Wrongheaded religious accommodationism in physics

June 20, 2021 • 9:15 am

Like religion and secular government, religion and science survive best when they’re kept well apart—when there is no incursion of religion into government and science. (The other way around, at least for science, is not bad, for science has always served to show the falsity of many religious claims—claims like creationism, the worldwide Flood, Adam and Eve, and the Exodus.)

Yet the article below, highlighted by the tweet at the bottom, calls for accommodationism: for religious people to profess their faith to other scientists, and even to tell each other about “the role of faith in science” (there is none) and “the health benefits of intermittent fasting” (a sop to Muslims). This kind of well-meaning but intellectually vacuous accommodationism surfaces from time to time, and I have to whack it down.

Click on the screenshot to read the piece from Physics World from April. I couldn’t find a post I’d done on this piece, but if I have, well, perhaps some of you haven’t read it.

The article is a straight out call to mingle faith and science, a movement that I thought had slowed, and so haven’t written about it in a while. The piece first points out the disparity between the religiosity of scientists (not very religious) and the religious general public—not only in America, but in most of the West.

A British Social Attitudes survey in 2019 found that 48% of the UK population identifies as religious and that since 1983 there has been a decline in the proportion of Christians, an increase in the non-­religiously affiliated, as well as a rapid rise in the Muslim population, along with other minority religions (up from 2% to 9%). In other words, the beliefs and worldviews of the UK population are becoming more diverse as we move away from a predominantly Christian population to a more mixed one. Yet in this regard – as in other aspects of diversity – the UK scientific community is strikingly out-of-step with society. Indeed, a report from Rice University in 2016 found that just 27% of UK scientists identify as religious compared with 47% of the general population (Socius 10.1177/2378023116664353).

That is, of course, the Templeton-funded work of Elaine Ecklund, who regularly distorts the data to make scientists, irreligious as they are, seem more religious than we think.  But why the disparity between the religiosity of the average person and that of the average scientist? It is even larger in the UK and US than Ecklund admits, with the most accomplished scientists (members of the National Academy of Sciences and the Royal Society) being almost wholly atheistic (only 7% of NAS members believe in a personal God, and a similar figure holds for the RS.

There are several possible reasons for this disparity, which I discuss in my book Faith versus Fact. One is that “scientists are simply more educated than the average American, and religiosity simply declines with education.” That may be partly true, but can’t explain much of the disparity, as professors in science are far less religious than professors in other areas, who presumably have had just as much education. Second,  if you’re religious, you’re probably less likely to want to go into science. It is the nonbelievers who may be drawn to enter a discipline that discards the supernatural. Another reason, for which there is some independent evidence, that doing science erodes your religious beliefs over time. I can’t really see any other explanations, but the latter two, which I think both contribute to the disparity, show that there is indeed a conflict between science and religion. This is the case I make in Faith Versus Fact.

One suggestion that isn’t the case is that scientists demonize and/or expel other religious scientists, purging our ranks of believers. But by and large we don’t give a rat’s patootie about the religious beliefs of our colleagues. We may puzzle over them, or even make fun of them, but we don’t penalize scientists who believe in God. Often they are quite accomplished, too, viz., Francis Collins, director of the NIH, and Ken Miller, cell biologist and author of widely used biology texts.  None of us claim that believing in God prohibits you from doing good science. I claim that there is a clash between science and faith, and this clash explains why, on the whole, Western scientists are so much less religious than the general public from which they’re drawn.

Here’s Wood’s “explanation”, or rather a non-explanation:

So, what is keeping religious people away from science? It is tempting to follow the Enlightenment phil­osophy that places science and religion in conflict: “as science advances, religion declines”. But that is far too simple. The Rice report compares eight countries, finding that the disparity between scientists and the general population who identify as religious is small in nations such as Turkey and India, while in others such as Taiwan and Hong Kong religious people are even over-represented in science. That picture is very different from the UK and other western countries where the religiously affiliated are strikingly under-represented. The report also finds that most scientists do not believe there is a conflict between science and religion – instead it being more a societal issue than a philosophical one.

