Religion and Truth

By Sean Carroll | January 28, 2011 8:12 am

One thing that religions typically do — although certainly not the only one — is to make claims about how the world works. How important are those claims to what religion really is, and how we should think about it?

PZ Myers has posted a very interesting letter from Stephen Asma that talks about this issue. Asma earlier wrote a critique of New Atheism in the Chronicle of Higher Education, to which PZ responded, but I think the new letter is more interesting than the previous salvos. Russell Blackford has also chimed in.

This is a very healthy discussion to be having — moving a bit beyond the caricatures of atheism by believers, and of religion by atheists. Much of what Asma says I find quite persuasive. The crux is something like this:

My argument is that religion helps people, rightly or wrongly, manage their emotional lives. And while it doesn’t do very much for me and other skeptics (I prefer art), I would be very inattentive if I failed to notice how much relief and comfort it gave to other people.

Asma wants to consider the aspects of religion that are closer to those of art or literature than those of science. There’s no question that religions have beneficial effects along with their bad ones. If we’re being rational about it, we should try to understand how those effects work, even if our only agenda is to find some sort of acceptable substitute.

If we were starting from scratch I would put it this way: some of the sense of wonder and anticipation of possibility that defines us as human is often categorized under the heading of “religion.” We can raise questions about the truthfulness of religion’s attempts to describe how the world works, while at the same time respecting some of the careful thought that religious people have put into understanding the human condition.

But … there’s usually a “but.” I have to wonder about these attempts to completely downplay the role of truth-claims in religious belief. In my experience, when I hear someone arguing that the important aspects of religion are moral or aesthetic, and the statements about how the world works are an unfortunate bit of historical baggage, it usually is not coming from a religious person, but rather from a sympathetic non-believer. My impression is that the way a religion views the world is actually quite important to a typical believer. I have in mind both very specific kinds of claims, that God created the world some number of years ago or that we are sorted into various afterlives depending on our Earthly track record, or more vague ones, that God allows the world to be or that moments of transcendence represent connection with a higher power. I don’t think these are unimportant to most religious believers, even most very sophisticated ones (I could be wrong).

And, needless to say, views about how the world works are very often central to the other aspects of religious belief. If you really believe in Heaven and Hell, you’d be crazy not to let that belief influence your view of morality here on Earth.

So, while I’m all in favor of understanding the nature of religious belief and also exhibiting a willingness to learn from believers who have thought long and hard about philosophy or ethics or what have you, I don’t foresee having a truly open and respectful dialogue without putting questions of how the world really works front and center. If we took a religion and removed from it any claims about how the world works, leaving a set of ideas about morality and human life, would it make sense to even call the result a religion? It would be more like a philosophy or worldview, and those are things that even we atheists are more than happy to engage with.

Still, we don’t always do a good job of that engagement. I look forward to the day when “atheism” as a worldview takes difficult emotional human questions more seriously in a public way.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Religion, Top Posts
  • Valatan

    religion is a form of mythos. It screws up when it tries to do logos. Science, by its nature, can only do logos.

    In the end, the point of the Christ story/Buddha story/whatever is not about the historical record about historical events. It is about a series of events intended to ascribe meaning to events and to life. It should not be taken a a ‘how things work’.

  • steve

    “There’s no question that religions have beneficial effects along with their bad ones.”


    Besides things that are mis-attributed, exactly what are the beneficial effects that would not be there without religion?

  • Tim D.

    FWIW, in the liberal churches that I’m most familiar with the moral and ethical aspects of Christianity are far more emphasized than claims about “how the world works.” Probably 90%-10% in my experience. And the pastors and members are generally very “science friendly.” You’re far more likely to hear about the Sermon on the Mount’s implications for this weekend’s Feed the Homeless serv-a-thon than any particularly strong dogma about how the physical world works or doesn’t.

    Admittedly, I don’t know much about this ratio outside my little corner of organized religion, but I think it is worth pointing out.

  • AnotherSean

    Nice post. Paul Tillich wrote of religious truths not as scientific or causal statements but in terms of the human coming into contact with their ‘ultimate concern’ or the grounding of their being. Of course this strikes the modern as sounding vague and unpersuasive. And well it certainly is, but necessarily so. To the extent the religious person is forced to be more specific, they will have to use words to describe the situation, and necessarily anologize to other objects in the world. But if there is a God, and I’m not saying there is, I would expect such an analogy to drastically fail. I would say that we need to appreciate the limits of language. The physicist has the use of mathematics. I don’t deny the religous person the use of art and literature to express their emotions.

  • KWK

    From what I can tell, at least the founders of a lot of religions would agree with you. For example, Paul wrote to the church in Corinth, “If Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain, and so is your faith.” (the rest of I Corinthians 15 has other similar claims, in case anyone cares to look this up). In other words, there’s no point in being a Christian if this very specific historical claim of the religion turns out to be false.
    Several (though perhaps not all) religions clearly depend on similar truth claims that could in principle be empirically verified or refuted, even if we don’t have access to the relevant data any more (you made this very point about the contents of the Library of Alexandria not too long ago). Either Muhammad received a revelation from Allah via Gabriel, or he didn’t. Either Joseph Smith received golden tablets from Moroni, or he didn’t. And so on. In each of these cases, if one holds that the factual claims are false, then there is basically no rational justification for trusting any of the rest of that religion’s claims (historical, moral, ethical, or what have you).
    To claim otherwise is, in my opinion, not only fatuous but disrespectful of the religion in question, as it smacks more of condescension than serious interaction. And since you expressed trepidation about speaking on behalf of religious believers, I will also add at least one relevant data point for you: while my strong allergic reaction to (this aspect of) postmodern relativism draws on both my early religious upbringing and my later training as a scientist, it still seems like nothing more than basic rules of logic to me, which I would like to think that I’d recognize even if I were neither a Christian nor a physicist.

  • Mark Thomas

    What about the God of Spinoza? Even if you think science demystifies the World at a point isn’t there always Wonder to continue to the next? When Science does get close to the first mover at the instant of creation would it be a divine relevation of some measure? How do you know that it will be an inaminate mechanical crank? I think you can believe in something sacred (or the wonder of it all) such as the creation and still not be a religionist or atheist. At the same time it is easy enough to believe in ‘oblivion’ and that religions are anthropic with less to say how the World works. I think some atheists and some religionists try to keep to principle somehow. Maybe principle is linked in the way things work and maybe Science will give us the ah ha moment of deep understanding which destroys the inherited dead world of Aristotle.

