Does science need religion because only faith gives us “meaning and purpose”?

January 31, 2022 • 10:30 am

You already know the answer. But let me blather a bit.

I don’t read Patheos much, but an alert reader told me about an article at it’s sub-site Public Theology—a name that would normally make me click away immediately. I’ve read enough theology in my life that my craw is full of it, and I can consume no more.  But of course all of us want to see how our names are used.

It turns out that the article from last fall below (sent to me because it mentions me) is simply a rehash of old ideas, particularly those of Steve Gould.

First, the author’s bona fides:

Ted Peters is a pastor, professor, and author of both fiction and nonfiction. He is emeritus professor of systematic theology and ethics at Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary and the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, California. He co-edits the journal, Theology and Science at the Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences. His fictional thrillers feature an inner-city pastor, Leona Foxx, who courageously challenges the structures of political domination that are buttressed by the latest in science and technology.

Click on the screenshot to read this. TRIGGER WARNING: Theology!

For the entire piece Pastor Peters  (also identified as a professor at the Graduate Theological Union) simply lays out the same mantra over and over again (the points below are my own characterization):

1.) Science and religion are compatible.
2.) In fact, they are inseparable if one wants to lead a complete life.
3.) This is because science can give us the answers to factual questions about the cosmos: the “how” questions”
4.) But only religion can give us the answers to the “why” questions, telling us the purpose and meaning of life, how to be moral, and where the laws of physics come from.

Only line 3 is true, and I’ve written about this so much (especially in Faith Versus Fact) that I don’t feel the need to dilate on the other topics. That book dispels assertions 1, 2, and 4, but I want to concentrate a bit on claim 4: that religion is the only way to answer questions about life that science can’t address.

If you read Steve Gould’s accommodationist book Rocks of Ages, which I reviewed very critically in the Times Literary Supplement (inquire for a copy, as it’s no longer online), you’ll recognize the so-called harmony of science and faith summarized by the “non-overlapping magisteria” (NOMA) trope. In my review, I described Gould’s solution of how science and faith could find harmony:

This principle leaves both religion and science with important but distinct tasks: Science tries to document the factual character of the natural world, and to develop theories that coordinate and explain these facts. Religion, on the other hand, operates in the equally important, but utterly different, realm of human purposes, meanings and values – subjects that the factual domain of science might illuminate, but can never resolve.

Gould grants these “magisteria” equal status and asserts that we must accept the values of both. He calls for intense dialogue between religion and science, not to unite them, but to encourage greater harmony and mutual understanding.

Here are some quotes from Peters that underlines this erroneous thesis. First, accommodationist Denis Alexander’s restatement of NOMA:

Is there room for science in Christianity? Yes, according to biochemist Denis Alexander, founder of the Faraday Institute at St. Edmund’s College, Cambridge. “The scientific and religious accounts of reality provide us with two complementary narratives. Both narratives are important, and are impoverished if one is considered without the other….Conflicts occur when there are boundary disputes between the two domains of knowledge” (Golshani 2021, 25). As long as science and religion remain within their boundaries, then they may enjoy peaceful coexistence.

Religion is not a domain of knowledge, of course. It’s an irrational stew of superstition, with some morality that’s been gleaned from secular ideas.

Let’s pass on to another theologian (my emphases).

This split between fact and meaning gets reiterated by renowned cosmologist George F. R. Ellis. Since 1990, Ellis has served as Professor of Applied Mathematics at the University of Cape Town in South Africa. “Science cannot deal with values and issues of meaning that are the concern of religion….The themes [science] can deal with are measurable quantities such as mass, velocity, distance, force. It cannot cope with purpose” (Golshani 2021, 134). Science cannot cope with purpose, Ellis emphasizes. Purpose is the contribution of religion to the larger society.

Like many acccomodationists, Peters likes to quote religious scientists to buttress his thesis.  But, like Gould, they don’t think very hard about the incompatiblities of science and religion, and, in an effort to be conciliatory, always distort what religion can really accomplish, which is mainly to herd the sheep and fill its own coffers.

Take the last bolded sentence above. “Purpose is the contribution of religion to the larger society.” That’s bullpucky. Yes, some people find “purpose” in religion, but they also find it without religionIn a very popular post here in 2018, our many atheist readers here were perfectly able to describe and discern what they construe as “the meaning of purpose of life”, which generally boils down to “doing what gives one satisfaction.” You don’t need religion for that, and, in fact, religious “purpose” always turns out to be something like “we should serve God or Allah” (a waste of time), or “we should be good” (something you can derive from secular ethics and philosophy).