He’s wrong. Ecklund’s report showing a smaller disparity (which is still a disparity) in countries like Turkey and India can be explained by the fact that those countries are more religious compared to Western ones (indeed, now both are approaching theocracies), and so the disparity is almost guaranteed to be smaller. As for Taiwan, the disparity in the other direction isn’t great, and I have no explanation for Hong Kong (readers might suggest theories that are theirs). But at any rate the “conflict” is most discussed and visible in Europe and North America, and here the disparity is profound, even more profound that Ecklund pretends since she doesn’t dwell on those UK and US scientists who actually do research and are good at it. Here’s a figure from her 2016 paper using data from all surveyed scientists.


Sebastian Wood disagrees that there’s a conflict between faith and science, and asserts that harmony is possible:

Irrespective of the reasons why religious people are under-represented in science, which are no doubt manifold and complex, I believe that neither society nor scientific pursuits stand to benefit from being out-of-step with each other. Rachel Brazil’s insightful Physics World article “Fighting flat-Earth ­theory” traces the rise of belief in a flat Earth back to religious convictions. It stands as a warning that we need to build bridges between scientific and religious communities rather than allowing the divide to widen further. In a society that increasingly recognizes the value of diversity, it is worth reflecting on the history of science to see that no single religion or worldview has a monopoly on scientific progress. Even a cursory glance reveals profound contributions to science from individuals representing the full range of religious and non-religious worldviews, both historic and contemporary. Clearly this diversity of thinking is of enormous and proven value to science and technology, and is something to be treasured, nurtured and encouraged.

In contrast to the first sentence, I think that science, religion and society benefit from religion not sticking its nose into science but science examining religious claims. Science doesn’t get polluted with superstition that has never helped us find truth, while religion gets its false truth claims corrected, and society becomes less religious, which I think is a good thing. (I attribute the growing secularization of the West to the increasing hegemony of and public respect for science, and here agree with Steve Pinker in his Better Angels book.) As for getting rid of stuff like creationism by “building bridges between science and religion”, that doesn’t work very well. Francis Collins and Karl Giberson founded BioLogos as a explicit vehicle for convincing evangelical Christians that evolution is both true and harmless to their faith. They failed: instead of evangelicals embracing evolution (the data shows no change in decades), the BioLogos site has become increasingly Christianized, with apparently sentient academics and scientists arguing about how Adam and Eve could really have been the ancestors of us all (a sine qua non of Christianity). While some people’s minds can be changed by telling them scientific truths, the best way to efface religion is simply to emphasize the benefits of science and wait for people over years and generations to realize that, hey, science can find truth and religion can’t.

Wood gives two other reasons why science and religion aren’t in conflict. First, many scientists don’t perceive a conflict between science and religion. That is, besides creationists, American scientists simply don’t see a “war” between the two areas on a day to day basis. But so what? If you define your terms carefully, as I do in Faith versus Fact, you see a very profound conflict between science and religion: conflicts in methology, philosophy, use of “faith”, and how we apprehend “truth”.

Second, Wood claims that religious scientists have made profound contributions to their fields. I agree, but so what? Science itself is practiced as an atheistic discipline, and these contributions, at least in the last two centuries, had nothing to do with religion. In fact, they were made despite religion. (It’s clear that in the 19th century nearly everyone was religious, so it was a no-brainer to say that religious scientists advanced their field.) But now atheistic scientists make far more contributions than religious ones—for two reasons. First, there are so many more atheistic scientists than religious ones. Second, the better a scientist is, the more likely he or she is to be an atheist.

So here’s Wood’s proposal to put science and religion in step, a proposal that seems to me useless and worthless, at least for accomplishing its aims. It wouldn’t hurt, I suppose to have tea with your religious colleagues as a way of social bonding, but best to avoid discussing faith!

At NPL [the National Physical Laboratory in the UK] we have made “inter faith week” a regular fixture in our calendar. This is a national initiative that supports and encourages constructive interactions between people with different beliefs to build relationships and mutual understanding, recognizing common values as well as differences. We also encourage colleagues to share their experiences of how their beliefs affect their work and invite guest speakers to talk about a subject relating science to religion. Over the past three years we have had talks on the relationship between artificial intelligence and religion, the role of faith in science and the health benefits of intermittent fasting. Each year we find that there is an enormous desire to learn about and discuss these topics.