  • Xerxes

    “[I want] “atheism” as a worldview [to take] difficult emotional human questions more seriously in a public way.”

    Isn’t half the point of atheism not telling other people what they should think the answers to subjective questions are? That is, we defend the truth where there is an objective truth and butt out when there isn’t one. For atheism to take a stance other than “whatever makes you happy” on difficult emotional human questions is wholly inappropriate.

  • Eugene

    I am really glad Asma articulated in words, and put some substance behind how many “non-new atheists” view religions in general. For me, I think the following point in his response to PZ is the most relevant:

    People who critique such emotional responses and strategies with the refrain “But is it true?” are missing the point. I agree with the atheists: Most religious beliefs are not true. But here’s the crux. The emotional brain doesn’t care. It doesn’t operate on the grounds of true and false. An emotion is not a representation or a judgment, so it cannot be evaluated like a theory. Emotions are not true or false.

    The whole “Four horsemen” new atheist movement may be a nice push back against silly (predominantly american) Christian evangelical movement, but as a viable philosophical replacement for the human condition, it’s sorely inadequate because it assumes, as Asma pointed out, a stable emotional safety as a pre-requisite.

    As Sean said, I think this conversation started by Asma is worth having and will be fruitful. But so far, if PZ’s responses (and most the comments) are any judgement, new atheists are still in the middle of shouting very loudly at any “retreat”. For them, I prescribe some time in a disaster zone.


  • Jim Cross

    #2 Steve

    It would be odd if religion somehow managed to come into such a fundamental part of the human experience without providing some evolutionary advantage. One could easily imagine a few – social cohesion, motivation for individual self-sacrifice for the group, enforcing a foundation of behavior without which human society would be impossible.

    However, there is something that often does not get brought up in these sort of discussions. That is the human experience of transcendence which makes take on different forms in different cultures and religions (and sometimes even in atheists). It may in fact be nothing more than biochemical but it is something that goes beyond a set of beliefs or a code of conduct and goes to a sense of something greater than our small egos.

    Does this capability too have an evolutionary origin?

  • PJM

    I think the question is a good one, but just as you can ask hard questions of a religion about its claims about how the world “works”,” so religion can ask hard questions of an atheist about what his or her world view say about how the world “works.” Physics does a pretty darn good job of explaining how the physical world “works,” but I would argue that various religions do a pretty darn good job of explaining how the world of human interaction “works.” Organized religions are full of hypocrisy, selfishness, greed, hatred, violence and death? That’s not news. That’s the world of human interactions! The Pollyannas are not the folks praying to God, but the ones who think they can develop a world view without these essential evils. A religion’s job is not to ignore these qualities, even the ones in their midst, but to try to understand and come to grips with them! Say what you will about Christianity, but it doesn’t flinch from confronting the real, flawed world around us. As for Heaven and Hell, well, those ideas are about as old fashioned in religion as luminiferous ether and caloric are in Physics.

  • CaliFury

    Various Christian claims:

    1) Men are born sinful. This is true, or close enough to be Newtonian physics,
    2) Women should be subordinate to men. This is false, or certainly suicidal in the US for most men,
    3) Children should honor their parents. True if they want to leave the house,
    4) Jesus rose from the dead. This is too far in the past, no living witnesses, witnesses are lousy reporters, anyway.
    5) There is a God. This is untestable. If he’s all powerful, then you can’t make him reveal himself. If he isn’t then he isn’t God…

    And so on. If you make a list of religious claims, then some will be correct, some false and many simply untestable and, therefore, not scientific propositions.

  • Mr Z

    There is such a huge problem with this that I am flabbergasted. The ‘good’ or acceptable goodness of religion is _easily_ sourced from many other places without the crap that religion brings along with it. If we have to burn supposed witches to have morality there is something wrong with us. I get it that you are saying have those things without the witch burning – which in turn simply means be good without god already. Why ‘save’ religions? Scrap them and get on with being good for goodness sake. You cannot separate religion’s good parts from the absolute shit that they have dumped on the world from their beginnings.

    Look at it another way, take Asma’s text and replace religion, faith et al with a similar form of the phrase drug addiction. Do we want to take the good parts of drug addiction and use them, or simply work to achieve goodness without addiction or trying to _get along_ with the addicted?

    I don’t think this point can be made strongly enough. Religion ruins everything. There is no good in it. Period. Anything in it which is claimed to be good comes with so many strings attached that it is reduced to nothing but bile. Those same people claiming that the fellowship is useful are forgetting that it comes with the strings attached: you can have the fellowship but you have to oppress the GLBT members of society. God is love, unless you believe in a competing faith. For ANYTHING you can say is good about religion I can show you how it’s covered in shit and full of hidden dangers. Yes, we all need our daily bread, but if you have to eat it in the form of a shit sandwich, what’s the point?

  • Brian Too

    Re: “… would it make sense to even call the result a religion? It would be more like a philosophy or worldview…”

    Sure it would be valid to call it a religion. My impression is that most religions are heavily influenced by philosophy. Some, like Bhuddism and Shinto, seem to be mostly philosophy, from my limited outsider perspective.

    In fact this is one of the reasons and ways I can accomodate religion. Religion essentially works for me at the level of philosophy. Where it fails for me is as a matter of faith.

    I find that all the major religions have thought long and hard about philosophical issues and have important things to say about them. Not only that but they spend major resources as educators to the masses.

    Why does it matter to be a moral person? What is the role of others in our lives? If we all die anyway, why not just live selfishly and revel in immediate gratification? Religions address these issues.

    You might not agree with where they start from (God/Gods), but religions help vast numbers of people to live together.

  • PJM

    Mr. Z: Replace the word “religion” with the word “family” in your post. I would argue that they have pretty close to the same meaning. ..

  • Eric

    At least among those I have met, believers who consider “the important aspects of religion are moral or aesthetic, and the statements about how the world works are an unfortunate bit of historical baggage” are much less likely to talk about their religions than most, and often avoid it if they can. This view seems to be pretty common in liberal churches, and I expect in liberal branches of other religions as well.

    Shelby Spong is pretty popular in some Episcopalian congregations (but certainly not in others), and these are far from the most liberal churches out there.

