Natalie Angier's God Problem

By Sean Carroll | November 19, 2006 2:27 pm

Natalie Angier is the Pulitzer-Prize-winning science writer for the New York Times, author of Woman: An Intimate Geography and most recently The Canon: A Whirligig Tour of the Beautiful Basics of Science. In a new piece at Edge, she points a finger at the hypocrisy of many scientists who wail and gnash their teeth at superstitious craziness like creationism or astrology, but invent elaborate rationalizations about non-overlapping magisteria when it comes to things like the virgin birth or life after death. A somewhat lengthy excerpt, as I can’t help myself:

In the course of reporting a book on the scientific canon and pestering hundreds of researchers at the nation’s great universities about what they see as the essential vitamins and minerals of literacy in their particular disciplines, I have been hammered into a kind of twinkle-eyed cartoon coma by one recurring message. Whether they are biologists, geologists, physicists, chemists, astronomers, or engineers, virtually all my sources topped their list of what they wish people understood about science with a plug for Darwin’s dandy idea. Would you please tell the public, they implored, that evolution is for real? Would you please explain that the evidence for it is overwhelming and that an appreciation of evolution serves as the bedrock of our understanding of all life on this planet? …

Scientists think this is terrible—the public’s bizarre underappreciation of one of science’s great and unshakable discoveries, how we and all we see came to be—and they’re right. Yet I can’t help feeling tetchy about the limits most of them put on their complaints. You see, they want to augment this particular figure—the number of people who believe in evolution—without bothering to confront a few other salient statistics that pollsters have revealed about America’s religious cosmogony. Few scientists, for example, worry about the 77 percent of Americans who insist that Jesus was born to a virgin, an act of parthenogenesis that defies everything we know about mammalian genetics and reproduction. Nor do the researchers wring their hands over the 80 percent who believe in the resurrection of Jesus, the laws of thermodynamics be damned. …

So, on the issue of mainstream monotheistic religions and the irrationality behind many of religion’s core tenets, scientists often set aside their skewers, their snark, and their impatient demand for proof, and instead don the calming cardigan of a a kiddie-show host on public television. They reassure the public that religion and science are not at odds with one another, but rather that they represent separate “magisteria,” in the words of the formerly alive and even more formerly scrappy Stephen Jay Gould. Nobody is going to ask people to give up their faith, their belief in an everlasting soul accompanied by an immortal memory of every soccer game their kids won, every moment they spent playing fetch with the dog. Nobody is going to mock you for your religious beliefs. Well, we might if you base your life decisions on the advice of a Ouija board; but if you want to believe that someday you’ll be seated at a celestial banquet with your long-dead father to your right and Jane Austen to your left-and that she’ll want to talk to you for another hundred million years or more—that’s your private reliquary, and we’re not here to jimmy the lock.

Consider the very different treatments accorded two questions presented to Cornell University’s “Ask an Astronomer” Web site. To the query, “Do most astronomers believe in God, based on the available evidence?” the astronomer Dave Rothstein replies that, in his opinion, “modern science leaves plenty of room for the existence of God . . . places where people who do believe in God can fit their beliefs in the scientific framework without creating any contradictions.” He cites the Big Bang as offering solace to those who want to believe in a Genesis equivalent and the probabilistic realms of quantum mechanics as raising the possibility of “God intervening every time a measurement occurs” [arrrgh!ed.] before concluding that, ultimately, science can never prove or disprove the existence of a god, and religious belief doesn’t—and shouldn’t—”have anything to do with scientific reasoning.”

How much less velveteen is the response to the reader asking whether astronomers believe in astrology. “No, astronomers do not believe in astrology,” snarls Dave Kornreich. “It is considered to be a ludicrous scam. There is no evidence that it works, and plenty of evidence to the contrary.” Dr. Kornreich ends his dismissal with the assertion that in science “one does not need a reason not to believe in something.” Skepticism is “the default position” and “one requires proof if one is to be convinced of something’s existence.”

Read the whole thing. Scientists who do try to point out that walking on water isn’t consistent with the laws of physics, and that there’s no reason to believe in an afterlife, etc., are often told that this is a bad strategic move — we’ll never win over the average person on the street to the cause of science and rationality if we tell them that it conflicts with their religion. Which is a legitimate way to think, if you’re a politician or a marketing firm. But as scientists, our first duty should be to tell the truth. The laws of physics and biology tell us something about how the world works, and there is no room in there for raising the dead and turning water into wine. In the long run, being honest with ourselves and with the public is always the best strategy.

Update: In the Science Times, George Johnson reports on a conference in which scientists debated how to interact with religion. This was a non-Templeton affair, and most of the participants seemed to be somewhat anti-religion. Videos of the talks should soon be available at The Science Network.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Religion, Science and Society
  • soaringeagle

    You may not be able to walk on liquid H20, but you can if you add enough corn starch.

  • anon

    Gosh – walking on water and virgin births are against the laws of physics and require miracles? Hooray for progress – what would we know without the wonders of modern science!

  • JustAnotherInfidel

    I think the last paragraph pretty much sums it up:

    “I’d like to think that one of these days we’ll leave superstition and delusional thinking and Jerry Falwell behind. Scientists would like that, too. But for now, they like their grants even more.”

    Is it the position of the most intelligent people to dictate public policy? That’s not the premise of Democracy in America at all. (It didn’t seem to work for the Simpsons…) These are sticky subjects, as religion is one of the most important issues to many people—it dictates their lives and their choices in the voting booth. Is it wise to alienate 70% of the taxpayers that fund scientific research? Making this an issue may only serve to enlarge the rift between the average American and academia, and scientists may only end up biting the hand that feeds them.

    It could also be that many aren’t as, umm, evangelical with their athiesm.

    PS—Congrtulations on your engagement.

  • ksh95

    Sean said:

    In the long run being honest with ourselves and with the public is always the best strategy

    Please tell me what parts of human history lead you to believe that starry eyed, ideological mess.

    It’s never a good idea to pick a fight with 95% of the world’s population. In the real world, the fact that we have truth on our side will not protect us from burning at a stake….Imagine the New York Times Headline: Science says everything you have ever believed in is wrong and you are all a bunch of idiots. There is no God

    Thats the general theory. A more down-to-earth practical argument is…until science figures out a way to provide emotional comfort and spiritual support to the poverty stricken single mothers in crack infested neighborhoods or provide hope to orphened prostitutes in shanty towns maybe we should leave well enough alone.

  • ksh95

    Or even better…Our government could send a press release to the Arab world: Americas new official position: Allah doesn’t exist and you’re all just ignorant

    1.)It’s always better to tell the truth
    2.)We know there is no God
    3.)Lets tell everyone

    I think I’ve heard this type of ideological based logic before.

    1.)Democracy is good
    2.)Iraq is not democratic
    3.)lets make Iraq democratic

  • Arun

    Umm, the United States was explicitly founded on a compact that we won’t tell each other what to believe, and we’ll leave belief out of governance. That was never perfectly followed; and lately, some people have been trying to say that evolution cannot be taught in the classroom because it attacks their faith, and that has led to the scientists’ reaction.

    This whole thing would be less of an issue if everyone had their own schools and could teach or leave out what they like – but we have public schools financed by everyone’s taxes and what should be taught in those schools is a matter of government.

    There is the fact that science is not a matter of belief or opinion but rather of models that are experimentally found to be in accord with reality (fortunately string theory is not yet taught in schools). The correct answer that honors the original compact is to say, believe what you like, science is not here to attack belief but to address reality. In the teaching of science there is no belief being imposed on you. We are teaching you the facts and the well-established theories that interpret them. (For more speculative stuff, you’ll have to go to grad school. That is also why I think it is wrong to talk of something like string theory in public as anything other than elegant speculation.)

    The wrong answer is to go after people telling them you ought to believe such-and-such and not such-and-such, at least while you’re funded with taxpayer dollars. That, IMO, is as much in breach of the Constitution as those who want Genesis taught as an alternative to evolution in the public school science classroom.

  • Eric Dennis

    Good bit. Thanks for posting on it, Sean.

    ksh, when you have facts and reason on your side it’s generally better in the long run to just let the chips fall where they may, instead of constructing some elaborate plan to manipulate the tragically ignorant masses out of their tax dollars. I don’t find that most of the masses are that threatened by the atheism of a physicist. I imagine many of them who have their own doubts must find it irregular and even disconcerting to have scientists bending over backward to accommodate a 12th century world-view. “Hey, if even those physicists aren’t so sure about whether or not God exists, who I am to rock the boat…”

  • Sourav


    I disagree with you on two points —

    1) Unlike religious precepts, string theory is testable in principle and strives to be logically self-consistent. As such, it is a valid topic of scientific discourse. Whether or not it’s worth all the effort is a separate question.

    2) Scientists should be in fact free to discuss issues of fact, including philosophical questions on measurement. So it’s perfectly reasonable as a scientist to say that the reality of Immaculate Conception is crap, just like Lysenkian biology and Lamarckian evolution. It shouldn’t matter how he’s funded, like a doctor paid by Medicare.

    I agree with Sean that if scientists are to be professional, they have to be self-consistent on all aspects of reality. In my experience (which may be naive), scientists are hesitant to attack religion because they themselves sympathize with the existential imperative it provides.

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  • Moshe

    I think this is a good point to concentrate on. The beliefs themselves are often benign enough, seems like nitpicking denying someone their favorite fairy tale. The process necessary for keeping those beliefs, namely the ability (when needed) to suspend one’s rational (and often moral) judgement is not quite that benign always.

  • Count Iblis

    An important factor is that small children are indoctrinated with religion and that they are not exposed to proper science education that could allow them to conclude that religion is nonsense until years later, by which time it is too late to undo the indoctrination.

    You can let people believe almost everything if you start indoctrinating them at an early enough age. We should therefore focus on telling the truth to children. Children in primary school should be taught the scientific creation story (big bang) , where they came from (evolution, the fact that heavy elements are formed in stars etc.), that we humans are ultimately very complex machines, etc. etc.

    Some time ago I read that some schoolboards are against teaching more science in primary school to protect religion. :(

  • Arun

    I didn’t say string theory is not testable in principle. What I did mean to say is that in a system where
    a. government is not supposed to intrude on belief and
    b. education is publicly funded

    a. in schools, anything that is a matter of belief should not be taught.
    b. government money – a.k.a. tax payer money – should not be used to
    attack belief.

