Monday, June 24, 2013

Science should be more like religion

When historians will look back at the 21st century, they’ll refer to it as the century in which religion died and the scientific revolution was completed. I am saying this not despite the battles of ignorance fought by the religious right and fundamentalists’ seeds of violence, but because of them. They fight, with words or with weapons, because they are afraid. And while these fights draw much attention, the number of non-believers is quietly and inevitably rising.
% of Christian, non-Christian religious,
and non-believers, UK, 1983 - 2009.
Source: Wikipedia.

What are they afraid of? They’re afraid of science. And I, I am afraid we have ourselves to blame for that. All we scientists ever do, it seems to me, is to explain how science differs from religion, ignoring the commonalities with science and the benefits that religion brings. Yes, that’s the scientists ignoring the facts.

Scientists aim to develop consistent explanations for the world. They observe and try to understand. Then they try to use what they have learned. They want coherent stories, want to fit the pieces together. They wonder and they seek, they doubt and they improvise. Scientists try and fail, and try again and gradually weave consistent stories to be shared with everybody.

In contrast, many religious stories are not only internally inconsistent, they are also inconsistent with observation and experience. In the best case, they are simply superfluous. Praying does not cure tetanus. The Earth wasn’t created 10,000 years ago. There’s no god sitting on a cloud throwing lightening down on blasphemous bloggers.

Yes, science clashes with religion. We’ve said it often enough.

The human brain excels at finding patterns, solving problems, and developing accurate theories. It abhors inconsistencies so much it will fake facts to remove them. Consciously accepting inconsistency necessitates a constant effort. Religions require the believer to accept these inconsistencies and not to ask. That takes time and energy. Believers must constantly belie themselves. Science doesn’t require you to accept inconsistencies. In fact, it encourages you not to accept them, and thereby frees up all that creative power, the patterns seeking, the story weaving. This clearly speaks for the scientific way. So why are people afraid of science?

They are afraid that science will replace hope with statistical odds, the aurora with equations, and love with oxytocin. They are afraid that science will take the wonder out of life and not give anything back. They are afraid they will have to give up their belief in an immortal soul, in miracle cures, in final answers, and get nothing in return. And we, we’re failing them because we don’t tell them what it is that they get in return.

Almost all scientists I know are atheists. They’re not atheists because they have been rendered unable to believe in God and are now suffering from a meaningless existence. They’re atheists because they don’t need religion. God, as Laplace put it, is an unnecessary hypothesis. And above all, god is a waste of time.

Far from taking the wonder out of human existence, science adds to it. We’re part of nature and science is the only way of understanding our place and our role.

If you’re in love and you read up on what is known on the chemical pathways and neurological activity, far from degrading you to a bundle of synapses, it embeds your love into the course of evolution and the complexity of human culture. If you look at the night sky and know that beyond the Milky Way there are billions of other galaxies, full with solar systems much like our own, your knowledge adds to the wonder. If you are pregnant and you subscribe to one of the dozens of calendars that tells you when your baby’s heart starts beating, how its nervous system develops, and when it is able to hear, then imagine that just 50 years ago you wouldn’t even have gotten an ultrasound image. Now you can have it in 3D. You’re growing a child, in an amazingly intricate and yet virtuously orchestrated process. You’re part of the circle of life. And without science you wouldn’t know much about that circle. You’re part of nature. Enjoy. And don’t forget to take the folic acid.

Religions offer people a community to belong to and a place to go. They offer shared traditions and spiritual guidance. Science doesn’t. Not because we don’t have a community or have nothing to offer. We’re just not letting people know what science has to give, making them believe science will only take away from them. We’re excluding others by not sharing our wonder.

Since the advent of the internet, we’ve gone a long way to making science more human. Scientists speak by themselves and of themselves. But few if any touch ground considered that of religion.

Yalom notes four existential fears: Fear of death, freedom, isolation, and meaninglessness. We all have these fears. They drive many people to religion because it’s the most obvious answer. And while science addresses these fears, scientists shy away from these topics. There are great speakers among the scientists, but most of them preach to the choir of an already scientifically-minded audience. Neil DeGrasse Tyson is one of the few who isn’t afraid crossing this line. He inspires those on both sides. And look how many listen. Carl Sagan did too. I have some more fingers on my hand, tell me who to count.

Most scientists feel awkward if the word “spirituality” is as much as mentioned, and the last thing they want to do is preach. I myself am guilty of course of never writing about living the atheists’ life. I didn’t study physics to be a preacher, and neither did any of my colleagues. So here’s the problem. A communication problem. Who’ll preach the wonders of science to those who most need to hear about them?

Some days ago I buzzed in Jehova’s witnesses thinking it’s DHL. Then I tried to wave them away saying we’re atheists. “Oooh!” said one of the men and raised his arms, pretending to be shocked, “How did this happen?” I asked him what he meant, and he said “Well, one doesn’t get born this way.” He’s wrong of course. We’re all born as atheists. We’re also born being social and in need of each other to talk through our problems. And as long as science doesn’t offer the community that religions provide so effortlessly, as long as scientists stand aloft of spiritual guidance, people will be afraid that their taxes pay scientists to remove the wonder from the world rather than adding to it.

Update: There's an interesting post from Lubos on the topic. He makes some goods points.


  1. I would disagree on one point - I think we are all born agnostics, not atheists, and that agnosticism is the truly scientific approach (even Dawkins has said that technically he is agnostic, not atheist). See

    1. 6 years later... I understand what you are saying Brian and have made this point myself. I would say that babies are ignorant (unaware or without knowledge) of the topic and so can't be atheist, agnostic, theists or anything. I think the word "ignorant" covers it but maybe someone has a better word.

