The Covid vaccines: science or miracles?

April 5, 2021 • 12:30 pm

I won’t go on about this execrable piece from the Deseret News, which is owned by the Mormon church, except to say that it’s a good example of mushbrained accommodationism. The writer, a staff member at the paper, is also a Mormon.

Click to read (and weep):

His schtick: yes, science can work wonders, but how do we know that God didn’t have some role in the development of the Covid vaccines? After all, God could have jiggled the neurons of all the scientists involved in the long chain of their creation, including those who discovered RNA. We all know, as Benson says, that you can’t prove there’s a god, but you can’t disprove it, either! He thinks that this means that it’s plausible that God was involved in our getting “shots in arms.”

Here’s Benson’s homily:

For believers, that “cosmic consciousness” has a creator and a purpose. The universe is expanding and unfolding according to divine law, and the developments in science and medicine — unraveled by brilliant human minds — likewise increase our understanding of God. A miraculous vaccine, be it for polio or SARS-CoV-2, is not antithetical to the presence or purpose of God; it is congruent with it.

Yes, of course science and god are “congruent” if you’re willing, as is Benson, to admit that we can’t prove that there’s no god. (Well, as a superannuated scientist I’d say that there is not only no evidence for gods, but also that, given that theistic gods are supposed to interact with the world, we have evidence against Abrahamic gods). But science and leprechauns, Bigfoot, fairies, and all manner of supernatural beings are also congruent. Perhaps it was the leprechauns that helped create the vaccine.

But wait! there’s more! Below the writer echoes Dietrich Bonhoeffer as Benson dimly realizes that relegating god to unexplained phenomena forces any deity into an ever-shrinking niche. Ergo, we can’t ask for any empirical evidence for God, as that could always be explained someday by science:

If we constrain God to the realms of only what we cannot explain by science, and make miracles only those things that science, at present, cannot explain, we’ll eventually run out of things to call “miracles,” and in turn, relinquish any need to pursue faith while exploring science. Increasing understanding of God’s creations should draw us closer to the Creator, not distance us from Him.

But to echo the late Victor Stenger, the absence of evidence for God is indeed evidence for the absence of God if there should have been evidence. And there should be, for a theistic God. Often that evidence is in the form of miracles, which it surely is for the Catholic Church. But evidence does not exist outside of people’s revelations and will to believe ancient writings.

That should unite people of faith and people of no faith, [Alan] Lightman writes. “In a sense, the miracle believers and the miracle nonbelievers have found a bit of common ground,” he explained in The Atlantic. “… Both believers and nonbelievers have sworn allegiance to concepts that cannot be proved.”

Belief in the unprovable is the hallmark of religion. Faith itself is a belief in what we cannot fully understand or know. Our limited comprehension of God requires a great deal of faith. But that faith can be an asset, not a hindrance, in understanding the world around us.

Now above we have truly mushbrained statements by both Lightman and Benson. “Swearing allegiance to science” is not something we do, for there is always the possibility that science may actually turn up some evidence for a deity. Scientists don’t swear allegiance to anything; they use whatever naturalistic methods they have at hand to find out what’s true. And that’s the only way we know of finding out what’s true  (I discuss this in Faith Versus Fact.)

Science is not based on “faith” in the religious sense, but, as I’ve been hammering home since I wrote a piece in Slate eight years ago, what we mean by “faith” in science is “confidence that its methods will bring us closer to the truth”. “Faith” in the religious sense means, “Confident belief in supernatural things for which there is no evidence.”

Benson goes on:

Can we prove God’s role in the miracle of the COVID-19 vaccines? Not any more than we can prove his existence. But as we near the end of this pandemic, both believers and non-believers should seek common ground. Those of faith would do well to recognize the wonders of modern science, and all their merits, as credible. And for all the clarity science brings, we should admit the influence of the divine can be present without being proved.

Why, exactly, should we seek common ground? I’m willing as a scientist to say that the influence of the divine can be present without being proved, but I’d add that there is no evidence for the divine, so why should we accept its existence? As Laplace supposedly said to Napoleon, when the Emperor didn’t find any note about God in Laplace’s great book, “I don’t need that hypothesis.” I’m just as willing to admit that the influence of the divine can be present without being proved as to admit that the influence of the stars and planets on our behavior (astrology) can be present without being proved.

And, as Hitchens used to say, “All the work is ahead of him.” Does Benson think that the god whose existence we can’t prove is the Mormon God, the Catholic God, the Hindu God, or some other god? If he doesn’t know, why is he a Mormon?

Finally, there’s this:

. . . .I give thanks to modern medicine and science — and all of its brilliant disciples — for creating a cure. And in the same breath, I give thanks to God. The two need not be mutually exclusive.

If you want to find out what is true about our universe, then the methods of science and religion in ascertaining reality are certainly mutually exclusive. That is the main point of Faith Versus Fact. We don’t find out what’s true about the universe through prayer, revelation, or reading ancient books of fiction.

h/t: Jeff

Accomodationist physicist: Why science can’t disprove God

February 26, 2021 • 1:30 pm

If you read the title below, you’ll probably guess that the answer will be “no”. And you’d be right. Grady, a credentialed physicist, but also a believer, uses her Conversation piece to ponder several questions, one of which is: “If God created the laws of physics, and thus is infinitely powerful, can he break the laws of physics?” (Answer: Yes, of course he could. But we wouldn’t know that.)

Click the screenshots to read:

It’s all a bit of a mess. For example, Grady asks “Can God go faster than the speed of light?” She responds that some phenomena already do, referring to quantum entanglement, but that’s still a mystery and, at any rate, cannot be used to send information faster than the speed of light. Why this is relevant to her question is unclear. Then she asks whether the anthropic principle is evidence for God. She calls our universe “fine tuned for life”, but evokes the multiverse as the reason why this could happen: we just happen to be in one universe where the laws of physics (which may differ among universes) permit life to exist and evolve. Yet according to her God created not just the multiverse, but the different laws of physics that may apply among them.

In the end, Grady admits that science and religion are different, for science uses evidence while religion uses faith. But that itself gets her into a dilemma. For example:

I have this image of God keeping galaxy-sized plates spinning while juggling planet-sized balls – tossing bits of information from one teetering universe to another, to keep everything in motion. Fortunately, God can multitask – keeping the fabric of space and time in operation. All that is required is a little faith.

Has this essay come close to answering the questions posed? I suspect not: if you believe in God (as I do), then the idea of God being bound by the laws of physics is nonsense, because God can do everything, even travel faster than light. If you don’t believe in God, then the question is equally nonsensical, because there isn’t a God and nothing can travel faster than light. Perhaps the question is really one for agnostics, who don’t know whether there is a God.

little faith? But put that aside and look at the bit in bold above (my emphasis). Here’s her admission that God is omnipotent: he/she/it can do anything. Okay, we’ve established that, and we can’t ask Dr. Grady why she knows that God is omnipotent—after all, some religions have gods that aren’t all-powerful—because she takes that on faith. She simply has an intuition or revelation that God can do anything.  But then look at this:

This is indeed where science and religion differ. Science requires proof, religious belief requires faith. Scientists don’t try to prove or disprove God’s existence because they know there isn’t an experiment that can ever detect God. And if you believe in God, it doesn’t matter what scientists discover about the universe – any cosmos can be thought of as being consistent with God.

Well, as the late Victor Stenger said, “Absence of evidence is indeed evidence of absence if that evidence should be there in the first place.”  Stenger was referring to the fact that in fact we have evidence against a theistic god since such a god, either on purpose or inadvertently, should have provided evidence since that god interacts with the world. Presumably, Dr. Grady would respond that evidence or lack thereof is irrelevant, for religion is a matter of faith. But remember that her faith has told her that God is omnipotent. 

In that case, since God can do anything, how you deal with the question she raises (but doesn’t answer) at the beginning of her piece:

 “. . . . tragic events, such as pandemics, often cause us to question the existence of God: if there is a merciful God, why is a catastrophe like this happening?”

