I answer an ambiguous question: “Can scientists believe in God?

January 21, 2023 • 10:45 am

Sciglam is an online polymathic site that describes itself this way:

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.

38 thoughts on “I answer an ambiguous question: “Can scientists believe in God?

  1. “We believe that normalizing scientific conversation is essential in the pursuit of a healthier and more skeptical society.”

    …. I’m not sure what to make of the bolded bits.

    1. … but of course, PCC(E)’s reply is about as clear and straightforward a piece as anyone would want in so short a space.

  2. Good picture of you!

    That second correction, especially, is most important

    In discussing this topic with scientists who are also believers, I note that they simply switch from one paradigm to another. They can be the most hard-headed and logical of scientists—demanding of evidence and highly critical—but they abandon all that when God is involved. I can see it coming and I’ve learned how not to let the conversation blow up. Cornering them is fraught with peril.

    Either they know that they are abandoning the methods of science when God is involved, and are being intellectually dishonest (and defensive). Or they don’t know that they are abandoning the methods of science and are not as aware of them as they should be. Or, they accept the methods of science as only “one way of knowing” and are not all that committed to scientific methodologies after all, allowing them to switch from one paradigm to another depending on the context.

    Science and God are incompatible both regarding their respective empirical claims and regarding their methodologies. You *can* believe in both (nobody’s going to stop you), but you really can’t.

    1. I like your approach, Norman. To me, the intellectually honest position is to acknowledge that science and religion are incompatible and that the real and only reason for belief in a god is fideism, that is, credo quia consolans, I believe because it comforts me.

  3. A great piece given the limited word count. A shame about the missing edits.

    Also, I couldn’t help noticing at the bottom of the post:

    “Coyne’s blog, Why Evolution is True, has 60,000 subscribers and discusses not only the latest research in evolutionary biology, but also a variety of unrelated issues, including philosophy, politics, food, and cats.

    1) “blog”! 2) WEIT appears to have 73,462 subscribers according to the “Sign me up” button at the bottom of our host’s articles. 3) What, no ducks?

  4. Our host’s excellent empirical test—how has knowledge in theology progressed in the last so-many thousand years?—ought to be applied to other forms of discourse. The French wizards of postmodernism began their work in the late 1950s to 60s, so It is time to ask how much progress in knowledge has postmodernism provided in the last 65 years or so? Over this period, other forms of discourse have enabled us to send probes to the outer planets of our solar system, locate over 5000 exoplanets elsewhere in the universe, sequence the complete genome of around 3,000 species, discover several new extinct human subspecies, and nearly eliminate smallpox, polio, and some other human diseases. What has the Foucault/Derrida/Lyotard
    school of thought and its epigones come up with?

    The same test might be applied to the various academic subjects labeled Critical X Theory.

    1. Ah, but postmodernism is less interested in “progress in knowledge” than in undermining any notion of progress or knowledge. In that respect, it has been a success, especially in the universities.

  5. I’d like to enlarge a bit on Jerry’s second way of construing the question. Here, what could be called an igtheist approach is essential now that we’ve gone through many years of “debates” between apologists and counter-apologists (not to imply that those debates aren’t still necessary). My igtheist approach requires both sides to come to terms regarding the meaning of the word “God.” Unless I understand what you mean by “God,” I can’t answer your question, “Do you believe in God?” Thus, if my questioner is referring to the Abrahamic God, I will quickly and unequivocally answer “no,” and if he requires an explanation of my answer, I will say that not only is there no evidence for such a god, there is positive evidence disproving this god. If the questioner posits a more pantheistic deity, such as in Hinduism or Taoism, I will again answer “no,” because that conception doesn’t add anything of any explanatory power to the body of knowledge created by the scientific method. Space here plus Da Roolz do not permit me to enlarge further, but I think you get my point.