  2. Hi Brian,

    What I mean is this: We're born not belonging to any church, not knowing anything about god, gods, or any type of religion. We're born not believing in god because we don't know anything about such an idea. Some of us then get religious 'education' that introduces us to these concepts, which can be more or less indoctrinating, depending on your upbringing. Agnosticism, in my understanding, is the attitude that we don't know whether there is a god or not. To have that attitude, you must have encountered the question to begin with. Thus I would stand by my statement that we're born atheists, not agnostics.

    I also disagree that agnosticism is a scientific approach. It is scientific to the extent that you say you don't know the answer. But if you think that we'll never know the answer and not do anything to find an answer, that's as anti-scientific as it gets. Best,


  3. Islam teaches that everyone is born Muslim, until parents corrupt them.

  4. "Religions require the believer to accept these inconsistencies and not to ask" is too general a statement for it to be true. One can address inconsistencies in church provided one does so in a way that accepts the overall culture; we could perhaps add "except in culturally acceptable ways". A detailed consideration of what happens in churches every week has to discuss the many different ways in which every individual adult has to face children's doubts about religious stories.

    Equally, Science allows inconsistencies to be addressed only in ways that fit within the scientific culture, so that scientific inconsistencies are rarely successfully addressed by outsiders, as also for religious inconsistencies. The force of the constraints on what constitutes science is part of what makes the puzzle of doing science fascinating. Returning to children, I suppose many have faced dogmatic science teaching as much as they have faced dogmatic religious teaching.

    The word "culture" gets us somewhat close to Kuhnian approaches to science, however, which arguably lie both inside and outside the culture of science, and have had a consequently mixed effect on scientists.

  5. This following is from the US, not the UK, and is from a NYTimes article on the drug MDMA. To me it suggests some people find a substitute for religion and science in drugs.

    Rick Doblin, the founder of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies, which has helped finance MDMA studies since the drug first entered the club scene, put Molly in the context of past drug trends: in the 1960s, he suggested, people searched for deeper spirituality and found LSD; in the ’70s, as hippie culture became mainstream, marijuana entered the suburban household; in the ’80s, cocaine complemented the extravagance and selfishness of the greed decade; and by the early ’90s, youths dropped out of reality, dancing all night on Ecstasy or slumping in the corner on heroin. MDMA, which in addition to acting as a stimulant also promotes feelings of bonding and human connection, just might be what people are looking for right now.

    “As we move more and more electronic, people are extremely hungry for the opposite: human interaction on a deeper level where you’re not rushing around,” Mr. Doblin said. “The rise of Molly is in tune with how people are feeling emotionally.

  6. Peter,

    any religion that's entirely consistent with what we know about the laws of nature is fine by me, but there's really no reason to call it religion.

    It is simply not true that science only allows inconsistencies to be addressed in ways that 'fit within the scientific culture'. I don't even know what you mean with 'scientific culture'. It is just the case that you are considerably more likely to address an inconsistency in modern science if you have the expertise and knowledge of being a professional scientist.



  7. Hi Arun,

    That's an interesting point. There is the problem with side-effects of course and with drug intake being non-sustainable. But leave this aside for a moment, then it's an example of humans trying to improve on their condition, with the development of medication, testing of side-effects, or maybe, some time in the future, with technological gadgets. Best,


  8. "Some days ago I buzzed in Jehova’s witnesses thinking it’s DHL. Then I tried to wave them away saying we’re atheists."

    I have an atheist friend who came up with the following strategy when Jehova's Witnesses etc want to come in and talk to him. He says "We're Jewish". Some then apologize, some just walk away.

  9. Science requires high intelligence. This cannot be cheated, falsifying faith's fundamental postulate. The future is meant to be dangerous. Recreationally ultrasonicating fetuses, ultrastructurally disordering developing brains, obtains autism. Neither accept the future’s failures nor prohibit risk (preventing gain).

    "I buzzed in Jehova’s witnesses thinking it’s DHL. Then I tried to wave them away" Obtain a (free!) paperback The Book of Mormon, McKay edition. It is a flame thrower against tissue paper wraiths. (The color plate facing page 397 is a Vorlon seeding the field, prophesied in 1830! "Reflection, surprise, terror... for the future", YouTube.)

  10. Your title is (perhaps intentionally) ambiguous. In many respects, of course, science should not be religion. What you mean, of course, is the sense of belonging etc.

    I once read someone's self-description which captures what I think you are after, at least to some extent: "secular pagan". Take away all of the religious, superstitious and esoteric nonsense, and the pagan lifestyle rather appeals to me. (Taking these things away from most religions leaves little if anything left.)

  11. "Religions offer people a community to belong to and a place to go. They offer shared traditions and spiritual guidance."

    Maybe the difference isn't so great. I was once at a conference celebrating Kapteyn (this was when I was working at the Kapteyn Institute in Groningen) the proceedings of which had a long quotation at the beginning which compared modern scientific conferences to medieval pilgrimages.

  12. "the number of non-believers is quietly and inevitably raising."

    Should be "rising". "Rise" is intransitive, "raise" is transitive. That is, one rises, but one raises something else.

  13. When I collapse the comments, I see that all of mine are replies to replies, while others appear to be threaded. How is it possible to reply to a specific comment and how can one display the threads?

  14. Hi Phillip,

    The title is intentionally provocative yes. Also, I was trying to find a one-sentence summary of what I was writing, and this always comes out sounding a little dry and inevitably fineprint gets lost. I noted though that when I scroll through my newsfeed that descriptive titles are really important.