  • jackd

    more vague ones, that God allows the world to be or that moments of transcendence represent connection with a higher power

    Interestingly, those are the exact points raised by the Christian I engage with most frequently on his blog ( I am curious how others may have responded to these particular assertions, especially responses that might have more substance than a simple ‘how do you know that?’.

  • SieveMaria

    I thought religion simply is about what is going to happen to you after you die – and its pretty much a proven truth that no matter where you go the same stuff is going to show up on your door stoop… that includes when you die.

  • Arun

    This dialogue:

    “[When I discovered, or when it was explained to me, that Hinduism is a pedagogical religion, namely, that the best “good deed” of a Hindu consisted of explaining something or the other, I lost my inhibitions and began with questions… A young Balinese became my primary teacher. One day I asked him if believed that the history of Prince Rama – one of the holy books of the Hindus – is true.

    Without hesitation, he answered it with “Yes”.

    “So you believe that the Prince Rama lived somewhere and somewhen?”

    “I do not know if he lived”, he said.

    “Then it is a story?”

    “Yes, it is a story.”

    “Then someone wrote this story – I mean: a human being wrote it?” “Certainly some human being wrote it”, he said. “Then some human being could have also invented it”, I answered and felt
    triumphant, when I thought that I had convinced him.

    But he said: “It is quite possible that somebody invented this story. But true it is, in any case.”

    “Then it is the case that Prince Rama did not live on this earth?”

    “What is it that you want to know?” he asked. “Do you want to know whether the story is true, or merely whether it occurred?”

    “The Christians believe that their God Jesus Christ was also on earth”, I said, “in the New Testament, it has been so described by human beings. But the Christians believe that this is the description of the reality. Their God was also really on Earth.”

    My Balinese friend thought it over and said: “I had been already so informed. I do not understand why it is important that your God was on earth, but it does strike me that the Europeans are not pious. Is that correct?”

    “Yes, it is”, I said.

    After quoting this passage from Bichsel, the author continues:

    Consider carefully the claims of this young Balinese. (A) Even though the narrative of events could have been invented and written by a human being, his ‘holy book’ remains true. (B) He does not know, and is not interested in knowing, whether Rama really lived but this does not af- fect the truth of Ramayana. (C) He draws a distinction between a story that is true (not just any story, nota bene, but his ‘holy book’) and the issue whether it is a chronicle of events on earth. (D) Finally, it remains his ‘holy’ book despite, or precisely because of, the above.

    That is to say, he is indifferent to the historical truth and suggests, in the italicized part of the dialogue, that it is not a proper question; even if the invention of a human being and historically untrue, the story is true. He correlates impiety with believing in the truth of the Biblical narrative. As I would like to formulate it, not only is the young Indonesian drawing a distinction between a story and a history but also suggesting that the historicity of Ramayana is irrelevant to its truth.

    FYI, there are many folk versions of the Ramayana (doesn’t make sense if the Ramayana is meant to represent historical truth; e.g., are there folk tales about Jesus?). Amusingly, in one of them the argument between Rama and Sita about whether she should accompany him in his banishment is won by Sita with the stellar point that Sita makes – “In all the versions of Ramayana I have heard, Sita accompanies Rama, so there!”.

    I think this is ample evidence that whatever the Hindu villager thinks about the Ramayana, it is not as the historical truth (e.g., unlike the traditional attitude of Christians towards the Bible.)

    As to the Ayodhya mosque dispute, supposedly built on the spot where Rama was born – you should realize that insistence of historical truth among Hindus is truly radical; a modern innovation, so to speak; a notion that Hindus must have a city like Mecca or Jerusalem with a historical claim.

    Now the author I quoted makes the point that Hinduism is not a religion (he actually argues that Hinduism does not exist, it is a construct of people who see the world only through the prism of religion). But since there is a long convention of calling Hinduism a religion, I submit that religion has content without the various truth-claims that y’all claim that are essential to a religion.

  • Mike

    I can only speak from my own personal experience; I once belonged to a traditional Jewish congregation that met weekly.

    At least in this particular congregation, nobody spoke seriously about faith-statements or about taking any of it literally; I estimate that half of the attendees did not even believe in God. There was little emphasis even on philosophy.

    No, what was emphasized was not believing or thinking but doing. They practiced intense rituals that are thousands of years old, rituals that brought a sense of stability and continuity to ancestors who often had no place to call a permanent home.

    They sang very beautiful, very old songs to very beautiful, very old melodies that had been with all of them their whole lives, and for the lives of many generations who went before them. They chanted familiar incantations, ate ritual meals, and provided each other with continuity and support during difficult times. They provided each other with a sense of belonging in a country in which belonging—real, unconditional belonging—is fast becoming a rarity.

    For those who have no experience with a religion like that, whose understanding of religion is limited to the shallow, simple-minded, historically disconnected thing that is modern American evangelical Christianity, I cannot imagine how you could possibly understand. It’s like trying to describe an old friend from your childhood; people who never knew him will just never really understand what it was like to know him.

    I left this congregation because I stopped personally needing these things. I once had the emotional need for them, but I do not any longer. But most people do need these things, and atheism just won’t do it for them. Atheism certainly didn’t do it for me when I needed these things.

    Where are the age-old songs in atheism? Where are the rituals? Where are the group chants? How are you going to get a group of grown adults together each week to sing silly but moving songs with a straight face? Where’s the house where you get together with people from all walks of life that you’ve known your whole life, people who will provide you with an unconditional sense of belonging, when even your family isn’t always there for you? Where’s the sense of continuity and permanence that one finds in the Old Religions, in a world of constant flux and change and instability? In one of these religions, inside all the customs and music and chanting and rituals, you feel utterly wrapped up inside a rich old-ness, a permanence. The immutable Laws of Nature, majestic and permanent though they may be, just don’t provide that feeling to most people; certainly not to me.

    It’s not about truth-statements or even philosophy; those aren’t the things the majority of people get most from their religion. And atheism simply cannot provide those things.

    And for people who don’t need them, that’s great. But human beings are not all the same; some people need the things that religion provides, far beyond the “truth-statements.”

    What drives me crazy about people like Sean is that they seem to believe at some level that there really is a solution that works well for everybody. Not a specific, cookie-cutter solution per se, but a general solution, a scientific posture toward the world, a disposition that doesn’t require the manifold melodies that many serious old religions provide. But people are really, really different, and that solution just won’t work for everybody. People need very different things to be content with their lives; I am under no illusion that my own persuasion is right for everybody else.