    If scientists do not want to follow these rules, then they are free to do so, but they should not then accept federal money.


  • Arun

    Or, scientists should work to amend the Constitution. Otherwise scientists attacking religion is as unethical as a politician using government funds and workers for his reelection campaign. Taxpayers do not endorse money for research for these reasons.

    Please note, that the courts have established that the Government can ignore religious practice when such practice is not seen to be in the public good.

    Be smart and do not further erode the consensus that undergirds this society. There are infinitely more serious problems than whether God exists or not.


  • Joseph Smidt

    I do believe scientists owe it to society to teach what the experimental evidence shows to be true and not try to play it down even if it interferes with some people’s religious beliefs. Scientists must back up experiment. None of this: I believe science in as much as I can fit it in with my religiuos beliefs stuff.
    However, I am skeptical that stripping some people of all faith and hope is good for them. As ksh95 said, in real life, some people need these things to get by. Until science can provide the needs faith and hope provides these people, I am not so sure we should insist people give these things up. And maybe science can, but until I see that it does I have to claim people need some things science can’t provide.
    As Richard Dawkins claims: “Good and evil–I don’t believe that there is hanging out there, anywhere, something called good and something called evil.”,9171,1555132-8,00.html If you forced all people to think like that many would go crazy. Many need to believe in things science says nothing of to function properly. But to water down experimental results to fit some special religious view is a great disservice to the human race.

  • George Musser

    Hmm, there’s a bit of a straw man in this argument. Those of us who argue for thinking of science and religion as distinct and equally legitimate domains do not dispute that scientific results disprove particular beliefs, such as young-Earth creationism. A personal God who intervenes in daily affairs is not strictly disproved – how could it be? – but does require arbitrary suspension of natural laws.

    What I and others say is that religion, broadly defined, does not contradict science. Physics is compatible with a range of metaphysics, not to mention morality. To find ways for religion and science to co-exist does not require intellectual dishonesty or rhetorical strategizing.


  • Josh

    I think there is a difference between making the case against creationism and going after other religious ideas that one finds unscientific. In the case of creationsim, there was a religious contingent which was actively attacking a field of science and pushing for a particular public policy which would affect us all(namely removing evolution from public education). It is then imperative to defend evolution and protect a sensible public policy. I don’t really see such a direct threat from people believing in angels, or whatever. So making a big spectacle about the impossibility of the virgin birth would be like picking a fight against something you don’t like but isn’t really causing any trouble. I don’t think such a “preemptive strike” helps anyone.

  • Jack

    I agree absolutely that the public should be educated not to believe in things for which there is no evidence, and which, when put to experimental test, result in disaster. As scientists, we should set an example and never support superstition.

    Right, Sean, please drop a line to Mark Trodden asking him to stop endorsing the Guardian, the sole raison d’etre of which is to purvey *the* most thoroughly debunked and pernicious superstition in history — that the working class is “oppressed” by the bourgeoisie. I warn you that it won’t be easy — you know what people can be like when they are separated from cherished fantasies……

  • Pyracantha

    Why do you assume that all religion (Christian especially) is literalist fundamentalism? Is there any room for metaphor and myth in your worldview? Many great religious thinkers do not expect Scriptural stories to be taken as literal “scientific” truth. The stories are not there to tell us something about the cosmos, more likely something about ourselves in relation to the cosmos.

    Religion is not some sort of “failed” science. It is not something that has to be proved or disproved by the scientific method, any more than art or music have to be proved or disproved by the scientific method. When you enjoy a concert, do you have to “prove” that you have been made more happy by a scientific analysis?

    By believing the literalist fundamentalists and using them as an example for all religion, you give their world-view more power.

  • greg

    “The laws of physics and biology tell us something about how the world works, and there is no room in there for raising the dead and turning water into wine. In the long run, being honest with ourselves and with the public is always the best strategy.”

    But scientist don’t. AKA gloabal warming…..Don’t show corelations as proof, and don’t use words like consensus. The consensus is that God does exist.

  • noname

    It seems to me a little absurd to criticize scientist for not jumping on things like virging birth or walking on water. The whole point of these miracles is that they are, precisely, miracles. They are once in a lifetime occurances that take place by divine intervention. I don’t think science has anything to say about that: a non-reproducible, one time event that is by definition outside the natural realm. Evolution is an entirely different game, as it concerns the development of species in a natural way. It can (and has) been tested.

    It would be unscientific to claim miracles cannot occur, since by their very definition their occurance is divine and not natural in origin. You should feel free to NOT believe in miracles, and that is certainly the most economical position, but it is not required.

  • Count Iblis


    But why do these divine interventions happen in the first place? The answer is, of course, that without such divine interventions the religious authorites would lose power.

    The Ten Commands were given to Mozes by God in a divine intervention, because Mozes was losing his authority over his people. And Saddam had stockpiles of WMD, because Bush wanted to invade Iraq. And just after the war we were hearing about miraculous scenarious according to which all the WMD had been moved to Syria. :)

  • TimG

    I have a lot to say about this, so I’m sorry in advance if this is kind of rambling:

    In this kind of discussion there’s (at least) three distinct types of religious claims that (in my view) ought to be considered separately.

    1) Claims that we can actually go out and test with an experiment: e.g., The claim that the universe is only a few thousand years old.

    2) Claims that we *can’t* test empirically, but only because they happed a long time ago and weren’t likely to leave much physical evidence: e.g., Jesus rose from the dead.

    3) Claims that couldn’t be tested even in principle, because they don’t have anything to do with the physical world: e.g., people have souls, God exists, etc.

    Believing things of type 1 is totally incompatible with the scientific method. If you’re determined to cling to your beliefs in the face of empirical evidence to the contrary, you can’t do legitimate science. And furthermore I’d say this sort of thinking in the general public has already proven itself to be a threat to the practice of science, and to science education especially. So scientists have a vested interest in opposing this sort of claim.

    The second kind of claim (in short, that miracles happen) is a bit different. Here people aren’t objecting to the idea of testing specific claims with evidence, they’re claiming seemingly universal scientific laws can in some instances be broken. At first glance, this would seem incompatible with how science is done, but if strict enough limits are imposed on how often miracles happen, it doesn’t really make any practical difference. On the one hand, if you’re willing to look at any surprising experimental data and say “eh, maybe it was a miracle”, then you’re not going to make it too far as a scientist. On the other hand, a person could believe that Jesus literally rose from the dead, and even that God could make someone rise from the dead today “if he wanted to”, and as long as they’re willing to assume God *doesn’t* want to they’re going to expect the laws of physics to be followed just the same.

    Whether you assume the laws of physics apply all the time, or just that they apply all the time except for a few specific incidents that happened a couple thousand years ago, doesn’t really make much difference as far as your ability to do or to appreciate science. In fact, there have been plenty of highly successful scientists who believed the latter belief — and there are millions of people in the world today who genuinely believe science works while still maintaining that there were a few instances a thousand years ago where it clearly didn’t work. Even if most scientists find these beliefs kind of nutty, isn’t it worth keeping those millions on our side? Scince needs the support if the public a lot more than it needs people to admit that the laws of physics still apply even if you’re Jesus.

    The third kind of religious claim is different still. First, some people may object that claims like “God exists” are open to empirical investigation, but unless you assume God is tampering with the world in ways that violate the laws of physics (in other words, the aforementioned miracles) then I don’t see how this is the case. If someone believes that God somehow picked the laws of physics, created the world, and then sits back and lets it all unfold, then this sort of a God is automatically consistent with everything we see. (Even if we somehow determine that the universe is cyclic or otherwise eternal, someone could still claim that God had created it at some point and allowed it to evolve both forwards and bakwards in time. Or that he created all moments in time at once and just structured everything in such a way that it looks like things proceed from one moment to the next by the laws of physics. Or many other equally bizarre but utterly untestable philosophical hypotheses.) The existence of this kind of God is at least compatible with everything we see. So what’s the harm in people believing in him, if they’re still going to believe the same things about the “real” world as any scientist?

    I could go beyond that, though, and argue that it’s just as sensible to believe in that sort of God as not. The obvious objection is Ockham’s Razor — but I’d argue that the by far the best support for Ockham’s razor is empirical, so who’s to say it’s even applicable to non-empiracal questions. What I mean is this: believing a priori that “we shouldn’t postulate more than is necessary” isn’t any more justified than believing “God exists.” The thing that elevates Ockham’s razor (at least in the eyes of scientists) is that it *works*. If you propose that something exists even though there’s no evidence for it, and then someone figures out a way to *test* whether it exists, then usually you end up being wrong. This is an observable fact about the world. But we can’t say “believing in undetectable gods is usually wrong” because we can never determine the truth or falsehood of such a claim from empirical data, not even once.

    One could object that it’s irrational to believe something for no reason (and what reason could there be other than evidence?) but ultimately everyone believes *some* things without evidence, since without any beliefs at all you’d have no basis for identifying “evidence” in the first place. I mean, even scientists have to start from a few core beliefs, like “my senses are reliable”, “my memory is reliable”, “inductive reasoning is legitimate means of reaching a conclusion”, etc. I’d argue that the reason these beliefs don’t need justification is that we’re hardwired to believe them from birth (i.e., that it’s only *changing* your fundamental beliefs that needs to be justified.) But this is philosophy, not science — I can’t do an experiment to prove that my core beliefs are any better than yours. And if we only disagree about some things that aren’t observable anyway, what does it matter?

    Of course, I’ve skipped a whole category of religious claims, namely claims about morality. Here I think we’d all agree that what people believe does matter. But I take what I consider to be a pragmatic point of view: if someone believes in treating people with kindess and compassion, what does it matter if they’re doing it because Jesus or Muhammad said so, or just because they think it’s nice? Of course, there are some fairly widespread religious beliefs on morality that I don’t agree with: E.g., I don’t think that someone is immoral or sinful just because they happen to be gay. Of course, there are plenty of religious people who agree with me, but nevertheless I’m sure some people would argue that if everyone stopped believing in religion, the treatment of homosexuals in the world would improve. But even if that’s true, you’re going to have a lot more luck getting people to support gay rights (or whatever issue you feel strongly about) by appealing to their religious values that you agree with than by telling them the whole thing is bull.