    Thanks for letting me know of the grammar mistake, I fixed that.

    I don't know what you talk about regarding comments. I don't see any threaded comments (using Google Chrome). I didn't even know that a) blogger now has this feature and b) that it's enabled. What browser are you using? Best,


  15. I think it is not a good idea to quote Laplace to support atheism. On the metaphysical domain Laplace also believed in determinism (Laplace's demon), which we know now to be totally wrong.

    I am always very skeptical about the metaphysical conclusions (like the non-existence of God) scientists deduce from their scientific theories. In fact, scientific theories have always a specific application domain, out of which they have no meaning; moreover they have a high probability to be replaced, sooner or later, by more general theories, often based on very different first principles.

  16. Hi BG,

    I did not quote Laplace to support atheism. I quoted Laplace because the quotation serves as a very apt explanation for why many scientists don't believe in god: it's unnecessary. Personally, I don't know anybody who has claimed to 'deduce the non-existence of god'. I know there's a guy who has written a book claiming so (it was mentioned in Holt's book), but I didn't read it (and have little motivation to do so, it sounded quite fishy). Most scientists don't bother with such deductions simply because they're a waste of time. If god isn't god for anything, why discuss its existence?

    That's the thing that got me thinking about this blogpost to begin with. Religion is so obviously such a waste of time and energy, why do people continue to engage in it? Best,


  17. "I don't know what you talk about regarding comments. I don't see any threaded comments (using Google Chrome). I didn't even know that a) blogger now has this feature and b) that it's enabled. What browser are you using?"

    I'm using Firefox. Normally, they are all shown, with no threading. At the top, there is a "collapse comments" which, when selected, collapses them and threads them. Actually, I would like them uncollapsed and threaded; by collapsing them by mistake I noticed that some are threaded. For example, Uncle Al's most recent comments seems to be a reply to one of mine.

  18. Interesting post, though I agree with Brian above.

    "But if you think that we'll never know the answer and not do anything to find an answer, that's as anti-scientific as it gets."

    I would say that not admitting ignorance is more anti-scientific: claiming something to be true that is not supported by facts. Being an atheist in the narrow sense is not merely not believing in God. It is actually believing that there is no God.

    To be agnostic is more general than not taking a stance on the question of God, but is also not about "not believing anything" - that's a common misconception. It is about weighing the evidence, and in the absence of evidence withhold judgement. That is why agnosticism is considered to be the "scientific approach".

    To be fair, most who consider themselves atheists are in actuality agnostics, they are just uninterested in, or ignorant of, the distinction. Another bonus point is that the atheist hypothesis is falsifiable, contrary to many religions.

    To get back to the topic of your post, I don't understand how any rational being can be hostile towards science, in particular religious people. Science is a way of avoiding fooling ourselves. If you are of strong faith, you have nothing to fear: what better way is there to explore the creation of God?

  19. Hi Phillip,

    Oh, now I see, it's on the 'post comment' page, not on the post page. I think it's not threaded though (I can see no "reply to"), it's just a funny arrangement of avatars because they seem to be too large for the spacing. I have never noticed this before, it must be a new thing. Best,


  20. "Religion is so obviously such a waste of time and energy, why do people continue to engage in it?"

    Well, that applies to many things. :-)

    Religion is probably based on an inherited evolved trait to unconditionally believe successful people and/or people in power. That this has survival value is obvious. If the parents say "Stay out of the water; there are alligators in there", then those who don't unconditionally obey without thinking about it are efficiently removed from the gene pool. Similarly, people are interested in all kinds of trivia concerned with successful people. Although not the case today, back in the caveman days learning about a successful person might give an idea about the key to his success. Once this behaviour is in place, religions can put themselves into similar roles (e.g. Heavenly Father, Mother Mary (though the one in Let it Be is Paul McCartney's mother; it's not a religious reference despite the hymn-like quality of the song)) and reap the benefits.

    There are many cases where an intuitive evolved behaviour is no longer needed or even counterproductive today. In many cases, it can be overcome by intellect. Understanding the origin of the behaviour can help.

  21. Hi Alexis,

    Okay, to come back to Brian's comment, it's actually two separate things.

    First, are we born as atheists. As I explained above, we're born not believing in god because we don't know anything about such a concept, we're not born thinking that it's a question that cannot be answered, so I think it's fair to say we're born atheists, not agnostics.

    Second, what's more or less scientific, atheism or agnosticism. I think we're having a linguistic disagreement here. I would take 'not believing in God' to mean that one doesn't exclude the possibility. Wikipedia writes atheism is "the absence of belief that any deities exist" and not the belief of absence. Best,


  22. "it's just a funny arrangement of avatars because they seem to be too large for the spacing"

    That's probably it.

    Some day, Blogger will have the threading functionality of usenet ca. 1990. :-)Ü

  23. Hi Bee,
    when a scientist as you speaks to laymen, her words implicitly inherits the great authority that science has gained during the centuries. So I think it would be a good practice in this case to distinguish between opinions, which can be true of false as the opinions of any other person, from statements based on scientific evidence, which are necessarily true. I do not know in what category you put claims of the type "god isn't good for anything" or "Religion is so obviously such a waste of time and Energy...". However I am sure that it is not scientific evidence, because it is certainly not true in my case.

  24. This could be the theme of a Hollywood futuristic movie. Here is the background:

    Scientists take over the world and force people to thing rationally. Religious people are hunted down by agents wearing white coats, when captured are brained washed via QFT, GR and String theory courses; they let them free only when they denounce God and submit. The new high priesthood is located in IAS. Newton, Einstein, Dirac and et al are holly prophets and their papers constitute the new testimony.