  • Cosmonut

    This is taken from PZ’s resly to Asma:

    “He could show me a religion that is nothing but sweetness and light, happiness and good thoughts and equality for all, and it wouldn’t matter: the one question I would ask is, “Is it true?” It wouldn’t matter if he could show empirically that adopting this hypothetical faith leads to world peace, the voluntary abolishment of crime, the disappearance of dental caries, and that every child on the planet would get their very own pony — I’d still battle it with every fierce and angry word I could speak and type if it wasn’t also shown to be a true and accurate description of the world. Some of us, at least, will refuse to drink the Kool-Aid, no matter how much sugar they put in it.”

    See, THIS is the attitude I don’t understand.

    So, suppose you have a society, where adopting a false/unverifiable worldview really HAS led to world peace, abolition of crime, and high degree of emotional wellbeing all around.

    Now suppose you also have very strong evidence that getting the people in that society to “face the truth” would lead to war, violent crime, widespread depression and suicide.

    In this case, would you still tell them “the truth”? If so, what is your rationale?
    Surely, some personal machismo about “refusing to drink the Kool Aid” wouldn’t suffice?

  • Bee

    Interesting. I think both social and psychological benefits are the reason why religion is so widely spread. But I think time will come when science offers the same benefits and since science, in contrast to religion, doesn’t require people to insult their own intelligence, religions are on the way out. I recently wrote a blogpost about this, see Religion: A temporary phase in mankind’s history?

  • JMW

    Sean (if I may be so familiar), you wrote: some of the sense of wonder and anticipation of possibility that defines us as human is often categorized under the heading of “religion.”

    I would argue that a more general term would be “spirituality” – with “religion” being a sub-set or particular expression of “spirituality”. Of course, this begs the question of the definition of “spirituality”, but I’m trying to keep my posts short…

  • psmith

    Sean, I welcome this more thoughtful approach to religious questions . Of course the usual angry atheists have made their appearance but given the quality of their reasoning they can be largely discounted. Religious experience is a major aspect of our evolution and on those grounds alone it deserves thoughtful treatment, not the rantings of the angry atheists.

    You are sympathetic to this statement “My argument is that religion helps people, rightly or wrongly, manage their emotional lives”. While I agree with this I feel you have missed another vital component.

    Some three years ago, after a lifetime of atheism, I, for the first time, carefully examined Christian claims and beliefs. I found to my surprise that they could survive careful and rigorous examination, notwithstanding the crude characitures of the angry atheists. More as an experiment, than anything else, I started attending my local Roman Catholic church. This was an important experience and I spent a lot of time carefully parsing the statements contained in the service, the hymns and the scriptures.

    I found, as you claim, an important part of the religious experience is the way it helps manage people’s emotional lives. But more importantly, I found that, in a profound and ongoing way, it advocates leading a life based on tolerance, respect, love, forgiveness, good to others, community involvement and self examination (amongst other virtues). It provided a clear ethical framework that was most admirable. I was astonished. Was this the belief system that was so roundly condemned by atheists? It is the extraordinary emphasis on these values that moved me. This little church that I attend runs a hospice, soup kitchens, an old age home, an AIDS project and has numerous other charitable works amongst the many destitute of the region where I live. What was so bad about this?

    So, what I have found is while it is an important way of managing one’s emotional life, it is even more importantly a powerful way of modulating community and interpersonal relationships in a way that is profoundly beneficial to society. I understand that, as a physicist, truth statements are important to you. They are to me as well and I believe, but don’t expect you to agree, that religion can survive some tests of truth provided one excludes the fringe beliefs that so many atheists lampoon and has reasonable expectations of truth. After all, we seriously entertain the multiverse hypothesis despite the absence of evidence.

  • Jld

    @psmith and Mike

    Yes, yes, of course the “helpful” side of religion is valuable and beautiful despite its idiocy.
    And the problem isn’t the idiocy per se but, given the arbitrariness involved, how you can prevent “your “religious values” from colliding with other distinct faiths.
    Even inside a common faith the bitter conflicts are between slight variants of the dogmas, ending up in slaughter of the “heretics”.
    There cannot be any remedy to this since theology is all whimsical and never evidence based.
    Can you solve this conundrum? I guess not…

  • Rob Knop

    I look forward to the day when “atheism” as a worldview takes difficult emotional human questions more seriously in a public way.

    If that’s what you really want, then you need to stop linking to and doing anything that brings any more attention to PZ Myers.

  • ChuckWhite

    Fascinating discussion. I am the son of a fundamentalist, evangelical minister and trained as an economist with emphasis on formal logic and political science.

    *That* upbringing and training is enough to make one’s head spin until s/he finds a personal belief to stop (or at least slow) the spinning. Eugene advises [dogmatic] atheists, “I prescribe some time in a disaster zone.” I’ve had that experience also. If you never before had an altruistic thought, such an experience will cause it.

    The result of all that has led me to become an agnostic. That is, there are things I/we simply cannot know. Indeed, physicists are now pondering the nature of reality and the relevance of entanglement. Does anyone know how or if these things affect human experience? I don’t think anyone can answer that.

    Until such answers are available and provable, the sanest view (in my view) is to accept that there are two separate planes, for example the left/right brain … belief/emotion and provable reality. Yes, the two may be connected, but we don’t know that yet, assertions to the contrary not withstanding.

  • David George

    Sean wrote,

    “One thing that religions typically do — although certainly not the only one — is to make claims about how the world works. How important are those claims to what religion really is, and how we should think about it?…

    “I don’t foresee having a truly open and respectful dialogue without putting questions of how the world really works front and center.”

    By “religion” do you mean “evolving tribal myth and ritual”, or “rules for living”, or “churches and similar institutions”, or what? The word is too vague to comment upon. But in the interest of a truly open and respectful dialogue about how the world really works, I have to ask, is the wave-particle mystery solved? Would a truly open and respectful particle physicist defend the truth, or assert the physical reality, of mathematical point particles and fields? On the large scale, in the public perception it is only a matter of time before cosmologists are able to run the universal evolution film all the way to T=0, a creation moment ~13.7 billion years ago. Would a truly open and respectful Big Bang cosmologist not admit that there is no way to contract the movie back to time zero, that at some point something has to be added to the movie – namely the movie itself? Or is it honest to fudge the beginning by applying the measurement uncertainty principle to it? I am not a trained mathematical physicist but I understand English, and I have never seen any solution in English to the wave-particle mystery. Feynman admits the machinery is not understood. Einstein cautions against putting particles in fields – maybe his advice should have been followed. Maybe the “truth” about how the world really works is yet to be found, and all the current “theories” (although not necessarily the math) are headed for the dustbin, while the thought controllers continue to flog the tribal myths.

