A Sense of Doubt

By Sean Carroll | January 30, 2011 9:20 am

Jerry Coyne, cheerful fire-breathing atheist that he is, gets invited to a church to talk about evolution. That’s not how it worked out, as people were more interested in talking about the relationship between science and religion. You can guess what happened — or maybe not. There was a productive two-hour conversation in which both sides learned something.

That’s pretty much the same thing that happened when I visited a Chicago church back in the day. There’s obviously a selection effect at work: the kinds of churches that invite atheists in for conversations are generally ones that enjoy some kind of open dialogue. Not that it’s all warm hugs and pleasant disagreement; I noticed that the older generation in my audience was a lot less open to even thinking about some of the points I raised, while Jerry had to fend off someone who thought that math and science had led to Nazi Germany.

Jerry concludes that the harmful aspects of religion are correlated with the certainty displayed by its adherents. This is a true but subtle point, as of course there are those who love to accuse scientists and/or atheists of unwarranted certitude. I think the difference is that we feel relatively sure about some things, while we’re quite ready to admit that we don’t know the answer to other questions, and we have a clear notion of where the distinction lies. But I would think that, wouldn’t I?

Conversations like these are enormously helpful. The trick is that it’s much easier — on both sides — to be polite and interactive in person, while the temptation to lecture people from on high is irresistible in other contexts, where it’s easier to think of the opposition as cartoons rather than real people.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Religion, Science and Society
  • http://sievemaria.com SieveMaria

    I will go to any church and I can embrace any religion for an hour at least, but what irritates me is the inner politics and the narrow outlook that is in any group of people including artists, scientists, and business, and Religion. Humans seem to desire a belief set, axioms that once proven will not need further visiting – but take away this axiom knowledge – and gain the ability to see things fresh and new – and the freedom to leave after a hour and go on with ones life – or not – religion is quite refreshing and can be enjoyable – no matter if you are sitting in a very nice hall with soaring ceilings, stained glass and angelic voices … or on a hard pew in a sm wooden structure in the middle of a pasture, who can tell you what to think/feel and who is the wiser ?

  • Ray Gedaly

    I observe from working with other scientists (albeit in industry rather than academia) that there are some who draw quick conclusions from sparse evidence and others who require overwhelmimg evidence before reaching conclusions.

    I find that, overall, the first group tend to be more religious than the second group.

  • David George

    “Jerry concludes that the harmful aspects of religion are correlated with the certainty displayed by its adherents.”

    I would say the harmful aspects of religion are correlated with the use of the potentially harmful aspects of religion, including but not limited to the certainty displayed by some of its adherents, by those who use the potentially harmful aspects to achieve their own ends. And I think you could say the exact same thing about science.

  • http://math-frolic.blogspot.com Shecky R.

    Richard Feynman was fond of saying that he had beliefs, and understandings, and ideas he was pretty sure of, but he wasn’t “100% certain of anything” — ironically, lay people tend to think that science is the bedrock of certainty, when in fact (good) scientists, more than anyone else, understand the impossibility of certitude in human thought. Science is a bedrock for ‘evidence,’ but that is different from certainty or ‘proof’ — a subtle notion the public often doesn’t get (so they assume the inability of a scientist to say a vaccine is 100% safe, is equivalent to saying the vaccine is NOT safe, as one example).

  • darth vader

    I think that a open mind is needed to assess the validity of any Science or religion dogma.I believe in God and his son Jesus.However,I can’t prove the existence of God to anyone including my self.

  • M Burke

    “harmful aspects of religion”

    How do you define “harmful” when you have no basis for morality?

  • Pingback: Science and religion: An openness to discussion « A long, strange trip()

  • rabidmob

    “Jerry concludes that the harmful aspects of religion are correlated with the certainty displayed by its adherents.”

    Rather bold conclusion would require some form of proof and proof would be hard to find because how do you measure certainty?

    Certainty in what exactly?

  • Charles Schmidt

    Is there real certainty in anything? Other than death and that may be up for grabs. The more you know the more you know that you do not know.

  • ?

    Personally, I agree that these types of dialogues are the most necessary. Often atheists are viewed as evil-doers and religious persons are viewed as delusional by their respective counterparts. When they meet, they can realize that no matter what their beliefs they are both human beings.