What people like Peters and Gould always forget is that religion is one source of meaning and purpose but:

a. It is not the SOLE source of meaning and purpose in life; humanism is another (and a better one).

b. People in countries that are nearly completely atheistic, like Iceland or Denmark, do not seem to be stricken with ennui because they don’t have religion to give them meaning and purpose. They get what they need from secular sources.  I’d rather hang out with a bunch of Danes than with a bunch of American theologians any day.

c. Most important, religion doesn’t answer “why” questions in any agreed-upon way. Yes, an individual can find “purpose” in slavish worship of Allah, but that’s a personal answer, not a general answer. In fact, all answers to the question are subjective and personal, and usually don’t come from religion though they may be buttressed by religion. What it boils down to is this: “the answers religion provide to questions of meaning and purpose all involve God’s will.”  And there’s no evidence for what God’s wills, much less for God itself.

But wait! There’s more!

How should the public theologian think about this? If science sticks to the facts and religion to the meaning of the facts, the two together could enrich civilization. Right?

Yes, says Skeptic Kendrick Frazier. “Science is concerned with understanding the natural world, religion with humanity’s moral, ethical , and spiritual needs….If science and religion kept to these separate domains, there would be no conflict” (Frazer 1999, 22). Science gives us data, and religion gives us the meaning of the data. That’s a recipe for peaceful cooperation. Right?

Okay, so give me one example of “the meaning of the data collected by science” that all religionists agree on. The observation that animals and plants exist and are adapted to their environment? Fuggedaboutit: many Christians and Muslims say that the “meaning” is the working of a divine God. Other believers adhere to the naturalistic view of scientists. And that’s only the simplest example. The answer to that one comes solely from science.

Here’s another question that religions are supposed to answer for us: why is there physical evil in the world? Why do children die of cancer and thousands of innocent people get wiped out by earthquakes, tsunamis, and other physical event?  Try to get believers to tell us what that means? You won’t find an answer in faith—but a lot of gobbledygook and foot-shuffling. In fact, science does answer these questions, which are based on seismic movements and the slipping of tectonic plates, as well as mutations and viruses. So why, then, does god make things happen. As the Beach Boys answered, “God only knows”.

At least Peters sees that I regard this as a false reconciliation:

No, exclaims University of Chicago biologist Jerry Coyne. Dr. Coyne declares war. After the war, only one can reign victorious. The victor must be science.

“Religion and science are engaged in a kind of war, a war for understanding, a war about whether we should have good reasons for what we accept as true….I see this as only one battle in a wider war–a war between rationality and superstition. Religion is but a single brand of superstition (others include beliefs in astrology, paranormal phenomena, homeopathy, and spiritual healing), but it is the most widespread and harmful form of superstition” (Coyne 2015, xii).

By declaring war, Dr. Coyne restricts himself to a worldview that is objective only. It is devoid of meaning or purpose. Now if Coyne were to ask his science to provide meaning or purpose, then he would be practicing theology without a license.

How the hell does Peters know my worldview? Has he read anything I’ve written about it? Of course religion doesn’t give me what “meaning or purpose” I have. These are personal constructs that most of us explain post facto as simply the distillation of what gives us satisfaction or pleasure. (“My purpose is to love and take care of my family.” Or, I find meaning in life by feeding ducks.”) I have a worldview, but it doesn’t come from religion. If you read this website regularly, you’ll learn big bits of that worldview, but I’m not going to explain it here.

Oh, the hubris of these sophisticated but humble theologians who have the temerity to tell us, in the face of millennia of secular philosophy and humanism, that we need religion to find “meaning and purpose”!  Isn’t it theologians who keep telling us that we need to be “more humble”?

Peters then drags Muslims and even atheists into the fray to support his argument:

Culture needs two wings to fly. Science provides one wing, and religion the other. At least according to Maryam Shamsaei and Mohn Hazim Shah. “Humanity needs to understand that science without religion is not moral and they are like two wings which required to function together to let a bird (human salvation) fly” (Shamsaei 2017, 883).

Sounds good, doesn’t it? But it’s not true. So how are northern Europe and Scandinavia able to fly? They’re missing a wing!  And do they lack culture? Not that I’ve seen.

But wait! There’s more:

So we ask: is there room in Islam for science? Is there room in science for Islam? Yes, indeed. At least according to the majority of Muslim contributors to the 5th edition of Golshani’s edited book, Can Science Dispense with Religion?