  6. I played with chatGPT today.

    I asked “What is the theory of Naturalism”

    The reply: “Naturalism is a theoretical stance in the philosophy of science that holds that natural laws and forces alone are responsible for the workings of the universe and that all phenomena, including human behavior and cognition, can be explained by natural causes. This means that naturalists reject the idea of supernatural or paranormal explanations for events and believe that scientific methods are the best way to understand the world. Naturalism is also often associated with the idea that the universe is self-existing and not created or sustained by a deity.”

    But then I asked “Can scientists believe in god?”

    The reply: “Yes, scientists can believe in God. There is no inherent conflict between science and religion, and many scientists are religious. Some scientists may reconcile their beliefs in science and religion by interpreting religious texts metaphorically, while others may see no conflict between the two. Ultimately, a person’s beliefs about God or religion are a personal matter and do not necessarily have any bearing on their ability to conduct scientific research.”

    Clearly there is still some work to be done.

    1. For that second question, I am not surprised by the answer from ChatGPT. As I understand it, the bot will compose an answer from the more common descriptions that it finds online. It can be fooled into giving the more popular answer, rather than the more correct one.

    2. How many scientists are religious? Very few, to my knowledge, and those who are are probably mainly in the US. But religious propagandists try all possible contortions to prove that scientists believe in some god. That is why the astrophysicist Martin Rees, who is an atheist, is wrong in partaking in religious Church of England events.

    3. Great idea

      “Yes, scientists can believe in God.”

      What about the God of Disbelief?

      When ChatGPT is available, someone should enter the control experiments :

      “Do scientists believe in Wotan?”
      “Do cyclists believe in God?”
      “Do scientists believe in luminiferous aether?”
      “Do Denisovans believe in God?”

      … hey, it’s Saturday, it’s OK!

        1. It occurred to me while considering Dennett’s “Belief in Belief” idea – and perhaps Tyson’s (paraphrased) the universe doesn’t care if you believe in it or not (which I have not located a source for yet).

          1. “the universe doesn’t care if you believe in it or not ” What a weird idea. Does your car care if you pass the speed limit?

            1. what about these ones:
              “the universe seems neither benign nor hostile, merely indifferent” – from my favorite author/scientist/astronomer/skeptic
              “Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away.” – SF writer
              I will let you guess who wrote those 🙂 😉

        2. “What about the God of Disbelief?”

          Third door down on the left.
          She’s servicing the Oh Ghod! of Hangovers, who still can’t believe that he drank that stuff last night, despite having done the experiment many times before and having had an unearthly bad experience every time.

    1. I’ve been here a while, but still don’t know what PCC(e) stands for; can you enlighten me?

      I suspect it has something to do with Ceiling Cat (…CC…) but I can’t parse it out myself.

  7. Alice laughed … “one can’t believe impossible things.”

    “I daresay you haven’t had much practice,” replied the Queen. “When I was your age, I always did it for half-an-hour a day. Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”

    Scientists get a lot of practice examining thoughts and beliefs, and may, especially with a PhD, come to believe they are epistemologically invincible, an unfortunate result.

  8. ‘ Actually, Augustine lived in the fifth century, so I should have said “no progress has been made in theology in 1500 years”.’

    I think that’s too generous. Augustine didn’t make any breakthrough in the knowledge of the nature of God.

  9. Nice that they posted a pix of Faith vs Fact, too. And one someone’s bookshelf, more personal than just showing the cover.

    1. As in the case of science and religion, the epistemologies of science and postmodern wokeness are radically different, and hence they are not compatible even if (as sometimes happens by sheer coincidence in the case of religion as well) a (very) few of their conclusions happen to be the same.

      Great title for a future book by our esteemèd host: Woke vs. Fact: Why Science and Postmodern Wokebabble are Incompatible.

  10. I happened across this today – just sharing – not an argumentum ex quotation :

    “Both religion and science require a belief in God. For believers, God is in the beginning, and for physicists He is at the end of all considerations… To the former He is the foundation, to the latter, the crown of the edifice of every generalized world view.”

    -Max Planck

    Scientific Autobiography and Other Papers as translated by F. Gaynor (1949), p. 184

    Source of the above excerpt – consult for further depth :


    … science quote lovers will enjoy that page.

Leave a Reply