  • psmith

    The certitude amongst older people that you refer to is a pretty general phenomenon. Older people have accumulated more knowledge and experience, so in some cases they can be more certain. But it is a seductive certitude that stifles flexibility and innovation. You will see this in business, academia, religion and politics. In fact, one of the great challenges of getting older is to retain the flexibility of thought from one’s youth. Sean, I can guarantee that in time your sense of doubt will diminish and you will become an irascible old man fighting off the challenges of the arrogant youth in your faculty!

    That said, the dogma inherent in religion adds another layer of certitude that stifles adaptation. For this reason the Catholic church has made slow, halting steps towards accepting the scientific narrative and in particular evolution. But they are getting there and the Catholic church is coming close to accepting evolution in its entirety.

    Ironically, there need not be any conflict between scientific and religious narratives. If one believes in God one need only accept that God created both the laws of the universe as well as the universe. All conflict then goes away if one assumes that God acts according to the framework of laws that he created. And that seems to me to be a most reasonable assumption for a believer. But religion, because it is stifled by dogma, adapts slowly, however all the signs are that bodies like the Catholic church will in time fully accept the scientific narrative.

  • Dave

    Next time, just play this Feynman clip: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_MmpUWEW6Is

  • Hammill

    The trick is that it’s much easier — on both sides — to be polite and interactive in person, while the temptation to lecture people from on high is irresistible in other contexts, where it’s easier to think of the opposition as cartoons rather than real people.

    It seems important to me to not only be polite and interactive in person but to be polite and interactive, period, if more productive dialogues like these are going to work. If one is exceedingly polite and thoughtful in person but mostly using attacks on “cartoon” characterizations of the same people everywhere else (i.e., online), IMO it makes the in-person civility look contrived and disingenuine, even if that isn’t the intent. If one goes out of their way to be nice to a group of people to their face and talks all sorts of trash about them other times, that just seems like a double standard that will eventually self-destruct.

    It seems like Coyne’s visit might have at least flipped some of the cartoon preconceptions of the faithful that I’ve seen in the past on his blog on their heads – and it probably did the same with preconceptions about atheists for the Methodist congregation! I’d argue the real trick is in seeing if that will hold, or if we’ll be back to the same tired cartoons in a day or so.

  • Cosmonut

    The destructive nature of faith stems from certainty: certainty that you know God’s will and God’s mind

    Or the certainty that concentrating all power in the hands of the State will lead to Utopia.
    Or the certainty that getting rid of religion in every form will lead to a perfect world.
    Or the certainty that…

    It is not the details of the worldview that cause harm so much as *dogmatism* about that worldview and the inability to tolerate doubt and differing opinions.

  • Matt

    Hooray for this. And the certainty point seconded, from a religious point of view. My own faith has gotten much more vibrant and productive once I started looking for the certainty and exorcising it.

  • http://pediddle.net/ Peter Davis

    “the harmful aspects of religion are correlated with the certainty displayed by its adherents”

    Humility. Jesus Christ displayed it, and commands his followers to do otherwise. Pride is the greatest of sins—and as sinners, religious people are prone to it like any other.

    Humility goes a long way on both sides.

  • psmith

    To follow on from Peter Davis, # 16
    the harmful aspects of religion are correlated with the certainty displayed by its adherents
    This applies to every human institution.

    Mankind has shown an inexhaustible capacity for corrupting and harming every human institution, without exception. History is the long chronology of this harm. To argue that religion is especially prone to this is a singularly narrow form of selective thinking when even greater harm can be seen in all other institutions. We corrupt our democracy, we corrupt our economic systems, we use power to selfish advantage, we use power to brutalize others, the list goes on and on. The simple truth is that it is the human animal that causes the harm in whatever he touches. To attribute the harm to the institution is an astonishing form of willful blindness.

    To work against our nature we create institutions that attempt to limit our capacity for harm. Democracy is an example of this. Or we create systems to try and prevent the harm at its source. Religion is such an institution. Both institutions are only partially successful because of the powerful nature of our primitive drives, embedded in the more ancient parts of our brain.

    There are some atheists who believe that the elimination of religion will somehow eliminate harm. Well, we have conducted two very large experiments with atheism in Stalinist Russsia and Maoist China and the net result was the largest mass killings in all of recorded history.


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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] cosmicvariance.com .


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