According to Majeda Omar at the University of Jordan, for example, “Science and religion are complementary concepts, not contradictory….science contributes to obtaining authentic knowledge of the physical world and its workings, and religion helps us in capturing the inner depths of reality, while providing perspective on the purpose and meaning of life” (Golshani 2021, 379). (Photo: Majeda Omar)

Once again, loose and flabby terms are used. What, exactly, are the “inner depths of reality”? If Omar means “God,” well then of course you need religion to find them? But he should define his terms. Maybe the inner depths of reality really mean what goes on at the particle level, in which case physics is answering that.

And—do I have to keep saying this forever?—philosophy provides a much better perspective on the purpose and meaning of life than does religion. For philosophy is a discipline of argumentation and rationality, while religion is a discipline of worship. obeisance, and irrationality. Only religion could produce the dictum that women should cover their bodies and homosexuals should be thrown off roofs.

Even poor Einstein gets dragooned into the war:

Let me offer a clarification. It’s quite clear that practicing scientists want to eliminate from their methods any appeal to supranatural causes, design, meaning, or purpose. This is OK, because religion provides those things to society. Might society benefit from both? Yes, indeed, according the legendary physicist Albert Einstein. “Science without religion is lame and religion without science is blind” (Einstein 1950, 26).

Does Peters not realize that Einstein’s “religion” was merely a sense of wonder about the world that gives us curiosity to move forward. Einstein was pretty much an atheist–or rather a pantheist who saw the cosmos as a god, but not a personal God. And even if Albert were an an orthodox Jew, just because he was a good physicist doesn’t mean we should bow down before his arguments about theology.

One more point. People like Peters are always calling for a dialogue between science and religion. The assumption is that each discipline can contribute to furthering the other. This is, of course, hogwash. Science can contribute to theology by testing (and always disproving) its assertions. On the other side, religion has nothing to contribute to science, for science is a discipline that does not need the numinous or divine. If there is to be a meeting of these disciplines, it will be not a constructive dialogue but a destructive monologue, in which science tells believers that they’re either wrong or have no evidence for their claims.

Finally, as if he hasn’t said this a gazillion times already, Peters bangs on about how science can’t give us a “worldview”:

Here is my tentative observation. Both Muslims and Christians recognize that the materialist assumptions of scientific research–which preclude at the outset any reference to divine causation let alone meaning or purpose–can only mislead us on the nature of ultimate reality. Muslims are less willing than Christians, by and large, to accept living with two incompatible worldviews, one scientific and the other religious. Despite this modest difference in emphasis, both Muslim and Christian theologians feel the deep impetus to formulate a single worldview that incorporates all that science can tell us about the natural world into a single comprehensive scheme in which everything in reality is understood in relationship to God.

Well, pastor Peters, first convince me that there is a god and then we’ll talk. By the way, you have to specify which god you’re talking about and the nature and characteristics of said god.

. . . Christian philosopher Nancey Murphy teams up with cosmologist George Ellis to make one point very clear:  any worldview constructed on the basis of science alone would be woefully inadequate. “The fundamental major metaphysical issues that purely scientific cosmology by itself cannot tackle–the problem of existence (what is the ultimate origin of physical reality?) and the origin and determination of the specific nature of physical laws–for these all lie outside the domain of scientific investigation” (Murphy 1996, 61).

In the face of science, Murphy and Ellis lay on the theologian’s shoulders “the reconstruction of a unified worldview” (Murphy 1996, 1) that includes “genuine knowledge of a transcendent reality” (Murphy 1996, 7).

What makes pastor Peters and Dr. Murphy think that religion can give us answers about the origin and nature of physical laws and of reality? Science in fact is giving us answers about some of these things, but religion is silent, or rather full of hot air. I would love to hear Murphy’s answer to the question, “why is the speed of light in a vacuum 299,792,458 meters per second?” Is she going to respond, “Because God decreed it”? For, after all, that’s all these theologians can say, and it’s a non-answer. (My riposte would be, “and how do you know that?”) Scientists may, as Sean Carroll has emphasized, never be able to answer such questions, and may have to wind up saying, “Well, the constants are what they for reasons we don’t understand.”

And that’s fine. At least scientists have the decency to admit when they don’t know something. Theologians like Peters and Murphy don’t: they always make up stuff, including dictates by an imaginary god.

I swear, when I read stuff like this I wonder how smart people can produce such gibberish. Do they really believe this “reconciliation”? Don’t they know that secular philosophers have been grappling with questions of meaning and purpose since the ancient Greeks?

I suppose the one thing that bothers me most about religion is that it’s an enormous waste of time, employing otherwise useful brains to analyze a gigantic fairy tale. And people pay them to do this! Every time you put a fiver in the collection plate, or donate to a religious charity, or pay the salaries of these people, it’s a complete waste of money. We already have therapists for those who need counseling. The rest is fiction.