    Pope goes underground as the leader of resistance. His followers will never surrender to logic and the scientific method…

  25. Indeed, from what you write ("I would take 'not believing in God' to mean that one doesn't exclude the possibility"), I would call that position agnostic rather than atheist. There is unfortunately some confusion in the teminology. When talking about atheism and agnosticism, you apparently are referring to what is called "weak" atheism and "strong" agnosticism, while I am using the terms to mean "strong" atheism and "weak" agnosticism.

    Here are some wikipedia definitions:

    Strong atheism: the assertion that "at least one deity exists" is a false statement.

    Weak atheism: the absence of theistic belief without a conscious rejection of it

    Strong agnosticism: the question of the existence or nonexistence of a deity or deities, and the nature of ultimate reality is unknowable

    Weak agnosticism: the existence or nonexistence of any deities is currently unknown but is not necessarily unknowable; therefore, one will withhold judgment until evidence, if any, becomes available

  26. I agree w/ Giotis, as amusing as his tale might seem (or not).

    Being scientifically literate or even a scientist does not necessarily imply that the person is or will become an atheist/agnostic, unless forced to. I know various examples of highly intelligent people who are scientists and belong to a ("standard") religion.

    People are not like black boxes to which you send an input and get an expected output as a result.

    Having said this, I do personally feel that science brings a sense of wonder and comfort.

  27. Sabine, not trying to give offence, but your viewpoint is extremely American. Only Americans could create that special brand of virulent atheism. I cannot blame them. They have to struggle with equally virulent brands of Christianity.

    From my European viewpoint the case is already settled. We have some creationists and pro-lifers here, but they're in a cultural minority. Not much counterforce is necessary. Therefore we don't have many atheist fundamentalists here either.

    I'm a Christian myself, even a Catholic, but I don't have much problems with science. Catholicism has accepted evolution and has integrated it into it's theology (more or less). The major disagreements are not with science as-is but more with the materialistic culture and morality it helped to create.

    I'm sorry to see that non-Christian scientists and atheists are still stuck in a 19th century interpretation of religion. The same anti-religious critiques and viewpoints could be heard 100 years ago. It's all so old fashioned and uninteresting. My hypothesis is that atheists never take the time to keep up with modern religion and theology. And I cannot blame them, why should they, it's not relevant for them.

    But a lot has happened in religion and theology and religion since Darwin, Marx and Freud. There exist very interesting strands of postmodern theology, for example. And Jewish rabbis are writing books how to create understanding between atheists and believers. But atheist scientist never take this innovation into account.

    Some of my best friends are atheists, I have no quarrel with them. If someone is actually helping to build the Kingdom of God then God does not care if they are believers or atheists :-)

    But I would enjoy a more modern and interesting dispute than I am often getting. Modern and innovative religion does exist, but scientific atheists are so old fashioned. Modern atheists like Slavoj Zizek are much more interesting in their atheism than Richard Dawkins.

    Sorry for the rant :-)

  28. Just to demonstrate that there are other strands of religious thought. Had to search for the link so couldn't include it in my earlier comment:

    The Great Partnership: Science, Religion, and the Search for Meaning
    Jonathan Sacks

    The Insistence of God: A Theology of Perhaps (Indiana Series in the Philosophy of Religion)
    John D. Caputo

  29. There's plenty that we don't know about religion as a social phenomenon; the claim that religion is useless is also a sociological claim. I've read of correlations between weakness of religion and shortfall of reproduction in a nation. If you're worried about overpopulation you may think that would be a good thing; but when a country's people keep reproducing at less than replacement rate, that leads to grave long-run problems. Religion does seem to have a role in family values. All of that has to do only with religion's usefulness, not with whether God exists.

    When I was young, theism meant definite belief in God, atheism meant definite disbelief in God, and agnosticism meant a combination of definite suspicion and definite doubt that God exists. I've seen no word for a lack of doubt, suspicion, belief, or disbelief in God. Maybe somebody should invent one so that we don't end up stretching one or another of the traditional words to cover the needed meaning. ("Agnostic" itself originally meant belief that one can't know whether God exists and now that meaning has been lost.)

    Do babies lack doubt, suspicion, etc., that God exists? The concept of God starts out so vague that it's hard to distinguish from babies' belief in their parents' magical powers. (The concept never stops being at least somewhat vague.) The idea that babies are born "atheist" in a weak sense seems aimed suggesting that at least a proto-atheism is the natural state. Problem is, A) what's so wise and good about the natural state? and B) belief in God or gods has been common if not universal throughout history everywhere. How unnatural or against nature can it be? A) and B) do not inevitably but do potentially undercut each other; anyway there they both stand.

    In the past many scientists believed in God. C.S. Peirce believed that God was real but not concretely existent in the sense of being in "reaction with other like individuals in the environment," and that scientific progress was evidence of universal purposefulness. If fewer scientists believe in God today, maybe it has to do with increased compartmentalization of intellectual pursuits.

    Science is like religion in being a kind of devotion. Science is less a devotion than a knowledge discipline, while religion is more a devotion than a knowledge discipline. In a devotion, one learns first of all by appreciation and emulation. In a knowledge discipline, by reflection and testing; that includes the fine arts, the productive arts/sciences, and the so-called ruling arts. Science (along with math) differs from the others in that its knowledge pertains also to knowledge; it seeks to learn about the bases on which one learns things. Religion is more a devotion, a way of valuing. Its central focus seems to be valuing with regard to power, submission, self-governance, decision-making. Loss of religion may put politics and its often hubristic isms in a better position than science to rush in to fill the gap. Not necessarily a good thing. As corruptible as religion is, politics is even moreso. How about a devotional counterpart of a "ruling" or architectural art applied to human character? Religion has to some extent supplied said art in the first place. Secular public schools have tried to take on some of that role. There are many valuational communities but religion is where many learn what a deep thing such a community can be.