Again, scientists are welcome to discuss these issues on their own time (I enjoyed writing my book, but I didn’t write it to “build relationships and mutual understanding”). But for Ceiling Cat’s sake keep these discussions unofficial. “Interfaith week” in a science institution is a disgrace. It’s like having Bigfoot Week, UFO Week or Djinn Week at the NIH, or Crystal Healing Week at the CDC.

Jane Goodall nabs the Templeton Prize

June 2, 2021 • 9:30 am

I was a bit queasy when I woke up this morning to see the announcement below.  It’s not that I don’t like Jane Goodall, for who doesn’t? She’s a respected primatologist, spent years finding out new stuff about chimps, and is also a conservationist and prolific publicizer of science, as well as founder of her eponymous institute. She’s also long-lasting, having turned 87 this year while remaining as active as ever (she says she travels 300 days per year!). Nor do I begrudge her the $1.5 million that the John Templeton Foundation hands out to the prizewinners, as Goodall will undoubtedly use it for good causes.

No, I was queasy because the prize was given, as it always is, to someone who conflates science and spirituality, promoting John Templeton’s accommodationist mission. Granted, the JTF’s giving it to more scientists these days (they used to give it to people like Alvin Plantinga, Rabbi Sacks, John Polkinghorne, Chuck Colson, Mother Teresa, and Billy Graham, but they’re realizing that they’d better “science up” the prize). The word “God” and “divine” has been downplayed, replaced by the eupheism “The Big Questions”.  As the Wikipedia entry on Sir John notes,

In an interview published in the Financial Intelligence Report in 2005, Templeton asserts that the purpose of the John Templeton Foundation is as follows:”We are trying to persuade people that no human has yet grasped 1% of what can be known about spiritual realities. So we are encouraging people to start using the same methods of science that have been so productive in other areas, in order to discover spiritual realities.”

If you know what “spiritual realities” are beyond something numinous and divine, please enlighten me. Were I to answer that, I’d use terms of neurology and emotion rather than anything external to the physical world.

And Goodall is really known for showing not human exceptionalism, which is what the Prize is about, but for showing our psychological and behavioral connections to our closest relatives. In other words, she’s showing that we’re part of an evolutionary continuum, and share many traits with other primates. Evolution is one Big Question that’s been answered to most people’s satisfaction. Another is that our closest living relative is the chimpanzee.

Click on the screenshot to read:

Here’s the announcement from Templeton, or part of it:

Dr. Jane Goodall, DBE, founder of the Jane Goodall Institute, UN Messenger of Peace and world-renowned ethologist and conservationist, whose groundbreaking discoveries changed humanity’s understanding of its role in the natural world, was announced today as the winner of the 2021 Templeton Prize. The Templeton Prize, valued at over $1.5 million, is one of the world’s largest annual individual awards. Established by the late global investor and philanthropist Sir John Templeton, it is given to honor those who harness the power of the sciences to explore the deepest questions of the universe and humankind’s place and purpose within it. Unlike Goodall’s past accolades, the Templeton Prize specifically celebrates her scientific and spiritual curiosity. The Prize rewards her unrelenting effort to connect humanity to a greater purpose and is the largest single award that Dr. Goodall has ever received.

“We are delighted and honored to award Dr. Jane Goodall this year, as her achievements go beyond the traditional parameters of scientific research to define our perception of what it means to be human,” said Heather Templeton Dill, president of the John Templeton Foundation. “Her discoveries have profoundly altered the world’s view of animal intelligence and enriched our understanding of humanity in a way that is both humbling and exalting. Ultimately, her work exemplifies the kind of humility, spiritual curiosity, and discovery that my grandfather, John Templeton, wrote and spoke about during his life.”

Investigating the “deepest questions”, Sir John’s original purpose in bestowing the Prize fund, was intended explicitly to show that the more we learned about science, the more we understood about God. Those are what Templeton calls “The Big Questions”, like “why are we here?” and “what does it mean to be human?”. (The ultimate question, which isn’t broached, is “What is God like?”)  As for Goodall’s efforts to “connect humanity to a greater purpose,” that’s just bogus. Sure, she’s shown evolutionary commonalities, but evolution is not a “purpose.” “Purpose” implies teleology, i.e., for Templeton, “God.”