67 thoughts on “Does science need religion because only faith gives us “meaning and purpose”?

  1. Peters and Gould are only trying to justify their professions. The fact that they feel compelled to do so means they have an uncomfortable feeling that what they do for a living might be illusionary, and they’ll have to become marketers or shoe salesmen.

    1. That’s a fair criticism of Peters, I would think. But pretty hard to say it about Gould, when he was alive (and, of course, harder still now!)

      1. No, Gould was surely NOT trying to justify his profession. I’ve often wondered why Gould, a diehard atheist who didn’t have a good word to say about religion normally, would write a book like this. I have no idea. Perhaps he thought it would make him better loved, which of course it did. There’s nothing a scientist in American can do to raise their public standing higher than to say that science and religion are not opponents or competitors, but are complementary and both useful.

        1. I always suspected t it was a kind of ‘Chamberlainesque’ (Neville) offer to keep creationism out of biology classes. You stick to your domain, but you don’t get into our science education. Keep your creationism and ID in religious classes.
          But then, I’m not a spychologist, it is speculative, and we can’t ask him anymore.

  2. I’ll bet that 9 out of 10 theists quoting Einstein’s “science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind” have never read what precedes it. It’s a rather unusual usage of the word “religion”, referring only to “faith that the world is comprehensible”. Here it is:

    “… science can only be created by those who are thoroughly imbued with the aspiration toward truth and understanding. This source of feeling, however, springs from the sphere of religion. To this there also belongs the faith in the possibility that the regulations valid for the world of existence are rational, that is, comprehensible to reason. I cannot conceive of a genuine scientist without that profound faith. The situation may be expressed by an image: science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind.”

    And I’d also bet that they’ve never read the bit that comes after, which is:

    “I must nevertheless qualify this assertion once again on an essential point […] This qualification has to do with the concept of God. During the youthful period of mankind’s spiritual evolution human fantasy created gods in man’s own image, who, by the operations of their will were supposed to determine, or at any rate to influence, the phenomenal world. Man sought to alter the disposition of these gods in his own favour by means of magic and prayer. The idea of God in the religions taught at present is a sublimation of that old concept of the gods. Its anthropomorphic character is shown, for instance, by the fact that men appeal to the Divine Being in prayers and plead for the fulfilment of their wishes. […] … teachers of religion must have the stature to give up the doctrine of a personal God.”

    1. Is that ignorance or malice? It would be difficult to find a better human being, anywhere and by any definition, than George Ellis.

      I would disagree that religion provides purpose in that some have purpose without religion (though some get it from religion).

      Ellis is agreeing with Jerry that science can’t get “ought” from “is”.

      Ellis is a Quaker. He is also one of the top cosmologists and philosophers of science and experts on General Relativity. (Another famous cosmologist who was also religious was Georges Lemaître. Like with Ellis, you can read the science stuff and not even notice that they are religious.). Quakers are unusual in the combination of a concept of a personal God but at the same time being on the liberal side of the political spectrum (usually, the more abstract that concept of God, the further to the left one is, and vice versa). Having said that, the Quaker God, while personal, is in some sense abstract.

      Yes, Ellis is from South Africa and is religious. So what? He was a very vocal opponent of apartheid. So was Desmond Tutu, and the latter was Black as well.

      Pardon the pun, but the world is not as black-and-white as you imply.

        1. That the Bible was used to justify slavery, apartheid, etc.? Yes, that is a valid observation, but it has nothing to do with George Ellis nor the fact that he is religious (a Quaker, which to many Baptists is as bad as an atheist) nor that he is South African.

          1. The way I read Jerry’s Ellis quote was that

            Science cannot deal with values and issues of meaning that are the concern of religion….The themes [science] can deal with are measurable quantities such as mass, velocity, distance, force. It cannot cope with purpose

            implies that Ellis believes religion [Bible] can cope with purpose. I think apartheid is a perfect example where Ellis is wrong on this particular line of thought. My original post was not malign Ellis, I am not familiar with him other than the quote and a quick glance at Wiki.

            My point remains religion does not deal well with purpose and South Africa’s apartheid is a case in point.

  3. Somebody buy PCC(E) a beer

    The new thought I had about this general topic- as occurs while doing other things – is something like this :

    What else but human brains with spoken and written language would produce things other than with spoken or written language?

    That is, religion, science, cooking, etc. all share a common feature of humans propagating it.