    Sometimes religions have become infused into everything in their cultures. So we get package deals, value systems with some untenable claims about the world's history, and so on. But that seems not to explain why belief in some sort of magic seems at the core of almost anything (except Zen Buddhism, I guess) that we're willing to call a religion in the strong sense. It's easy to be glib about why. There's much that we don't understand about people and society, FWIW, I'm agnostic.

  30. Uair01,

    "Sabine, not trying to give offence, but your viewpoint is extremely American. Only Americans could create that special brand of virulent atheism... From my European viewpoint..."

    I'm German. I live in Sweden.

  31. Hi Alexis,

    Yes, that's right, that's how I've been using the terms. Best,


  32. Ben,

    I think this is somewhat of a misunderstanding. My comment about religion being 'useless' was a rhetoric question (why, if it's so useless...) to explain that it's in fact not useless because, as you say, it does have sociological and psychological benefits. That's the whole point of my post. These are benefits that science does not, at least presently, deliver except for the lucky few who are engaged in research themselves. Best,


  33. Uair01,

    Just to follow up on this, I do in fact have a great sympathy for what you write. I'm not anti-religious. Most of my family is Protestants and roman Catholic, and I've spent some years attending mass etc. I can't get myself to believe in God, but arguably it's important for many people. The Protestants in particular make it quite easy for scientists in that they have a very flexible interpretation of the bible. That's why I think science lacks something that religion does have.

    Maybe go and read what Lubos wrote (I added a link to my post above), because on that account he put it much better than me. People aren't as passionate about science as they are about religion. Now to some extent that is in the matter of the subject, but at least presently I really think that science has a shortcoming on that account, and that for no particular reason.

    I should also add that my opening paragraph was maybe deliberately provocative. First, it is of course exceedingly unlikely that religions will indeed die out, there'll probably always be religious people, though I do think their numbers will go down dramatically. Second, it might very well be that we'll see some religions that incorporate science rather than go 'extinct' with their anti-scientific content, which is what you are alluding to. I'd be interested btw, to hear more of this if you have the time. Best,


  34. I'm German. I live in Sweden.

    Directly after posting my "rant" I realized I should have done more "due dilligence" first. That's what happens when you forget to check the facts :-)

    I don't have a coherent answer but I'll collect some loose ends:

    I'll try to sumarize some views of the Dutch (atheist) philosopher Ger Groot:
    1) Religion is a problem for philosophy. Because it is a false idea it should have died out long ago. The scientific view should have killed it. Why hasn't it?
    2) The scientific domain is limited. It does not contain all human experience. Just like the language domain does not contain all human experience.
    3) Religion has developed (in an evolutionary way!) a set of behaviors, rituals, that try to catch the human experience domain outside of rationality. For example by using the body instead of the mind (kneeling etc.).
    4) There are domains of human experience that the scientific / rational mind cannot reach. Practicing religious rituals confromts the mind with domains that it cannot grasp. That is a healthy exercise for the rational mind.

    In his words (mangled by Google translate):
    "Religion is perhaps more than art the expression of a desire, born of fear, sadness, confusion, amazement. Religion gives us words, gestures, shows that we can cry out, it comes to the rescue when we do not know what to say, to do. They keep our eyes open to the beauty of the world."

    There are more modern philosophers defending religious practice, even though they are atheists. For example the (more lightweight, pop) philosopher Alain de Botton has written "Religion for atheists".

    And the (very rational) writer Francis Spufford (who wrote a great novel about linear programming) also wrote a book defending religious practice. One quote:

    "The point is that from outside, belief looks like a series of ideas about the nature of the universe for which a truth-claim is being made, a set of propositions that you sign up to; and when actual believers don’t talk about their belief in this way, it looks like slipperiness, like a maddening evasion of the issue. If I say that, from inside, it makes much more sense to talk about belief as a characteristic set of feelings, or even as a habit, you will conclude that I am trying to wriggle out, or just possibly that I am not even interested in whether the crap I talk is true. I do, as a matter of fact, think that it is. I am a fairly orthodox Christian. Every Sunday I say and do my best to mean the whole of the Creed, which is a series of propositions. But it is still a mistake to suppose that it is assent to the propositions that makes you a believer. It is the feelings that are primary. I assent to the ideas because I have the feelings; I don’t have the feelings because I’ve assented to the ideas."

    It is my personal opinion that the domains of science and religion are mostly disjunct and therefore they should not be brought into conflict. They should not threaten each other. The truth of science and the truth of religion are very different kinds of truth. Both can (and should) enrich human life.

    My rant (and false accusation of American-ness) was based on frustration with both believers and atheists who do injustice to the depth and complexity of both scientific AND religious practice. My feeling is that these are a more American then European phenomenon.

    More books:

    Religion for Atheists: A Non-believer's Guide to the Uses of Religion - Alain De Botton

    Unapologetic: Why, Despite Everything, Christianity Can Still Make Surprising Emotional Sense - Francis Spufford

    (I like Spufford more.)

  35. I read Lubos post. He seems to equate the good in religion to the freedom to burn people at the stake for heresy. He says this is "freedom". Is this what you find as his good points, Bee? How very German of you.

