On quoting scientists-5: Religious scientists’ beliefs about god

(My latest book God vs. Darwin: The War Between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom has just been released and is now available through the usual outlets. You can order it from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, the publishers Rowman & Littlefield, and also through your local bookstores. For more on the book, see here.)

When scientists who are also religious believers are quoted as to why they believe in god, their reasons almost always fall into one of two classes. (I am excluding those who believe in the literal truth of their religious texts and, in my opinion, have effectively rejected science altogether.)

One is the ever-popular Argument from Personal Incredulity. This goes as follows:

1. There is no positive evidence for god.
2. But X (insert your preferred natural phenomenon here) is amazing.
3. I don’t understand how X could have come about by natural processes.
4. Hence god must have done it.
5. Hence god exists.

The other is a self-serving circular argument that is driven by emotional needs:

1. There is no positive evidence for god.
2. But I want/need to believe in god.
3. Hence god must be acting in ways that preclude leaving any evidence.
4. Hence the absence of credible evidence for god is evidence for my belief that god chooses to act in ways that do not leave any evidence.
5. Hence god exists.

New atheists suggest that the following reasoning is simpler and makes more sense:

1. There is no positive evidence for god.
2. Hence there is no reason to believe in god.

It is in essence the advice that Bertrand Russell gave in his book Skeptical Essays, vol. I (1928):

I wish to propose for the reader’s favourable consideration a doctrine which may, I fear, appear wildly paradoxical and subversive. The doctrine in question is this: that it is undesirable to believe a proposition when there is no ground whatever for supposing it is true. I must, of course, admit that if such an opinion become common it would completely transform our social life and our political system; since both are at present faultless, this must weigh against it.

I must say that I find that I find the willingness of those few scientists to express belief in anything more than a Slacker God somewhat surprising because it so fundamentally contradicts the basic assumptions under which science operates. The population geneticist J.B.S. Haldane (1892-1964), who did so much to advance the theory of evolution by natural selection by placing it on a firm mathematical footing, explained that he was an atheist simply as a result of his desire for consistency:

My practice as a scientist is atheistic. That is to say, when I set up an experiment I assume that no god, angel or devil is going to interfere with its course; and this assumption has been justified by such success as I have achieved in my professional career. I should therefore be intellectually dishonest if I were not also atheistic in the affairs of the world.

But this kind of desire to have a unified and consistent worldview is surprisingly rare. What religious scientists do is tacitly compartmentalize their thinking into two worlds: their scientific world where god does not act, and their religious world where god lives and acts. The word ‘tacitly’ is important. As long as you do not specify how this two-world system actually operates, you can ignore the huge contradictions that exist.

What I would like to ask the scientists who believe in god is the following question: Are you an atheist when you do scientific experiments, not allowing the hypothesis of god’s action entering at all? If so, why do you have one set of beliefs when doing science and another set for all the other areas of your life?

The only way to make sense of this double standard is to assume that god thinks as follows:

If I feel like it, I may once in a while cure a sick person, while most of the time letting them die, sometimes cruel and horrible deaths. Once in a while I may avert a hurricane or tsunami from a populated area though most of the time I will let it destroy thousands of homes and people. I may save a few people in a plane crash just for the hell of it while killing off the rest. I may allow one baby to live and be rescued days after an earthquake that killed of its entire family and town, because I know my followers get a kick out of things like that and will rejoice in the ‘miracle’. I will let an insane killer mow down many people in a crowded building just so that those whom he misses think that I picked them out to save. I will allow child rapist-murderers to get away with these and other horrendous crimes. I will create diseases that kill millions of people.

But I will never, ever, interfere with a scientist’s experiments and mess up their search for scientific laws.

Because that would be wrong.

A physicist colleague of mine, a well-regarded scientist, is also an observant Jew. I once asked him how he reconciled his scientific work, which excludes supernatural intervention and explanations, with his belief in the Bible with all its stories of god messing around with the laws of the universe. He suggested that he thought that god used to do miracles and then decided around 2,000 years ago to not do any more.

“Why?” I asked.
“He must be having his reasons” he replied.

By invoking that ad hoc strategem, he was able to believe in the truth of the Bible and also avoid having to deal with the god hypothesis in his research. I think all religious scientists in the end adopt similar self-serving views. They just compartmentalize things differently and idiosyncratically depending on their personal beliefs and needs and preferences.