She never answers that question or even addresses it further. Yet if she knows that God is omnipotent, presumably through faith alone, why can’t faith also tell her why an all-powerful God allows such suffering? Is he malicious, or simply indifferent? You can’t say that you know God’s characteristics from faith, but then plead the Fifth when asked about why God kills so many kids who could not possibly deserve it—especially when he could stop the harm. In other words, if faith tells you that God is omnipotent, then it should also tell you whether God’s a nice being or a callous one.

Such is the selective ignorance of the theist.

h/t: Robert

Yet another accommodationist writes in

December 16, 2020 • 9:00 am

This is the third and last email I’ll post from people reacting to the recent re-publication on Yahoo! News of my Conversation article, “Yes, there is a war between science and religion.”   I stand by what I said and assert again that the incompatibility between the two—war, if you will—is that religion accepts certain truths about the universe without good reasons to do so, while science, with more rigorous standards, has empirical methods for supporting or eroding what we think is true. In other words, religion itself has no way to verify its beliefs, though they can be knocked down by science.

It may sound harsh to say so, but the Abrahamic religions, like most religions—some “secular” faiths like Quakerism or Unitarian Universalism are exceptions—are fairy tales, pure and simple. They may make you feel good, and even motivate some people to do good things, but in the end their factual stories, like that of Jesus, Muhammad and Gabriel, as well as Brahma, Shiva and Vishnu, are just myths. We have no need to support our morality or behavior with myths.

But some people still like religion because even if it isn’t “true” in the sense of being grounded on genuine circumstances or beings, it still makes them feel good. They like sitting in a warm pew, singing, hearing the soothing ministrations of the pastor, and admiring the stained glass while sniffing the incense. Or they like the sense of ritual involved in a daily puja. Well, the email below came from one of these folks.

Hello Jerry,

Read your recent article. I would have to disagree a little bit.

I am a secular minded person who still attends Christian church. I don’t believe any of the theology. But I find the service comforting nevertheless. And in our church we are constantly reminded to be better persons — not to escape hell but just because it feels right. Why would we throw out the arts, music, dancing, etc. because they don’t express thoughts verifiable by science?  Religion to me is in the same category as the arts.  It’s part of human expression. Some of Mozart’s music is very powerful to me. It raises my spirts. Religious services do the same thing.

Name redacted

I really don’t have much quarrel with this person’s feelings. If he likes the morality preached from the pulpit (assuming that he doesn’t go to an evangelical Christian or Catholic church, where the “morality” is ludicrous), that’s fine.

I tossed off the email below about about 4 a.m. yesterday, so it’s not particularly eloquent, and I’ve edited it a tiny bit so it doesn’t sound like I just woke up. What I would also say to this person, which I wasn’t sentient enough to add, is that the Scandinavians and northern Europeans, who are by and large atheists, manage to find solace and meaning without having to go to church, much less believing in God. Yet I bet the average Swede still goes to musical performances and museums much more often than he goes to church. You don’t need religion to get the kind of solace that this guy gets from church. And stuff like music and art can arouse the emotion without making you believe in nonexistent divinities. Finally, as I emphasize below, patronizing a religion has the side effect of enabling faith, a defect in the human character that is mistakenly regarded as a virtue.

Anyway, my reply:

Yes, if all religion was involved providing a place to go and appreciate the music and quietude and smell the incense and to meditate, that would be fine. It’s all the other stuff that bothers me–the things that Catholicism, Judaism, and Christianity do to people and make them do to other people. You’re admirable in not believing the theology, but religion enables all the people who do believe to create all the bad things that religion does to the world. It’s the factual beliefs, which undergirds the invidious moralities, that cause these problems. Surely you realize this–that by saying that we need religion because you yourself enjoy the non-theological benefits–you’re advocating keeping systems that oppress women and gays, terrorize children with thoughts of Hell, keep little Orthodox boys and girls from getting an education, and so on and so on and so on.
Religious services are fine; it’s what they lead to and support that is bad.

Another critic writes in touting the scientific rationality of Islam and decrying the moral failures of atheism

December 15, 2020 • 9:00 am

Since Yahoo! News reprinted my essay from The Conversation arguing that science and religion are incompatible, I’ve been getting lots of emails, nearly all from people who disagree with me. The accommodationists are, of course, religionists, and don’t like to hear that their faith puts them at odds with science. Many of them, like the reader below, also takes atheism to task. I’ve redacted this writer’s name because, unlike the Vatican Vice Astronomer, I don’t think the name is relevant.

This correspondent tries to make two points. First, Islam is not nearly as strongly at odds with science as is Christianity. Second, that religion gives us a moral framework but atheism doesn’t.  Both points are wrong, and I’ll respond to each separately.  The quotes the writer gives within his/her email are put in italics and quotation marks, for the “extra indent” feature isn’t working right now.

Read and weep:


Thank you for the article Yes, there is a war between science and religion. There are two reasons why I would argue that the article reflects atheism in denial of its own shortcomings. You write

“In the end, it’s irrational to decide what’s true in your daily life using empirical evidence, but then rely on wishful-thinking and ancient superstitions to judge the ‘truths’ undergirding your faith. This leads to a mind (no matter how scientifically renowned) at war with itself, producing the cognitive dissonance that prompts accommodationism. If you decide to have good reasons for holding any beliefs, then you must choose between faith and reason. And as facts become increasingly important for the welfare of our species and our planet, people should see faith for what it is: not a virtue but a defect.”

Here you are clearly extrapolating your own experiences with Christian apologists to followers of other religions: in particular Islam. I’d argue that Muslims have no need for “wishful-thinking and ancient superstitions” when forming a judgement about the reliability of their religion. It is common for atheists to  assume that the conflicts between the Bible and scientific evidence (e.g. the descriptions of the Flood, the Exodus or age of the earth) applies equally to the Quran. However, to my knowledge there has been no serious scholarly effort to support this assumption or more generally to show that the Quranic accounts and claims are in conflict with what we have learned through science.

For example, a reading of the Quranic account of the Flood would reveal that it occurred over a short period (a couple of days), the animals preserved were only those required to support a small human settlement and there is no mention of the whole earth being flooded. In regard to the Exodus, the Moses leads a small group of people into the desert, much less in number than the Pharaoh’s pursuing army, so one would not expect to find evidence of over 1 million people roaming the desert for 40 years. In addition, the Quran predicts the preservation of the Pharaoh’s body for future generations. Finally while there is no mention of the Earth’s age, there is a description of the creation of the universe which appears consistent with what we’ve been able to learn through science.

So I think its fair to say that atheists have a lot more work to do to make their case than many are prepared to acknowledge.

The email went on, but let me stop and respond:

As I pointed out in an email to this person, there is a growing literature on the incompatibility of science and Islam.  Here’s how I responded when the person asked for even one piece of literature pointing out an Islamic incompatibility between science and faith.

First, there’s Taner Edis’s book (click on screenshot):

Another book by Pakistani physicist Pervez Hoodbhoy on the stifling of scientific thought and rationality by modern Islam (and how that contrasts with the faith’s more open attitude centuries ago). 


An article from Discover Magazine (click on screenshot:


A quote from the article:

“This tendency [of Muslim accommodationists] to use their knowledge of science to ‘prove’ that the religious interpretations of life are correct is really corrupting,” he tells me. Soltan, who got his doctorate at the University of Northern Illinois, works in a small office that’s pungent with tobacco smoke; journals and newspapers lie stacked on his desk and floor. “Their methodology is bad,” he says. Soltan explains that Islamic scientists start with a conclusion (the Koran says the body has 360 joints) and then work toward proving that conclusion. To reach the necessary answer they will, in this instance, count things that some orthopedists might not call a joint. “They’re sure about everything, about how the universe was created, who created it, and they just need to control nature rather than interpret it,” Soltan adds. “But the driving force behind any scientific pursuit is that the truth is still out there.”