    Lubos has not changed in the least. He denigrates people he disagrees with rather than engaging in thoughtful dialogue.
    It speaks volumes for you to get on his good side just so he won't hate you. THAT'S WHAT HE DOES! You just enable his hate mongering by sucking up to him.

    You should have worn his prior denigration of you as a badge of honor. I would have. Many others do also.

  36. Eric,

    Well, to paraphrase an old saying, if 1000 people read a blog post, they read 1000 different blog posts. Let me put it this way.

    It's right of course that there are many people who don't understand much of science and chances are they will never understand it as deeply as scientists who have spent their lives on it. Neither does it make much sense that people 'worship' science, that seems an oxymoron to me. That's what I read in Lubos' post, and I think that's correct.

    I don't think however that it's necessary that everybody really understands every scientific argument to share the spirit, if you allow the expression. You don't need to study theology to attend church and you don't need a PhD in physics to understand, say, what's shown in an Hubble image. I am much more optimistic about this because I think what everybody can learn is a scientific attitude, open-mindedness, curiosity, skepticism, willingness to argue, and so on. That's a matter of education, I think. And that's why I think that we'll see a rather dramatic shift in attitude towards religion within the next generations. Science has much to offer and awe isn't the same as worship.

    I am not, btw, saying that scientists should preach. That would not be a good use of talent. As you see in my blogpost, I left this as an open question. What I'm saying is basically, there's a blank here that I think should be filled. Best,


  37. "I'm German. I live in Sweden."

    Both countries are much less religious than the US. Although many people belong to a church, in most cases it is "hatched, matched and dispatched" or not even that. Perhaps US atheists (PZ Myers etc) are more militant because they are confronted with religious fundamentalism every day.

    I think "postmodern religion" is bogus. None of their claims ("it's only a metaphor" etc) were around until science disproved the literal claims.

  38. We must conclude that the paradigmatic case of scientific knowledge, in which all faculties that are necessary for finding and holding scientific knowledge are fully developed, is the knowledge of approaching discovery.

    To hold such knowledge is an act deeply committed to the conviction that there is something there to be discovered. It is personal, in the sense of involving the personality of him who holds it, and also in the sense of being, as a rule, solitary; but there is no trace in it of self-indulgence. The discoverer is filled with a compelling sense of responsibility for the pursuit of a hidden truth, which demands his services for revealing it. His act of knowing exercises a personal judgement in relating evidence to an external reality, an aspect of which he is seeking to apprehend. (Polanyi 1967: 24-5)
    Michael Polanyi and tacit knowledge

    Filling the blank might be the apprehension and understanding of the development of the science as it progresses, does not mean we loose sight of the efforts too, leading to the process of the next step as to what's beyond, as some religious affiliation.

    You have to learn to be comfortable with who you are as a person to not care about the religious aspect that such pursues may seem in relation too. That religious gathering of sorts.

    So, one may look at the theoretical positions and say, hey, yes, theoretically it feels religious in a way? Invoking religion in this way within the sciences is not necessary but the talk about theoretical development may be?

    The difference between phenomenological seeing versus exploring the realm of the event, as we may construct it. So then you go about seeking a way to testing it and developing a way in which to falsify.

  39. /* Science should be more like religion */

    The individual branches of science exhibit many aspects of close-minded sectarian groups already. I seriously don't know, how these traits could be enforced without complete loss of connection with physical reality.

  40. I agree with Christine and especially with uair01. This a debate confined in US. European societies are much more mature and such tensions between religion and science do not exist; these kind of problems have been solved silently in Europe during the last couple of centuries. There is no contradiction for a scientist to believe in God and nobody cares. It's so old fashioned to pay attention to that stuff.

    Religion is an essential part of European culture and nobody has a problem with that. The spiritual aspects of religion are important for many people and again I don't have an issue with that. Why should I?

    I find the argument that Science should replace somehow religion (or aspects of religion) quite funny to tell you truth and I tried to reflect this in my first post.

    I also caught by surprise by Sabine's post. I thought she was following this moderate European point of view and not America's exaggerations. That's why I find Sean's endless polemic rants against religion quite ridiculous and tiresome to tell you the truth (on the other hand in America maybe they have a real problem).

  41. "He seems to equate the good in religion to the freedom to burn people at the stake for heresy. He says this is "freedom". Is this what you find as his good points, Bee? How very German of you."

    Eric that was a cheap shot and Sabine does not deserve such comments, really...

  42. To the extent religion is about explanation of the world, science provides better explanations where explanations are available, and science also knows the limit of its explanations. As an example of what I mean, science tells us that the radii of planetary orbits around the Sun do not arise from any fundamental law or design, but from a complicated history of the gravitational accretion that produced the solar system, while the trajectories of the planets are easily described from a fundamental law.

    But the idea that religion is primarily about explanation is a cultural bias, an assumption. So much so that on close examination, either you have to concede that Buddhists, Hindus, etc., do not have religion, or else if you want to include all these under the moniker of "religion", you have to consider the possibility that religion is about other things as well.

    What could these possibly be? I will provide a metaphor only for one - religion as aesthetics. As you know, different cultures have grown different aesthetics, often centrally tied to their religion that shows up in their art, music, literature and in daily life. There is no "true" aesthetics, and there is no scientific aesthetics that is superior to all the others.

    Please note, I'm not saying "religion is aesthetics", but rather "some of religion is like aesthetics in that it makes subjective claims, which are nonetheless meaningful and useful even though they are subjective."