This is why I think Oxford University scientist Peter Atkins was exactly right when he said: “You clearly can be a scientist and have religious beliefs. But I don’t think you can be a real scientist in the deepest sense of the word because they are such alien categories of knowledge.”

POST SCRIPT: Interview

I was interviewed recently about an article that I had published called Death to the Syllabus! where I argued that our classrooms and syllabi had become too authoritarian and controlling, and that we needed to try and create a more collegial atmosphere in out classes if we were to achieve true learning. You can find the 25-minute podcast of the interview here.


  1. Corbin says

    Hi Mano,

    This has been an interesting series. Since you ask for a direct
    response from “religious scientists” let me make some points:

    First, I agree with you entirely that the “Argument from Personal
    Incredulity” is not very persuasive, personally. It’s like that
    “what’s in the cube” argument that was in that video you showed
    before. Science’s inability to explain something does not by itself
    constitute evidence to support other specific claims.

    However, the second argument — what you call a “self-serving circular
    argument” driven by “emotional needs” — is, I think, as you pose it
    not fairly stated. What you have written strikes me as a twisted
    caricature of what I would consider much better arguments of these
    sort that I have heard. In my view the “twist” seems to come from
    your underlying assumption that existence of god is really the central
    question and so must be the final concluding line for a religious
    argument. Under such an assumption, the religious scientist needs to
    find some sort of weird logic to support a need to “believe that god
    really exists”.

    However, in my experience the existence of god — and/or evidence to
    support god existence claims one way or the other — are not always
    particularly important aspects of religious life, especially for many
    religious liberals, including some religious scientists.

    I think I can make a much better `emotional argument’ for religion in
    the following extremely simple form:

    1. I chose to practice religion because I find this practice to be
    emotionally valuable.

    Full stop.

    Okay, so perhaps some would replace the word “emotionally” with
    “personally”, or “spiritually”, or “socially” or “culturally” or some
    other word but these would be just nuances on the basic idea that the
    main justification for being religious for many people is simply that
    it makes us happy.

    From my point of view, the fact that this is admitted a “self-serving
    emotional argument” is not a fatal flaw. Replace the words “practice
    religion” with “study poetry” or “get married” or “adopt a pet”. All
    of these activities are “emotionally self-serving”. None of these
    activities cannot be justified on `rational’ grounds. None of these
    activities really depends on the practitioner actively making some kind
    of existence argument. We do not need know whether or not some poet
    really existed or not to enjoy a particular set of poetry. We do not
    need to know the properties of the poet or even what the poet
    “actually intended”. The value comes from the personal emotional
    interaction of the reader and the poem. In the same way, we do not
    need to find evidence of the existence of any particular god or to
    defend some particular set of properties for god to enjoy the benefits
    of a particular religious practice.

    I think this applies to the “compartmentalization” issue for
    scientists as well. This word implies that the only way a scientist
    can be religious is if there is some kind of logical firewall between
    the scientist’s work and his or her religious life, and that without
    such a firewall, the logical contradictions between the two
    world-views might result in some kind of paralyzing mental dissonance.

    But I would say that for liberal religious scientists, it’s no more
    difficult to “compartmentalize” our scientific work from our religious
    lives than it is to separate science from all kinds other aspects of
    our emotional world. For example, if a scientist is an avid jazz
    enthusiast, does she need to “compartmentalize” her love for jazz from
    her work in the lab? Well, the answer is yes, right? But only
    because her love of jazz has no bearing or relevance to her scientific
    work and vice versa, not because a “belief in jazz” would be
    intrinsically logically alien to or inconsistent with working as an
    objective scientist. Scientists are generally successful at
    “compartmentalizing” all kinds of artistic, emotional, and social
    worlds from their scientific work. Why should it be any different for
    religion? You don’t ask how we can be scientists by day and yet enjoy
    the symphony by night, right? You would not argue that loving art or
    raising a family or being politically active are things that would or
    should disqualify you from being a “real scientist”, right?

    So I think that this kind of “emotional argument” — that one can
    simply justify practising religion on the grounds that it makes one
    happy — is by itself rather defensible and does not automatically
    result in a world-view that is fundamentally inconsistent with a being
    a scientist. Such an argument requires no specific claims about any
    particular qualities of god, including existence. It’s completely
    consistent with the “Atheist’s Creed” you posted a week or so ago
    which argued for a system of ethics where people should be allowed to
    do what makes them happy.