“Researchers who don’t agree with Islamic thinking ‘avoid questions or research agendas’ that could put them in opposition to authorities — thus steering clear of intellectual debate. In other words, if you are a scientist who is not an Islamic extremist, you simply direct your work toward what is useful. Scientists who contradict the Koran ‘would have to keep a low profile.”’When pressed for examples, Soltan does not elaborate.”

I talk about this kind of Islamic confirmation bias in Faith Versus Fact. It’s pervasive and at once annoying and amusing.

I’ve personally encountered Qur’anic opposition to science—and especially evolution—many times, as has Richard Dawkins. It often comes in the form, as Pitock notes, of saying that the Qur’an is remarkably prescient about science, with its human creation myth coincident with the evolutionary scenario. If you think that’s true, just read about the Qur’anic account itself.  Page 105 of Faith versus Fact shows the desperate lengths that some Muslim scientists go to comport science with the Qur’an.

The resistance of Islam to evolution is not, of course, universal, even within Muslim countries. Surprisingly, Iran doesn’t seem to have much of a problem with evolution being taught in its schools, while Iraq, on the other hand, has always had problems teaching evolution, and has dropped it from secondary-school curricula. Turkey, increasingly becoming a theocracy, did the same thing a few years ago.

The problem comes because many Muslims are Qur’anic literalists. Here are two plots from a 2012 Pew Poll: the first on the proportion of people in (mostly African) Muslim-majority countries who think the Qur’an should be read literally, and then the proportion of people in different Muslim-majority countries who accept evolution. Note that countries like Yemen, Iran, Afghanistan, and Saudi Arabia were not surveyed.

Then my correspondent goes on about morality:

The second way in which the article highlights atheist denialism an shortcomings, is in failing to tackling the issue of morality. What are the consequences of a world where ‘moral judgements’ are mere ‘value judgements’ to be decided by each individual. Magnas Bradshaw’s From Humanism to Nihilism: The Eclipse of Secular Ethics (CMC Papers, No. 6) addresses this question. One the one hand we have the teachings of New Atheism, such as Richard Dawkins who writes “‘the universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is at bottom no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but pointless indifference’.” and Francis Crick who is even more explicit, “you, your joys and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behaviour of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules… ‘‘you’re nothing but a pack of neurons’’.”

On the other hand we have its practitioners, the rationalists, those who take this stuff seriously, such as Ted Bundy, trained lawyer and serial killer, who reasons thus

Then I learned that all moral judgments are ‘value judgments’, that all value judgments are subjective, and that none can be proved to be either ‘right’ or ‘wrong’. I even read somewhere that the Chief Justice of the United States had written that the American Constitution expressed nothing more than collective value judgments. Believe it or not, I figured out for myself – what apparently the Chief Justice couldn’t figure out for himself – that if the rationality of one value judgment was zero, multiplying it by millions would not make it one whit more rational. Nor is there any ‘reason’ to obey the law for anyone, like myself, who has the boldness and daring – the strength of character – to throw off its shackles…I discovered that to become truly free, truly unfettered, I had to become truly uninhibited. And I quickly discovered that the greatest obstacle to my freedom, the greatest block and limitation to it, consists in the insupportable ‘value judgment’ that I was bound to respect the rights of others. I asked myself, who were these ‘others’? Other human beings, with human rights? Why is it more wrong to kill a human animal than any other animal, a pig or a sheep or a steer? Is your life more to you than a hog’s life to a hog? Why should I be willing to sacrifice my pleasure more for the one than for the other? Surely you would not, in this age of scientific enlightenment, declare that God or nature has marked some pleasures as ‘moral’ or ‘good’ and others as ‘immoral’ or ‘bad’? That is the honest conclusion to which my education has led me – after the most conscientious examination of my spontaneous and uninhibited self

Bundy’s reasoning is impeccable and based on the teachings of atheists. “Why is it more wrong to kill a human animal than  any other animal?” or, “Why shouldn’t Trump tear down the institutions supporting U.S. democracy if he wants?”. Care to answer?

Yes, of course I could answer, but would this person listen? Not a snowball’s chance in hell! But wait! There’s more!

Atheism is leaving people with no guidance on how they should conduct themselves, and what they should expect from others. That’s the reality. And logically, that is what one would expect when people do not believe in a soul capable of oppressing itself through its oppression of others or even simply contemplating words of repentance and aspiration such as : “You that turn stones to gold.. change me.”(Rumi). If you want to claim that such notions are the result of “wishful-thinking and ancient superstitions” then first offer the scholarly work that demonstrates that the Quran is indeed incompatible with what we have learned through science, and hence unreliable.

Name redacted

Where to start here? First of all, neither Dawkins nor Crick would deny that there is a morality that can be derived from humanism; Dawkins, as well as his colleagues Dan Dennett and Anthony Grayling, have been quite explicit on this point.  Indeed, unless you’re one of the few “moral objectivists”, even religious morality must come from “value judgements.”  This is the crux of the Euthyphro argument: if you say that God is good, and wouldn’t give us bad moral guidance, you are assuming there are criteria for “good” and “bad” that are independent of God. (Theologians such as William Craig, who adhere to “divine command theory which stipulates that God is the sole determinant of good, are exceptions, and their morality isn’t so hot anyway. Craig doesn’t oppose the many genocides in the Old Testament, since God ordered them.) Even religious moral judgments, then, are almost always based on “value judgments”. But so what? Different judgments have different consequences for society. You can, for example, be a utilitarian, and base your morality on what acts will do the most good or cause the least harm. Other criteria lead to other moralities, but all of them are superior to the “morality” of the Catholic Church or Islam.

Further, there is a long history of writing and philosophy on secular ethics and morality, beginning with the Greeks, extending through Kant and Hume down to Rawls, Russell, and Grayling in modern times. It is not at all true that atheists haven’t grappled with the problem or morality. To use Ted Bundy as a secular arbiter of morality is simply ridiculous!

And, of course, humanistic morality is far superior to religious morality. The latter has given us things like dictates about genital cutting, the oppression of women and gays, the diktat to kill apostates and infidels, the terrorizing of children with thoughts of hell, the abnegation of modern medicine (Christian science and other faith-healing sects), the prohibition of divorce and regulations about how to have sex and when, and the propagandizing of innocent children, who get turned into little Amish people or Orthodox Jews, deprived of opportunity and education—all because of religious morality.

When I reread the email above, I realized that the writer hadn’t really investigated the rich tradition of secular ethics, and was also woefully—and perhaps willfully—ignorant of what many Muslims think about science. I’m not sure why, but I did write him/her a summary of what I’ve said above.

You should feel free yourself to address the writer’s remarks, and I’ll call that person’s attention to this thread tomorrow.

Lagniappe (h/t Peter N.):

A Vatican astronomer writes to me

December 14, 2020 • 1:30 pm

I was just in the middle of writing about something more interesting than religion when a new email, highlighted here, arrived. And so I stopped writing to take care of this latest “flea”, as Richard Dawkins calls his captious critics. I’ll get back to the other stuff tomorrow.

Presumably because my Conversation essay on the incompatibility of science and religion was reprinted this morning on Yahoo! News, I have been getting a fair number of emails today from offended believers who reject my thesis that science and religion are incompatible. In that essay, but especially in my book Faith Versus Fact, I contend that while that both science and religion make claims about what’s true in the Universe (religion of course does other things besides assert facts), only science has a way of testing those claims.

To me this is the heart of the incompatibility, and its existence seems indisputable to me. There are a gazillion religions, all making different factual claims about the world and its history, and there’s no way to resolve them. That’s why so many religions remain on the planet, many of them hating those who adhere to other faiths. In contrast, there’s only one science (though the guy below disagrees), and Hindu scientists aren’t at odds with Muslim scientists or atheist scientists about the tenets of physics and chemistry.

