Conor Friedersdorf at the Atlantic promotes the “compatibility of science and faith” by finding religious people who like science

April 6, 2023 • 9:15 am

This article in the Atlantic isn’t really written by staff writer Conor Friedersdorf, who’s published some good things in the magazine, but is a series of readers’ answers to a question he posed earlier. But it does serve to tout religion and faith, and to promote false claims that science and religion are compatible become some religious people are science fans. (I went after this misunderstanding in Faith Versus Fact.)

Friedersdorf’s into to the piece below:

This is an edition of Up for Debate, a newsletter by Conor Friedersdorf. On Wednesdays, he rounds up timely conversations and solicits reader responses to one thought-provoking question. Later, he publishes some thoughtful replies. Sign up for the newsletter here.

Last week I quoted the late astronomer and astrophysicist Carl Sagan on humanity’s place in the cosmos, and asked readers for their thoughts on outer space.

And here is the question he asked his readers:

This week, five planets are aligning in the night sky: Mercury, Jupiter, Venus, Uranus, and Mars will all be visible just after sunset, alongside the moon. I’d like to take this cosmic occasion to ask: What role has outer space played in your life, your worldview, or your imagination?

Or: How, if at all, should we keep exploring it?

He then quotes Carl Sagan:

In Cosmos, the astronomer and astrophysicist did his best to give readers a sense of the unfathomable:

No planet or star or galaxy can be typical, because the Cosmos is mostly empty. The only typical place is within the vast, cold, universal vacuum, the everlasting night of intergalactic space, a place so strange and desolate that, by comparison, planets and stars and galaxies seem achingly rare and lovely. If we were randomly inserted into the Cosmos, the chance that we would find ourselves on or near a planet would be less than one in a billion trillion trillion … Worlds are precious.

In Pale Blue Dot, he writes:

The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner, how frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that, in glory and triumph, they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark.

In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves. The Earth is the only world known so far to harbor life. There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate. Visit, yes. Settle, not yet. Like it or not, for the moment the Earth is where we make our stand. It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.

Maybe we humans ought to spend more time in dark places gazing up at the night sky.

And of course he was inundates with answers about the effect of the planetary alignment—and space exploration itself—on readers’ worldviews.  Surprisingly some readers responded with thoughts about God, or perhaps Friedersdorf selected answer that mention God. Regardless, I think that it’s misleading to couch the answers as showing “The Surprising Compatibility of Science and Faith.”  All it really shows is that people can believe in God and also evince wonder at the universe at the same time, or that science-friendly people can be religious. This of course gives the impression that the readers’ answer buttress some kind of comity between science and faith.   To my mind, that’s not compatibility but cognitive dissonance, as I argue in Faith versus Fact, for science is the very antithesis of faith. But I’ll give a few excerpts of reader’s responses and then reprise my thoughts at the end.

Click to read:

Ben, a man of faith and science, reflects on the biggest and smallest questions:

To explain how I feel about outer space and how it shapes my worldview, I have to start with one of my favorite Bible verses: “When I consider thy heavens, the work of thy fingers, the moon and the stars, which thou hast ordained; What is man, that thou art mindful of him? and the son of man, that thou visitest him? For thou hast made him a little lower than the angels, and hast crowned him with glory and honour” (Psalm 8:3-5, KJV).

. . .  believe that understanding the laws and behavior of the universe is one of the few times we can directly observe God’s handiwork. Indeed, looking up at the night sky, I see that humanity is “crowned with glory and honour.”


Glenn was a pastor in Houston near NASA’s Johnson Space Center:

About 75 percent of our church worked in the aerospace industry. It was an interesting experience leading triple-redundancy NASA engineers to “live and walk by faith.”

. . . We have been told that science and faith are incompatible. In fact, there is a vibrant faith community in and around NASA doing the hard work of science. I was having lunch with an astronaut a few weeks after his return from the International Space Station. “You know, I looked out into the void of space,” he said, “and it was black, white, cold, and lonely. And then I looked down at Earth and it was bright green and blue with swirls of white—warm, inviting, and interesting. I decided if I could choose to be any place in the universe, it would be right there on Earth.”


Robert raises the old canard that science takes the awe, wonder, and beauty out of the universe.  Bolding is mine.

