The "F" Word

By Sheril Kirshenbaum | June 3, 2009 11:49 am

Since Chris and Jerry are back to religion, I’m reminded of my first foray into into the blogosphere in early 2007 when I discussed the topic. A subsequent storm of comments raged on for weeks over several posts. Initial argument persisted over terminology, but ultimately the conversation eroded into an inquisition over what I personally believe instead of a productive dialogue on science and religion. These days I don’t typically explore the relationship here because it mainly serves as sport and spectacle on the blogs.  Still, Chris’ post today inspired me to look back at the words I wrote during my first week at The Intersection–re-posted after the fold.  Upon reading again, I see that though my writing style has changed over the years, the point is just as relevant now…



bart-n-god.jpgSeveral folks have emailed asking why I’ve yet to write about RELIGION. Simply put, what I believe is that faith has no place in science. Will someone please stand up and explain the circular argument, the rhetoric, the tomfoolery and fiddlesticks that is the age old debate on how these two worlds converge? Convince me, and I’m ready and waiting at my laptop to jump in.

I admit I’m no expert here. Although I studied religion as a Classics major, my perspectives are predominantly influenced by an inundation of our own cultural norms, societal movements, American education, and the art of Groening and MacFarlane. Regardless, I don’t think a true savant could possibly exist on the topic given that belief is just that: FAITH. It need not be proven nor understood by anyone other than the individual holding it. What is fascinating to consider in the discussion is how religion currently shapes life on this planet with arguably every bit as much force as the biological processes driving evolution, adaptation, and extinction.

contact_ver2.jpgSometimes I wonder whether my interest in Complex Adaptive Systems theory could be considered a religious undertaking. I’m certain it’s possible to argue so. Carl Sagan and I are both intrigued by π and whether meaningful significance may be hidden within the sequence. Along the same lines, when I look to nature and consider derivable patterns in branching trees and dendrites, migration processes, fish and flock behavior, and symbiotic relationships evolving over time, I’m left feeling as if there’s something to all this math. Detecting observable order out of chaos begs the questions: 1) Is the universe ‘constructed’ so that it ascribes to specified geometrical axioms? 2) If so, do these relationships result in early trajectories forward? 3) If single points of origin determine where we came from, are they concurrently acting upon where we are headed?

It’s certainly starting to sound as if I’m invoking that old ‘intelligent watchmaker’ analogy, doesn’t it? I’m not. In fact, I’m choosing to refrain from touching on my beliefs or lack there of altogether. It’s of no significance here or in science.

What I know for sure is that no matter what you believe, invoking the “F” word [by pitting science and religion against one other] often provides justification for nearly 99% of the planet to tune you out. Regardless of evidence you think you have, it’s a loosing battle as soon as you threaten someone’s fundamental beliefs. Instead, our responsibility in this field is to engage everyone to think for them self, ask why, and be open to explore new ideas. Scientist need not equate with Godlessness. Period.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Science and Religion

Comments (13)

  1. mk

    Gee, that “Period” sure was forceful and authoritative!

  2. david

    it depends on what function religion serves for an individual. is it a complete and perfect world view – no further thinking required (or allowed)? is it a general set of rules to guide social behavior? is it a specific set of presciptions and proscriptions touching every aspect of life (even though most of these rules are from Bronze Age societies)? there is no single answer.

    there is general consensus, however, about how we practice science: observe, postulate, prove, replicate through experiment. no one has to “believe” anything; it’s either proven or rejected. then, even when “proven” under contemporary methods, results can be reconsidered when new technology/knowledge suggests current theory to be incomplete.

  3. Get ready for another storm! As for your last statement, while it is true, I would also say that “There is NOTHING wrong in equating scientist with Godlessness because there is nothing wrong with Godlessness”

  4. Soil Creep

    The conflict of “faith” versus “Reason” was the definitive debate in Medieval thinking and it is certainly a testament to the power of Religion that this conflict still resonates today. The fact that this argument is rooted in the Middle Ages should absolutely embarrass anyone advocating faith over science standing on this side of the Enlightenment regardless of religious orientation.

  5. So Sheril, you disagree with this sentiment in general or just when it’s applied to science policy?

    “New Atheist criticism: to lessen the moral authority and hegemony of religion in our society.”