If you’re a Catholic, like the writer of the email below, your theology and morality must to some degree rest on acceptance of certain central factual claims of the Church: the existence of a divine Jesus as the son/alter ego of a divine God, Jesus’s Resurrection, which expiates us of sin, and so on. If those facts be wrong, on what is your faith grounded? After all, as Scriptures say (1 Corinthians 15:12-14, King James Version):

Now if Christ be preached that he rose from the dead, how say some among you that there is no resurrection of the dead? But if there be no resurrection of the dead, then is Christ not risen. And if Christ be not risen, then is our preaching vain, and your faith is also vain.

So if Jesus didn’t come back to life—this of course assumes that Jesus not only existed, but was divine, claims supported by no evidence outside scripture—your Christian faith is useless. All three Abrahamic religions, like many other faiths, make factual claims that undergird their whole system of worship and morality.

Jesuits, of course, are more liberal than other Catholics, and perhaps more willing to interpret Scripture as metaphorical, but I’m willing to bet that this Catholic, a Jesuit, who’s Vice Director of the Vatican Observatory (I squelch my urge to make a Catholic pun) adheres to the myths about Jesus that undergird his faith. (He is, after all, a member of the Society of Jesus!) Presumably Fr. Mueller goes to Mass at least once a week and noms the wafer and quaffs the wine, accepting that some kind of physical but undetectable transformation occurs during that process. Presumably he goes to confession, thinking that if he tells his sins to another priest, God will expiate them. Well, I don’t know Fr. Mueller’s own beliefs save that he’s co-authored a book about why religion and science are compatible, and no, I haven’t read it, as it came out several years after my own. In fact, according to Fr. Mueller, I haven’t read anything substantive about the relationship between science and religion.

It’s the smarmy faux-niceness pervading this email—its sugary passive-aggressiveness—that made me decide to post it, which I don’t often do. Mueller’s note even ends with an invitation to visit the Vatican Observatory.

But it’s not just that tone that angered me. More galling was Mueller’s accusation that I haven’t read widely about the relationship between science and faith (he’s employing the Courtier’s Reply here), which is of course untrue. Apparently Fr. Mueller isn’t aware that I wrote an entire book on my thesis (with pages and pages of references), a book that of course he hasn’t read, since he’s responding only to my short article. Ergo, Fr. Mueller is even more guilty of the Courtier’s accusation.  Had he read my book—and it’s just one book, not the dozens he’d foist on me—he’d know that I already dealt with the first three points of his critique, including giving a very careful exposition of what I mean by “incompatibility” between science and religion.

Hiding yet another brickbat in his bouquet, Fr. Mueller assures me that he’s concerned to uphold my university’s standards of inquiry, as he himself has two degrees at the University of Chicago. Yes, I’m apparently guilty of shoddy scholarship. Even if that were true, though, at least I’m not guilty of believing in fairy tales.

I had drafted a reply to Mueller about the “standards of inquiry” that undergird his own beliefs, but of course I don’t know for sure what his beliefs are. But one thing is true: we know a lot more about our solar system than we know about the Catholic God or His purported sidekicks: Jesus and the Holy Ghost.

I decided not to provide Fr. Mueller with a list of all the reading I did about theology and its relationship to science, extending from Augustine and Aquinas down to Haught (does Mueller know I debated Catholic theologian Haught, who then tried to censor the video of our debate because he didn’t come off very well?), to Alvin Plantinga, Karen Armstrong, Ronald Numbers, the BioLogos Crew including Francis Collins, Ken Miller, David Bentley Hart, Richard Swinburne, John Polkinghorne, and many others—yes, the whole schmegegge of accommodationism.

I missed Rabbi Sacks’s book, but I did read the Dalai Lama’s. And I’m here to tell you that none of these people wrote anything that undermines my thesis about incompatibility. They really couldn’t, for they have factual beliefs based not on empiricism but on faith, Scripture, and wish-thinking, methods guaranteed to pull you into the rabbit hole of confirmation bias. At some point, one realizes that after reading 315 books on science and religion, you’re not going to find a new, world-shaking thesis in book #316.

I guess this will constitute my reply to Fr. Mueller, and I’ll call his attention to this post. But if you wish to chime in, please do so below. Remember, he’s trying hard to be nice (at least, that’s how it looks), so don’t bruise the man. Still, I find this kind of letter to be far more annoying that emails from straight-up creationists who say I’m going to hell and don’t claim that I’m their “colleague.”

Here you go:

Dear Mr. Coyne,

I recently read your article “Yes there is a war between science and religion” on the web site “The Conversation”.  If I may respond:

First: There is indeed a conflict between (on one hand) theism co-joined with a literal interpretation of scripture and (on the other hand) science co-joined with philosophical materialism. If you had limited yourself to that narrow domain, your claims would be true, if unremarkable. However:

  • “Religion” is not reducible to theism co-joined with a literal interpretation of scripture. That represents only a small part of world-wide religion — most notably, noisy Christian fundamentalists in the USA and sometimes-violent Islamic fundamentalists elsewhere.
  • “Science” does not necessarily include philosophical materialism. It is only in the English-speaking world that the notion is widespread that science entails philosophical materialism; in the rest of the world, that is decidedly a minority position.

Second: In modern scholarship, it is commonly understood that it is not possible to speak meaningfully about the relationship between science and religion. There are many sciences, and there are many religions. Serious and meaningful discussion is possible only in reference to particular sciences and particular religions.

Third: If you’re going to take Daniel Dennett (a “God-denier”) as your guide in defining religion, then shouldn’t you take take a science-denier, or an evolution-denier, or a climate-change denier as your guide in defining science? To express the point more soberly: Shouldn’t the conceptions of “religion” which you engage be intrinsic to religion (i.e. furnished from within religious traditions) rather than extrinsic (i.e. imposed on religion from without)?

Finally, I am surprised that you would make such sweeping claims about science-faith without showing evidence of having entered more deeply into the vast scholarly literature in that area. It doesn’t seem possible that you would be innocent of serious engagement with such scholarship, but if so a suitable first step could be John Haught’s God and the New Atheism. A fuller and more nuanced entree could be Jonathan Sacks’ The Great Partnership. For historically sensitive exploration of the peculiarly American conflict between biblical fundamentalism and scientific materialism, there’s the excellent scholarly work of Ronald Numbers — for example, The Creationists (2006) and The Warfare Between Science and Religion: The Idea That Wouldn’t Die (2018).

I write this message to you not only as a University of Chicago alumnus who is concerned to uphold the University’s standards of inquiry, but also in the spirit of the words of Pope John Paul II in a 1988 letter to George Coyne, who was then the director of the Vatican astronomical observatory: “Science can purify religion from error and superstition; religion can purify science from idolatry and false absolutes.”*

Thank you for your kind attention. If you should find yourself at Rome and you would like to visit the Vatican astronomical observatory at Castel Gandolfo, please feel free to contact me.

Collegially yours,

Paul Mueller

     MS Physics, 1996, University of Chicago
     PhD Conceptual and Historical Studies of Science, 2006, University of Chicago
  Paul Mueller
  Vice Director
  Vatican Observatory


* JAC note: No, religion can’t.

A philosopher infected with confirmation bias explains why evolution proves God

November 15, 2020 • 9:15 am

Religious affirmations like those in this video make me angry, wanting to call philosopher Holmes Rolston III a chowderhead who’s taking money under false pretenses. But I will refrain from such name-calling. Nevertheless, what you hear coming out of Rolston’s mouth in this short Closer to Truth interview is pure garbage: not even passable philosophy. It should dismay all rational people that such a man is not only expressing laughable confirmation biases, but is getting paid for it.

And yet here are Rolston’s bona fides from Wikipedia:

Holmes Rolston III (born November 19, 1932) is a philosopher who is University Distinguished Professor of Philosophy at Colorado State University. He is best known for his contributions to environmental ethics and the relationship between science and religion. Among other honors, Rolston won the 2003 Templeton Prize, awarded by Prince Philip in Buckingham Palace. He gave the Gifford Lectures, University of Edinburgh, 1997–1998.
And remember that the Templeton Prize, was worth over a million bucks, even back in 2003. What did he get it for? This is from Templeton’s press release when they gave him the Prize:

The world’s best known religion prize, [The Templeton Prize] is given each year to a living person to encourage and honor those who advance spiritual matters.  When he created the prize, Templeton stipulated that its value always exceed the Nobel Prizes to underscore his belief that advances in spiritual discoveries can be quantifiably more significant than those honored by the Nobels.