  • Ellsie

    Philosophical discussions of religion always become interesting. In part, because each person believes their religion to be the “best.” Much as one will argue that their school is “best.” Where these discussions break down is when those who hold more fundamentalist views (the world is only 6,000 years old), because they view things from a modern and limited perspective. That is, to an omnipotent omnipresent entity, time has no meaning thus a “day” could be billions of years.

    On the flip side, the science-based discussion as it relates to religion has yet to answer the question, what existed before the Big Bang? Though I have no doubt that someday science will discover this answer.

    Now, the kind of church “psmith” describes is what one should expect of all churches regardless of the religion. This also shows where religion can have a positive effect on the human condition. People feel good and can (and studies have shown) also gain up to two years of life helping others. That we are social beings, church fulfills the need to socialize and be with others–even better when engaged in something that helps people who need a hand. There are even groups of nuns now who have as their mission to be and teach others to be stewards of our planet. They read scripture to tell us that our mission as humans is to care for the earth and all its living beings.

    Bottom line, religion developed in the human quest for answers: a quest for how nature works, why are we here, and what is my purpose in life. It brings comfort to many. I don’t think things happen because it’s “God’s plan” but that we hold in our hands the power to make heaven or hell on earth. Whether there really is an ethereal version of these is irrelevant, if one lives a life that is good, seeks to share with and help others and like we learned in Scouts, try to leave the earth a better place when we depart, then we have fulfilled our expectations as humans. it doesn’t matter if I cursed, it doesn’t matter that I’ve told a lie or two or three along the way. What matters is that I tried to improve the planet on which I live in some small way. JMW refers to spirituality over the term religion.

    That humans are spiritual beings is part of our existence. Even the atheist finds wonder in the stars, the power of nature, and the birth of any new life, not to mention the incomprehensibility of the size of our universe. The difference is the atheist doesn’t see this as the “hand of God,” but the “miracle” of science in action. The search for meaning outside of our human existence is why science will not replace religion/spirituality in giving comfort as Bee hypothesizes. What we can hope for is that science levels the playing field, bringing disparate religious beliefs together for the common good and perhaps in that process, teaching a greater tolerance and respect for the different doctrines.

  • michael

    “There’s no question that religions have beneficial effects along with their bad ones.”

    Hardly. this is so NOT true for those traditions that sprung from the middle east. You know the ones i mean, Judaic, and Muslim traditions do NOT spread the words of peace and give people a beneficial effect. They do however spread fear as a control mechanism of the masses. Do as i say and you might be able to experience peace love and happiness when you die. Using the uncertainty of what happens when one dies AGAINST someone is not my idea of beneficial at ALL.

    The eastern religions do not control people by fear so I can totally see this for those religions. But to generalize and include those religions that operate on fear and that reinforce fear in the masses unless they obey their religious leaders is not helpful to anyone!

  • Mike

    I think people here are missing the whole point at the core of the dispute. It’s not about philosophy or truth-statements or faith, despite what even religious people themselves say. Even they don’t fully understand why they’re so attached to their religion.

    Most people need rituals, and lots of them. Personal rituals, rituals that reach into their private lives, give structure to their days, and connect them to the past to give them a sense of grounding. Rituals that involve old, familiar music and communal singing and dancing. Rituals that provide a sense of continuity and permanence and belonging in a world of constant flux and change and isolation.

    Where are they going to get those sorts of rituals from, if not their religions? Despite the fixation on faith-beliefs and philosophy, 90% of what most people actually do in their religious practices (especially in the older religions) revolves around the rituals. Not everybody needs so much ritual, but many, many people do. What are you asking them to do? Just stop needing it? Good luck.

    It’s one of those things that people just can’t understand unless they need it themselves. Ritual is extremely important to so many people, and it’s very difficult to explain to someone who just doesn’t understand and who doesn’t need it himself. It’s a form of social blindness, like trying to explain poetry or calculus or even humor to someone who just doesn’t process those things.

    Now, when you challenge most religious people on the truth-statements made by their religions, they fear that if they give up those truth statements, they’ll lose all those other parts. They fear at some level (maybe at an unconscious level) that if they give up the truth-statements, then they’ll also have to give up that ritual and all the richness that goes along with it, and that immediately makes them feel defensive. And then the whole debate swirls around the truth-statements, when that’s actually just a red herring.

  • Joel Rice

    Interesting post. Asma makes some sense. But as to ‘truth-claims’ – does this apply to children ? Or are we always talking about adults ? I do not see how it is realistic to expect 7 billion humans to get into a scientific world view – and if they did -what would THAT look like ?everybody getting into String Theory ? Multiverses ? Would there be Scientific Wars that would tear apart China and India ? I just do not see how humans have the time to have any depth of understanding – especially when it is evident that we dont understand these things either.

  • CaliFury

    Mike says,

    “It’s one of those things that people just can’t understand unless they need it themselves. ”

    This is one of the more profound statements about religion in the above comments.

    The statement also applies to the desire to breath, to eat, to take alcohol or heroin (for an addict), to seek love and all the other good or evil things we feel a desire to perform. Is eating “true?” Is breathing “provable?” In the end, it isn’t necessary that the stories of religion be “true” in an historical or scientific sense because the desire to find God (or gods or spirit, etc) doesn’t “exist” (have its being outside of our body and mind) but rather it “insists” (arises from our being). So, do all of us have an inherent desire for a spiritual/religious life or do some of us not? Where is it in the genome? Does the desire arise from something essential to our humanity or is is adventitious?

    And finally, are the really angry atheists attacking the religious because they are fighting to control themselves?