Robert, a graduate student in philosophy, harkened back to the ancients:

Like Aristotle, when I was very young, I thought the planets and stars in the sky were something like gods. I don’t think this anymore, of course. Nevertheless, they are in some sense above and beyond us, endowed with a sort of beauty we ourselves are incapable of manufacturing. I simply do not know how someone can gaze at the images from, for instance, the James Webb Space Telescope and think otherwise. Even without technology, there is something marvelous about gazing into the sky and noticing just how much is out there. Thousands of stars, five planets, and even our own galaxy are visible from Earth with the naked eye. Light pollution has crowded out quite a bit of this. But even just a few stars, or a few planets, is enough to see the vastness of it all.

Still, despite the enormous powers of these celestial spheres, they cannot appreciate their own beauty. Humans alone are known to be capable of appreciating the universe in this way. This has always made me ascribe special status to humans, and to think that human concerns are of special importance. I don’t take this to be inconsistent with the scale of it all, but rather a result of it. If we aren’t here anymore, the all the beauty in the universe won’t mean anything to anyone. So something of enormous value would be lost.

I worry that, for all the good that scientific advancements have done for us in understanding space, we’re starting to see the universe as nothing more than a collection of big rocks and balls of gas; these days, the planets and the stars, particularly the moon and Mars, tend to be objects of escapist fantasies more than objects of wonder.

This is a mistake, even for those who think the future of humanity may be space colonization. The beauty of the universe cannot be captured by an exhaustive description of its mechanics or of its utility to us. To think this, rather than appreciating the literally otherworldly nature of outer space, is, I think, the wrong kind of anthropocentrism. The majesty of the heavens has inspired joy, wonder, and creativity in human minds for as long as we have existed, and their beauty is divine. So, I figure, why not let myself think, along with Aristotle, that, even if not literally, the first people were right in thinking that the planets “are gods, and that the divine encloses the whole of nature”?

This view—that understanding more about the universe detracts from its wonder and beauty—was expressed early on by Walt Whitman in his poem “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer,” to wit:

When I heard the learn’d astronomer,
When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me,
When I was shown the charts and diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them,
When I sitting heard the astronomer where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room,
How soon unaccountable I became tired and sick,
Till rising and gliding out I wander’d off by myself,
In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.
This is written by a man who knew almost nothing about science (the poem was published in 1865), and so learning about the stars and planets was, to Whitman, simply boring.  But this attitude is born of ignorance, and has been eloquently attacked by people like Richard Dawkins, who say, correctly, that if you understand the biology/physics/chemistry behind what we see in nature, it makes it even more wondrous. I cannot understand how anyone can think otherwise!  When you know that there are 400 billion stars in the Milky Way alone, and two TRILLION galaxies just in the observable universe (and many more beyond), and learn how those stars came to be, and how the universe is expanding and is full of black holes that suck everything into them, including light, and that there’s a lot of dark matter out there that we don’t understand—how can these things not add to your appreciation of what you see?


This attitude is related to scientism, a pejorative word meant to apply to the view that science encompasses everything we need to know about reality.  And, in fact, it does, but so far it’s been unable—and maybe always will be—to explain the feeling of awe (“spirituality,” if you will) that comes with moments like looking at the night sky. But how does knowing what you’re really seeing detract from its wonder in interest? It’s that attitude that baffles me.  How much more interesting nature becomes when you understand that it’s the product of a naturalistic process—evolution, often via natural selection!

At any rate, I can’t see any purpose to this article except to tout God, do down science, claim that science detracts from wonder at the same time that it claims that science and religion are compatible? No, science and religion are incompatible, mainly because religious understanding and its truth claims are based on faith, while science’s truth claims are based on empirical evidence. The presence of religious people who like science no more proves that science and religion are compatible than observing sports fans who like science proves that science and baseball are compatible.

Dawkins has explained the fallacy of this view, but maybe it’s time to explain it to people again.

31 thoughts on “Conor Friedersdorf at the Atlantic promotes the “compatibility of science and faith” by finding religious people who like science

  1. Shock news: human being concludes that humans are special!

    Robert: “This has always made me ascribe special status to humans, and to think that human concerns are of special importance.”

    Douglas Adams satirised this attitude by making mice the special species.