  • Sean

    We can talk about fuzzy, feel-good, noninterventionist forms of religion until the cows come home — and we have! And those cows are sure glad to be home. But the kind of religion in which the overwhelming majority of religious Americans believe involves miracles — Jesus rising from the dead is the most obvious one, but most people believe in the power of intercessionary prayer, for example. 2000-year-old folk tales of the supernatural are things that no scientist should have any trouble proclaiming as purely fictional — but they are often reluctant to do so, if the folk tales are labeled “religion.” And the efficacy of prayer has no better empirical support nor theoretical basis than the efficacy of astrology. But we impose a double standard when we talk about it, for fear of offending people. I personally think that’s a mistake, and we should be more honest.

  • noname

    Well, I don’t think I entirely agree. Jesus rising from the death is not just a folk tail- it is one of the fundamental articles of faith of the most popular religion in the world. As an article of faith, you either believe it or you don’t, but noone should feel any more entitled to force me to disbelief this miracle than I should feel entitled to force you to believe in it. In the end, such a miracle is, as you claim, non-interventionist religion, and thus science has absolutely nothing to say about it. That is already enough for some people to think that the problem is therefore not worth thinking about, but that’s their own prerogative.

    Just for fun, I will throw out there one of the reasons why I think science and miracles are not incompatible. Free will. If one believes there is nothing but natural laws, then free will is, by definition, non-existent. It seems to me that for free will to be truly free, it must exist outside the natural world, yet be able to influence it, and that comes awefully close to a miracle. I will gladly admit that not believing in free will is as much of an option as believing in it, but I sure think I am writing this out of my own volition, though this is nothiing but an article of faith. It is not possible for me to prove I am free, anymore than it is for me to prove that I am not.

    So, if we apply the same logic we did to God to free will, it seems to me that people who decry that God does not exist because there is no evidence for its existance should also decry the concept of free will. Interestingly, this is a much more important problem from a practical point of view, since one then runs into the usual problem of whether it is ethical to punish/reward behaviour when behaviour is completely predetermined. At this point usually someone sais something about indetermincy in quantum mechanics, but I fail to see how random out comes are any more free-will than predetermined ones. The point is, if we have natural laws, and nothing else, then I just do not see how truly free will can exist.

  • Rob Knop

    The efficacy of third-person prayer has been disproven as assuredly as the predictive claims of astrology have been disproven.

    However, it’s also true that many people find personal strength and support by praying themselves. If they find their support and inspiration that way rather than by whatever way you do it, what’s wrong with that?

    It is true that it’s tough to stand up in front of certain religious audiences and say that (for instance) the stories in Genesis are mythology. I’ve done this, and have gotten yelled at for it (see, for example, this blog post of mine : Creationism : to engage or not to engage?). On the other hand, in that talk, I was talking about how one can be a good science without utterly rejecting religion in the manner that this blog and PZ Myers’ blog keeps insisting we must do. While some were openly disgusted that I called the Genesis creation story fiction, others came up to me afterwards and quietly thanked me for what I had said.

    Science can’t disprove religion, but it can disprove specific claims of religion.

    If you’re some sort of pagan who includes taking inspiration from the stars and the constellations, that’s not something as a scientist I have any problem with. If you insist you can predict what kind of day I’m going to have based on which constellation was overhead when I was born, and which planets are in that constellation right now, you’re wrong, as has been amply shown.

    Rather than saying “most of the religous believe stuff incompatable with science, therefore we should be rejecting religion,” it would be both far more productive, and more honest, to consider trying to help those who are religious see that they don’t need to reject scientific claims in order to remain religious at all. I’m not talking about giving in and softpeddaling where things are clearly wrong. But I am arguing that saying things like “what’s the purpose of life” is a meaningless question (i.e. that only scientific questions are meaningful questions) is having the sort of arrogant scientfic blinders on that causes others — common people and academics alike — to think that scientists are so caught up in their own world that they can’t see value in anything else.

    Consider that most physicists are men not fully aware of or ready to do anything about the gender imbalince in physics. Do you use that as a reason to argue against physics altogether? If not, then why is your assertion that most (but not all) of the religious conscious reject science a reason to argue against religion altogether?


  • Rob Knop

    Re: bodily resurrection of Jesus, this is what I’ve written about it before:

    I know that most Christians would be a bit taken aback at the idea of somebody thinking themself Christian while not unquestionably accepting that the bodily resurrection of Jesus happened…. On the other hand, I have also known faithful pastors of Christian churches who question the historical fact of the bodily resurrection of Jesus.

    They’re out there. It’d be nice to stop lumping them in with the enemy….


  • spyder

    The failure of our education system to teach better science is becoming abundantly clear. But the failure of our education system to teach basic philosophical and religious understanding is clearly evident in many of the comments above. Why do so many people feel so confident in discussing theology, metaphysics, and the history and phenomenology of religions without ever having taken coursework in those disciplines??

    Sean’s points are quite valid. Scientists need to present clearer descriptive recitations to the general public to encourage a deeper civic understanding of scientific reasoning and thinking. Regardless of the philosophical or theological orientation of the scientist, the science itself is not, and cannot be, informed by normative based faith or belief. Science requires facts and verifiable (also falsifiable) evidence and proofs. The entire notion that the proven axioms of scientific reasoning can be suspended temporarily by divine intervention (miracles) cannot, and will not, be demonstrated to be true. Not knowing something, and in turn, assuming that that which you do not know is therefore controlled by some theological agency–with conscious intentionality to act independent upon the very structure of the universe–has absolutely nothing to do with science.

  • ponte

    Myths should not be taken literally. They have great figurative power and make for great stories. But they are metaphors. Their real power lies in language and social connections, not in explaining physical reality.

  • TimG

    With regard to miracles:

    I’m just saying we should be pragmatic about this. First of all, those are often pretty harmless beliefs. Who cares if someone wants to pray for their sick kid, as long as they’re taking them to the doctor too?

    And anyway, you’re not likely to change a believer’s mind with scientific arguments. And depending on how you phrase your argument (“folk tales”, etc.), you may end up alienating someone who could be an ally in the battles that actually *do* matter, like keeping the religious extremists from mucking with our education system.

    I’m not saying that if someone asks you “Do you think miracles are possible?” you should misrepresent yourself for fear of offending them. But it’s one thing to say “No, I don’t think you can violate the laws of science,” and it’s another thing to suggest (as some atheists tend to do) that anyone who would think otherwise is a superstitious nincompoop.

    Realistically, *most* people think that most of the world’s beliefs are flat-out wrong. I mean, you basically can’t be a Christian and believe Muhammad was a prophet from God (given that his prophecies contradict Christian doctrine), but that doesn’t mean that a Christian ought to get up at an interfaith summit and denounce Muhammad as a false prophet. The polite way to say “I think your most cherished beliefs are rubbish” is “That isn’t what I believe.”

    There’s a guy in my town who thinks that standing on a park bench and shouting at every passerby that they’ll burn in hellfire unless they embrace Jesus is a great way to make converts. Really, it’s a great way to make non-Christians think Christians are condescending loudmouths. I’d hope that scientists would be more sensible than that. You can be “honest” and still pick your battles wisely.

  • Belizean


    You continue to put the cart before the horse. The proper procedure for eliminating widespread belief in the supernatural is to first develop alternative beliefs that perform the same societal functions.

    1. Formulate Seanism — a fully rational and secular basis for ethics compatible with scientific knowledge.

    2. Test Seanism. Raise a generation or two of Seanists in a small community, then test it in one city.

    3. Evaluate Seanism. Does Seanism create a better society by the usual indicators (crime, drunkenness, wealth, intellectual achievements, etc)?

    4. Spread Seanism. If Seanism is a better way, preach it, brother!

    You have jumped to Step #4 before even beginning Step #1. You are making the incredibly naïve assumption that current religious beliefs are not a net positive in our society, and that they play no import role in restraining uncivil human impulses.

    Remember, there currently exists no rational argument against committing murder and other crimes. [There are only arguments for not getting caught and for encouraging others not to commit crimes.] It is a huge mistake to erode the supernatural argument against crime (eternal hellfire) before developing a secular replacement.

    It only seems to you and to the less perspicacious among us that religion is unnecessary, because we live in societies steeped in religions customs. If over time those customs are not reinforced by either religious or secular means, they will erode.

    Then that guy out there — whose religious faith helped him suppress his urge to break into your house, rape your wife, and kill your kids — will feel rather less obliged to restrain himself.

  • ksh95

    Sean said

    But we impose a double standard when we talk about it, for fear of offending people. I personally think that’s a mistake, and we should be more honest.

    I’m confused again, why are double standards wrong?


    I hear you are finally getting married. Here is an experiment for you. Once you have a child (assuming you want children) your wife (assuming you are marrying a women) will ask you if she looks fat in her jeans. Since you are a fearless defender of truth (fellings be damned) you can tell her “hell yea honey, you look like a cow”. This should be ok because weight gain from pregnancy is scientifically well understood.

    Do this for six months and then report back.

  • TimG

    Anyway, for those who *do* think that it’s somehow of great importance to convince people that a man didn’t walk on water 2,000 years ago, you need to at least know your audience. If they’re trying suggest a scientific mechanism for it, then of course you can debunk this claim with science. But a lot of people know perfectly well that this claim violates established scientific principles, but they just don’t believe the laws of physics are inviolable. You can argue that this is an irrational belief if you want, but explaining bouyancy and whatnot to them as if the only possible reason they could be religious is because they slept through high school physics can come across as pretty condescending.

  • Lord

    In the 19th century artificial resuscitation was developed and the dead lived again. Do you really want to base your science on such a narrow basis as current knowledge and technology? Dead science it would be.

  • Allyson

    I’m a Jew, so the walking on water is meaningless, but parting the ocean is of course absolutely true. Okay, maybe not. But the plagues made for an excellent story.

    Then that guy out there — whose religious faith helped him suppress his urge to break into your house, rape your wife, and kill your kids — will feel rather less obliged to restrain himself.

    I think the opposing argument is that without heaven/hell, the absolute worst thing you can do is hurt another human, since we all only have one life. If there can be no spiritual redemption, being caught and spending the rest of one’s life in prison (hell on earth, if you will) is certainly as frightening as spending an eternity in hell. At any rate, I don’t believe that fear of punishment stops one from being a sociopath.

