Dec 12 2012

Talking to religious people about science

There is never any shortage of people telling atheists how sensitive the feelings of religious people are and that we need to be careful about what we say to them. The reasoning behind these pleas is based on the belief that if we tell such people directly that science contradicts religion, they will retreat to religion and reject science.

Take for example Murray Peshkin, a physicist at Argonne National Laboratory. In the wake of the possible sighting of the Higgs boson, he writes in the November 2012 issue of Physics Today (p. 12):

Calling the Higgs boson the “God particle” is a mistake that we need to avoid.

Science is under serious and increasingly successful attack in the US by religious extremists who are concerned mainly with the teaching of biological evolution in public schools but are also generally anti-science and anti-intellectual. The majority of Americans have some religious beliefs that are important to them. I have been speaking to various churches, social clubs, and other groups, trying to explain to them what science is about; why science, correctly understood, does not threaten most people’s religions; and why we can’t afford to teach anything but the best science we know in our schools. I’m not trying to convert extremists. I’m trying to arm reasonable, mostly intelligent but uninformed people against simplistic arguments like “It’s only a theory” or “Why not teach all sides?” They listen to me because I respect their religious beliefs even though I don’t share them. They tune out scientists who offend their religious sensitivities.

We need such people to be our allies. Offending them by using “God” flippantly is just throwing gasoline on a fire. It’s encouraging a fight we cannot win, and we should stop doing it.

There are many scientists, and I include myself, who hate the label of the “God particle” for the Higgs boson because it needlessly and unproductively drags religion into a purely scientific issue. So I agree with Peshkin that we should avoid that use.

But I would challenge Peshkin’s statement that the attacks on science are increasingly successful. I do not think that is true. What is true is that the attacks are increasingly strident since science has become a partisan political issue, an issue that I discussed in an earlier post.

The other proposition is that if we want to wean religious people from anti-science attitudes we should tell them that “science, correctly understood, does not threaten most people’s religions”. But what if we don’t believe that? I, for example, am convinced that science, correctly understood, is clearly incompatible with religion. Should we keep quiet?

The assumption that if religious people are told that science and religion are incompatible they will choose religion over science and retreat to a harder creationist/anti-science stance has, as far as I know, not been really tested. But I am willing to concede that when people are told that the views they hold about anything at all are wrong, they will defend and retain them in the short run even if presented with overwhelming contradictory evidence. But that qualifier is the key. People hate to admit they are wrong to the person who tells them so. It is losing face. But I think that the arguments, even if summarily rejected, do have an impact in the long run. Over time, some of the people will come around to the conclusion that science is the better option. But if they are never forced to confront their beliefs in that stark way, they may never change their minds.

My own suggestion is that people should tell people what they truly believe and not worry about what others are saying. If you believe that science and religion are compatible and that is the way to convince people to become pro-science, then go right ahead and make your case. If you think that the two are incompatible and that people need to face that, then you should go ahead too. One argument will work with some people, the other will work with others. But it is all good.

The people I find hard to understand are those who think that science and religion are incompatible but feel that we should not say so publicly because it will turn people away from science. We should not subordinate truth to expediency in order to achieve tactical victories.


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  1. 1


  2. 2
    Jared A

    I thought the term “God particle” was mostly the product of sensationalistic journalists and not flippant scientists.

  3. 3
    Mano Singham

    It was initially coined by Nobel-prize winning physicist Leon Lederman who definitely qualifies as a flippant scientist. Unfortunately, the media latched on to it and it now has a life of its own.

  4. 4

    Religion should only be afraid of Science if it (religion) isn’t true.

  5. 5

    I’d read that Lederman had originally referred to it as the “goddamn particle” because it was so hard to find but his editor insisted he change it to the less offensive “god particle”. Not sure if this is true though. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Peter_Higgs

  6. 6
    Jared A

    Oh yes, I had forgotten that Lederman had coined it. So much nonsense just for the sake of a little self-promotion.

  7. 7
    Marcus Ranum

    If religion had evidence backing it up, it’d be science. The inadequacy of their beliefs isn’t our problem.

  8. 8

    “My own suggestion is that people should tell people what they truly believe.”
    Exactly (no discussion of the word believe this time; I just translate it as think). There is one reservation: if religious people do their best not to hurt my atheist feelings, which are equally sensitive as their religious feelings, I am very willing to be careful.
    I don’t think much about the science/religion controversy. It’s not my problem. If some smart believer succeeds in combining them one way or another, good for him/her. I will stay an atheist anyhow. But if that believer thinks his/her religion has something useful to say to science I suddenly become very strident. That’s blatantly wrong.