    So what? That doesn’t mean they are inseparable.

    Religion poisons everything.

  4. I have a certain semantic attachment to the word religion. It comes from the Latin to reconnect. Reconnect to what? For some an imagined God, could be nature or society, or some aspect of our lives? For me, a free will skeptic, it is reconnect to the universe. To have an understanding that we are not separate from our environment, we have a have a fundamental interaction with universe. In this sense I could be deemed religious.

    1. That’s sort of like Einstein’s definition. The problem with it is that “religion” means something different for most people.

      I prefer a term for myself which I saw in someone’s self-description somewhere: “secular pagan”. 🙂

  5. I am perfectly willing to accept that Science does not provide purpose. I am unwilling to accept that purpose can come from fables. The religious always forget that there are other sources of purpose that don’t require gods.

    1. I am not willing to accept that. If someone said Sudoku does not provide purpose or kids do not provide purpose or figuring out the answer to some unknown mathematical problem doesn’t provide purpose, I’d say – well that depends on the person. Same thing for science. Humans find purpose in all sorts of things. Some may find it in science. Some may not.

      Now true, if someone finds purpose in a specific claim of science, and that claim turns out to be wrong, well then that purpose is in a pretty bad state. But based on my experience, scientists don’t find purpose in any specific claim. They find purpose in the act, in the seeking. Sometimes in the overturning of what they thought was true! The folks who yolk their purpose to the truth value of some specific empirical claim seem to be more of the myth- and religion-believing types. At least in my experience.

      1. “The folks who yolk their purpose to the truth value of some specific empirical claim…”

        Are they over-egging it? 😉

  6. We of course have some data on how “Purpose is the contribution of religion to the larger society”, from statistics on the incidence of one kind of purpose, namely crime. Numbeo tabulates crime indices by country. The U.S., which is more religious than most countries with a similar economic status, shows a crime index of 48 and safety index of 52, the same as Nicaragua and just below Mauritius (49 and 51). The much less religious countries Denmark and Finland are much lower down in the ranking, at a crime index value of 27 and safety index of 73. [For Switzerland, near the bottom, they are 22 and 78.]

    Interestingly, Sweden (at 49 and 51) is similar to the US, showing more crime and less safety than the
    other Nordic countries. The list is topped, by the way, by Venezuela, with a crime index of 84 and safety index of 16. Venezuela enjoys the double advantages of widespread Catholic religion (to reveal the “inner depths of reality”) and a Socialist national administration (to provide social purpose). Of course,
    these crude comparisons ignore umpteen confounding variables. It might be amusing to plot the crime and safety indices versus religiosity indices, and/or other statistical measures. But time is short.

    1. Sweden is not really much different from its neighboring countries in that respect. The issue is that Sweden is the most woke of the Nordic countries, and broad definitions of “crime” and “lack of safety” (sound familiar?) skew the statistics.

      1. A good deal of the crime is no doubt concentrated in what the Swedish police call “vulnerable areas” (Utsatt områden). Sweden’s greater wokeness compared to its neighbors (especially Denmark) is itself an interesting phenomenon. It suggests that Sweden’s careful and fortunate avoidance of military conflict for the last two centuries may have elicited, in turn, a culture burdened by some unrealistic expectations about the world. Incidentally, a thoughtful book is: “Fishing in Utopia: Sweden and the Future that Disappeared” by Andrew Brown. The author is a Brit who has lived in Sweden with his Swedish wife, speaks Swedish, and knows the country well.

  7. We observe that religion can contribute to a person’s sense of “purpose” just as can some other philosophical framework, or body of fiction, but anyone who wants to convince us of the actual existence of some kind of a god has one tiny problem to overcome: how in heaven’s name can a mind exist without a body?

    I think we know what kind of bodies gave rise to the body-less mind of God — human bodies.

  8. “…Now if Coyne were to ask his science to provide meaning or purpose, then he would be practicing theology without a license.”

    My goodness. I was completely unaware there was a single licensing authority for all theologians; Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, etc.

    Mr. Peters, how do I report religious leaders for malpractice? To at least get their license suspended.

  9. It isn’t just religion versus science. It is also religion versus humanism, since humanism also provides structure for a moral and meaningful life. So why don’t we see many debates about religion versus humanism?

    1. Also religion versus history. The religious accounts of our past are often incompatible with the consensus among historians. Many religious people are unaware of the historical evolution of their beliefs. It is a yearning for darkness that keeps these beliefs going in modern times.

  10. All religions are founded upon millennia old hearsay. Even the US’s legal system knows better than to admit such as evidence. It’s the ultimate (and ironic) house built on sand…or ice cream castles in the air, to quote a better source.