    I do believe however, that belief in God, in Heaven, does keep one from going completely nuts when one’s life is total shit, or when a loved one suffers brutality at the hands of another. For example, if your four year old child is kidnapped, raped, murdered, and her last memory is of pain and terror, I’d think that a mother may find great solace in the idea that a warm and loving god of some sort has taken all that pain away, and her child is safe and content in some Edenesque place, where they’ll meet again.

    Convince that mother otherwise. Convince people suffering just about anywhere in the world where they don’t live in comfort with full bellies, warm beds, antibiotics, Playstation, pay-per-view, and a Starbucks on every corner that there isn’t a better life after this one. Do we think that the terrorized and abused and poor will suddenly rise up and and start commuting to the stream in Hybrid cars in order to bring back some water for a wholesome root stew?

    For some, the belief in a better existence off in the distance is a reason to trudge on through really shit situations. I don’t find that ignorant, just very very human. So little of religion, I think, has to do with stories that don’t gel with physics. That’s all just semantics. Religion can and does cause all sorts of problems, heinous problems. However, I think for most humans, religion is just the byproduct of a desperate need for comfort when none exists.

    You can prove that no one walked on water, that the stories that make up religion are crap, but since you can’t disprove God or Heaven, you’ll never be able to take it away from people, which I think is as it should be.

    You can and should make sure to explain that god didn’t make the punch, just don’t piss in it at the same time, yeah?

    Here ends the ramblings of someone who is not a scientist.

  • Sourav

    1) Jeez, Sean’s readership is rough. He just got engaged, and we’re already proposing experiments with his would-be family.

    BTW, I tell all my girlfriends they’re fat, as a preemptive measure.

    2) Allyson, would it weaken your case at all if you met all the veterans and cancer survivors who became atheistic as a result of their experiences? In the sample of people I’ve met, it definitely cuts both ways.

  • WeemaWhopper

    There is a simple issue of tact. I’m no more anxious to tell people bluntly that virgin birth is impossible than I am to tell them bluntly that they should lose 15 pounds, quit driving a car with an internal combustion engine, become a vegan, floss their teeth, and wash their hands more often.

    I learned the whole Christian canon as a kid, and I still find it comforting to say the Lord’s Prayer every day. As a scientist I know there is zero chance that the Creator is our Father who art in Heaven. The comfort comes from a connection with something I learned when I was little, and from activating the whole sensory memory of standing in church next to my parents (both dead now) and my siblings (who I rarely see now). I’m perfectly happy with the idea that religion is primarily effective group therapy originating from a distant past when the world was far less comprehended. If it makes people feel good to get together and proclaim faith in virgin birth or in fairies hiding in the bushes, all the more power to them.

    Angier goes a bit over the top… evolution is hot because some Xian activists want to mess with its teaching in the schools. Those activists don’t seem much interested in teaching virgin birth theory or transubstantiation theory or aquapedestrian theory. We scientists focus on evolution because that is where the religionists have targeted us.

  • Count Iblis


    Remember, there currently exists no rational argument against committing murder and other crimes. [There are only arguments for not getting caught and for encouraging others not to commit crimes.] It is a huge mistake to erode the supernatural argument against crime (eternal hellfire) before developing a secular replacement.

    If there doesn’t exist a rational argument against murder then that means that any argument against murder is irrational and therefore flawed.

  • Allyson

    Sourav, no, it doesn’t at all.

    In the words of the mighty Jane Espenson, beliefs are possessions. Beliefs can be traded in at the local freecycle for new beliefs when the old ones don’t fit anymore. But exchanging beliefs is deeply personal. If I invite you over to tea and you steal all my underwear and replace them with pints of beer, I’m going to swing my cat at your face and laugh as you try to pry her off.

    Some would be happier with beer than underwear, but I don’t drink beer, so it’s useless to me. And also, you’re stealing my beliefs (underwear), which is a crime. It’s not really your decision to make. All you can do is try to explain why beer is better than underwear, and then if I come to the decision on my own to put my beliefs on Craigslist, it’s my choice.

    Wait, I have a better metaphor that actually makes sense somewhere. Perhaps it’s in the sock drawer…

    At any rate, if people are searching for comfort, and find it in a pair of hanes cotton bikini briefs (or god), and you can’t offer an equal exchange, you shouldn’t be surprised when someone swings a cat at your face.

    This has to be the crappiest post at CV, ever.

  • Count Iblis
  • Tom Renbarger


    I hear you are finally getting married. Here is an experiment for you. Once you have a child (assuming you want children) your wife (assuming you are marrying a women) will ask you if she looks fat in her jeans. Since you are a fearless defender of truth (fellings be damned) you can tell her “hell yea honey, you look like a cow”. This should be ok because weight gain from pregnancy is scientifically well understood.

    Do this for six months and then report back.”

    So religious belief is like spousal insecurity/gamesmanship in this thought experiment, then? Marvelous.

  • Rob Knop

    2) Allyson, would it weaken your case at all if you met all the veterans and cancer survivors who became atheistic as a result of their experiences? In the sample of people I’ve met, it definitely cuts both ways.

    I suspect Allyson would take a line simliar to the one taken by many of us who disagree that teaching good science requires teaching atheism. Religious faith is a very personal thing. Some find it helpful, some have no need for it. Conversions any way don’t really undermine any argument of this sort. It will undermine a universal “my religion is the only right one” argument, but it doesn’t undermine the argument that for many, their religious faith is part of what helps keep them going.

    So religious belief is like spousal insecurity/gamesmanship in this thought experiment, then? Marvelous.

    Classic Internet deliberate misreading of analogy to make the analogy proposer appear stupid. Sigh. That kind of junk goes on too often.

    It wasn’t my analogy, but at least I got the point of it : there is such a thing as not being completely honest with some audiences in the interest of long term diplomacy, harmony, and achieving of true shared goals with said audience.

  • Sourav


    However, beer is objectively real, whereas underwear is a psychosocial construct that is probably rooted in an overly-evolved perception of intentionality. As such, we have duty to beer, and none to underwear or the irrational who would wear them.

  • Sean

    For scientists who think we should stay away from commenting on astrology or creationism or psychic communication with the dead for fear of offending people’s comforting-but-harmless beliefs, taking a similar attitude toward religion would be perfectly consistent. It’s the different standards that seem puzzling.

  • Sean

    p.s. Allyson is right, the plagues and the parting of the Red Sea are pretty cool. If you’re going to have some myths, have some myths, man.

  • Belizean

    Count Iblis,

    If there doesn’t exist a rational argument against murder then that means that any argument against murder is irrational and therefore flawed.

    That’s exactly my point. We don’t refrain from crimes (that we could get away with) for purely rational reasons, but because we have been conditioned to as a consequence of growing up in a society steeped in customs reinforced by religions.

    A rational anti-crime argument can probably be made, but no one has yet done so. This is a standing intellectual problem that should be solved, before we start tearing down our society’s primary mechanism for suppressing uncivil behavior.

  • Penny

    What would disproving these myths prove? That scientists are right and religion is wrong. To a group of people who believe things on faith, not reason. That seems illogical to me. The motivation not to disprove religious myths may be timidity — risking offense is something best left out of intellectual pursuits — but what would the endgame be of such a campaign?

    Religion is about faith. Many scientific pursuits begin in such a place. What separates the two is that science confirms what we observe. So we make leaps in science coinciding with leaps of vision on a physical and intellectual level.

    Why not just teach the difference between these two very different forms of dealing with the world? There are two basic philosophies by which we understand the world: Faith and reason. Faith is religion. Science is reason. Faith cannot explain all of what we observe. Science can’t either.

    The benefit of science, however, is that it causes us to question what we are told and what we see. The limit of faith is that it locates all truth beyond us, in an amorphous realm that leaves us powerless.

    The benefit of faith is that it provides comfort for the inexplicable. The limit of science is us: That we need time, evidence and tools not always at hand to make discoveries that make clear what was once a complete mystery.

  • Jennifer Ouellette

    As Sean’s future wife, I feel compelled to defend my ass (whatever size it may be). :)

    Okay, not really. Because ksh95’s argument is deliberately over-simplified, and s/he knows it. There’s nothing wrong with honest feedback from a partner — tactfully expressed, yet honest nonetheless. The key here is tact. E.g., telling your post-pregnant wife she looks like a fat cow is unnecessarily cruel. That’s not the same thing as openly acknowledging that she’s packed on some baby weight — which she already knows — and, say, assuring her she’s still beautiful and you love her anyway, even if her jeans don’t fit like they used to. There IS a biological/scientific reason why a woman gains weight during pregnancy; ditto for ALL the changes that take place in her body pre- and post- the actual birth. Being reminded that this is a normal, natural function might actually help a woman cope better with her changing body and wildly fluctuating hormones. So I’ll go on record as being pro-scientific honesty.

    The same principle applies to one’s assumptions, beliefs, etc. Honest feedback from a trusted source can help you refine your beliefs. Asking challenging questions strengthens true faith, it doesn’t diminish it. I’ve always said that if someone’s faith can’t withstand the occasional challenge, then it’s a pretty sad, weak kind of faith.

  • Belizean


    At any rate, I don’t believe that fear of punishment stops one from being a sociopath.

    The point isn’t to prevent people from being sociopaths, it’s to prevent them from indulging their sociopathic impulses.

    Given that sociopaths are totally self-centered and lack a sense of moral responsibility, inducing hope for personal reward (carrot) or fear of personal punishment (stick) are the only known ways in which they can be dissuaded from anti-social behavior. As bribing people not to commit atrocities can become expensive, societies are well advised to use the latter approach.

  • Tom Renbarger

    Oh, burn, Rob! You got me so good I can’t even tell if I deliberately misread the point of the original analogy or altogether missed it. 😉

    Dropping the snark, let’s consider this point:

    It wasn’t my analogy, but at least I got the point of it : there is such a thing as not being completely honest with some audiences in the interest of long term diplomacy, harmony, and achieving of true shared goals with said audience.

    There are many ways of making this point, many analogies one might construct that avoid getting personal in a cheap attempt to expose someone as a hypocrite. My initial snark was a bit of “turnabout is fair play” by giving an unfair reading of the point being made.