  • Low Math, Meekly Interacting

    I’m a big supporter of research into if and how spiritual/religious belief confers particular benefits for ones sense of “well being”. With varying levels of qualification about standards of rigor, there is at least a somewhat persuasive body of evidence, on the whole, suggesting these beliefs really are efficacious in boosting health and happiness. Whether one feels it is appropriate to lump this in with the placebo effect is beside the point, as far as I’m concerned, but assume it boils down to the “power of faith”. What is it, exactly, that makes faith (be it in a god, a prophet, or a pill, I don’t care) powerful in this way? That’s a legitimate scientific question. And, IMO, to dismiss the importance of this power just because of how one came to access it is quite unscientific.

    I’m firmly in the crowd who thinks there’s a fascinating but mundane explanation for the power of faith. What intrigues me about that is the potential for developing a rigorous therapeutic approach (psychotherapy, hallucinogens, transcranial magnetic stimulation, combination of all, more?) to physical and emotional healing that augments, or at least makes the most of, this innate capability. It might be a therapeutic approach that could work for anyone, because it doesn’t require faith in the unknowable and/or nonexistent.

  • Mike

    It boggles my mind sometimes how fixated everybody is—on both sides of this argument—on belief, rather than on ritual. It’s ritual, not belief, that’s key.

    All the debates over religion these days are all about belief, about truth-statements, philosophy, etc. But for a lot of religious people, that’s not what consumes the large majority of their religious practice.

    I suspect at some level that people—especially those on the atheist side—avoid talking about ritual because they know that’s where their argument is weak. Debating beliefs is much easier, because the beliefs of religious people are often scientifically wrong. But what about ritual?

    For the great many people in the world who need all that ritual, in its abundant and enveloping richness, what does atheism offer? What should these people do to satisfy this deeply human need for ritual?

    That’s the argument that people should be having. Ritual, not belief. Belief is overblown; it’s almost a red herring. If you really want to convince religious people to stop believing foolish things, figure out how to convince them that they can keep their rituals while giving up their fairy tales.

    But I seriously doubt anyone’s going to start on this more nuanced argument any time soon; arguing about belief is just so much easier, and it makes people on each side feel superior to the other. So instead we’ll just keep spinning around, talking about truth-statements and getting nowhere.

  • Neil

    The most beneficial result of religion I know of is Bach’s B-minor Mass. But who knows, had Bach not been religious he might have composed it anyway.

  • psmith

    @Mike, #34, there is no doubt that ritual is, as you say, important. It permeates our life in all spheres and not just religion. But ritual is simply a means to an end, not the end in itself. Ritual, in the first place, is a mechanism for reinforcing at set of beliefs, whether they be spiritual or social and secondly a means of declaring and maintaining a sense of identity. Related to this it helps create and maintain a sense of cohesion in the group.

    But these are means to an end. Where I agree with you is that I have frequently observed that people become habituated by the ritual so that the ritual becomes a substitute for the things it is supposed to represent. Even then, I suspect it still plays a strong reinforcing role.

  • Mike


    I strongly disagree. Sure, on paper, rituals in most religions are portrayed by the religions themselves as a means to an end; supposedly, you chant and sing and pray as a means to obeying and worshipping God, to reinforcing a set of communal beliefs.

    But whatever the worshippers themselves think, or anyone else thinks, in practice, in actual reality, ritual is most certainly not a means to an end. Ritual is the meat of most religions, especially the older ones. Ritual is itself the end, and belief is just an excuse for that ritual. Belief is like the MacGuffin in a lot of films; it’s just there so that the actors all have a reason to be there.

    Even those people who are practicing the religion themselves don’t always understand this basic fact—and certainly most of those who oppose religion don’t either—but that’s the way it is.

    In truth, for most worshippers, even if they themselves don’t always realize it at a conscious level, belief serves ritual, and not the other way around. Belief is there to justify the ritual. It’s one of the reasons why atheistic movements have been so ineffective at providing rituals of its own.

    I can only speak for my own experience, and most of the people I knew in my religious experience, when I say that what kept me there and what kept them there was the ritual, and when I was apart from it for a while, I would begin to crave it.

    Atheists often strongly discount the need by most human beings for ritual—serious, elaborate, intense ritual—and that’s one big reason why they don’t understand why people are so attached to their religions. And if you think that the everyday rituals that permeate all people’s lives can compare to the intense, overwhelming rituals that people often find specifically in their religious experiences, then I think you fall into the camp of people who don’t really understand.

    And because both atheists and worshippers often aren’t even aware that ritual is the key thing, the underlying issue, they argue instead about stuff like belief instead. They miss the point altogether, and so they never get anywhere.

  • Cognitive Dissonance

    This whole debate reminds me of one of my favorite Gary Larson ‘Far Side’ cartoons:

    In what appears to be a setting purposely reminiscent of a forest of hair sprouting from skin, a gathering of Fleas around a particular hair seem to be vigorously arguing amongst each other; the caption below reads something like:

    “The Flea Scientists and Philosophers Debate the Existence of Dog”.

  • Jld

    @Mike and psmith

    Not taking sides in your ritual/faith preeminence debate but…
    Rephrasing my question from #24 which went “unnoticed”.

    Can you have ritual without faith?
    It seems not.
    Then is it not the faith which give rise to conflicts, whether with atheists or believers in a different faith?

    Whatever good religion is supposed to do, if it is contaminated beyond repair with an intrinsic vice something has to be done about that “vice”.

  • Alan(UK)

    “Truth and belief are uncomfortable words in scholarship. It is possible to define as true only those things that can be proved by certain agreed criteria. In general, science does not believe in truth or, more precisely, science does not believe in belief. Understanding is understood as the best fit to the data under the current limits (both instrumental and philosophical) of observation. If science fetishized truth, it would be religion, which it is not. However, it is clear that under the conditions that Thomas Kuhn designated as ” normal science” (as opposed to the intellectual ferment of paradigm shifts) most scholars are involved in supporting what is, in effect, a religion. Their best guesses become fossilized as a status quo, and the status quo becomes an item of faith. So when a scientist tells you that ‘the truth is . . .’, it is time to walk away. Better to find a priest.”

    —Timothy Taylor, archaeologist, Univ. of Bradford

  • http:/ Non-Believer

    New Aethist vs Fundamental Religion
    Two small minorities of people having a very LOUD discussion and assuming that their discussion has resonance with everyone. It doesn’t.

    There is a huge spectrum of views and skews on these ideas. Including a pretty large percentage of people who rarely give it much thought at all. As noted by a few people, there are many people who are perfectly OK with science doing science and religion remaining metaphoric.