  11. When I read “Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind,” I immediately thought, unbidden and in fact unwanted- he would be cancelled for that statement in today’s world. Or at least there would be demands that he publicly apologize for exercising his privilege in such an insensitive manner. The fact that the idea of Einstein being called out as unenlightened would occur to me is disturbing. Of course am glad our country passed the ADA and it is no longer acceptable to mock the disabled. (I am not saying his statement was intended as mockery.) It is unsettling that my mind has become so attuned to hypersensitivity to all perceived slights; that there is so much intellectual and political power exercised in these culture wars, and that people I find illiberal are advancing their cause.

    I don’t know the point of a religious person writing an article that supports their religious beliefs relative to science by quoting scientists who are religious. It proves nothing except that some scientists are religious. I would consider it poor argumentation in an undergrad essay.

  12. Religion can’t provide purpose without secular philosophy and ethics. Even if God’s existence were established, we couldn’t find a moral imperative just in the mere fact of Its existence. And we couldn’t say anything about Its character, will, attributes, or cosmic plan being “good” without a human recognition and understanding of what that means.

    There is no intrinsic value in God. To value involves a relationship between first, the valuer and second, that which the valuer values. The arrow goes from us to God before it goes from God to us.

    God doesn’t give us any purpose which doesn’t make just as much sense without God. It can’t.

  13. I think we’ve established that science and religion aren’t compatible; religion, at least as we know it in the Western world, provides no alternative to science as a means of arriving at knowledge about the world. A more fruitful question might be whether reason and imagination are compatible.

    Imagination works with perceptions not capable of exact definition. We hear a Chopin nocturne and we know intuitively that it’s meaningful. Or else we don’t. And if we don’t experience this by way of imagination, we will never arrive at it by way of reason. No amount of objective observation and analysis will substitute for or even approximate the experience, nor will someone who has had the experience be able to convey it to someone who hasn’t.

    Reason, on the other hand, works with exact definitions and abstractions in science or mathematics, moving sequentially, step-by-step, following its rules. For example, the scientific process takes us by the hand and leads us from definition, theorem, and axiom to the goal. The applies, or course, only to what Kuhn calls “normal science”—i.e., the regular work of scientists theorizing, observing, and experimenting within a settled paradigm or explanatory framework. There are plenty of historical examples of scientists making imaginative leaps (cf. Arthur Koestler’s The Sleepwalkers).

    It was just such leaps that Einstein was referring to (since quoting Einstein seems to be de rigueur) when he said, “I believe in intuitions and inspirations” and, more famously, “Imagination is more important than knowledge.” Actually, whether one is more important than the other depends on what you’re trying to do.

    1. And if we don’t experience this by way of imagination, we will never arrive at it by way of reason.

      How do you know that we will ‘never arrive at it by way of reason’? Do you think that our understanding of this area of human activity is sufficient to allow us to make such a definitive statement? I am not saying that you are wrong. I want to find the reasoning behind your conviction, unless of course, that too is an intuition.

      Besides, intuition in science can be incompatible with reasoning. It is sometimes the case that answers people arrive at through pure intuition do not always turn out to be correct. That is why people say that some things are ‘counter intuitive’. Therefore scientists test their intuitions.

      1. Good point I started loving Bach’s music much more after Douglas Hofstadter pointed out in his GEB, how beautifully mathematically constructed his music was.

  14. To me, the question of “meaning” or “purpose” is itself wasteful, even if one approaches it from the point of view of humanism. There is simply no meaning or purpose in life. As Sam Harris would put it: “This is a pseudo question, an imaginary problem”.

    This (nihilistic view if you will) doesn’t prevent me from differentiating the things that bring me (or others) pleasure, comfort, or satisfaction from those that cause me (or others) harm, suffering, or distress, and from aiming for the former and not for the latter. And this, I believe, is a perfectly rational, evidence-based approach, which doesn’t need to be framed within any context of high meaning or purpose.

  15. Religion: We answer the hard questions.
    Us: So what are the answers?
    Religion: God works in mysterious ways.

    If we must have religion, and it does seem that way, we should at least be getting a better version of it by now. They’ve had centuries! Surely they can come up with some better stories to tell.

    1. As I believe I said in FvF, compare the state of theology in the 13th century with the state now THEY DON’T KNOW ANYTHING MORE ABOUT GOD THAN THEY DID THEN! (That is, nada, nothing bupkes, zip). Now compare how science has advanced just in the last 250 years. Theology does not progress, it just changes as somebody discovers some new twist or interpretations that doesn’t tell us anything more about a god of how it works.