    Consider also this answer to ksh95’s question: “Honey, if it makes you feel better, I’ll tell you you don’t look fat, so long as I don’t have to believe it.” I’d guess that everyone would agree that’s an insultingly patronizing answer. Yet advocating something like NOMA or “not being completely honest” in order to go along to get along treads perilously close to this non-optimal answer. In time, people will see through even polished lies of omission, and it’s an open question as to whether that will be more damaging than blunt forthrightness on the matter.

  • admin1

    Sourav wrote:

    1) Unlike religious precepts, string theory is testable in principle and strives to be logically self-consistent. As such, it is a valid topic of scientific discourse. Whether or not it’s worth all the effort is a separate question.

    Sourav, good point but I disagree with your assessment of String Theory. String Theory is fraud not because it is not testable but because Doctors of Philosophy who market the String Theory use the authority of mathematics to present String Theory as “the language in which God wrote Nature.” Any admittedly religious statement can be “a valid topic of scientific discourse.” This does not make the religious statement a scientific statement. String theory is a black box theory as admitted by the String Doctors themselves. That’s why String Theory is a modern religion pushed by the giant publishing industry and by evangelists like Doctor Greene.

  • Skeptic23


    I have to disagree with you here – it’s not possible to use science to prove that god doesn’t exist, at least not the all-powerful, all-knowing god type. The problem is that this god is attributed such phenomenal powers, that any test you wish to perform to try to disprove his existence, the believer can answer that the test came back negative because god wished it to be so.

    Some examples:
    A belief that god created the world 6000 years ago – can’t be disproven by pointing out that cosmology and geology show that the universe, the solar system, and the Earth are much older than this, because the believer can claim that it is a false history planted by god to test your belief in his words (and punish you later if you choose not to believe). This god is infallible, so if he chooses to create the false history without any defects that could let you detect it as false, he can do so.

    A belief that prayers are answered – contrary to what Rob claimed above, the effectiveness of third person prayers has not been disproven, only the effectiveness of third person prayers when you attempt to measure their effectiveness. This god (who obviously doesn’t want anyone to know whether he exists but make it a matter of believing) is all-knowing in addition to all powerfull, so can choose to not respond to any prayers that are being made with the intention to test if they they work (and if your beliefs include pre-destiny, then this god will always know if anyone at any time in the future will be attempting to prove if that prayer worked).

    In a similar way, any scientific test to try to prove or disprove the existence of this god can be made by god to show that he doesn’t exist if he doesn’t want proof of his existence known.

    You can show that the historical stories are probably not real (how did Noah fit 2 of every type of animal in a small boat, and then have genetic drift speed up so modern genetics can’t detect that all animals of a given species have the same ancestor pair in common?), barring the miracle exception discussed above. You can disprove specific prophecies that are claimed to be given by god. You just can’t disprove that a god who does not wish to be found by scientific tests does exists (particularly the god as the ultimate supercomputer and we’re just the ultra-large N-body simulation with Planck time being the time steps used concept that you obviously dislike).

  • David Rothstein

    I am one of the Cornell “Ask an Astronomer” writers referred to in Natalie Angier’s article. She first published the piece a couple years ago, and my reaction to it has gradually changed from bemusement to anger to outrage, the more times I read it…

    One problem I have with her article is that for someone who claims to be a proponent of science, she sure doesn’t seem to be a big fan of the scientific process. She makes some pretty extraordinary claims in this article; she claims that scientists are inappropriately friendly to religion, and she claims that they do this because they’re afraid of losing government grants. Where are the facts to back this up? She presents no evidence for the second claim, and the primary (and practically only) piece of “evidence” she presents for her first claim is the comparison between two different answers on the Ask an Astronomer website, one in response to a question about astrology and the other in response to a question about belief in God (you can read the original answers here and here).

    Besides the obvious problem of using a sample size of two (didn’t it occur to her that maybe Dave Kornreich and I just happen to have different writing styles?), she totally fails to consider any other possible explanations for why our answers may have been written in such different ways. In my opinion, there’s a big reason. “Belief in God” covers a very wide spectrum of things… whereas belief in astrology does not. There are some religious beliefs that directly contradict science, and some that don’t; TimG’s post above is a really good summary of this spectrum. But if we were to place astrology on that spectrum, it’s pretty clear where it would fall… and trust me, if someone had asked me for my scientific opinion about, say, preachers who claim to heal people by pressing on their foreheads, I wouldn’t have been so nice in my response. As it was, I was asked a general question about belief in God and chose to respond to it in a general way.

    So I’m sitting here pretty much dumbfounded about what people see in her article. It’s one thing to disagree with religious ideas (I assume this is the origin of the rather snarky “arrrgh!” inserted by the editor, in response to what I wrote about God and quantum mechanics). But it’s another thing to claim that you are disagreeing on scientific grounds when you aren’t. And that seems to be what she is calling for.. a general attack by scientists on “religion.” I think this is foolish. If you take the monolithic view of religion that she seems to be taking, rather than respecting its complexity, you are quite simply asking to be laughed at by religious people all over the world. Consider another question that I once received on the Ask an Astronomer site:

    “I recently purchased a text on stellar structure. Why is the structure of a star complex? Why does it involve such complicated equations? I always thought stars were just simply balls of gas.”

    Did this person’s view of science strike you as oversimplified? Well, the same sort of opinion about religion is underlying Natalie Angier’s article.

  • Sean

    David, thanks for commenting. I don’t agree with the afraid-of-losing-grants business either; it’s not at all that simple (or sinister). On the other hand, the sample size of two is not such a big deal; it’s not supposed to be a survey, just an illustrative anecdote. Many scientists certainly do treat religion with more respect than they treat astrology. I don’t think that this characterization is in dispute, only whether or not such a distinction is appropriate.

    The snarky “arrrgh” was mine, and I’ll stand by it. Pretending that there is room for God in the unpredictable collapse of the wavefunction is neither good science nor good theology.

  • Sourav


    What’s “good” is experienced subjectively, and so is difficult (if not impossible) to codify rationally. However, your post about sociopaths gives a clue where to begin: devise a system where you can’t gain benefit by injuring or defrauding others, as the antisocial are inclined to do.

    Intuitively, this means a significantly free and sure market economy with a highly literate populace; not surprisingly, societies that exhibit these traits top the rankings by any reasonable measure.

    Where to go from there, i.e. to answer the philosophical question of what is optimal for human life, is a small part of the equation IMHO. Creative people will find their own ways and serve as models for others.

  • Allyson

    A sociopath has no feelings of empathy at all, and only derives pleasure from harming others. Don’t you people watch Dexter?

    Being highly literate, the threat of jail, the threat of hell, none of those things has an effect on the likes of, oh, say, John Wayne Gacy. Such a mensch.

    Neither does the threat of jail or hell prevent our seriously overcrowded prisons. High education didn’t prevent Enron, or the unibomber.

    There seems to be a conflation between a belief in a god and a belief in the mythology/system of rules of a god.

    Religion deals with crime and punishment, as well as salvation. A belief in god absent those things is often about comfort.

    I keep reading arguments about the foolishness of rules/mythology/crime, but nothing that offers any sort of empathy regarding the sense of comfort that a belief in god provides. There’s nothing wrong with believing that there is some sort of immortality, that people we love are safe and warm and waiting for us. The problem tends to lie in the bullshit rules people prescribe to receive that eternal comfort.

    God, while weilded as a tool of punishment or reward, is mostly just another word for hope.

    I don’t find that foolish or ignorant.

  • Joseph Smidt

    You really need to do an “OJ” blog. An “If God did it, this is how he did it” blog. Of course, you will then need to host a special on FOX where you then describe it to the world. (Try not to have in canceled last minute please) I would defiantly print that one out, I’m sure you could make that one a really interesting read. :)

  • Alan B.

    Sean said,

    For scientists who think we should stay away from commenting on astrology or creationism or psychic communication with the dead for fear of offending people’s comforting-but-harmless beliefs, taking a similar attitude toward religion would be perfectly consistent. It’s the different standards that seem puzzling.

    No. Astrology, creationism and psychic communication with the dead are not harmless, and I am surprised that you would try to frame them as such. The comfort and support that comes from religion, on the other hand, is, as others have already pointed out, a positive aspect in many people’s lives. I don’t understand why someone would want to take that away from another.

  • ksh95

    sean said:

    It’s the different standards that seem puzzling.

    Let me explain to you the differenct between astrology and psychic communication vs. Christianity and Islam.

    Have you ever been on a bus and seen a young women wearing a bomb vest scream out “long live Capricorn”. Have you ever driven through the american heartland on a Sunday and seen a packed house at the “First Assembly of Ouiji-Boardism Church”…..That’s the difference.

    I’ll explain my position, without analogy, as concisely as possible:

    The world is what it is. It is not what we want it to be. It is not its future potential. It is not what TV tells us it is. If you have somehow “logiced” your way to the conclusion that it is a good idea to pick a fight with 95% of the worlds population, when there is really no potential upside, but there is a tremendous downside…..I don’t know what to tell you?

  • Count Iblis


    95% of the world’s population is indoctrinated and they are indoctrinating their children. Therefore, the best way forward is to teach children in primary school more science. We should tell children a simplified story about how the world works according to science.

  • Sean

    So, Alan B. is saying that astrology and creationism are harmful, whereas religion is simply a positive aspect in many people’s lives. And ksh95 is saying that adherents of religion, unlike those of astrology, will threaten to blow me up if I tell them that they’re wrong. Can you see why I prefer not to be “strategic” and instead just tell the truth?

    I understand perfectly well that there are differences between astrology and religion. I also understand that both have “comforting” aspects as well as harmful ones. And I’ve never advocated that we have to “teach atheism” to teach science. All I’m saying here is that we should have the integrity to be consistent in holding that miraculous claims, whether based in religion or astrology or whatever, are contrary to the scientific way of looking at things.

  • Allyson

    I don’t want to live in a world without zombies, Sean. You’ll never disprove them. Not as long as I am alive!

  • Alan B.


    Your latest comment sounds more reasonable than the tone that I pick up from Natalie Angier. The only “strategy” that I use is to dialogue with people. A great many people seem to think that, “your beliefs are all hogwash” is an opening invitation to a dialogue and then are perplexed when the other person gets defensive and refuses to engage. There is a big difference between speaking the truth about your own beliefs and attacking someone else’s.