    Its important to remember that while Fundamentalists are certainly driving a very effective anti science program, they are supported by apathy by most of the public, not sympathy.

  • psmith

    @Mike, the relationship between ritual and faith is rather more nuanced than that, see Alva Noë’s book, ‘Action in Perception (Representation and Mind)

    “Perception is not something that happens to us, or in us, it is something we do.” In Action in Perception, Noë argues that perception and perceptual consciousness depend on capacities for action and thought — that perception is a kind of thoughtful activity. (taken from Amazon review)

  • Mike


    I saw the book. Looks interesting, and has a pretty strong point of view. But a particular author’s thesis doesn’t put the matter to rest, or evade the problem exhibited by Sean here.

    My only point is that everybody is constantly arguing over belief, and totally ignoring the elephant in the room, namely, ritual.

    Has Sean on this blog ever seriously discussed the importance of ritual to most human beings, and how utterly ubiquitous rituals are to societies of all kinds all around the world? How about PZ Myers? Or Dawkins, for that matter? I’ve read plenty of Hitchens, and he rarely, if ever, brings it up. Instead, they attack truth-statements and belief, which are easier and more deserving of mockery.

    If you don’t understand the importance of ritual, then you’re missing the boat.

  • Low Math, Meekly Interacting

    I tend to be in agreement about the importance of ritual, but I see the efficacy of ritual as often being rather inextricably tied to beliefs about the reasons for the ritual. I think it’s more than a “justification”. My paternal grandmother seemed very comforted by Catholic rituals like going to mass, taking the Eucharist, reciting the Rosary, Confession, etc. If I do these things, I’m much more likely than no get really bored, if not annoyed. I’ve done the Yoga thing too, and while I do think I got a lot more out of the rituals of meditation and posing, the gabbing about chakras, flows of energy, the tendency of some instructors to conflate a lot of the ancient Hindu traditions with Chi and the flow of “energy” through meridians…the whole New-Agey mess is a major irritant, not a source of solace or tranquility. I’d rather just don the earbuds and go for a jog.

    What’s a reasonable system of “rituals” for an atheist that would confer the same benefits as those tied to the complete experience of spiritual faith? Seems to me that nothing even close has yet been found. Atheists need to admit this and see if there’s anything to be done about it. If not, be honest about the costs of being right.

  • Ray Gedaly

    To Steve [see comment #2]:

    I’ve had conversations with people who I’m truly convinced would act maliciously if they didn’t think they would be punished after death. That, for me, is a benefit of religion (and for Santa Clause for that matter).

    It may be that evolution favors the belief in religion to allow such people to live long enough to produce offspring.

  • Mike

    @Low Math—

    Actually, my point was that a lot of atheists don’t need ritual. Not everybody needs it. People are all different. If you find the rituals of Catholicism boring, then maybe you’re in that camp. And that’s fine! We’re all different! So I’m not sure that “being right” really has a cost for atheists; losing the rituals doesn’t bother them, because they generally don’t have that inner need for ritual in the first place.

    But the corollary is that because they don’t need it, atheists often don’t understand why religious people do; and they’re so unaware of that need that they don’t even realize that it’s central to the whole dispute. All this talk about belief misses the point, but it’s much easier terrain for atheists, because that’s where scientific fact is on their side.

    The reason I keep emphasizing this central belief/ritual misunderstanding is not because I’m a religious apologist; far from it. I’m just tired of the total lack of progress in these atheism-religion disputes. If you want to make progress, you need to have a better understanding of the truly underlying motivations at the heart of religion, the reasons why people feel the need to hang on to those silly beliefs. They didn’t arrive at those beliefs through reason, so it’s going to be difficult to reason them out of those beliefs.

    Ultimately, a lot of people need intense ritual and structure in their lives, and are defensive of their beliefs in large part because they don’t see how they can keep the ritual and structure while jettisoning the beliefs. And if you want to make headway in religious discussions, you really need to acknowledge that dynamic.

    But this dynamic goes constantly unacknowledged by people like Sean et al, so instead we just go around and around in endless circles. That’s what I find so frustrating.

  • Low Math, Meekly Interacting

    OK, I see what you’re saying.

    I’m not sure, though, that I wouldn’t benefit from something approximating what my grandmother got out of Catholicism, at least occasionally. Maybe I don’t “need” it, but I don’t absolutely require a lot of things that I might nonetheless be better off with. Without being melodramatic, there have been a couple times in my life when believing that I really did have a big sky buddy looking out for me would have been quite a comfort. Knowing that I was truly on my own kind of sucked, to be honest. I really came to terms with what that meant when someone offered to pray for me. While I appreciated the gesture, it provided no solace.

    Anyway, doom was avoided and life is pretty good, so I’m not preoccupied by these things. I just wonder what spiritual experience is really like. Maybe it’s nowhere near as nice as it looks, and I’m not missing anything. But if I could get something uniquely worthwhile out of intense ritual, instead of nothing at all, which is the case so far, and that ritual somehow wouldn’t cause explosive cognitive dissonance, I’d give it a whirl, certainly.

  • Cath the Canberra Cook

    Living in a more secular country, I don’t see the conflation of ritual and religion as making very much sense.

    We have plenty of secular rituals – birthday parties, workplace farewells, 21st birthdays, baby showers, naming and wedding and funeral ceremonies. There’s valentines and mothers day and remembrance day, and many more. And then there’s more by special interests, as groups have their own traditional special events – weekly dance, sport, sing, whatever, and regular special events.

    Traditions can quite easily be broken away from religion – I know secular jews who do Shabbas, and lots of us do Xmas without believing in the spooky magic blood-sacrifice baby. Even the oh-so-fearsome atheist Richard Dawkins enjoys a traditional Xmas.

  • Mike


    This is precisely what I meant when I said earlier that only someone lacking in personal experience with highly ritualistic religious traditions would ever equate them with the mundane rites of secular life. Birthday parties, weddings, Mother’s Day (really?) are trivialities compared to the intense, intense rituals of many religions, especially the older ones.

    Have you ever seen Orthodox Jews or religious Muslims pray multiple times each day? The kneeling, rocking, humming, and chanting that goes on and on? The same words, songs, and melodies, repeated over and over and over again, for decade after decade? A lot of people depend on that kind of ritual, and there’s nothing in secular life that comes even close.