. . . .Rolston has lectured on seven continents including throughout Europe, Australia, South America, China, India, and Japan.

Seven continents? They left out Antarctica, and I doubt that Rolston has lectured there.  His prize-winning thoughts:

. . . science and religion have usually joined to keep humans in central focus, an anthropocentric perspective when valuing the creation of the universe and evolution on Earth.  Rolston, by contrast, has argued an almost opposite approach, one that looks beyond humans to include the fundamental value and goodness of plants, animals, species, and ecosystems as core issues of theological and scientific concern.  His 1986 book, Science and Religion — A Critical Study and his 1987 Environmental Ethics have been widely hailed for re-opening the question of a theology of nature by rejecting anthropocentrism in ethical and philosophical analysis valuing natural history.

Do I denigrate him unfairly? Shouldn’t I read his many books to give him a fairer assessment? Not on your life: I’m through with the Courtier’s Reply gambit.  Just let me add that Rolston is a believer, with a degree from Union Presbyterian Seminary, the same year he was ordained to the ministry of the Presbyterian Church (USA).  

Have a listen, and don’t be drinking liquids when you do. The good part is that this is only a bit less than seven minutes long.

Rolston gets a sense of “divine creativity” from the gradual and incremental changes wrought by neo-Darwinian evolution. But in this video he dwells more on serendipity, the “surprises” that punctuate the history of evolution. These include these “adventures that turned out right”:

a.) Swim bladders evolving into lungs (most people think it’s the other way around, but Rolston is right). This is a simple case of an “exaptation“, as Gould called it: the adaptation of an evolved feature into something with a new function.

b.) The capture of a photosynthetic bacterium by another cell to form photosynthetic eukaryotes: plants. (The same happened with mitochondria.) Yes, this is unpredictable, as is all of evolution, and was a major innovation, but it’s not evidence for God.

c.) The evolution of hearing began with a pressure-sensitive cell in a fish. This is another exaptation, though the function didn’t change, but altered a bit. Hearing still depends on pressure change, but we use it for apprehending and interpreting language and other sounds in air. Animals use it for intraspecies communication and detection of predators (which fish also use it for).

I could give a gazillion examples of such “surprises” in evolution, like the evolution of the ovipositor of insects into the stinging apparatus of bees and wasps, the doubling of an entire ancestral genome—twice—during the evolution of the vertebrates, and so on. Nobody can predict where evolution will go, for, as Jacques Monod famously noted in 1977, evolution is a tinkerer. And what about the “adventures that turned out wrong“, like the evolution of large dinosaurian reptiles? God killed ’em off by sending a big asteroid plummeting towards Earth.

The fact is that nothing we see in evolution contradicts the claim that it’s a purely naturalistic process, proceeding via unpredictable events—mutations and environmental change. This is the most parsimonious hypothesis given that we have not an iota of convincing evidence for God.

Then, in response to a softball question by the host, Rolston avers that he sees a theological underpinning of surprise, co-option, and serendipity. But since he also sees the hand of god in gradual Darwinian evolution, he sees the hand of God in all of evolution. In other words, there is nothing Rolston could observe about evolution that wouldn’t, for him, constitute evidence for God. As he says:

“It leaves open a place for surprising creativity . . . that I think exceeds any Darwinian capacity for explanation. Now I said when I began that I can find the presence of God in incremental evolutionary genesis. But maybe if the world is surprising as well as predictable that might further invite places where you might think if I should say, ‘God might sneak into the evolutionary process.’. . . .God may like serendipity as well as law-like prediction and determinism.”

So, If evolution is gradual and smooth, it’s evidence for God. But if there are “surprises”, as there have been, well, that’s also evidence for God. In other words, EVERYTHING is evidence for God. It is an academic crime that someone not only gets paid—and wins a huge prize—for spouting this kind of pabulum, but also is respected for it, for, after all, Rolston is a minister and a believer.

My contempt for this kind of reasoning knows no bounds. It could be filed in the Philosophical Dictionary under “confirmation bias; religion”. (Is that heading a redundancy?) Everything that happens is evidence for God because it’s “what God likes.” But of course if you argue that “whatever happens must be what God likes,” then you have yourself a million-dollar airtight, circular argument.  Some philosophy!

I guess the host, Robert Lawrence Kuhn, sees his brief as drawing out the guest rather than challenging him, and that’s okay. But I would have been pleased had Kuhn asked him this: “Is there anything about evolution that doesn’t give you evidence for God?”  I would think, for instance, that the evolution of predators and parasites that inflict horrible suffering on animals might make one question the existence of God, as it did for Darwin, but I’m sure Rolston has his explanation. Maybe it’s “God likes a little drama in his creation.”


h/t: Mark

Bertrand Russell on faith versus fact

October 17, 2020 • 11:30 am

I was shocked when a reader mentioned, in a recent comment, that the famous philosopher, logician, mathematician and vociferous atheist Bertrand Russell had written a book about the conflict between religion and science. How could I have missed it when I wrote a book about the same issue in 2015, and spent two years reading before I wrote it? I was chagrined, and of course nothing would do but for me to get the book, which was published in 1935.

Fortunately, our library had it, and I got it and devoured it within a few days. I was happy to once again read Russell’s clear prose and dry wit, but also to see that while his topic was nominally the same as mine, there isn’t much overlap between our books. I’ll just highlight a few points of similarity and difference, and mention a few of Russell’s ideas that we still talk about on this site.

Below is the title page; you can still buy the book here, with the reissue having an introduction by Michael Ruse. As for whether you should buy it, well, if you’re familiar with Russell’s popular writings you’ve probably read most of it before, and a lot of it isn’t really about religion vs. science. I’ll be self-aggrandizing and say that if you can only read one book on the conflict—and you think there is a conflict—it should be Faith Versus Fact rather than Russell’s. (If you don’t see a conflict, there are other books by accommodationists you can read). I don’t make that recommendation lightly, as Russell was far brainier and more eloquent than I. It’s just that things have moved on in the last 85 years (NOMA, advances in physics and evolutionary biology, conflicts about global warming and faith-based healing, and so on), and I don’t spend a lot of time—as Russell does—dealing with stuff like the mind/body problem, demonology, the idea of a soul, and the notion of “cosmic purpose.”

There is some overlap between what Russell and I consider to be the “conflict” between religion and science. First, our differences.  I see it as a conflict in how to adjudicate what is true given the disparate “truth-seeking” methods of science and religion, while Russell sees the conflict largely as a historical phenomenon: the fact that religion and science have been at odds with each other since science became a discipline.  That is, Russell adheres to what’s known by accommodationists as “the conflict hypothesis”. Thus, he has whole chapters on evolution vs. creationism, the Copernican revolution and how heliocentrists like Galileo fought with the Church, and the scientific vacuity of the idea of “souls” and of some external “purpose of life.”

That said, Russell does recognize that the conflict arose from the different ways that science and religion determine truth, with the former relying on empirical investigation and the latter on revelation, scripture, and authority. Surprisingly, though, for a man who wrote the famous essay “Why I am not a Christian” (1927; read it at the link), Russell is surprisingly soft on religion, extolling its virtues as an arbiter of morality and saying that its appeal is emotional, having little to do with truth.

He further argues that, when he wrote the book above, the warfare between science and Christian theology was “nearly ended,” as theology was yielding territory repeatedly to scientific facts. But he didn’t know that creationism would still be with us decades later, and doesn’t discuss the fact that, even in his time many religious people, including Jews, Buddhists, Muslims, Christian Scientists, Scientologists, Hindus, and, in fact, most faiths, still held beliefs that are contradicted by science (reincarnation, souls, karma, spiritual healing, and so on). This conflict will always be with us so long as religion asserts truths that aren’t based on empirical observation and assent—i.e., “science construed broadly.”