    Under the circumstances, I think something that scientists haven't really done - a scientific study of the world-wide set of phenomena termed as religion - would really be the first step.

  43. @Giotis: I disagree. While not as big a problem as it is in the States, religion still has too much influence in Europe. Just because it is better here than elsewhere doesn't mean we should stop trying to make it better.

  44. In regards to Sean's atheistically valuations, it is more in my view about "humanistic values?" Which is more of a sign that a secular religion alone does not need to hold, while he readily recognizing the stance science plays in his life. One can still strive to be a good person without religion and the need for a belief in God. Hold gatherings to talk about the science. I do not see this as preaching but a sharing.

    I am looking for a particular post on 13.7 that would have directly placed Bee's post in a different light.

    We think we can't explain life, but only because we insist on adhering to a conception of life as vaguely spooky, some sort of vital spirit. And likewise, we think we can't explain consciousness, but again this is because we cling to a conception of consciousness as, well, somehow spiritual, and precisely because we insist on thinking of it as something that floats free of its physical substrates ("a ghost in the machine"), as something essentially interior and private. Once we clear away these confusions, so this alternative would have it, we realize that we don't need to solve any special problems about life and mind. There never were any problems.Are The Mind And Life Natural? by Alva Noë

  45. It’s not a coincidence that all human societies throughout history developed some kind of religion with more or less the same typical characteristics.

    The right question to ask someone is not if he believes that God exists but if he wants God to exist.

    People were thrown into the world and are tragic figures. They believe because they need to pray to something big, something bigger than them, bigger than life itself; someone they feel he could hear them and answer their prays; they need support to face life’s hazards and problems and to deal with their inner loneliness. What’s wrong with that and you goanna replace it with what, Equations? Booze would be much more effective in that respect.

    With that right you want to deprive mankind from such comfort and why?

    So I say let it be,

    Life is a tough journey; you should have at least the chance to choose your ride…

  46. Giotis, it was not a cheap shot. Lubos is the king of cheap shots. Everyone knows that. One is known by the company they keep, including you. But you are not the director of this blog, Bee is.

  47. I should add that I thought Bee's response to me was very reasonable and polite. On a personal level, (as much as personal means as a reader of Bee's blog), I like Bee very much. She seems like a warm human being to me. Perhaps that's why it's so distressing to me for her to team up with someone like Motl. Perhaps if I didn't think so highly of her in other ways it would not bother me so much.

    And no... It's not jealousy. I simply don't know Bee well enough to own that emotion.

  48. "Scientists simply do not need religion"

    If you have ever had your paper stolen, or watched a person plagiarize one article after another to increase their paper count, or seen misuses of public money used to bribe people to give people degrees and positions ... you might then think they need something.

  49. Because the culture of Science is at times quite low, in terms of behavior, and positive social impact, .... perhaps a Mithraic aspect is missing, that would ensure better conduct. As it stads today, the only "code" seems to be a sort of Bolshevism.

  50. You would not need Mithras, although "cutting the bull" image is appealing. Any scientifically heroic person that would inspire people could be used: Aristotle, or Archimedes, or Hypatia.

  51. Tell the truth : Science is done by gangsters, and promoted as a pristine endeavor to attract support. You have to go along, or perish.

    And Berkeleyism - I could go on and on.

  52. Giotis, Eric,

    Let's not over-analyze single words. We've spent time together on this blog for some while, and I tend to believe that by and large you're both nice and reasonable, and I can take the one or other cheap shot. I'm arguably German, though people tend to be disappointed or confused about my German-ness. To state the obvious, I'm German by birth, not by choice.

    Regarding the issue of religion vs science in Europe and the USA. You're right of course that it's much more of an issue in the USA than here in the sense that it's a much more visible polarization over there.

    But the point I was trying to make in my blogpost wasn't about these visible fights. What I was trying to say is that science has much more to offer to people than we're presently offering. And I do think that our failure to communicate the use of scientific thought on a personal and inter-personal level limits the integration of science into our societies generally. And that, I think, is the case both in North America and in Europe and also in the rest of the world. And that lack of integration is to everybody's disadvantage.

    If you read this blogpost as a 'polemic rant against religion', I'm afraid I have not expressed at all what I was trying to say. What I was trying to say is that religions bring real benefits to many people and just degrading them or making fun of them doesn't make sense. It doesn't help anybody and it just polarizes people further. I think that we'd be much better off when scientists would stop looking down on religion and instead learn to give people something that improves the human condition and enriches their lives, and then let people decide for themselves what they want. My sense is that if people knew better what science has to give to them, they'd likely favor it over religion, for reasons I mentioned in my blogpost. Thus my, optimistic, conviction that religions (as they exist today), esp mono-theistic ones, won't survive that much longer.



  53. I'm surprised noone mentioned the Warhammer 40K universe in this comment thread. ;)

  54. "To state the obvious, I'm German by birth, not by choice."

    Not obvious. By the way, I'm German by choice, not by birth.

  55. Well, I thought it should be obvious to anybody who has followed this blog for a while. But you're right of course, in general it's not.

  56. I don't know, Bee. I can't see how science could survive as a rationalist enterprise if it were more like religion. Is there such a thing as a rational religion? -- the closest I can think of is Buddhism, and most think of Buddhism as philosophy, not religion.

    Einstein's "cosmic religion" was based on Spinoza's writings, and Spinoza's Deism can hardly be distinguished, at least operationally, from atheism.

    I have heard many believers argue, as in your article, over " ... the benefits that religion brings." In balance, though, the evils toward humankind and objective knowledge at least outweigh the benefits, in my perception.