  • admin1

    Penny writes:

    Religion is about faith. Many scientific pursuits begin in such a place. What separates the two is that science confirms what we observe. So we make leaps in science coinciding with leaps of vision on a physical and intellectual level.

    Penny, I agree that religion is faith and science is not. But looking at history I see that religion always impersonates science until it is revealed to be religion. How do we know if what goes as science today (cosmogony, reading the mind of god and so on) is not religion? Most people here seems to identify religion with one specific book, Christianity. Or other book based cosmogonic religions which survived the passage of time. That’s why they are unable to see modern incarnation of cosmogonic religions which use mathematics as their false witness instead of the authority of a book.

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  • Richard

    It’s difficult to respect religion or religious beliefs with even a cursory look at history. Let’s not forget the immense bloodshed and that occurred in Europe perpetrated by established and very corrupt religious institutions. Religion also played a large role in the suppression of peasants (or anyone not of the aristocracy or the Church) by asserting that it was their place in the world to suffer (and pay taxes to the powerful). This darkness of nasty religious intolerance and corruption did not occur somewhere far back in geological or evolutionary history, and wasn’t just a transient phenomena, but has taken up a large part of the last thousand years, now practically breathing down our backs, and is still occurring in different forms in large parts of the world. In the scale of history, the Enlightenment just sprouted yesterday, and I’m afraid may not yet have very deep roots.

  • Mark Srednicki

    Scientists who decry the role of religion in society really ought to spend some time looking up the work of scientists who’ve applied the scientific method to this question. Some places to start:

    “A Theory of Religion” and “The Future of Religion” by Rodney Stark and William Sims Bainbridge.

    “In Gods We Trust” by Scott Atrans.

  • Sourav


    * Sociopaths/psychopaths compose 30-40% of violent criminals, but this is only a small fraction of the total (~1% of the population). Most successfully play along as cops, lawyers, stock brokers, etc., often being good at jobs that require coolness under stress. They avoid jail because, for most, it’s much more fun on the outside. For a gentle introduction to the subject, I recommend Without Conscience by Robert Hare.

    * I submit that a fantasy about meeting your loved ones and eternal freedom from earthly misery and guilt/anxiety is not necessary to be comfortable in this life. You just have to be able to handle the vicissitudes of reality, love what life has to offer, and connect with the people and ideas around you.

  • Allyson

    I have no idea how to respond to that.

  • Alan B.

    I submit that a fantasy about meeting your loved ones and eternal freedom from earthly misery and guilt/anxiety is not necessary to be comfortable in this life. You just have to be able to handle the vicissitudes of reality, love what life has to offer, and connect with the people and ideas around you.

    And I submit that you have neither the responsibility nor the right to make those determinations for other people. I can suggest that the world would be just as well off without opera, country music or rap, but it’s not my decision to make.

  • z.king

    Natalie: Few scientists, for example, worry about the 77 percent of Americans who insist that Jesus was born to a virgin, an act of parthenogenesis that defies everything we know about mammalian genetics and reproduction.


    Natalie: Nor do the researchers wring their hands over the 80 percent who believe in the resurrection of Jesus, the laws of thermodynamics be damned. …


    Sean: The laws of physics and biology tell us something about how the world works, and there is no room in there for raising the dead and turning water into wine.


    So, Sean, if you’d put this God question to rest, there would only be one implication. As it is, there’s always this pesty implication, too:

    …some being who is not bound by the same patterns we perceive in the universe, who is by our standards extremely powerful (not necessarily omnipotent, although that would count), and in some way plays a crucial role in the universe (creating it, or keeping it going, etc.).

    Man, don’t you hate that. If we could just observe what happened, it would be so easy. Oh, but, Sean, we could always extrapolate 14 billion years back and say that we’ve satisfied the observability requirement of science.

    Have you thought of doing that, Sean? I’m sure that would satisfy everyone.

  • Sourav

    Alan B.,

    I don’t think anyone’s discussing outlawing religion; people are free to ignore what scientists say. What’s at stake is the intellectual honesty of science and rational inquiry in general.

    You can’t be a biologist and adhere to creationism any more than an engineer can believe that his skyscrapers will be held up by angels — even a bit.

  • Alan B.

    Alan B.,

    I don’t think anyone’s discussing outlawing religion

    I am not suggesting that that is the case. I am suggesting that some of the comments here imply an evangelism on behalf of atheism that I find as odious as evangelism on behalf of religion. I will fight any attempts by religion to intrude into the realms of science or politics. Otherwise, I can’t see why someone else’s beliefs should concern me – or you – in the slightest. In the words of the philosopher Rodney King, “Why can’t we all just get along?”

    What’s at stake is the intellectual honesty of science and rational inquiry in general.

    If you think that eliminating religion will somehow make the world safe for rational inquiry (or rational behavior), then you have a very mistaken understanding of human nature. Religion is just one of the many tools that people use on behalf of the goal of distorting reality. If we had to squarely face facts all the time, most of us would never get out of bed in the morning.

  • MJ

    I agree completely with Sourav above.

    I think what it’s about is not going out and telling people what they can and cannot believe, but rather that one should be internally and externally honest. That is, as a scientist it is my job to question things and to regard them with scepticism until reasonably well argued for (I won’t say proven, but that’s another discussion). This also means that I should treat claims of magical interactions the same way weather they are called religion of not. But it does not mean that one need to do it aggressively. When I’m told about the virgin birth or seances or whatnot I can simpley explain that I do belive in that phenomena because they are contrary to every scientific experience ever made, but I will not tell someone that they cannot believe in that anyway. However, I would of course hope that I could instill some doubt in the mind of my conversation partner and make him ask himself the question why he believes what he does.

    Somehow when reading this discussion I get the feeling I don’t recognise myself. I never had any problem talking about me being an atheist, or felt that people in my surrounding had. Maybe it comes from living in a very secularised country. During the last years we have, however, had a surge of e.g. creationist activity also on this side of the pond (vide this week’s Nature). But it is still at a very low level.

  • Alan B.


    I am very much in favor of sharing your beliefs with others and very much opposed to imposing them on others. What’s the difference? Well, if they haven’t asked you (explicitly or implicitly) what your beliefs are, then they probably aren’t interested and don’t want to hear them. If you are a teacher and tell a captive classroom that science is incompatible with religion, then, unless you are responding to a specific question, you are definitely imposing. I can be fairly aggressive in imposing my political beliefs on others because how they vote affects me and my loved ones. But their religious beliefs – as long as they don’t intrude on politics or science – are their own business and not mine.

  • Chinmaya Sheth

    Alan B., I agree with you that one shouldn’t impose one’s answer to the “God question” on others. Its important to note though that religious people need to learn this more than anyone else: they come at you in a parking lot or your home asking what God you believe in and if it isn’t Jesus they have no problem telling you your God is a phony and you are going to hell. All this without me ever asking them what their religious beliefs were.

  • Chinmaya Sheth

    In #75, just wanted to be clear that I didn’t want to single out Christianity; I am know recruitment efforts in other religions are very similar.

  • Brian

    There are no atheists in wormholes.

  • Sourav

    Alan B.,

    * As long as religion makes claims about the material world, it will necessarily conflict with the educational mission of science. So some stepping of toes is unavoidable, I fear. To the extent it doesn’t, religion can make for poetic wisdom; perhaps militant atheism dimisses this too readily.

    * Claiming that people won’t be able to get out of bed in the morning without religion, you are making the Grand Inquisitor‘s argument …

  • Alan B.


    I never said that religion was necessary in order to cope with the world. I personally use denial and alcohol as my primary means of dealing with reality. Other people, however, prefer different strategies.

  • Joseph Smidt

    Sourav or anyone,

    I just got done reading a book called “Equality by Default” which extends one of the themes suggested by Alexis de Tocqueville in his classic work “Democracy in America.” The theme is the idea that no society can exist unless there is some higher good that they believe in in some dogmatic way.

    Tocqueville does not assert this is religion’s job. His book, being on democracy, points to the fact that one reason America is successful is they miraculously drafted a constitution and other documents based on dogmatic principles which they all look to as a higher good. Things like the idea that that man has a right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Things like man should have a freedom to speak his mind or recently, that man should not be discriminated by the color of their skin.

    The reason I claim these are dogmatic beliefs is, as far as I know, there is no way to test whether man has the right to pursue happiness empirically. Or to test whether racism is bad or good or whether even things like murder are right or wrong.

    This is why the book is called “Equality by Default.” If you believe dogmatic beliefs are a waist of time then you by default must say a racist is no better or worse than a non-racist or people who enjoy being flat out mean to people are no better or worse than people who try to be nice, etc… You must make them all equal by default.

    I do not claim this is religion’s place either. I would however like to know anyone’s thoughts on the matter. How do we as a society choose what of the above types of things are good and bad? What higher good should we as a society look to to hold the society together in the way Tocqueville claims it does. How do we come to the conclusion what is good or what is not good? If good and evil don’t exist, what to we do about that? Do we just guess when we vote on laws that concern ethics like civil rights bills, or what scientific or other way do we arrive at the correct answer? Like I said, I would like to know anyone’s thoughts on the matter.

    In this country of ours we have looked to many dogmatic “higher good” beliefs that do hold society together. They were not directly derived from religion. How in the future should we formulate which things our country should dogmatically believe in?

  • Arun

    Re – Equality by Default – science is not the only means of knowledge, it is a specific mode of knowledge. If you think empirical testing is required for knowledge, then please discard all of history. E.g., the idea of freedom of religion and the First Amendment came out of the historical experience that the lack of these lead to strife, and the idea that perhaps these would mitigate strife, and not out of testing in controlled set-ups. Certainly the quality of knowledge is different, and there is a higher probability of error.

    We derive our knowledge of good and bad with reason, tradition (which includes history), and the practices of those whom we consider good. As our knowledge grows, we need to keep re-evaluating good and bad. New knowledge often makes certain customs obsolete, but we might stick to that anyway in defiance of reason. Do that too often and our society becomes stagnant and sick. But if one discards tradition altogether, it leads to questions like “why is racism bad?”, which one cannot answer.

  • Chinmaya Sheth

    Joseph writes “How in the future should we formulate which things our country should dogmatically believe in?”
    I think one can formulate all sorts of nice things; “all men are created equal” was formulated a long time before it became applied. My guess is what the country will believe in at anytime will depend on how hard people who believe in whatever it is they believe in fight, economy, and technology.