I’ll mention just two of Russell’s arguments with which I agree, and also deal with in Faith Versus Fact. I’ll give his quotes in indents.

Is there an objective morality? Russell discusses this in detail, and although a few modern philosophers and thinkers assert that matters of right and wrong can be discerned objectively, through science, he disagrees, as do I. At bottom, “right and wrong” are matters of subjective preference, and you cannot decide which morality is objectively “better” unless you have some personal preference for what you want morality to do. (Sam Harris, for example, thinks morality should maximize well being, and what is “right” can be determined by a calculus of well being.) But well being, like all criteria for morality are at bottom simply tastes. As Russell says,

We may desire A because it is a means to B, but in the end, when we have done with mere means, we must come to something, which we desire for no reason, but not on that account “irrationally”. All systems of ethics embody the desires of those who advocate them, but this fact is concealed in a mist of words. (p. 254)

I particularly like the concise truth of the last sentence.

Russell concludes that science cannot decide questions of values, which puts both of us at odds with people like Sam Harris and Derek Parfit. So be it. But I would argue that neither can religion decide questions of values. That’s because those questions can be decided only by referring to scripture, authority, or revelation, and those are at odds with each other among religions. I would further argue that since secular ethics (which has a long tradition) is not beholden to ancient scripture or the parochialism of faiths and of their gods, it produces a morality better than that of religion. And indeed, you’d be hard pressed to argue otherwise, for then you’d have to defend all sorts of ridiculous “morality” around sex, food, and so on. Is it really immoral to masturbate? Catholicism says so, as do many branches of Judaism.

Science is the only way of knowing what’s true. We’ve repeatedly discussed whether there are other ways of “knowing” beyond science, and that, of course, depends on what you mean by “knowing”.  If you construe it, as I do, as “the apprehension and recognition of facts about the universe—facts that are widely agreed on”, then yes, I conclude in Chapter 4 of Faith versus Fact that science is the only game in town, and religion, insofar as it makes factual statements about the Universe, including about the existence and nature of God, fails miserably. (See pp. 185-196 of FvF.) Science means “the empirical method that science uses to ascertain truth”, and need not be practiced by scientists alone.

Russell clearly agrees. Here’s one quote (my emphasis):

“The mystic emotion, if it is freed from unwarranted beliefs, and not so overwhelming as to remove a man wholly from the ordinary business of life, may give something of very great value – the same kind of thing, though in a heightened form, that is given by contemplation.

Breadth and calm and profundity may all have their source in this emotion, in which, for the moment, all self-centered desire is dead, and the mind becomes a mirror for the vastness of the universe.

Those who have had this experience, and believe it to be bound up unavoidably with assertions about the nature of the universe, naturally cling to these assertions. I believe myself that the assertions are inessential, and that there is no reason to believe them true.

I cannot admit any method of arriving at truth except that of science, but in the realm of the emotions I do not deny the value of the experiences which have given rise to religion. Through association with false beliefs, they have led to much evil as well as good; freed from this association, it may be hoped that the good alone will remain.” (p. 197)

In the end, morality and “ways of knowing” converge in the last paragraph of the book proper (before the “conclusions” section):

I conclude that, while it is true that science cannot decide questions of value, that is because they cannot be intellectually decided at all, and lie outside the realm of truth and falsehood. Whatever knowledge is attainable, must be attained by scientific methods; and what science cannot discover, mankind cannot know.  (p. 255)

Here’s Russell, who won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1950:

What do “sophisticated” believers really believe?

October 12, 2020 • 12:45 pm

I was thinking last night about someone who asked a fairly prominent religious scientist—not Francis Collins—if he believed in the literal resurrection of Jesus.  The scientist refused to answer—and it wasn’t on the grounds that he kept his religion private. Rather, it was the equivalent of this person, who publicly and openly professed his Catholicism, saying, “I don’t want to answer.” When you get down to the actual claims of Catholicism, or of religion in general, scientists often take the Theological Fifth, in effect saying, “This far and no farther.”

Now why did the guy refuse to answer the question? After all, if you go around saying you’re a Catholic, and arguing about how your Catholicism comports with science, why would you refuse to answer a question about what bits of Catholicism you believe?

Now I have my theory about this, which is mine. It’s that this person really truly believed in the Resurrection, but wouldn’t admit it in public because it would make him look credulous and superstitious. It didn’t comport with his evidence-based attitude towards his scientific beliefs. And in that sense I take religious scientists’ frequent refusal to specify their beliefs as prima facie evidence of the incompatibility between science and religion. In other words, their taking the Theological Fifth is a sign of cognitive dissonance.  And this wasn’t the first religious scientist I’ve seen refuse to be specific about their beliefs.

If a scientist professes to be Christian, for instance ask them what they believe about the following:

The Resurrection
The soul, and then ask where it is and what happens to it. Also, do animals have souls?
The Virgin Birth
An afterlife; e.g., Heaven and Hell. If they accept these, press for specifics on, say, what form one would assume in Heaven.
If they’re Catholic, ask them if they believe in the transubstantiation, and, if so, in what sense

Now most scientists, when asked if the creation stories in Genesis 1 and 2 are true, will say no, it’s all a metaphor. But that’s because science has disproved those bits of scripture, and scripture that’s disproven isn’t discarded but simply changes into metaphor. Since the claims listed above are largely (but not completely) unprovable, they can remain (barely) in the realm of literality.

And, as a kicker, you can always ask them how they came to think these things were true.

I’m curious if anybody else has come across this kind of petulance when you ask science-friendly people—those willing to discuss their faith—what they really believe. I’m sure readers have some interesting stories to tell about this stuff.

I’ll add here that if they’re not willing to discuss their faith at all, even if you’re non-judgmental, it’s often a sign that they regard it as something shameful, like carrying a lucky rabbit’s foot.  After all, two centuries ago no religionist was reticent to aver what they believed. Now, in the age of science, religions ask you to believe so much nonsense that, when you take it aboard, you have to keep it a secret.

Accommodationism returns, this time with a nasty streak

October 5, 2020 • 9:00 am

There seems to be a resurgence of accommodationism this week, with people arguing that science and religion are perfectly compatible. The argument goes further, and along familiar lines: scientists like Dawkins and me are deemed “arrogant loudmouthed jerks” because our our vociferous atheism supposedly turns people away from science.  And so we encounter the familiar old arguments for compatibility that I thought had disappeared outside of theology: religious laypeople can love science, scientists can be religious, science can’t prove that God doesn’t exist, and so on. I tackled all these in Faith Versus Fact, but people either didn’t read it, or did read it but would rather repeat the old tropes rather than answer the arguments for science/religion incompatibility.

I have to admit that perhaps I’m a bit responsible for this pushback, as I (and others) engaged in a Twitter dispute with rapper MC Hammer last week. Hammer, trying to cover all bases, basically said that he was down with Intelligent Design (citing the old canard of the eye’s complexity), but also was down with God and with creationism as well. Well, you can’t be down with all of those at once without some vigorous scientific and theological tap-dancing. Here are some tweets by and exchanges with Hammer, including Matthew’s and mine.

Osculation of ID. Let the IDers propagandize Hammer, for they’d love to have a famous rapper on their side:

Unfortunately, I lost my cool at one point in the Twitter exchange and called Hammer an “ignoramus,” violating my own dictum to refrain from name-calling. For that I apologize, and I deleted the tweet. Hammer is, I’m sure, a nice person, although he’s confused about religion and science, and I feel bad that I insulted him. I would be delighted to discuss evolution and God with him, but that will never happen. Besides, Stephen Meyer is busy convincing Hammer of the truth of Intelligent Design.