Goodall’s work surely enriched our understanding of chimps far more than about humans, but did show that in many respects, such as tool-using, humans are not unique—not exceptional among the beasts of the field.  As for “humility”, I know nothing about that, though Goodall has a reputation for being nice and certainly was engaging the one time I heard her speak. But that’s not the kind of humility that Templeton means: they mean “humility” before the Great Unknown—the same way theologians are always bragging that they’re “humble”. (They’re not: they pretend to know things they don’t.)

What about Goodall? It does appear she has a spiritual side that helped her get the prize. Here’s another paragraph from the award description (my emphasis):

Dr. Goodall receives the 2021 Templeton Prize in celebration of her remarkable career, which arose from and was sustained by a keen scientific and spiritual curiosity. Raised Christian, she developed her own sense of spirituality in the forests of Tanzania, and has described her interactions with chimpanzees as reflecting the divine intelligence she believes lies at the heart of nature. In her bestselling memoir, A Reason for Hope, these observations reinforced her personal belief system—that all living things and the natural world they inhabit are connected and that the connective energy is a divine force transcending good and evil.

What? The “divine intelligence she believes lies at the heart of nature”? “A divine force connecting all living things in the natural world”? Indeed, the subtitle of her 1999 book is “A Spiritual Journey.” And I’ll readily admit that “spiritual” can be construed as “awe before Nature”. If that’s what spiritual can mean, than I am spiritual, and so is Richard Dawkins. But “divine”? That’s a different kettle of fish. And yet eleven years ago she abjured acceptance of the divine in Right Attitudes:

In the May-2008 issue of O, The Oprah Magazine, Jane Goodall discussed her spirituality: “amazing moments—when you seem to know something beyond what you know and to understand things you don’t understand—can’t be understood in this life.”

“Can’t be understood in this life.” That means it’s beyond empirical investigation. But I digress: there’s more:

When asked if she believes in God in an interview published in the Sep-2010 issue of Reader’s Digest, Jane Goodall said,

I don’t have any idea of who or what God is. But I do believe in some great spiritual power. I feel it particularly when I’m out in nature. It’s just something that’s bigger and stronger than what I am or what anybody is. I feel it. And it’s enough for me.

That could simply be “evolution” or “wonder”. So why, in 2021, is Templeton touting Goodall’s acceptance of a “divine intelligence in nature”? As usual, as with other scientists like Francisco Ayala, Templeton often bestows its Big Prize on scientists who don’t explicitly say they believe in God, but are sufficiently ambiguous or waffle-y about the concept that they can slip under Templeton’s radar. And of course there are the explicit religionists who get the prize: people like Francis Collins.

Well, judge for yourself from the 9½-minute video below, and, later, from the Templeton Lectures that Goodall has signed up for:

As the 2021 Templeton Prize laureate, Dr. Goodall filmed a reflection on her spiritual perspectives and aspirations for the world and an interview with Heather Templeton Dill to announce her award. She will participate in the 2021 Templeton Prize Lectures in the fall.

In the video she mentions the soul, the Bible, “powerful spirituality” and so on, and says that “even the trees have a spark of divine energy”. The interview is definitely infused with the numinous. Granted, she says some good stuff about ecology and conservation. One telling statement, “It is just a feel of spirituality, you know, it’s something so powerful and so much beyond what even the most scientific brilliant brain could have created.” What? Where does it come from, then?

At 8:35 she resorts to a form of the First Cause argument: “What created the big bang?”

Before you give me flak for dissing a much beloved scientist, I’ll assert again that Goodall’s scientific work is exemplary and helped change the paradigm of human exceptionalism that preceded her. I admire her a lot, and clearly her life has produced on balance a great good. But that’s not what Templeton is giving her the prize for! She gets her $1.5 million for banging on about spirituality.

No, Goodall’s probably not perfect in that she evinces a weakness for the numinous, but we all have her flaws, and given her accomplishments, that a trivial one. What burns my onions is that the JTF is roping her into their stable so they can parade her as another example of someone whose work helps bring us closer to the Divine.

You can’t not like and admire this woman. The problem is that Templeton saw an opportunity to use her, and seized it.

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.