    Arun writes “If you think empirical testing is required for knowledge, then please discard all of history. E.g., the idea of freedom of religion and the First Amendment came out of the historical experience that the lack of these lead to strife,…”

    But, “historical experience” is a sort of empirical knowledge; its not the sort of empirical knowledge that comes from experiments as in physics because its circumstantial but its the best we can go on.

  • Chinmaya Sheth

    #82 line 6 should read “whatever it is they already believe in”

  • Arun

    “God is conscience. He is even the atheism of the atheist.” – Mahatma Gandhi

    (source of quote available on )

  • Jon H

    ” The laws of physics and biology tell us something about how the world works, and there is no room in there for raising the dead and turning water into wine.”

    It seems to me that there is a significant difference between things like walking on water or turning water into wine, and things like creationism and astrology.

    Walking on water and similar miracles are one-time, atomic, unique events, with no long-term effects. There are no predictions you can make from them, no objective artifacts we would see before or afterward which would act as evidence for or against such events having actually taken place. There is nothing we can point to and say “if water was turned to wine two thousand years ago, then we would expect to see a thin layer of grape flavonoids in sediments around the world, which we could call the BC/AD boundary”. There really are no predictions that can be made from such ephemeral events.

    If one takes the existence of an involved omnipotent deity as a given, one can’t really say that the various physical laws known to science were not violated in those specific instances. After all, such events by definition violate the normal workings of the universe: that’s why they’re called miracles.

    Simply put, physics alone is insufficient to deny anomalous unique events of the distant past if they are supposedly the work of an entity that is by definition not constrained by physics.

    Scientists, of course, could take a position on the non-existence of that physics-flouting deity, in which case the miracles would not have been able to take place. Many may not wish to do that, either because of their personal religious beliefs, or because they have not seen evidence for or against the existence of God.

    Anyway, as I said, things like Creationism and Astrology are very different.

    Creationism is not such a tidy package, an ephemeral atomic event with no knock-on effects. It has to be reconciled with the evidence we see in the world and universe around us, and thus is subject to being disproven by science.

    One-off miracles don’t bear this burden, thus are far easier to at least tolerate in a hazy “maybe it happened, if God exists, etc” fashion.

    Astrology is another long-term, widely influential alleged phenomenon which is subject to scientific evaluation and debunking. In addition to the lack of scientific explanation, Astrology does make predictions, which can be tested.

  • Jon H

    Sean wrote: “For scientists who think we should stay away from commenting on astrology or creationism or psychic communication with the dead for fear of offending people’s comforting-but-harmless beliefs, taking a similar attitude toward religion would be perfectly consistent. It’s the different standards that seem puzzling.”

    But creationism *is* religion. While some creationism activists may have cynical profit-driven motives, or may be mostly motivated by loathing of “LIBERAL SCIENTISTS WHO THINK THEY’RE SMARTER THAN ME”, many no doubt believe in creationism because it is the only scenario that is compatible with their deeply held certainty that the Bible is literally true in its entirety. Debunking creationism, for these people, has to be resisted because they’ve been taught that it all has to be true, or it is all false.*

    Yet scientists certainly *do* address creationism, so they *are* addressing religion.

    It just doesn’t buy them anything to get combative about things which science can’t address, such as the (non)existence of God, given the lack of blatant evidence in the modern day. And if science can’t prove if there is or isn’t a God, then if there *is* a God, science can’t prove whether or not he was engaged in Earthly affairs in the past, unless, again, he left persistent evidence of clear miracle working. (ie, if he’d created a perfectly straight, foot-wide, twenty-mile high Doric column of ice on the banks of the Jordan which didn’t melt for two thousand years. That’d be pretty good evidence.)

    Thus, given the state of the evidence – either there is no God, or there is and he has been quite discreet during recorded history. If there is a discreet God, then there is no good scientific argument against the proposition that he might have violated normal physical laws in a number of ephemeral ways a couple thousand years ago.

    Scientists have been on much firmer ground arguing against miracles which are contemporary, or which happened long ago but left alleged artifacts.

    I would suggest that scientists would be better off batting down reported “miracles” when they come up, to prevent “miracle creep” and keep miraculous explanations from becoming acceptable in science.

    For one thing, this will probably be much less work than batting down creationism and ID, for which well-funded activists are agitating. There really isn’t a well-funded lobby working to fight debunkers of “Virgin Mary” sightings.

    Second, some portion of claimed miracles will be by frauds, and debunking such frauds will be seen by many as a social good. Even the religious may appreciate a good logical debunking, for instance if scientists for some reason are asked for an opinion on the many bogus religious artifacts (bones of saints, etc) on EBay.

    Finally, in the battle against “miraculous attribution,” you will have great friends among the lawyers and judges, who are no more likely to accept “God did it”.

    *(For some reason they treat the Bible like a Jenga tower with Genesis at the bottom and Jesus at the top, and if any part is not 100% true then it takes down everything above it. If Genesis goes, Moses and Jesus come down as well. It’d be much easier if they took the relatively recent and relatively historical Jesus parts as the foundation that gives credibility to the whole, but allowed bits of the Bible to be interpreted more or less literally depending on how old they are and how directly they are connected to the Jesus parts. Then Genesis could be allowed to be metaphorical. But what do I know, I’m a slacker Buddhist.)

  • GP1

    ” The laws of physics and biology tell us something about how the world works, and there is no room in there for raising the dead and turning water into wine.”

    It is interesting how for most people here physics and science are synonyms. Physics is *not* science. Physicists are the good old Scholastic Doctors of Philosophy who pretend to read the mind of God and raise the dead from dead since what is time travel but the old religious miracle of raising the dead from the dead. True, Doctors of Philosophy use nowadays their mystical hidden philosophy they call mathematics as the authority to justify their cosmogonic theories but that does not change anything. Cosmogony is still cosmogony whether Doctors use a two thousand year old book or three hundred years old book. PHYSICS = RELIGION.

  • Sourav

    Alan B.,

    Is denial the best strategy, even if life is tough?

    And it’s good to examine what about it is tough — whether it’s really survival, or society’s expectations you’re reacting to, or society’s expectations you internalized a long time ago.



    I’d be careful about attributing any moral nobility to the making of the Constitution, or even the Bill of Rights. In many ways, it was a happy accident based on the collective experience, education, wisdom and circumstances of the delegates. They were tired of getting screwed on taxes by the Crown, they themselves or their recent ancestors were muzzled or persecuted for religious and policy beliefs, and they were afraid of concentration of power (whether in a sovereign, high population density areas, or the masses at large).

    That said, the Constitution in a significant way allowed the US to become an economic and cultural powerhouse; but, not everyone thinks that’s a good thing. It’s definitely brought a material prosperity and religious freedom to US citizens, which were the Framers’ stated goals.


    GP1 wrote:

    […] mystical hidden philosophy they call mathematics […]

    LOL — and data.

    I wonder if CV needs a moderation system, a victim of its own popularity.

  • GP1

    Sourav wrote

    LOL — and data.

    I wonder if CV needs a moderation system, a victim of its own popularity.


    I don’t understand what your post means. Can you explain? Thanks.

    I don’t understand

  • Pete

    The laws of physics and biology tell us something about how the world works, and there is no room in there for raising the dead and turning water into wine.

    I’m sure this has been said in one of the 83 comments above (I think it was the point of comment number 2), but it is the sincere belief of religous people that walking on water and turning water to wine is against the laws of physics. It was supernatural, and was done for the very purpose of proving to the whitnessess that Jesus was God himself. They didn’t see him walking on water and say, “well I didn’t think that was possible, but I have studied enough physics yet”. They saw him walking on water and said “that’s impossible, who is this man?”.

    There is a difference between argueing over the age of the earth and the virgin birth. There is evidence for the age of the earth that can be seen today. There is evidence for evolution that can be intrepreted today. There is no evidence over whether Mary had sex or not. As far as I can tell, no one has yet built a time machine and snapped a slide show on their camera phone. The only evidence we have is that it is agaist the laws of physics, and then must make the assumption that no event outside the laws of physics (as we understand them) has ever taken place.

    To the religous person, that is the point. If it was natural and commen place for virgins to get pregnent, then Jesus birth would have no signifigance.

  • John Farrell

    p.s. Allyson is right, the plagues and the parting of the Red Sea are pretty cool. If you’re going to have some myths, have some myths, man.

    Interesting, Sean (and btw mega congrats on your engagement). I feel exactly the opposite. The Cecil B. DeMille miracles leave me cold. It’s the almost mundane sight of Jesus stooping to the dust, spitting in it and applying the mud to the blind man’s eyes that I find compelling. Or turning on his doubters with the words, “Which of these is easier, to say your sins are forgiven…or rise up and walk,” before he grasps the cripple by the hand and pulls him up.

    Parting the Red Sea does seem like a huge violation of the laws of nature. Curing a man whose eyes are defective … already in a sense not operating according the laws of nature …seems much more striking.

    For what it’s worth.


  • C. Michael Turner

    The Universe images the trinity. One Universe- three dimensions
    Elements- three natural states. solid liquid, gas
    Elements break down to protons, neutrons, electrons
    Protons and neutrons break down to three sets of quarks
    Water on earth naturally occurs as solid, liquid, gas.
    To live we need solid (food), liquid (water), and air (gas).
    To naturally reproduce we need Mother, father, child.
    To solve gravity we misunderstand the fundemental law.
    Three actions of one process- Mass decays into the gravitational wave creating the resulting actions of time, space and gravitational wave synchronization.
    There is no dark energy or mult. dimensions just a wrinkle in our understanding of the way God wrote the laws starting with “Let there be light”

  • GP1

    …there is no room in [the laws of physics] for … turning water into wine.

    What law of physics forbids turning water into wine? On the contrary, modern academic physics as taught by Doctors of Philosophy allows turning of water into wine. After all we observe that water turns into wine when mixed with grape juice. What is miraculous is not turning water into wine but turning water into wine instantaneously. Instantaneous action at a distance has been a law of physics for more than three centuries.

    Furthermore, turning water into wine can also be achieved by sending the bottle of grape juice into a roundtrip time travel through a standard wormhole in a standard spacetime. When the bottle is back to your overcrowded wedding party you can serve it as wine to the delight of the guests. This is a law of physics. No miracle here. Thousands of Doctors of Philosophy have been publishing physics papers on time travel and wormholes in Peer Reviewed journals for a long time now. You just need to be careful because the time traveling bottle of wine may have been contaminated with a little too much Hawking radiation.