  9. 9
    Mano Singham

    Lederman apparently says so in the foreword of his book. But there are many cases of Lederman being flippant (and getting into trouble for it) and I think that his editor would not have had to work very hard to get him t agree to the ‘god particle’ title.

  10. 10

    I don’t think that religion is necessarily in conflict with science, but it clearly is in some cases. As the original statement only said ‘most’, I didn’t find his phrasing problamatic. I think young earth creationist religions are an example of such a conflict for religious believers, but they are a minority of religious people. Old earth ‘divine guidance’ type creationist beliefs are not in conflict with science.

    Why do you say “science, correctly understood, is clearly incompatible with religion.”? Do you think there is an inherent conflict between science and religion for all religions? If so, can you be more specific about what you mean because religious beliefs are very diverse.

  11. 11
    Doug Little

    Old earth ‘divine guidance’ type creationist beliefs are not in conflict with science

    Sure they are, we have no need to invoke a creator to explain anything we have currently observed. The null hypothesis that a creator does not exist still holds.

  12. 12

    @Doug L: being superfluous is not the same as being in conflict. You have shown the first, which is quite trivial.

  13. 13

    No, Mano, it wasn’t; he called the the “goddamn particle”, because of its elusiveness. It was the media who mollifed that as the “God particle”.

  14. 14
    Mano Singham

    Lederman actually called his book The God Particle.

  15. 15

    I wrote a recent blog post about the same issue, http://physicistical.wordpress.com/2012/12/01/a-science-friendly-alternative-to-creationism-and-intelligent-design/

    Ultimately, I think that we should strive for more people who identify as highly religious to still acknowledge that science is factual and should not be undermined like concepts like creationism. I think that many of them do want to be on the side of science, but from the outside it seems like they should naturally be on the side of religion, and so just join them for lack of a better connection to the science side. I think if we stress that there are ways for them to retain their beliefs, they would be more receptive, because in the end the more who are on our side, make it easier to reach out to the rest.

    I think it’s in our best interests to have more people who see themselves as religious first on the side of science, just like it’s in their best interests as well.

  16. 16
    Marcus Ranum

    Old earth ‘divine guidance’ type creationist beliefs are not in conflict with science

    Sure they are. They’re unsubstantiated theories that don’t adequately address contradictions with observation. There is, for example, no observation of the “soul” or any evolutionary ensoulment theory. It is thus unsupported and therefore it’s a theory that should be discarded. That’s ‘conflict’ enough.

  17. 17
    Marcus Ranum

    not the same as being in conflict

    Please tell us what a “soul” is made of. And if your answer is that it’s unknown, then why do you think it’s there at all?

    The modern woo-woo religion-as-sort-of-a-nebulous-feeling can keep from coming into conflict with science only if it makes no claims about objective reality at all. In which case, what does the beliver have upon which to base their beliefs?

  18. 18

    I think there’s no magic bullet approach to getting religious people to listen to and deal with science in a more honest, factual and straightforward manner. Different approaches will work for different people and different situations.

    Another issue that pops up in things like this is not correctly identifying all aspects of a religion while talking about it. Religion is philosophy plus authoritarianism plus fables plus in-group/out-group dynamics. When people say it doesn’t conflict with science, what they’re really saying is they’d like to emphasize the philosophy parts and minimalize the rest. I have no particular problem with this personally as long as the philosophy isn’t needlessly antaagonistic.

    I’m still figuring out the best approach for me to take when talking to people about this. I don’t run into overly religious people very often so generally I just try to expose as much of my thoughts on religion as other people do on theirs. Realistically people who come on strong on this topic to strangers are not concerned about respecting you, they just want to steamroller you with whatever drivel they’re spewing. And friends can be taught to respect differences. If they can’t respect you then they’re not your friend (and vice versa).

  19. 19

    Since when did science become the debunker for religion? As far as I know science is the art of knowledge, not some atheistic arsenal against religious people. Hell, as far as I know most famed and highly-regarded men who contributed to science at the very least believed in a deity, while skeptics such as Sagan actually thought science can be compatible with religion.

  20. 20
    Mano Singham

    Science is not a debunker of religion. Science is just science. But debunkers of religion (just like supporters) use whatever tools that work for them and that includes logic, reason, philosophy, science, mathematics, and so on. Some scientists think that science and religion are compatible, others don’t.

    As for Sagan, he lived in a different time when being strongly critical of religion was not something that establishment scientists did. It is not clear what exactly his views were but he could be quite brutal about religion, as in this passage from Broca’s Brain (1974, p. 284) where he writes:

    “The fact that religions can be so shamelessly dishonest, so contemptuous of the intelligence of their adherents, and still flourish does not speak very well for the tough-mindedness of the believers. But it does indicate, if a demonstration were needed, that near the core of the religious experience is something remarkably resistant to rational inquiry.”

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