  6. James F

    While there is the larger “faith vs. reason” conflict, the practice and teaching of science is a separate issue. You can be a theist (theistic evolutionist, etc.) or an atheist (philosophical naturalist) and practice science under the neutral philosophy of methodological naturalism. Only when one introduces methodological supernaturalism (ID, etc.) is there a conflict with the practice of science.

  7. “There is NOTHING wrong in equating scientist with Godlessness because there is nothing wrong with Godlessness”

    Er… you could just as well say “There is nothing wrong in equating scientist with being male because there is nothing wrong with being male.”

    Sheril’s point is that there *is* something wrong with equating godlessness with scientist– specifically, they aren’t the same thing, so it’s a false equation.

  8. I’m more inclined to agree than not to agree with the thrust of this piece. Nevertheless, John West and others from the DI make statements like this one from the Washington Post blogs:

    One need not be a religious fundamentalist to find such arguments less than satisfying. Indeed, one need not be religious at all. Media coverage notwithstanding, theistic evolution has been shunned by leading evolutionary biologists, 87 percent of whom deny the existence of God and 90 percent of whom reject the idea that evolution is directed toward an “ultimate purpose” according to a 2003 survey.

    Of course it’s also relevant that many clerics don’t find a problem with evolution (and “rightly so” or “wrongly so” is impossible to say under any universal objective standard), but it does not change the fact that, in practical terms, high level biology has no need for the god hypothesis, and largely discards it for that reason.

    Theistic evolution is not shunned, it is found to be superfluous.

    Certainly there is some truth to the notion that superfluous ideas like “god” are not inimical to science, and vice versa. They’re still superfluous, though, which is typically not taken as a compliment, or as supportive of the “superfluous idea.”

    On the other hand, what I most dislike about so much of the rhetoric about science and religion being incompatible (or at least superfluous to science–which is also taken as an insult by a number of theists) is how it so often focuses upon evolution. The fact is that all of science is without need for the “god hypothesis,” and areas like neuroscience may stand in more particular opposition to Western religions than evolution ever could. If the opposition is being argued, it should be done from all of science, not the one area that many theists like to fault, without recognition that every other area is as “atheistic” in practice as evolutionary science is.

    Glen Davidson

  9. You don’t have to justify not criticising religious doctrines. Those of us who do criticise religious doctrines don’t really have to justify our actions, either, although we are continually asked to do so. All this stuff I’m seeing lately about people having to justify what they choose to write about, or not write about, is a distraction from the substantive issues.

    Criticising religious doctrines is not your thing, so fine. That should be sufficient.

  10. I agree with Sheril to a certain extent. When making scientific claims (as opposed to giving personal opinions), it is not necessary to make definitive claims for or against particular religious views.

    Nevertheless, it remains a fact that all natural science, including evolution, is by definition an atheist enterprise. I don’t mean you have to be an atheist to be a scientist, nor do I even claim that practicing is likely to make you an atheist. What I mean is that science does not posit the existence of a supernatural being; explanations depending on or even including such beings are not scientific explanations.

    It is fair, therefore, when someone is making factual claims about the world, for someone to point out that those factual claims are not supported by the scientific evidence. This may be because the claims directly contradict the evidence, because the methodology is flawed, or simply because there is not enough evidence gathered. It is fair to criticize such claims whether they invoke a god or not. When these claims are mixed together into the same pot as a bunch of *good* science, the good science lends credibility to the bad science, and I think it’s fair to point that out as well.

    Had NCSE never gone out of their way to suggest that religion and science are compatible, I doubt anyone would have taken them to task for not making the inverse claim. Similarly, had Giberson and Miller not written books following a bunch of good scientific discussion with supernatural claims, I don’t think Jerry Coyne would have written a review saying “the books were good, but the authors are still believers”. In other words, it’s fair to request that scientists refrain from making definitive atheist claims when they’re practicing science, but it is then just as fair to request that they refrain from making theist claims under the same circumstances.

  11. Anthony McCarthy

    Oh THAT “F” word. I thought you meant the most overused cliche in the language.

    It depends on where the you’re asking about coexistence. In formal science nothing but the evidence of observation, measurement, analysis, review and reproduction of results belongs there. In public school classrooms, science or other subjects, the wall of separation must be maintained.

