows that larger societies tend to have gods more concerned with human behavior. Some like the Princess Alice experiments where children behaved much more honestly when told they were being watched by an invisible being. They cheated much less at s difficult task that would earn them a treat. Many experiments with small eye like shapes showed people behaved more honestly in their presence. In one, people contributed much more money in the presence of a 4″x5″ picture of eyes at an isolated coffee dispenser. Many other examples…

  15. My theory, which is mine, is that Religion of the divine authority type arose to excuse Bad Behavior that violated the existing long-evolved human ethical system. E.g., greed and lust found their way with the tribe/group nearby, and to justify the rape, killing, and pillage, a “god” was needed to give Divine, unquestionable sanction, overriding generations of normal moral/ethical values. Blame testosterone, I don’t know.

  16. I wouldn’t know about the use of religion in society, but I note that it correlates with dysfucnctional societies and I live in a society where it has no use whatsoever. But else I find that religion has joined astrology as a useless idea.

    Astrology was much easier to recognize as useless idea and was separated out from religion well before the quantifiable empirical evidence was in. It’s magic didn’t work [blind tests of horoscopes] and its magic proposals were pattern search [patterns of widely separated stars in the sky].

    Religion has now equally robust evidence rejecting it. Its “modern” magic of prayers and afterlife doesn’t work [blind tests of intercessory prayers, only standard model particles in our bodies so they are biochemical machines] and its magic proposals were pattern search [the universe is flat space so closed energetically, no magic action happens].

    In fact, observations of our universe show that religious magic hasn’t tampered with at all, neither its contents or its process. Cosmologists killed “gods”.

    A personal touch is that religion is now completely useless in my life. I don’t define myself in its terms as “atheist” anymore (but possibly as post-atheist for a while for continuity reasons).

  17. The consolations of illusion are a familiar
    trope in literature, e.g. Ibsen’s “The Wild Duck” and O’Neill’s “The Iceman Cometh”. Mr. Holmes’ Batman-shirt apologia for religion is a down-market version of the same theme. But I wonder about the antiquity and universality of the category of illusions we now classify as “religion”. Remaining hunter-gatherer societies should clues here. I suppose that Bushmen and Amazon Indian tribes imagined some kinds of magic and spirits, but did they revere a Great Dictator God, as in the monotheistic belief systems? Did they
    have hierarchies with Bishops and Patriarchs and Ayatollahs of shamanism? Apparently not.

  18. Humans wish to feel that there is justice. Religion not only provides rules, but also a second “fool-proof” justice: Bad actors may not be punished in this world, but will be in the next, and this makes people feel better.

  19. you don’t even need science – religion was never useful anyway: common sense. did your god ever unplug the toilet 4 ya? everybody knows the answer. it’s just pretense, make-belief, a stupid game that children play. it’s a social convention, much like ‘How are you?’ – Everybody knows that the person is not really interested how you are – it’s just a social protocol! Everybody knows that their gods never do anything real and practical for them!

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