      1. What they have learned about God, over the years, is that God is the vague, undefinable sort of thing which is not the sort of thing science can investigate. They originally thought careful investigation would discover and confirm God.

        Now they’re reduced to using God for inspiration, and science for going “Wow! …God wanted me to feel that.”

      2. Yes: If theology were a “way of knowing”, then they should have converged on the correct religious thought over the last few millennia, rather than fracturing into myriad religions and sects, all of which have gods in their own human images.

        This is the most damning fact about religious thought, IMO. (Can I use the verb “damn” in this context?! 😉 )

    2. “Religion: We answer the hard questions.”

      “hard” does not equal “important”, or “meaningful”.

      Recall well, everyone – the answer – we know it well :


      (BTW I get the satire here – I’m not ripping into you but the notion of religion… etc.)

      1. Religion answers hard problems like “how does a universe with evil in it comport with a God of love?”

        Of course, it also brings in the problems.

        1. how does a universe with evil in it comport with a God of love?

          And that seems like a manufactured problem. If having observed a world rife with suffering, they had not concocted an all loving God, they would not have the problem of theodicy.

          1. I recall this amusing dialogue :

            “Is god omnipotent?”


            “Can he create a stone he cannot lift?”

            “[ redirection ]”

  16. Maryam Shamsaei and Mohn Hazim Shah state that “Humanity needs to understand that science without religion is not moral and they are like two wings which required to function together…”

    Well, science has been doing pretty damn fine for itself without the “wing” of religion. It can fly on its own and it’s hard to see how religion would aid, rather than retard, science.
    And one shudders to see what “morality” religion would supply. Morality exists outside of religion and many of us see religious morality as immoral—too many crimes have been committed in the name of religion for us to believe otherwise. The most prosperous, peaceful, and pleasant countries in the world are those where the forces of religion have been broken.

  17. Religion being a form of power. As in, I raised you all from the earth now kiss my arse.
    I will give you life after death now kiss my arse.
    … there is a lot of arse kissing in religion look at the pope, eh… kiss my ring? yuk.
    Well there we have meaning, kissing a lot of butt for your entire life but hey, if it makes you feel good, it’s a use of your time and you get to believe in an afterlife with the family. A seductive purpose and meaning for the maintenance of a child like state.
    I spend a lot of time not believing…
    Religion like alcohol is a toxin but it doesn’t stop us from drinking but it might explain why people have different behaviours while under the influence.
    Science being a method of truth seeking does not ask for butt-kissing just perspiration and creative thinking. I know which I prefer as a proven truth seeking platform, the one where purpose is created by the holder not a butt seeking a believer.

  18. Apologies for going off topic but as the Patheos site was mentioned here it seemed as good a place as any to post, plus this may be of interest to some.

    The UK publication the Freethinker went entirely online and moved to Patheos a few years ago. It was not a popular move with many of the readers but that has been rectified and the new Freethinker should be launched late February with new editor Dr Emma Park. It can be found here:

  19. I find that I am perfectly capable of generating whatever meaning and purpose to my life that I want, both by myself and with the help of my family, friends and others with whom I choose to communicate, on this site and elsewhere. I may not agree with everything they say, but I can also choose whether to accept it or not.

    I also accept that others have other sources of meaning and purpose, including religion.

    What I don’t accept is that they have any right to tell me – or, worse, to force me to believe – that my life is meaningless and purposeless if I reject the unevidenced assumptions that underlie their own sources of meaning.

  20. “Culture needs two wings to fly […]”

    Science makes planes, religions make angels and demons. Show us a “plangel” or a “planmon” that could fly and you will have a point. Otherwise, for two wings that permit to fly, try science (or nature) but do not mix it (them) with imaginary creatures.

  21. It seems to me that every argument of this type, for religion, always heads directly to citations of some ‘scientists’ personal belief. It is just a cherry picked appeal to authority from those who don’t really have such authority.
    They do this with every type of argument, finding which famous philosopher said this or which famous theologian said that, it is always an appeal to some personal opinion,
    Science doesn’t do that. If an argument were being made involving the opinion of a renowned scientist it would be on the basis said scientist body of work, not their mere opinion.
    I notice it every time an apologists starts arguing, whether these folks here of William Lane Craig or whoever, an appeal to some special persons opinion is just around the corner.