    1. “This is rather as if you imagine a puddle waking up one morning and thinking, ‘This is an interesting world I find myself in — an interesting hole I find myself in — fits me rather neatly, doesn’t it? In fact it fits me staggeringly well, must have been made to have me in it!’ This is such a powerful idea that as the sun rises in the sky and the air heats up and as, gradually, the puddle gets smaller and smaller, frantically hanging on to the notion that everything’s going to be alright, because this world was meant to have him in it, was built to have him in it; so the moment he disappears catches him rather by surprise. I think this may be something we need to be on the watch out for.”

      ― Douglas Adams, The Salmon of Doubt

  2. This insightful response is excellent. However, it focusses narrowly on the value and wonders of the physical sciences. Professor Coyne’s arguments are even more applicable to the social and behavioral sciences. Many studies use the scientific method and accept evolutionary change as a foundation for explaining the phenomena in which we are personally involved on a daily basis. There is good science being done in these disciplines; might we recognize this rather than imply that studies conducted in the fields of anthropology and sociology fundamentally differ from the physics we use to explore the cosmos?

  3. There certainly scientist who are religious but they are a minority today. I may have the dates wrong but a 1993 survey of the American member of the National Academy of Science found 93% of the surveyed did not believe in God, while a later servey of the British Royal Society found the percent to be about 98%.
    There are believing scientists but there are very few,

  4. The lament in the last quote in bold reminds me of Richard Feynman’s quote:

    “I have a friend who’s an artist and has sometimes taken a view which I don’t agree with very well. He’ll hold up a flower and say “look how beautiful it is,” and I’ll agree. Then he says “I as an artist can see how beautiful this is but you as a scientist take this all apart and it becomes a dull thing,” and I think that he’s kind of nutty. First of all, the beauty that he sees is available to other people and to me too, I believe. Although I may not be quite as refined aesthetically as he is … I can appreciate the beauty of a flower. At the same time, I see much more about the flower than he sees. I could imagine the cells in there, the complicated actions inside, which also have a beauty. I mean it’s not just beauty at this dimension, at one centimeter; there’s also beauty at smaller dimensions, the inner structure, also the processes. The fact that the colors in the flower evolved in order to attract insects to pollinate it is interesting; it means that insects can see the color. It adds a question: does this aesthetic sense also exist in the lower forms? Why is it aesthetic? All kinds of interesting questions which the science knowledge only adds to the excitement, the mystery and the awe of a flower. It only adds. I don’t understand how it subtracts.”

      1. Feynman is another creative thinker that died too young.That man has given us so many insights it would be difficult to mention them all. The one that stands out for me though, is: “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself, and you are the easiest person to fool.”

    1. That is very much my view. Would some religious clown dare to claim that an expert classical musician enjoys the products of the great composers less than someone who lacks musical skills?

  5. I often enjoy, when contemplating the beauty and awesomeness of the natural world, postulating a monster-god who requires that innocent blood be spilt for the remission of sin. It makes perfect sense, like tri-partate waterfalls or ontological arguments. In this joyous Passover and Easter season, let us think on these things and believe.

    Look up at the Heavens and say, “the luminous shall make me numinous!”

  6. Wow, those are some obtuse and frivolous riffs from Friedersdorf’s readers.

    At least The 5th Dimension could make this nonsense swing:

  7. Science and religion have always been fully compatible because religion is an evolved human phenomenon like all other human attributes. Human evolution over time created God as a collective universal parent to reinforce the illusion of kinship. Unconditional religious belief is a logical and effective byproduct of inclusive fitness and a natural result of the framework it evolved in.

  8. Your mention of cognitive dissonance sent me down an internet rabbit hole. I understand that cognitive dissonance is the feeling of discomfort we have when holding two or more contradictory beliefs at the same time. I just never thought about why or how our brains have the ability to hold these contradictory beliefs simultaneously in the first place, aside from the emotional consequence. George Orwell called it “Doublethink.” Found an interesting explanation:

    “There are no automatic mechanisms in your brain that point out the inconsistency and force you to resolve it.
    The same thing is true with beliefs. When someone says, “I believe that human life is sacred,” or “I believe in individual freedom,” that statement includes an unstated disclaimer that goes something like “all else being equal.” But there are nearly always circumstances that lead to the violation of any broad belief or value statement.
    “It would be too much work for the brain to have to enumerate all of the exceptions to the rules you believe in, so it does something easier instead: It associates beliefs with specific situations and makes it easier to retrieve those beliefs in the situations with which they are associated.”