  2. says


    If the existence of god is immaterial for you, then you would seem to be in the ‘religious atheist’ category.

    In that case religion has aesthetic or emotional value, just like poetry or jazz and there is no fundamental conflict with science and no reason for compartmentalization. And you are right that it does not need a defense, any more than liking Mozart requires a defense.

    It is only when you postulate the existence of a supernatural entity that problems with science arises. If you don’t, then there is no problem.

  3. Anonymous says

    The name God, whether you believe in anything or not, is a proper name. The correct English grammer is to capitalize God, just as you would Micky Mouse or any other real or imaginary name. You know this, so I’m not sure why you don’t capitalize the name. If you are trying to make some ‘between the lines’ point by not capitalizing it, it seems a little juvenile.

    Just an FYI… I guess we are all entitled and so on.

  4. Corbin says

    Hi Mano,

    I missed your earlier posts on this — thanks for the references. I
    was more or less “offline” for August and September. Particularly
    interesting to me was your earlier post regarding the discussion of
    Karen Armstrong and Richard Dawkins which you entitled: “Atheism has
    Won the Debate”:

    I am somewhat inclined to reject your label of “religious atheist” as
    perhaps too oxymoronic — kind of like “jumbo shrimp” — but also on
    the grounds that “atheist” has a implied meaning of “anti-religious”
    or “anti-God” which would not at all be my position. I have no
    problem with the idea of God, quite the opposite, I find it quite
    valuable. Rather I would just agree with the contention that that
    arguments put forth for the existence of God are extremely
    uncompelling, and that such arguments are not required to enjoy the
    personal benefits of certain kinds of religious practices.
    I especially liked your extracted quote of Armstrong’s where she
    describes religion as more akin to poetry or painting than science.
    This is quite akin to the point I was making. I’ve read some of Karen
    Armstrong’s work and personally I find it really quite compelling.

    As for Dawkin’s criticism of Armstrong that her view and the view of
    intellectuals like her puts them paddling into a “lonely creek,” well
    some of us are quite happy to paddle those waters. Likewise you write
    that religious liberal intellectuals like Armstrong have been pushed
    off into a “small corner of the religious world that is cut off from
    that of the vast majority of religious believers.” I think your
    metaphor is rather overstated, but even so, how does the fact that
    religious liberals currently represent a minority, no matter how
    small, weaken the validity of our point of view? Since when does
    being in a minority have anything to do with the logical consistency
    or practical value of a viewpoint?

    Likewise, I do not remember attending a meeting of religious believers
    where a vote was taken and the majority got to decide who was really
    religious and who was not. If both the new atheists and the old
    fundamentalists want to accuse religious liberals of being
    intellectually dishonest because we are “really being atheists” having
    walked away from the battle over the existence of God, I guess this is
    a criticism we will somehow manage to endure. Happily, having such
    labels applied doesn’t have any practical impact on who we are and
    what we do. They don’t prevent us from enjoying all of the benefits
    of fully practicing our religion — and meanwhile in way that
    logically self-consistent with a scientific world-view, as you
    indicate above.

    One last aside: I belong to a rather culturally and theologically
    diverse religious community, and I expect you would find a very wide
    range of opinions and viewpoints on this topic of “What can we say
    about God’s existence?” However, this fact, for me, does not in any
    way diminish the value of participating in the community. Indeed my
    participation in the social and worship life of this religious
    community represents and enduring and rewarding component of my life
    as it has for many years. My family and I enjoy all kinds of lasting
    personal and practical benefits — some more tangible than others —
    as a result of fully participating in the life of this community. As
    far as I can tell, precisely none of these benefits depend on some
    specific argument or idea that I might have on the topic of the
    existence of God. And it would also be easy to argue that the
    activities of this community, generally speaking, have a demonstrable
    positive impact on both the membership and also on others, both
    locally and globally. We celebrate our diversity, support each other,
    comfort those who are hurting, feed the hungry, aid the poor, and
    strive for social justice at many levels. In my view, these are good
    things that we do. This is my experience.

  5. says


    I was not implying that being a minority viewpoint meant that you were wrong. (Atheists are the last people who should argue that way!)

    I was simply saying that some people stretch the meaning of the word religion so far from its roots that most traditional religious people would not recognize them as such.

    I think it great that people get together to do good works and for a sense of community. I think I don’t understand why they want to be identified under the religion umbrella when belief in a god seems to be so unnecessary to them.

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