  22. I was a former graduate student of Steve Gould, and a friend of his for over twenty years. I think—and thought at the time it was published—that his Rock of Ages was deeply flawed. In that book, Steve imagines religion and science as occupying different realms, with science explaining the “hows” and religion the “whys.” This forced isolation of their domains of operation is why the two are not in conflict, according to my reading. Gould simply *defined* the two domains as separate a priori, rendering his conclusion that they are not in conflict inevitable. He didn’t need to write the book, once he stated his starting definitions.

    Steve was simply either wrong or naive to believe that religion and science stay in their own respective lanes. Religionists in the real world do claim to explain “how” questions—e.g., facts of the world, such as the age of the earth. And scientists in the real world do claim to answer “why” questions—such as why human cultures have established standards of morality. Gould’s *separate domains* don’t exist.

    It pains me when Steve Gould’s flawed book is used to bolster claims that religion and science are compatible. But religionists will grab any bone they can get, especially if it comes with the authority of a famous scientist. Gould’s book fails to make the case that both religion and science are necessary in human affairs, and religionists who use his book to bolster their claims are deceiving themselves.

  23. Does Peters not realize that Einstein’s “religion” was merely a sense of wonder about the world that gives us curiosity to move forward. Einstein was pretty much an atheist–or rather a pantheist who saw the cosmos as a god, but not a personal God. And even if Albert were an an orthodox Jew, just because he was a good physicist doesn’t mean we should bow down before his arguments about theology.

    It seems Old Albert used his tremendous mathematical abilities to precisely trianguale the centre position of everyone involved in the famous “Pantheism Controversy” that took place roughly a hundred years before he was born in the 1780s. It was preeminent flame war of the 18th century, and captured the leading enlightenment thinkers in (proto) Germany of the Enlightenment and sounded an echo that would reverb throughout intellectual history, and clearly affected Einstein.

    It was inadvertently kicked off when the Jewish Enlightenment thinker Moses Mendelsohn announced he wanted to write about his late friend Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, perhaps in tribute, since Lessing wrote “Nathan der Weise” (Nathan the Wise, 1779) about religious tolerance, modeled on Mendelsohn. Another in their circle, Friedrich Heinrich Jacobi, told Mendelsohn that Lessing was actually a “Spinozist” — at the time synonymous with “atheist”. This kicked off a far-reaching controversy over the meaning of Spinoza’s beliefs. Jacobi contended Spinoza’s rationality leads to atheism and nihilism. He was subsequently ridiculed by other the Enlightenment thinkers for his views they regarded as antiquated. Mendelsohn died shortly afterwards. As it is with flame wars, you can’t let go, and so he hurried to the printing house late in winter, caught pneumonia, and died a few days later.

    Interestingly, when cross-reading, Einstein comes from an old Swabian family in Würtemberg, which so happens to be the historical centre for a theological position called “supranaturalism” at the University in Tübingen. That position was developed by Friedrich Schleiermacher, who was one of the gang around the Berlinians (Zelter, Mendelsohn, Zelter) in the pantheism flame war. Why’s that relevant?

    As Einstein got older, he took an interest in religious writings, and befriended rabbi Chaim Tchernowitz, also in Berlin, who was halfway between the Jewish Enlightenment of Mendelsohn (Haskalah) and Jewish orthodoxy. From Einstein’s own words it’s pretty clear what he means: he rejects typical religious beliefs as infantile, but viewed the atheist response as a reaction against childish beliefs, too. I would say that we’d regard Einstein as in the agnostic, Sophisticated Theology camp. But that’s no help for today’s religious, who very much hold these childish beliefs, and it’s no help for today’s Sophisticated Theologians either, who must accept that Einstein’s Spinoza-flavoured views were regarded as atheistic or nihilistic in proper context. Religious views seem even more whimsical and subject to a zeitgeist when compared to the past, and not at all divine or eternal.

  24. “I suppose the one thing that bothers me most about religion is that it’s an enormous waste of time, employing otherwise useful brains to analyze a gigantic fairy tale.”

    Surely it worse than that. People waste time on lots of things and I guess it is up to them if they do but most religions also impose moral codes on people that all too often cause misery and harm. Religious terrorism, forced removal of babies from unwed mothers in Ireland, stoning of rape victims for ‘adultery’, shunning of people in religious communities when they fail to meet the behavioural code,…the list is long.

  25. I would very much appreciate it if anyone can provide a link to the following.

    Several years ago I saw a blog post (maybe here) where the author had a side-by-side list of contributions to human knowledge made in the previous year by science, in the left column, and religion (or maybe it was “other ways of knowing”) in the right. The left column contained at least 10-15 significant items, including discovery of the Higgs Boson. The right column was blank.

    I’ve googled myself out looking for it.

Leave a Reply