    By Art Markman on the Fast Company website 1-24-2017

  9. I agree with everything PCC(E) wrote, but reading the Whitman rang a chord with me, for a very specific reason.
    There is a German folk song with lyrics from the 16th century that I love and that makes me either shiver or cry every time I hear or sing it. When it turned into a popular song in the 18th century, enlightenment philosophers (i.e. the scientists of their day) sneered at the religiousness and naivité of the lyrics and its hints that human science may not know everything. In their anti-religious polemic, they were unable to feel or could not acknowledge the spiritual power of the words that very artlessly, in the vocabulary and worldview of a common man of the 16th century, touch upon the universal human condition of being a lost speck in this universe, subject to very conscious suffering and death, striving for deeper meaning, impotently wishing for some sort of salvation from death and suffering. The spiritually lacking critics of the lyrics were successful in that only the most anodyne stanzas get sung now (no death, no illness, no God/prayer, no obvious critique of the arrogance and limitations of human knowledge), so that many people believe the song is a childrens’ lullaby, which it isn’t.
    The song is of course “Abendlied” (Der Mond ist aufgegangen). Here is the wonderful Joan Baez singing the stanzas that got less bad rap than the others:

  10. “How can these things not add to your appreciation of what you see?”

    You make a good point—the appreciation is what matters. We sometimes assume, looking at all these wonders, that God wants us to praise him as Creator of same. Speaking as a poet, I would take far greater pleasure in knowing that people admired and loved my poems than I would in their knowing that I wrote them, and I can’t imagine that I’m more self-effacing than God. In other words, I suspect God is content that we appreciate the great Book of Nature in all its wonders, as you clearly do, and couldn’t care less whether we acknowledge him as the author.

    1. And of course, the presumption of God (nonsense until you reify) could make what you say vacuous.

      Whether scientific knowledge adds to your appreciation of nature, a subjective matter, is not the point for some people. If scientific knowledge makes an atom wondrous to behold, that’s fine; if not, that’s fine too.

    2. You seem like a decent person, who has decently anthropomorphized a presumed deity. There is beauty and poetry in the universe. But there is also the merciless winnowing process of evolution, and a cacophony of ugly human behavior that should also inform any characterization of god. I think you’re arguing that the shithole house has good bones.

  11. I look upon the Black Death, tsunamis, earthquakes, forest fires, diseases, parasites, accidental injuries, and I find my appetite for gods wonders markedly reduced.

  12. Humans alone are known to be capable of appreciating the universe in this way. This has always made me ascribe special status to humans, and to think that human concerns are of special importance. I don’t take this to be inconsistent with the scale of it all, but rather a result of it. If we aren’t here anymore, the all the beauty in the universe won’t mean anything to anyone. So something of enormous value would be lost.

    This I think is the Argument From Beauty. The AFB says that science alone can’t lead to an appreciation of the universe because it can’t account for the fact that we do appreciate it. It doesn’t so much attack the inadequacy of cosmology as the inadequacy of biology and, ultimately, evolution. Why would anything have evolved to be capable of feeling such elevated, refined emotions? Where does Beauty come from?

    The Divine.

    I can’t sneer at the Argument from Beauty because, back when I still identified as not-an-atheist, this was the sticking point for me.

    The problem of course is that it’s not difficult to come up with an evolutionary explanation for a “sense of satisfaction” once we have creatures which must seek out environments in which they thrive enough to reproduce. It proceeds by small increments from there. Humans alone may be capable of feeling a complex and deep-seated wonder when looking at a photo from the Hubble telescope, but chimpanzees can like the pretty colors. We’re not all that special.

    1. “Humans alone may be capable of feeling a complex and deep-seated wonder when looking at a photo from the Hubble telescope, but chimpanzees can like the pretty colors. We’re not all that special.”

      Let’s keep in mind that we not only feel wonder when looking at a photo from the Hubble telescope, but that we made the Hubble telescope. That’s pretty damn special.

      1. But we can’t stay underwater for an hour like Wedell’s seals. If you’re trying to give evidence for God by saying that we built the Hubble space telescope, just give up. We evolved by natural selection, and part of that involved large brains.

        Unless you have tangible evidence for God, please stop trying to hint that it exists.