    Philip Helbig is right about the perfect Jehovah's Witness repellant -- I learned it years ago, innocently, and have always wondered why it works. You know what they say, though -- where there are two Jews, there are three opinions -- maybe the JWs worry that if they stop to engage Jews in conversation, they'll have no time left for all the other lost souls. I admit that on my last encounter, when the young man stumbled backwards from my porch pointing his finger and shouting, "You're the promise, you're the promise," I almost succumbed to my impulse to pursue him and say, "Let's talk about it."

    All best,


  57. One problem with trying to replace religion with science is that the scientific truth may actually be toxic to human minds. This was Lovecraft’s great insight when he wrote:

    “We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.”

    Nor does promoting the “beauty and wonder” of science necessarily help you, since that’s an arbitrary value judgment which many do not share. To wit Thomas Ligotti:

    “One gasps to hear scientists swooning over the universe or any part thereof like schoolgirls overheated by their first crush. (Albert Einstein, Karl Popper, Carl Sagan, Richard Dawkins, many others.) From the studies of Krafft-Ebbing onward, we know that it is possible to become excited about anything - from shins to shoes. But it would be nice if just one of these gushing eggheads would step back and, as a concession to objectivity, speak the truth: THERE IS NOTHING INATELY IMPRESSIVE ABOUT THE UNIVERSE OR ANYTHING IN IT.”

    The problem with many scientists today is that you don’t seem to fully grasp that your beloved “Enlightenment” was the product of a Christian worldview, in which science revealed the architecture of the creator of the universe, which was ultimately benevolent and made for man. As you undermine that basis for the Enlightenment by marginalizing belief in god, you may also undermine the capacity to view science as a benevolent, impressive or important enterprise. This realization leads to a phenomenon I like to call “the Endarkenment”, which I submit is the cutting edge of postmodern thought and is more in line with scientific reality. There’s no believable happy story of science, so you don’t need to try to replace one feel-good myth with another, because it’s simply a lie!

  58. We may be born atheists, but we are born with a brain capable of experiencing transcendence. Some argue that this is a function of our large neocortex, possibly an outgrowth of our being predators and needing to understand the minds of our prey, our peers, and every other god damned thing including the "gods". It's a lot like place and time neurons. Pure reason isn't enough. Our minds are structured to experience certain things. Science can fulfill much the same neurological need as does religion. Didn't Darwin even remark on the grandeur inherent in his view of life? Materialism and its cousin empiricism may disturb many, but they can satisfy basic human needs as well as providing a better standard of life.

    The US has never had the large scale religious wars that Europe had experienced. We've had our religious battles, but never the bloodbaths that were the wars against the Cathars, the Protestants, the Jews and the like, so we don't take the threat of religious war as seriously. Religion is much less suspect here, but more and more young people have been thinking and rethinking. (One friend of mine considers the American evangelical movement doomed. Their children will all want to have sex.)

  59. Another excellent post. I've said this before so I'm going to stop saying it after this: you've become a very good essayist in English (not just because it is difficult to tell that English is not your native language).

    The difficulty with getting everyone to love science is of course that the average IQ is just 100. I am not saying that IQ is an accurate measure of intelligence, but I think love of science probably correlates positively with high IQ and negatively low IQ, with zero point somewhere around 120.

    I give my nephews and nieces popular science books, such as Simon Singh's "Big Bang" when they graduate from high school. (I tape some money inside the back cover to sweeten the pill.) One of them said in his thank-you note that he was not going to read the book because, "Science can't be true because it always changes, whereas religion doesn't." So I am very discouraged, but maybe scientists will find a way to make us smarter.

  60. Why ask science to do the work of religion? The limitation of scientific knowledge to observable, reproducible phenomena is what makes it special. If we stretch it beyond that then we're just putting a scientific skin on religion. Personally, I don't want science to be more like religion, or religion to be more like science. I wish science to be done with integrity, rigor, and without any prejudice. Religion can never be practiced without prejudice! Yet for religion I can wish that it be done and bring with it peace, empathy, and wisdom.

    Has Sabine ever read William James' The Varieties of Religious Experience? The text is over 100 years old, but still fresh. James too had observed the many positive benefits of religious belief and wondered whether they might be compatible with science. In the end, he concluded that much of what people identify as religious experiences must be connected with the subconscious. We actually don't know a lot more now than we did then about how consciousness emerges. There's plenty of room in what is unknown for both science and religion. No need for one to elbow out the other.

  61. You should watch this amazing Feynman video, more or less what you say about "love as oxytocin" and the view of science and religion:


  62. I have read many of the comments and Sabine's answers. I am very interested in modern physics and also cosmology. I am a Christian, but my faith is founded on what science has come up with the last 100 years.And I will say Christianity has MUCH to deal with there. Not so much to skip things in the Bible (Old Testamony), but to view the Bible through the light of what science now knows - AND what science doesn't know, and what science is very much in doubt of.I do not say that religion is to "fill the gaps" science doesn't know/is in doubt of. But I think it would be profitable for both science and religion to give real answers to each other instead of digging trenches and fight each other.
    Ending with this: Atheists often say/write when religion is brought on: "Do not give that claptrap about God and Jesus!" To Sabine: I now mention some Noble laurate scientist you surely know well: Max Planck, Arthur Eddinton, von Heisenberg (the uncertainty principle), Eugene Wigner, I can also mention Albert Einstein, and other very known scientists. All of these were christians (Einstein in a certain way). Did they for atheists write claptrap, or rather what is wrong with them? Is the answer that they were brillant scientist - but failed stupidly when it came to religion? Gudmund


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