    You try telling a fervent Jew or Muslim or Catholic to replace their intense, many-times-daily rituals with “weekly dance” or “sport.” Or “workplace farewells.” (Are you joking?)

    This is exactly the total lack of understanding that I’ve been talking about, and it’s a big reason for the huge gulf between the very religious and those with a secular attitude. Until you stop and ask yourself, “Why does this person really do what he/she does?” (a question whose answer requires real understanding of the other side), you’ll never come one step toward changing any minds.

    Low Math–

    It’s not the spirituality per se, or the sense that there’s a God watching over you. Those are components of the religious experience, but it’s the ritual itself that I’ve been talking about here. The question is whether the intense rituals of Catholicism fulfill a need of yours. If they don’t, well, then, good for you! But for a lot of people, that ritual is central to their lives. They need it. And if you try to pull them away from it, they’re just going to cling even harder.

    I just wish this was something that people would seriously address in the atheism/religion debate. It rarely even gets mentioned. Do you really think that throwing scientific facts at people is going to change their minds? Please.

  • Charles Ames

    Another perspective I find useful is a historical one– that much of the tension between Science and Religion today owes to the fact that the sciences are displacing certain responsibilities that, in earlier times, were the exclusive purview of the clergy. Psychology, sociology, and cosmology, now address questions about how minds, societies and the universe work, and since their answers often work better than those we can get from clergymen, one might say that the University has displaced the Church as the authoritative source on these subjects.

    However, certain mysteries of human life remain beyond the senses and beyond the reach of science, at least for now. For example, how to deal with the realization that all life feeds on other life, how to confront the loss of loved ones or one’s own death, how to find your place in the world, etc. These, too, have always been questions addressed by religion, and still are, arguably more effectively than by any other source. Unfortunately, debates about Science vs. Religion are rarely so acute as to distinguish different domains of inquiry and ask — which of us has the best tools?

    For my part, I have no use for “all or nothing” defense of religion. We know better, for the better, about a vast array of things. I would welcome some spiritual guidance on my journey through life, but not if I have to surrender all judgment in order to receive it.

  • Brian Stewart

    “People have an apparent and sometimes almost insatiable need for ‘ekstasis’ or ecstasy, to give meaning to their lives. This so-called ‘stepping outside’ finds expression in many ways such as music, dance, sport, sex and sadly in drug- and alcohol-abuse as well. It can also be found in religious fervour, attending religious gatherings in churches, mosques and synagogues, Satan worship; participating in secret societies, group activities and community projects. It also forms an important basis for joining radical groups, labour movements, political meetings, and for fundamentalism and radicalism.
    It is not strange therefore that the emotional expression and participation in these activities can become addictive or that the expectations of what benefits are to be derived from such activities, are often totally unrealistic and indeed silly.
    It is not evil or abnormal for people to have this need, it is merely human. However, when the derived and perceived benefits impinge upon reason and one’s grasp of reality, it becomes problematic. Unfortunately there are no boundaries drawn by those who promote such participation. In fact it is probably the opposite.
    Disciples of these activities actively seek to increase and deepen participation to the n-th degree, sometimes leading to mass hysteria, mass suicides, murder, gang-rape, fanaticism, suicide bombings etc.
    Mysticism and its attendant practices – which include religion, and political activities creates its own “realities”, e.g. false standards, guilt where no guilt exists, external deities and magic powers.
    Mysticism is the ultimate primacy of emotions over reality and reason and when the human need for ‘ekstasis’ overrides reality and reason, one enters the realm of the unreal and indeed of the actual surrender of man’s mind to the ceremonial reverence of objects, deities, visions and external influence. Primitive man used emotions to create his own ‘platonic reality’ (Reality is what the mind thinks or imagines ).
    Homo dialogicus (reasoning or thinking man) on the other hand reflects a critical consciousness which explains man’s capacity to reason and question anything in terms of its opposite. It implies that s/he can question issues of importance, evaluate alternatives and make choices of his/her own. Such a mind is light years away from the mind of primitive man who relies on imagination but does not grasp the implications that he does so and who creates an own reality, a false reality.
    When myth and legend become inextricably intertwined through the application of emotions with reality, consciousness and evaluating alternatives, it is no wonder then that people become confused and are unable to make reasoned and rational choices in life. It is this confusion which leads to control and manipulation; it is this lack of the conscious will of man to distinguish between the real and the unreal; this illogical preparedness to accept what he is fed through the controlled media, from religious- and political platforms which is promoted by the mystics of the world, by the religions and by the political leaders.” (Preface to my book: ‘Moses was a Liar’ Raider Books NY 2009).

    My apologies for using this quote but it did seem to be quite appropriate to the thread. Supplanting reason with the illogical adherence to external powers in a fatalistic manner is not only damaging but leaves a person/society open to manipulation and control for whatever purposes by others, often under the false credo that it is “for the common good” or in the “public interest”.

  • James

    I see the problem as religion being misused. It is fine as a self-actualization tool and emotional comforter, but the second you use it in a literal sense then you have corrupted it. And 99.9% of the world corrupts religion.

  • omar

    I would like to see more clarification of the statement “I would be very inattentive if I failed to notice how much relief and comfort it gave to other people.”

    1. Is the author asserting that “other people” would not be able to find relief and comfort if they did not have their particular religion with them?
    2. Why doesnt the author himself feel the need for this relief and comfort? Does he consider himself superior to the people who do need such relief and comfort?
    3. What if the relief and comfort are actually useful evolutionary tools with which most people are born equipped. They just take on whatever story is convenient and available nearby. They will take on new stories even if the current story disappears. This formulation would imply that there is no need to walk on eggshells here. Relief and comfort are not dependent on religion. Religion just happens to be the way they are delivered in a particular setting, but its neither essential, nor primary. Its an epiphenomenon.

  • Mike Cope

    How would you fit Buddhism into this framework? Perhaps your generalisation ‘Religion’ could do with a little refining?

    The Dalai Lama has said that if any part of Buddhism is in conflict with scientific knowledge, then Buddhism must adapt.

  • Pingback: Review – Finding God: The Enlightenment (DVD 1 of 3) «

  • Pingback: Religion and Truth at Religion and Spirituality in Society()


Discover's Newsletter

Sign up to get the latest science news delivered weekly right to your inbox!

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] .


See More

Collapse bottom bar