But the exchanges between Hammer and others have brought other accommodationists out of the woodwork again, toting their old, tired arguments. You may remember Sheril Kirshenbaum, for instance, co-author with Chris Mooney of the book Unscientific America How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future, which had a strong accommodationist streak. In 2009 I reviewed that book for Science; here are two excerpts from my review:

In Unscientific America, a book slight in both length and substance, science writers Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum argue that America’s future is deeply endangered by the scientific illiteracy of its citizens and that this problem derives from two failings of scientists themselves: their vociferous atheism and their ham-handed and ineffectual efforts to communicate the importance of science to the public. According to Mooney and Kirshenbaum, atheistic scientists such as Richard Dawkins and P. Z. Myers [who runs the immensely popular science blog Pharyngula] drive people away from science by forcing them to choose between the facts and their faith. Further, most scientists are neither trained nor deeply interested in selling their work to the public, Congress, or Hollywood. This disconnect could be fixed, say the authors, if scientists would just keep quiet about their atheism and if universities would train a new generation of scientists in public outreach, producing more “[h]ip, fun, trailblazing research pioneers.”

. . . Unscientific America prescribes just the opposite: science illiteracy would diminish if vocal atheists like Richard Dawkins would just keep quiet about religion, a sanction that the authors don’t impose on publicly religious scientists such as Francis Collins. Unfortunately, Mooney and Kirshenbaum provide no evidence that this prescription would work. Do they really think that if Dawkins had not written The God Delusion, Americans would wholeheartedly embrace evolution and vaccination and finally recognize the threat of global warming?

Apparently Kirshenbaum hasn’t changed a bit, for she issued a rude tweet.

I refrain from being rude back.

Apparently not having read my argument for the incompatibility of religion and science, Kirshenbaum asserts “Science neither proves nor disproves religion.” Well, no, Dr. Kirshenbaum, that’s not the case.

First, many tenets of religion have been disproven by science. One of those is, of course, the creation story of Genesis 1 and 2, as well as creation stories of Islam and other religions. Other claims refuted by empirical work are those of the Jewish Exodus and the Roman census of Herod the Great.  And don’t get me started on Mormonism, the golden plates, and the Mormons’ claim that Jesus visited America. The fact is this: although, as Kirshenbaum argues that “religion seeks to understand our world,” it hasn’t provided any understanding, at least of factual claims like is there a God?; was Jesus his divine prophet/son?; did Gabriel dictate the Qur’an to Muhammad and Moroni tell Joseph Smith where the golden plates were?. And so on. The many religions on this planet make hundreds of factual but conflicting claims. Which are right? We don’t and usually can’t know.

“Understanding of our world”, if it means knowing how the cosmos works and what is true, cannot be gained by religion. It can be gained by science, though, and it is this disparity that I describe in Faith Versus Fact as the incompatibility between science and religion. Sure, religious people can be down with science, and scientists can be religious, but there’s the indubitable fact that both religion and science make factual claims—existence claims—and have different ways to adjudicate those claims. Science uses empirical methods (observation, hypothesis formation, testing, falsification, and so on), while religion uses scripture, authority, and revelation. Only one set of these methods—the empirical set—can really tell us what’s true. That’s why there’s only one brand of science, practiced by people of diverse faiths and ethnicities, while there are a gazillion religions, each claiming that it’s right and all the others are wrong. You can find ways to figure out if there are gravity waves, but no way to figure out if you’ll go to hell if you don’t accept Jesus as your savior.

Science, Dr. Kirshenbaum, doesn’t prove anything—it just gives us more or less confidence in various propositions about the world. And, as Victor Stenger noted, there’s an absence of evidence for any of the claims of religion. Importantly, he added that that absence of evidence could indeed be taken as evidence of absence if the evidence should have been there. And it isn’t—not for gods. That’s why more than half of scientists are atheists—and nearly all of them at the top of their profession. Kirshenbaum’s claim that “science neither proves nor disproves religion” could also be stated a “science neither proves nor disproves the existence of leprechauns and fairies.” But I doubt that Kirshenbaum would defend those who believe in fairies and leprechauns.

The statement “science and religion aren’t incompatible; they both seek to understand our world” covers a multitude of sins and misunderstandings. That’s why I wrote my book.

Now a young scientist at the site shown below (click on screenshot) has expanded another old argument, claiming that we loudmouth atheist scientists are “massive jerks”.  We should, they say, just keep our big mouths shut because being a vociferous atheist and antitheist keeps people of faith from accepting science.

It’s tiresome to have to go through all these arguments again—though none of these critics addressed my own claims in Faith Versus Fact—but I’ll do so briefly. First, excerpts from the Small Pond Science piece, written by Terry McGlynn, one of the three scientists who run the site. (I note in passing that McGlynn has closed the comments on this post.)

Science has an atheism problem

An alternative title for this post might be: Atheism has a jerk problem.

Our scientific communities do not fully accept scientists of faith. As I’ve said before, this is a problem, and it actively hinders our efforts for equity and inclusion.

You can be a great scientist and still be religious. You can fully accept an empirical worldview for the laws and theories that govern life and matter as we know it, but also be part of a religious tradition.

I have to admit, I don’t fully understand the choice that people make to have faith, and that’s not for a shortage of study, inquiry and contemplation. Just because I don’t understand why some people have chosen religious faith, that doesn’t mean I’m going to claim that they’re delusional because they have different perspective on the world than I do.

. . . When technology and theory advance far beyond our current capabilities, will there remain some questions about the nature of existence and reality that are best addressed by faith? Well. I dunno. There aren’t for me. But clearly others might see things differently. Why would that be a problem for any one of us?

Yes, some questions can be addressed by faith, but they can’t be answered by faith

The piece goes on, telling us to shut up because “science needs everybody; that includes people of faith.” Presumably we need flat-earthers and anti-vaxers, too, even though they accept their delusions on religious grounds. I’ve put McGlynn’s “data” in bold.

The most visible New Atheists try to win over converts by being loudmouth arrogant jerks. It might work for some, but it looks to me like it’s hardened the hearts of many more against reason and science in general. Clearly, it’s put atheism in an adversarial posture. Which is bad marketing for science, considering how many of us are atheists, or at least not religious.

Folks who don’t hang out with scientists on the regular might mistake the New Atheists for widely recognized representatives of science. They might see Bill Maher on TV, and read a blog post by Jerry Coyne, and catch a quote from Michael Shermer in a facebook meme. What do all these guys have in common? They’re anti-religious jerks, who are unfortunately the public face of contemporary atheism. Which in the eyes of many religious people might as well be the face of science too. You and I know that science is much more than bunch of old white jerky dudes who judge religious people. But we’re not doing so well in the marketing department.

Oy, I’m an old white jerky dude! But what does my age and race have to do with my arguments?

But wait! There’s more!

We need a cohort of people in the public eye who identify as atheists, but also are not massive jerks about it. We could use folks from all backgrounds, writing op-eds and appearing on TV, who make a point to say that they don’t have a problem with Muslims and Christians and other people of faith. Who can describe atheism as a rational choice but not as a judgement of other people.

I really don’t want to run through all the arguments why atheist/scientists shouldn’t shut up; they’re covered in my book, in Dawkins’s The God Delusion, and in other books like Stenger’s God and the Folly of Faith: The Incompatibility of Science and Religion.

I’ll just list a few relevant points:

1.) Accepting science is not the only issue here: the other is the harms of religion. It may not kill you to reject evolution, but if you reject Islam in places like Iran and Afghanistan, your life is in peril. And even if you’re not killed, the tenets of several faiths (including Catholicism) deem homosexuality immoral and women second-class citizens. Are we then supposed to shut up about the harmful tenets of Islam, Catholicism, and evangelical Christianity?  Must one harm (ignorance of science) take precedence over all others?

2.) Much religious dogma has led people to reject science. This includes the rejection of evolution, vaccination, global warming, and wearing masks during the pandemic (“God will save us”), as well as advocacy of spiritual healing, theocracy, and the demonization of abortion. Are we supposed to shut up about these issues, too, lest “science lose people of faith”? Give me a break. There are many issues in the world, and scientists are not required to shut up about politics or religion. We are citizens as well as scientists.