    In the mind of an individual, including many scientists, science and religion can coexist quite well. Many of them with more impressive records in research and publication than many of the anti-religious bigots who are telling them they can’t manage their own lives.

    In so far as religion is concerned, there is nothing about having a faith in a religion that prevents a believer for believing a deity or more created and manages the universe in full compliance with what science has been able to tell us about the physical universe. Most of those who accept evolution by natural selection (and other mechanisms if they keep up with modern evolutionary biology) believe that was how God did it. And many of those people know that their faith has no place within formal science or the public schools.

    I won’t go into those religious fundamentalists except to point out many of them have a career in a science, just that they don’t make good evolutionary biologists. Parts of science are as unable to coexist with their religion as religion is for atheist-fundamentalists.

  12. Anthony McCarthy

    “Sheril’s point is that there *is* something wrong with equating godlessness with scientist– specifically, they aren’t the same thing, so it’s a false equation.”

    It’s easier to see if you point out that religion isn’t the only thing that can’t be a part of science without distorting science. Politics shouldn’t be as the co-owner of this blog demonstrated so well. Professional rivalry frequently has damaged science, personal ideology (not just religious) often has. Scientists insisting on a position they previously took can defend it into the fires of total, enraged irrationality when it’s been superseded by another position.

    Being a Trekie shouldn’t enter into science, though I’ve got a feeling some of the more extravagant claims made by some of the most popular figures in the “new atheism” might have had a lot more to do with sci-fi than sci. Some of Dawkins’ pronouncements about probability of the the extraterrestrial presence of Darwinism (his word, not mine) are anything but science. Having more math than science, I’m pretty disturbed about how the word “probability” gets thrown around by those in science about things about which there is absolutely no evidence to submit that branch of applied math to. It’s even worse in the wannabes on the science themed blogs and beyond.

  13. bilbo

    Bingo. The more I’m exposed to the bigotry that is New Atheism, the more I see it as a culture war being wrapped in a cloak of science. It’s all for point-keeping and attention getting, and less about truth.


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About Sheril Kirshenbaum

Sheril Kirshenbaum is a research scientist with the Webber Energy Group at the University of Texas at Austin's Center for International Energy and Environmental Policy where she works on projects to enhance public understanding of energy issues as they relate to food, oceans, and culture. She is involved in conservation initiatives across levels of government, working to improve communication between scientists, policymakers, and the public. Sheril is the author of The Science of Kissing, which explores one of humanity's fondest pastimes. She also co-authored Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future with Chris Mooney, chosen by Library Journal as one of the Best Sci-Tech Books of 2009 and named by President Obama's science advisor John Holdren as his top recommended read. Sheril contributes to popular publications including Newsweek, The Washington Post, Discover Magazine, and The Nation, frequently covering topics that bridge science and society from climate change to genetically modified foods. Her writing is featured in the anthology The Best American Science Writing 2010. In 2006 Sheril served as a legislative Knauss science fellow on Capitol Hill with Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL) where she was involved in energy, climate, and ocean policy. She also has experience working on pop radio and her work has been published in Science, Fisheries Bulletin, Oecologia, and Issues in Science and Technology. In 2007, she helped to found Science Debate; an initiative encouraging candidates to debate science research and innovation issues on the campaign trail. Previously, Sheril was a research associate at Duke University's Nicholas School of the Environment and has served as a Fellow with the Center for Biodiversity and Conservation at the American Museum of Natural History and as a Howard Hughes Research Fellow. She has contributed reports to The Nature Conservancy and provided assistance on international protected area projects. Sheril serves as a science advisor to NPR's Science Friday and its nonprofit partner, Science Friday Initiative. She also serves on the program committee for the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). She speaks regularly around the country to audiences at universities, federal agencies, and museums and has been a guest on such programs as The Today Show and The Daily Rundown on MSNBC. Sheril is a graduate of Tufts University and holds two masters of science degrees in marine biology and marine policy from the University of Maine. She co-hosts The Intersection on Discover blogs with Chris Mooney and has contributed to DeSmogBlog, Talking Science, Wired Science and Seed. She was born in Suffern, New York and is also a musician. Sheril lives in Austin, Texas with her husband David Lowry. Interested in booking Sheril Kirshenbaum to speak at your next event? Contact Hachette Speakers Bureau 866.376.6591 For more information, visit her website or email Sheril at


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