SciGlam is a science communication magazine intended to be a space for dialogue between three major spheres of knowledge and culture: art, science and society.
We believe that normalizing scientific conversation is essential in the pursuit of a healthier and more skeptical society.
Our mission is to inspire scientific curiosity and involvement. For this reason, we end each interview with one last question for the interviewee: if you could ask a scientist of any background a question, what would it be? The answers to these questions can be found in SciGlam Answers.
I believe the site is run by young women scientists and journalists, and they wrote me last fall asking me to give a short answer to the question, “Can scientists believe in God?” The question came from their earlier interview with bookseller S. W. Welch, in which the Q&A ended like this:
If you could ask a scientist of any background a question, what would it be?
Do scientists believe in God?
And Sciglam gives those questions to appropriate people, ergo me. I was eager to answer, not only to help out some aspiring young folks, but also because the question, being a bit ambiguous, gave me the chance to clarify a common misconception about science and religion.
That misconception is that science and religion must be compatible because there are religious scientists (and science-friendly believers). If you construe the question literally, then of course the answer is “Yes: lots of scientists are religious.” But that, to me, fails to demonstrate that science and religion are compatible—only that someone can believe in two incompatible “ways of knowing” at the same time.
And so I took the opportunity to give both the literal answer (yes) with statistics, and then go on to argue that the more meaningful answer involves the second way of construing the question—are there fundamental incompatibilities between the practice of religion and science? As you know if you’ve read my book Faith Versus Fact: Why Science and Religion are Incompatible, you’ll know that any scientist who believes in God is embracing two incompatible practices at once, adhering to two divergent ways of apprehending what is true. (Yes, I know that religion is about more than accepting “facts” that haven’t been demonstrated, but all the Abrahamic religions are, at bottom, grounded on factual claims that could in principle be tested.)
To answer the second question I’d have to summarize the thesis of my book, and I had only a few hundred words to do that. So, if you’ll click on the screenshot below, you’ll see my answer.
There are two corrections that I asked for which haven’t been made as of this writing. The body of scientists I mention is the “National Academies of Sciences“, not the uncapitalized “national academies of science.” And the statement “Science is an atheistic enterprise: we don’t invoke gods or the supernatural to explain the world, nor do we need to” should read “Science is an a-theistic enterprise in the sense that we don’t invoke gods or the supernatural to explain the world, nor do we need to.” I didn’t want to imply that science demands that its practitioners to adhere to atheism (creationists always claim I say that), but to say that the practice of science doesn’t involve invoking divine or supernatural explanations. I add that naturalism is not something that began as an inseparable part of science, but has been added over time because we’ve learned that invoking gods doesn’t help us understand the universe. Creationism, for example, was once a “scientific” explanation—until Darwin found a better and naturalistic explanation—and one that could be empirically teste.
But I run on; I’ve already written more here than in the short piece itself. Click below to read it, and be aware of the two small corrections.
One quote from me:
The fact that science can find truth but religion can’t is shown by the remarkable progress made by science in 300 years, while no progress has been made in theology. If there is a God, we know no more about Him than did St. Augustine.
Furthermore, there are hundreds of different religions, all making claims about what’s true, and yet many of the claims are incompatible (eg, “Was Jesus the son of God, or only a prophet?”). There’s no way to decide among these claims, since religion has no way to test them.
Actually, Augustine lived in the fifth century, so I should have said “no progress has been made in theology in 1500 years”. But the important point is that theology is pretty much a useless enterprise, as its sweating practitioners, who actually get paid to make stuff up, have brought us no closer to understanding God or His ways—or even, of course, if God exists. Their job is simply to continuously re-interpret religious scripture and dogma so it adheres with the going morality. Theology is different from straight Biblical scholarship, which can tell us stuff about how the Bible or other scriptures came to be written and what their antecedents were. Biblical scholarship is useful as a form of historical inquiry and literary exegesis, while theology is a remnant of our childhood as a species, a vestigial belief that’s the mental equivalent of adults holding blankets and sucking their thumbs.