3.) Religion is generally a malign influence. The countries that are the happiest, most well off, and most progressive on this planet are the most atheistic countries, like those in Scandinavia and northern Europe. Religion in these cases acts as a stultifying placebo, inhibiting social progress because people can turn to god rather than to their governments.

4.) There is no evidence that the atheism of scientists like Dawkins and others has kept people from accepting science. As I’ve said repeatedly, if you go to “Converts Corner” on the old Dawkins site, you’ll see dozens of people saying that Richard’s atheism and scientific status helped weaned them from religion and brought them to evolution and science. In contrast, I’ve never heard a single person say, “Well, if Dawkins would just shut up about atheism, I’d gladly embrace evolution.” It’s the combination of science and atheism that has done wonders for many people, leading them to reject delusion (yes, religion is a delusion) and embrace science. I know, because I’ve met many of them, and Richard’s site describes hundreds more.

5.) Religion is a more malign force in getting people to reject science than is ignorance itself. A lack of knowledge can be remedied by education, but it’s much harder to overcome religious indoctrination. Which do you think would be the best way to get Americans and Middle Easterners to accept evolution: a) waving your wand and getting rid of religious belief completely, as if it never existed? or b) Giving every evangelical Christian and Muslim a course in evolution and a copy of Why Evolution is True?  The answer, of course, is (a). For virtually all opposition to evolution, and much other opposition to science, comes from religion. I know of only one anti-evolutionist who isn’t motivated by religious belief. That would be David Berlinski, but I suspect he’s secretly at lest a deist.

So there’s no reason why a scientist shouldn’t wear two hats: that of science and that of atheism. Sure, you shouldn’t mix your messages too immiscibly in lectures: I don’t rail against religion when I give talks on the evidence for evolution. That just confuses people. But I do give lectures that show why science and religion are incompatible, and that’s why I wrote a book about it.

I’m not going to shut up, but I don’t demand that other scientist-atheists be as vocal as I. To each their own. That’s true even for religion—so long as your beliefs don’t harm the community of humans. And there are precious few religions that are innocuous in that way.

As for Dr. McGlynn calling me and people like Richard “loudmouth arrogant jerks,” and an “old white jerky dude”,  well, I’ll restrain myself this time and not respond with namecalling. Those names reflect poorly on McGlynn. All I’ll say is that there are cogent arguments for the incompatibility of science and religion and good reasons for scientists to criticize the tenets of religion. Dr. McGlynn might want to read those arguments and answer them instead of making unsupported assertions that Richard Dawkins’s atheism has, on the whole, been bad for the public understanding of science.  (Hint: finding one or two people who say that happened to them is not data.)

And here’s a final source on both incompatibility and the absence of evidence that atheism impedes the acceptance of science (click on the screenshot):

Russell Blackford reviews Elaine Ecklund’s latest religion-osculating book

August 13, 2020 • 11:15 am

It’s been roughly four years since I wrote about Elaine Ecklund‘s efforts to show that religion and science aren’t in conflict and also that scientists are more religious than one might suspect (see posts here). A sociologist at Rice University, Ecklund has been funded, as far as I can see, nearly continuously by various Templeton grants, as their sub-organizations love her message of harmony between science and faith. And Ecklund’s analyses designed to show that have involved, in my view, a sometimes disingenuous presentation of the data—data that often don’t support her conclusions (read some of my earlier posts to find out how).

In the June issue of Free Inquiry, philosopher Russell Blackford reviews Elaine Ecklund et al.’s new book (screenshot of review and book below). The article is paywalled, but I’ve gotten permission to send Russell’s manuscript in Word, which is apparently nearly identical to what was published, to those who are interested (don’t ask unless you want to read it!):


The book, with seven authors (and, as you see, with Ecklund clearly the senior one), came out July 2 and was published by Oxford University Press. Click on the cover below to go to the Amazon site:

Part of the acknowledgments:


I haven’t yet read it, so you can use Russell’s review as a guide for whether you want to read it yourself. He’s quite critical, but, in the end, doesn’t think the book is completely worthless. After taking it apart for several thousand words, he does add an encomium at the end:

Finally, although I have emphasized what I see as an obvious pro-religious bias – and a certain amount of wishful thinking – throughout Secularity and Science, the large amount of money that went into the book from Templeton’s coffers was not entirely wasted. This book does provide important information for scholars to pore over and consider. Secularity and Science is a resource, among many others, and I’m not sorry to have had the opportunity to read it. I certainly intend to make further use of its extensive information, notes, and bibliography. It just has to be read with a critical mind, and its conclusions should be taken with a grain of salt.

The book interviewed 600 individual scientists in “elite” universities from several countries: the US, the UK (not including Northern Ireland), France, Turkey, Italy, India, Hong Kong, and Taiwan, most of which get their own chapter.

Ecklund’s conclusions, some of which she’s published before in papers (see my earlier posts) are predictable, and Russell summarizes them at the outset:

Secularity and Science offers numerous conclusions about the countries that were studied. With the US, for example, the conclusions are, first, that American scientists are often hostile to religion because of an exaggerated sense of the fundamentalism of the American religious public, and, second, that discrimination against religious scientists undermines American science. But these claims are, to say the least, impressionistic and conjectural. In particular, no worthwhile evidence is presented for the second claim, which would be explosive if it were true. As we’ll see, American scientists are markedly less religious than the general public in the US, and that would have been the most obvious conclusion to report.

The book also offers four overall conclusions, not relating to any particular country:

  • “Around the world, there are more religious scientists than we might think.”
  • “Scientists – even some atheist scientists – see spirituality in science.”
  • “The conflict perspective on science and religion is an invention of the West.”
  • “Religion is not kept out of the scientific workplace.”

Little of this is helpful if we hope to deepen our understanding of the relationship between science and religion. . . .

Russell’s three big beefs are these. First, Ecklund’s most important claim is that “there are more religious scientists than we might think”, but “the authors fail to produce any evidence as to what ‘we’ might, or actually do, think.” That conclusion, then, is little more than wishful thinking to soothe accommodationists and Templeton.

The second involves Ecklund’s claim above that “The conflict perspective on science and religion [i.e., that they’re in conflict] is an invention of the West.”  Blackford calls this a sleight of hand with the word “invention because:

Why not call the conflict model a discovery of the West, rather than an invention, since nothing in Secularity and Science demonstrates that the perception of conflict is actually false? Or why not look for a more neutral way of making the point?

For all Ecklund and her collaborators tell us, some degree of conflict, or at least tension, between science and religion might be almost inevitable. This might be a genuine problem for the ongoing viability of religious faiths, even it was first identified in Western countries and has, so far, received little recognition from scientists in Asia.

Russell then goes on to demonstrate, as I did in Faith Versus Fact, that science and religion have different epistemologies and ways of obtaining “knowledge”, that religious methods, in contrast to science’s, haven’t lead to reliably true claims about the universe, and indeed often conflict with scientific claims, and that scientific investigation has continually eroded religious belief and the idea of a supernatural. I would call that a conflict, and I define what I mean by “conflict” at the beginning of my own book.

Finally, despite the claims above, the book demonstrates, as Russell shows clearly, that scientists throughout the world are less religious—often much less religious—then are the citizens of their own countries. There is no discussion of this in the book, nor why the general populations of most of these countries are much less religious than they were, say, a century ago. This is an important question, but of course ignoring it is in keeping with Ecklund’s career-long narrative as well as with Templeton’s agenda of science/religion harmony. To be sure, Russell says that these topics weren’t within the scope of their project.

Perhaps they weren’t, but surely this question should at least have been brought up. There are several reasons why scientists in general might be less religious than the general populace, including the enrichment of science with people who weren’t believers at the outset, as well as the loss of religious faith for those working in science. (I suspect both factors are in play.) But surely, as I mention in Faith Versus Fact, the huge disparity in religiosity between scientists and their lay fellow citizens bespeaks some kind of conflict between religion and science.

I wouldn’t bet that Ecklund will investigate this important question in the future.