May 30 2008

The end of god-21: God as metaphor

(For previous posts in this series, see here.)

In the previous post I made the point that scientists can, and should be able to, translate between colloquial and scientific descriptions of phenomena but religious believers sometimes get misled into thinking that the looser language represents what is believed by scientists.

The worst example of the misuse of metaphors in science is the word ‘god’. Scientists commonly used to use the word ‘god’ as a metaphor for the inexplicable. So you found people like Einstein saying things like “God does not play dice with the universe”, Leon Lederman writing a book about the search for the Higgs boson called The God Particle, and Stephen Hawking’s book A Brief History of Time which uses the word god repeatedly. It is not at all unusual for scientists who have made a major discovery or seen something spectacular (like the photographs taken by the Hubble telescope of the far reaches of the universe) to be struck with such awe that they strive for a superlative metaphor that can capture the magnitude of their experience. Religious language forms such a major part of our cultural heritage that its words and phrases evoking images of majesty and awe easily spring to mind when we seek such superlatives.

So it should not be surprising that god makes his appearance in the popular works of scientists, though never in technical scientific literature. (Scientists have also found, like many others, that talking about god sells more books.) But when such scientists talk of god, they are well aware that it is a metaphor. It no more signifies a belief in god than when someone says “Thank god!” upon hearing some good news or “Bless you!” when someone sneezes. For Einstein and Lederman and Hawking, god is the name they give to an as-yet-undiscovered set of laws or mathematical equations, not an intelligent entity. Thankfully, the practice of using god as a metaphor in science is falling out of favor.

Einstein’s actual view of god and religion is one of contempt as can be seen in a letter he wrote just a year before his death: “The word god is for me nothing more than the expression and product of human weaknesses, the Bible a collection of honourable, but still primitive legends which are nevertheless pretty childish. No interpretation no matter how subtle can (for me) change this.”

But religious apologists seize upon the use by scientists of words like ‘faith’ and ‘belief’ and ‘design’ to argue that scientists are either secretly religious and inadvertently revealing their beliefs in their use of such words, or that science and religion are equivalent belief structures.

For example, Dr Pete Vukusic, of the School of Physics at the University of Exeter once wrote: “It’s amazing that butterflies have evolved such sophisticated design features which can so exquisitely manipulate light and colour. Nature’s design and engineering is truly inspirational.” The IDC people seized upon his use of the word ‘Nature’s design’ to suggest that this implies that there must have been a designer of those butterflies, and that ‘nature’ was a euphemism for god.

Because these kinds of wordplay confuse the issue of what scientists really think about god, some have suggested that we should be more careful in how we use language and not be so cavalier in invoking religious metaphors. As a result the use of god as a metaphor in popular scientific writing seems to be declining and that is a good thing. Some people advocate going further, suggesting that the use of words like faith and belief be banished from the vocabulary of scientists since they can give the wrong impression and are misused by religious apologists. A letter writer to the May 2008 issue of Physics Today even recommended abandoning the use of the word theory.

I don’t agree with this approach. The words belief and faith have perfectly good secular meanings and there is no reason why we should cede them for exclusively religious use. I have also written before that I am doubtful of the effectiveness of trying to restrict the use or meanings of words. While we should strive for precision and accuracy in our choice of words to express scientific ideas, words and meanings evolve and that is what makes language so alive and fascinating. We can no more control linguistic evolution than we can hold back biological evolution. It is better to create a greater awareness amongst the general public that words mean different things in different contexts and when used by different people, and that those should be weighed in the balance when trying to figure out what people are saying.

For example, in my attempt at outlining what I believe in An Atheist’s Creed, I used the word ‘believe’ repeatedly and some other atheists suggested that I should not do so since it made the creed look like a religious affirmation. But I had anticipated this objection and took pains to explain my use of the word in the preamble:

When the word ‘believe’ is used in the creed, it is in the scientific sense of the word. Scientists realize that almost all knowledge is tentative and that one knows very few things for certain. But based on credible evidence and logical reasoning, one can arrive at firm conclusions about, and hence ‘believe’, some things such as that the universe is billions of years old or that the force of gravity exists. It is in this sense that the word ‘believe’ is used in the creed below, as an implicit acknowledgment of our lack of absolute certainty.

This use is in stark contrast to the way that the word is used by religious people. They not only believe things for which there is little or no evidence or reason, but even in spite of evidence to the contrary, and defying reason.

Some religious apologists try to exploit the fact that the same word belief is used in both situations to suggest that atheism is as much an irrational act of faith as belief in god. This is sophistry and is simply false.

As an aside, I saw some interesting responses to my creed when it was reposted on some discussion boards. I had meant it as a merely descriptive statement of the things that I, an atheist, happen to believe. It was not meant to be a statement of what all atheists believe or should believe. Indeed, some of the beliefs I listed did not even derive from atheism. And yet, some readers took my creed as an attempt to be normative and disagreed with some or all of it, going to the extent of saying that for atheists to have a creed is a contradiction.

They are of course right. Each atheist will believe different things because we have no unifying doctrine, except a shared conviction that there is no evidence for the existence of god. Although I thought I was being clear about my intent, the misunderstanding illustrates the truth of a statement attributed to Karl Popper: “It is impossible to speak in such a way that you cannot be misunderstood.”

POST SCRIPT: Gonzo journalism

Matt Taibbi of the Rolling Stone is one of the funniest political journalists around. Here he describes to Jon Stewart his experiences as a member of John Hagee’s church, before the latter became famous because of his McCain endorsement fiasco. Hagee seems to be even wackier than I had thought.


  1. 1

    Mano, sorry to get back to words. An Atheist’s Creed? And for one who has no god where’s the question of either atheism or a creed?

  2. 2


    A creed need not be religious. It is just a set of fundamental guiding principles. I just listed my own.

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