  13. As to whether science and religion are incompatible, it strikes me that a number of those who assert compatibility are really talking about holding to tenets of each as “ways of living”, as opposed to compatibility as “ways of knowing”. A man holds to scientific tenets in his medical practice or his civil engineering job yet attends church and believes in the resurrection. Practices from each realm exist side-by-side in his life because he does not insist on applying one mode of knowing to all aspects of his life. Call it “compartmentalization” or whatever, but science and religion are compatible practices in the sense that they can exist as practices side-by-side in an individual life with no sense of disharmony to that individual.

    Are science and religion compatible as “ways of knowing”? Of course not. But sometimes this debate just seems like people talking past each other with different senses of what “compatible” means. The OED would have compatible as being “mutually tolerant; capable of being admitted together, or of existing together in the same subject; accordant, consistent, congruous, agreeable.” One side would have science and religion as incompatible because they are neither consistent nor mutually tolerant, with science calling into question the truth claims of religion; another side would have them compatible because they are capable of existing together as practices in the same subject. One side sees oil and water, repelling each other; the other side sees salad dressing to be enjoyed.

    Certainly, one can insist that a person SHOULD apply one way of knowing across all aspects of his life in order to be consistent. But I wonder whether such a consistent person exists anywhere. Politics anyone? Now, there is a realm of life devoid of truth claims, irrationality, moralistic reasoning ungrounded in empirical evidence, flights of fancy, contradictory reactionary stances, and hagiography! One would almost think forms of it to be religious. That makes me wonder: are science and partisan politics compatible? I won’t even ask about “love”.

    1. See Faith Versus Fact; I discuss all this when talking about what I mean by “compatibility”. The meaning that religious people have is that you can accept both ways of knowing simultaneously–that there is no conflict.

    2. Well yes, it is (IMMO) a kind of ‘cognitive dissonance’. Dawkins argued decisively (again IMMO) that scientific discovery actually enhances beauty and awe in his “Unweaving the Rainbow”

    3. Are science and religion compatible as “ways of knowing”? Of course not. But sometimes this debate just seems like people talking past each other with different senses of what “compatible” means.

      I recently listened to an interview with Alister McGrath. He too said that science and religion were compatible in that deeply religious people do science. However, he did not discuss aspects of religion that are not compatible with science. This seemed rather disingenuous. There is nothing wrong with saying that religious people can be successful scientists. However, one could highlight instances of conflict that lead people to say that the two disciplines are not compatible.

      1. Exactly, eg. Francis Colins did some great successful scientific work, but he is religious. Note, he demolishes the anti-evolution narrative, but makes an exception for humans.
        A frozen waterfall, of all things, being his epiphany, according to his own account. That is something I cannot fathom. He should read ‘Unweaving the Rainbow’, I guess.

  14. “Isn’t it enough to see that a garden is beautiful without having to believe that there are fairies at the bottom of it too?” (Douglas Adams)

  15. As an astronomer, you might expect me to be offended by the sentiment in Whitman’s poem, but it’s worth remembering that when the poem was published, most of astronomy was still concerned with measuring the positions of the stars (astrometry) and developing ever more elaborate and accurate mathematical models for the orbital movements of the planets (celestial mechanics). Modern astrophysics was still in its infancy. Astronomers had yet to understand what stars are made of, how they generate energy, and how they are born, evolve and die. It would be more than fifty years before the true scale of the universe was understood, and longer still before Hubble demonstrated that it was expanding in such a way as to imply that it had had a beginning. Planetary science, the study of the origins, composition and conditions on the other planets of the solar system, was also very rudimentary. As late as the early 1900s, some astronomers genuinely believed that the changing features on the surface of Mars were evidence of irrigation canals built by its inhabitants. It was also believed that Venus might be habitable as late as the 1950s.

    Much of the awe and wonder of the cosmos that Carl Sagan evoked so memorably and eloquently is based on discoveries made many decades after Whitman. So let’s cut the poet a little slack. Besides, he’s right about one thing. It’s good to go outside occasionally and simply gaze at the stars. They are really very beautiful, you know.

  16. One of the most poetic quotes of Richard Dawkins I ever heard was:

    [blockquote]DNA neither cares or knows. DNA just is. And we dance to its music.”[/blockquote]

Leave a Reply