    Also, if you are concerned about radiation and other adverse effects of blackhole crossing which may reduce the quality of your grape juice you may try one of the most proved and true theories in physics ever: General Relativity. Just invoke the twin paradox and send two identical bottles bottled at the same time to do the twin paradox thing. While the bottle on earth will remain as grape juice, the other one traveling with the speed of light would become a good aged wine. You can even publish a paper on your twin paradox vintage as yet another proof of General Relativity.

    So, no, however you slice it, modern academic physics has no laws forbidding making wine from water instantaneously. On the contrary, if you want to make wine instantaneously you have no choice but use the laws of physics.

    What is forbidden, though, is an illiterate peasant who is not a Doctor of Philosophy impinging on the scientific territory of Doctors of Philosophy and claiming to perform miracles that only Doctors of Philosophy are allowed to perform in theory. Jesus has never gotten around to getting his Doctor of Philosophy degree so he has no right to conduct such miracles, ehem, scientific experiments. Jesus actually hated professional Doctors and Priests. This is why he stormed the temple.

    You now see why physics is the modern religion. The same cosmic priests who call themselves nowadays Doctors of Philosophy just changed the name of the standard religious miracles and sell them to us as science.

    I hope that you would think about the above facts before insulting modern Doctors of Philosophy again by saying that Doctors cannot turn water into wine by some simple time travel.

    Don’t get me wrong, Jesus’ miracle is still a religious miracle and Doctors’ miracle is a scientific fact. The reason is simple: Jesus could not prove his miracles mathematically. Doctors of Philosophy will prove to you their miracles with immaculate mathematics. As immaculate as you know who.

  • Gary Carroll

    The way i see it if you dont believe that Jesus was born by a virgin or that he walked on water or that he rose from the dead you dont have to and i think that Scientists could do a lot more for the world if they would stay off Jesus and the bible believe what ever you want just let others believe what they want !

  • Jim Harrison

    It’s worth reminding everybody from time to time that philology has had a far more corrosive effect on religious belief than any natural science. It doesn’t matter whether or not physics refutes or supports the ability of Jesus to change water into wine if an analysis of John’s gospel and its history has already convinced you of the fictiousness of the tale.

  • GP1

    Gary Carroll said:

    Scientists could do a lot more for the world if they would stay off Jesus and the bible believe what ever you want just let others believe what they want !

    I agree. But scientists actually stay off Jesus and the bible. It is Doctors of Philosophy who are out there preaching and trying to convert the souls of unconverted to their side of the religious fence. The esteemed owner of this blog is on the trenches coast to coast and he is preaching “…not only to the converted, but also to the skeptical.” This is not surprising because Doctor means teacher. To teach and to proselitize is in the job description of Doctors of Philosophy.

  • Teci Pulido

    Hi. I’m a PhD student in Physics and a Bible-believing Christian. There are many people out there like myself who do not see any conflict between science and God. Science is knowledge by measurement, by experiment, using our senses, but admitting from the start that said senses are limited. God, as He speaks in the Bible, gives knowledge by revelation: things we cannot figure out on our own.

    Sure, walking on water cannot be done…by us. It can be done by some insects :) Suppose, for the sake of argument, that there is a God and that He created the universe. Would it not be so much easier for Him to walk on the water He made?

    We have to remember that the Big Bang Theory is just a *theory* and that no one of us was actually here when it happened; we have to allow for the possibility of other theories like Intelligent Design (for those who cannot say G-o-d). In the same way, evolution is a theory as well; if we are the objective scientists we say we are we have to look at *all* possible explanations.

    Maybe the aspect that disturbs some scientists so much is that God — and Jesus, when He walked the earth — violates many if not all physical laws and principles we know. But does He really? I really like this illustration: if an apple is supposed to fall to the ground and I catch it in midair, did I violate the laws of physics? Not really. I just intervened, in a manner that is ordered and scientifically sound as well.

    Born to a virgin? It hasn’t happened before..again, to humans. (Parthenogenesis occurs in some animals.) But just before it never happened to anyone else before or after Jesus *does not* mean it cannot happen. For one, He’s God and we’re not. (Okay, so this might seem like circular reasoning, but please stay with me. :) ) Secondly, as scientists we know that just one counterexample disproves the entire theory or law, just like that. Our moms definitely weren’t virgins when we were born, so let’s look at another instance.

    Jesus claimed that our bodies will be resurrected to eternal life if we follow Him and let Him save us. Suppose now that He did rise from the dead. Then by golly, it’s possible for us as well. Sure, nobody else we personally know rose from the dead before. But regardless of the billions of people who have died and decomposed on this planet, ONE counterexample (remember our scientific training) is enough. Yes, it is possible.

    Obviously another thing that irks many scientists is when people say that “science can never prove or disprove the existence of a god”. This looks like a convenient way to stop all arguments eh? :) But again being a scientist I respectfully disagree. I have seen and heard many stories of people being encountered by God on their *own personal* level: whether one’s needs are emotional, psychological, physical, and so on. He meets you where you are. The fact that all-powerful God let Himself be born to mere mortals, work, sweat, defecate and die would show us that He adjusts to us so we could grasp Him.

    For scientists, especially astronomists and cosmologers: “When I consider Your heavens, the work of Your fingers, the moon and the stars, which You have set in place, what is man that You are mindful of him, the son of man that You care for him?” (Psalm 8:3-4) He meets you where you are, including scientists like us :)

    Okay, so we cannot see God. I cannot see energy and electrons either. Jesus obviously meant the same thing when He says “The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.” (John 3:8)

    Wouldn’t it be scary to entrust your entire life to someone I cannot even see? But how different is it from a marriage vow, where I believe and hope that my spouse really will love me till death? How different is it from a child or a friend, who I hope will always be there for me? The relationship is still based on trust (which is another word for faith).

    Just because it did not happen before, and just because we cannot perceive it, does not mean it’s not true.

    In anything else, science holds that statement without question, but when it comes to the issue of God suddenly the barriers are up. Shouldn’t we be more objective? Maybe, just maybe, God is true.

    We can even make our own experiments if we want…just to test the God hypothesis. Besides, if there really is no God, what have we got to lose? Blaise Pascal himself said this: “Belief is a wise wager. Granted that faith cannot be proved, what harm will come to you if you gamble on its truth and it proves false? If you gain, you gain all; if you lose, you lose nothing. Wager, then, without hesitation, that He exists.”

    “Come near to God and He will come near to you.” (James 4:8)

    I do hope that you do :) I’ll be praying for you guys. :)

    With all the love from a fellow scientist (who you cannot see and whose words you have to decide to believe),

  • Teci Pulido

    by the way, i hope you can get a copy of Lee Strobel’s “The Case for a Creator” ( Strobel is a former atheist who has a background in law and investigative journalism. Though not a scientist, he was planted firmly on the road to atheism when his science teacher taught evolution. The book would help trace the road “back” to faith :) It’s very objective and scientific, critically acclaimed and highly recommended :)

    once again, i pray that you will realize that He exists; that you will let Him save you because we cannot do it ourselves; that you will follow Him for His plans are the best. :)

  • Michael D

    Much of what I would probably like to contribute has already been mentioned in various posts above.

    So i’ll merely point towards a few works which some (more so than others) may find interesting:

    Nietzsche’s words and comments would be appropriate throughout this thread. See his “Beyond Good and Evil” for comments on morality, good/evil, whether to murder etc.

    Nietzsche of course also had much to say on God’s Death (please let me indulge in this rather lengthy quotation):

    “Where has God gone?” he cried. “I shall tell you. We have killed him – you and I. We are his murderers. But how have we done this? How were we able to drink up the sea? Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the entire horizon? What did we do when we unchained the earth from its sun? Whither is it moving now?
    Whither are we moving now? Away from all suns? Are we not perpetually falling? Backward, sideward, forward, in all directions? Is there any up or down left? Are we not straying as through an infinite nothing? Do we not feel the breath of empty space? Has it not become colder? Is it not more and more night coming on all the time? Must not lanterns be lit in the morning? Do we not hear anything yet of the noise of the gravediggers who are burying God? Do we not smell anything yet of God’s decomposition? Gods too decompose. God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. How shall we, murderers of all murderers, console ourselves? ”

    – Section 125, The Gay Science

    Another relevant text would be The Last Temptation of Christ, a Martin Scorsese film from 1988. His rather interesting interpretation/retelling of the story of Jesus (played by William Dafoe with a thick NYC accent) strikes at the heart of how important myth and the power of story is at work in religion…


  • Ser Feenix

    Arun on Nov 19th, 2006 at 10:10 pm
    b. government money – a.k.a. tax payer money – should not be used to
    attack belief.
    If scientists do not want to follow these rules, then they are free to do so, but they should not then accept federal money.

    Er I believe in demons. At the moment I believe that Arun is possesed by the devil and the only solution is to deprive the devil the body that it is inhabiting, ie burn Arun at the stake.
    Let no scientist or government stop me from doing this. Atleast I should have the freedom to propogate this truth. This is the truth that my religion taught me.
    (Salem witch trials anybody)

    Sorry for that outburst. But the point is that while religious freedom is good, so too is intellectual freedom, the freedom to criticise religions/theologies/religious practices. This intellectual freedom is probably the most needed for a civilised society

    Infinitely more serious problems than whether God exists or not?
    Thats debatable. I can see a whole lot of problems that have a root in irrational belief.

  • Arun

    Intellectual freedom is good, but can’t be borne out of tax-payers monies. Further, you are free to propagate what you like, but you can’t make law out of it. If your religion requires you to breach the wall between church and state, then your religion should be illegal.

  • Arun

    Here is the reality of the intellectual freedom that the Federal Government affords:

  • Jared

    She needs an editor, badly.


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Cosmic Variance

Random samplings from a universe of ideas.

About Sean Carroll

Sean Carroll is a Senior Research Associate in the Department of Physics at the California Institute of Technology. His research interests include theoretical aspects of cosmology, field theory, and gravitation. His most recent book is The Particle at the End of the Universe, about the Large Hadron Collider and the search for the Higgs boson. Here are some of his favorite blog posts, home page, and email: carroll [at] .


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