Dec 31 2008

Why religion should be criticized

(As is my custom this time of year, I am taking some time off from writing new posts and instead reposting some old favorites (often edited and updated) for the benefit of those who missed them the first time around or have forgotten them. The POST SCRIPTS will generally be new. New posts will start again on Monday, January 5, 2009. Today’s post originally appeared in October 2007.)

Much of the recent attacks on religion have come from those with a scientific background. But there are many atheist scientists (such as the late Steven Jay Gould) who have not wanted to criticize religion the way the current crop of atheists are doing. They have tried to find a way for science and religion to coexist by carving out separate spheres for religion and science, by saying that science deals with the material world while religion deals with the spiritual/moral world and that the two worlds do not overlap. Gould even wrote an entire book Rocks of Ages: Science and Religion in the Fullness of Life based on that premise.
This is not a new argument. Such appeals from high profile individuals tend to recur whenever there is a science-religion flare-up, such as during the evolution controversy leading up to the 1925 Scopes trial concerning the teaching evolution in schools. Edward J. Larson in his book Summer for the Gods (1997) writes (p. 121-122):

When the antievolution movement first began in 1923 [James] Vance [pastor of the nation's largest southern Presbyterian church] and forty other prominent Americans including [Princeton biologist Edwin G.] Conklin, [American Museum of Natural History president Henry Fairfield] Osborn, 1923 [Physics] Nobel Laureate Robert Millikan, and Herbert Hoover, tried to calm the waters with a joint statement that assigned science and religion to separate spheres of human understanding. This widely publicized document describes the two activities as “distinct” rather than “antagonistic domains of thought,” the former dealing with “the facts, laws and processes of nature” while the latter addressed “the consciences, ideals and the aspirations of mankind.”

This argument, that the existence of god is something about which science can say nothing so scientists should say nothing, keeps appearing in one form or another at various times but simply does not make sense. Science has always had a lot to say about god, even if not mentioning god by name. For example, science has ruled out a god who created the world just 6,000 years ago. Science has ruled out a god who had to periodically intervene to maintain the stability of the solar system. Science has ruled out a god whose intervention is necessary to create new species. The only kind of god about which science can say nothing is a god who does absolutely nothing at all.

As Richard Dawkins writes (When Religion Steps on Science’s Turf, Free Inquiry, vol. 18 no. 2, 1998 (pp. 18-9), quoted in Has Science Found God?, Victor J Stenger, 2001):

More generally it is completely unrealistic to claim, as Gould and many others do, that religion keeps itself away from science’s turf, restricting itself to morals and values. A universe with a supernatural presence would be a fundamentally and qualitatively different kind of universe from one without. The difference is, inescapably, a scientific difference. Religions make existence claims, and this means scientific claims.
There is something dishonestly self-serving in the tactic of claiming that all religious beliefs are outside the domain of science. On the one hand, miracle stories and the promise of life after death are used to impress simple people, win converts, and swell congregations. It is precisely their scientific power that gives these stories their popular appeal. But at the same time it is considered below the belt to subject the same stories to the ordinary rigors of scientific criticism: these are religious matters and therefore outside the domain of science. But you cannot have it both ways. At least, religious theorists and apologists should not be allowed to get away with having it both ways. Unfortunately all too many of us, including nonreligious people, are unaccountably ready to let them. (my italics)

Victor Stenger in his book God:The Failed Hypothesis (p. 15) points out that the idea that science and religion occupy separate spheres is also in contradiction to actual practice: “[A] number of proposed supernatural or nonmaterial processes are empirically testable using standard scientific methods. Furthermore, such research is being carried out by reputable scientists associated with reputable institutions and published in reputable scientific journals. So the public statements by some scientists and their national organizations that science has nothing to do with the supernatural are belied by the facts.”

Dawkins and Stenger make a strong case. So why are some scientists supportive of such a weak argument as that science and religion occupy distinct and non-overlapping domains? Stenger (p. 10) suggests a reason:

Nevertheless, most scientists seem to prefer as a practical matter that science should stay clear of religious issues. Perhaps this is a good strategy for those who wish to avoid conflicts between science and religion, which might lead to less public acceptance of science, not to mention that most dreaded of all consequences – lower funding. However, religions make factual claims that have no special immunity from being examined under the cold light of reason and objective observation.

Is that it? Are scientists scared of criticizing religion for fear of upsetting the gravy train that funds their research? That is a somewhat cynical view but not one that can be dismissed easily.

Another possible reason may be (as I argue in my book Quest for Truth) that scientists are simply sick of arguing about whether science is compatible with religion, find it a time wasting distraction from their research, and use this ploy as a rhetorical escape hatch to avoid the topic whenever it arises.

Yet another reason may be that scientists do not generally know (or even care) what other scientists’ religious views are. A scientist’s credibility depends only on the quality of the science that person does, and all that is required for good science is a commitment to methodological naturalism within the boundaries of one’s area of research. A scientists’ attitude towards philosophical naturalism is rarely an issue. Because of this lack of relevance of the existence of god to the actual work of science, scientists might want to avoid altogether the topic of the existence of god simply to avoid creating friction amongst their scientific colleagues. As I said before, the science community has both religious and non-religious people within it, so why ruffle feelings by bringing up this topic?

But while I think that it is a good idea to keep religion out of scientific discussions since god is irrelevant when one is interpreting experimental results or comparing theories, there is no reason why scientists should not speak out against religion in public life. If we think that religion is based on a falsehood, and that the net effect of religion in the world is negative, we should not maintain a polite and respectful silence towards it. We actually have a duty to actively work for its eradication.

I think that Baron D’Holbach (1723-1789) gave the best reason for campaigning against religion when he explained why he did so:

Many men without morals have attacked religion because it was contrary to their inclinations. Many wise men have despised it because it seemed to them ridiculous. Many persons have regarded it with indifference, because they have never felt its true disadvantages. But it is as a citizen that I attack it, because it seems to me harmful to the happiness of the state, hostile to the march of the mind of man, and contrary to sound morality, from which the interests of state policy can never be separated.

Exactly right.

POST SCRIPT: Rationality and religion

“Rational arguments don’t usually work on religious people. Otherwise there would be no religious people.” Here’s another great little video clip from the TV show House, that packs a lot of meaning into a couple of minutes.


  1. 1

    Here is yet another reason to criticize religion: look at what is going on in the Middle East. Two peoples of roughly the same population with a stake in the same land. Most of the hang ups come from religious traditions!

  2. 2


    Not only that, they are pretty much the same people, originating in the same place (the story of the Jews in captivity in Egypt and the exodus are myths) and separating on the basis of (most likely) diet and only later religion within the last three thousand years or so. On the basis of believing in two fictitious gods, they fight.

    The death and destruction inflicted by Israel in Gaza is sign of the madness caused by religion.

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