Is religion good for anything?

As science has advanced, religious believers have been increasingly threatened by the fact that religion may become irrelevant in the sense that god is not actually required for anything, other than to provide comfort to those people who fear death and feel the need to believe in some powerful deity. The response has been to assert that religion and science do not conflict because they provide answers to different kinds of questions. In effect, they are said to occupy different niches in knowledge space. Over time, a cottage industry has grown up devoted to finding different ways to state this single idea. So now we have statements such as that science addresses ‘how’ questions while religion addresses ‘why’ questions or that science deals with questions that have a material basis while religion deals with non-material moral and ethical questions, questions of meaning, etc.

In a recent online debate one saw other variants of this with Lord Jonathan Sacks, the Chief Rabbi of England, being quoted as saying that “Science takes things apart to see how they work. Religion puts things together to see what they mean.”

This sound good (at least to the accomodationists who want to think that science and religion are compatible) until you stop and think for a moment and realize that it has no content. After all, anybody can ascribe meaning on anything. What makes religious people think that the meaning they bestow on things should be taken any more seriously than any other claim to meaning?

Religions have for a long time got used to making assertions about morality and meaning in the name of god or their holy books and having people accept it as having authority. Religious people tend to think that anything that science cannot give a glib answer to is something for which we should accept religion’s glib answers. As the Jesus and Mo cartoon strip astutely points out, what gives religion its edge over science in the popular mind is that is that it has been allowed to make stuff up.

For a long time this practice went largely unchallenged except in a few intellectual circles, but the new/unapologetic atheists have refused to abide by this polite fiction that religion provides specific insights and answers to deep questions that are inaccessible to other forms of inquiry. They have posed the question of why should we take seriously religion’s answers to the ‘why’ or moral or ethical or meaning questions. They refuse to grant religion a privileged role in addressing any question and because they have taken their challenge out of purely academic and intellectual circles and into the popular public sphere they have caused turmoil. Religious leaders are unsettled by having their authority challenged and being asked to provide reasons as to why their assertions should be taken any more seriously than the ranting of any random person in the street who claims to hear divine voices in his or her head.

What should not be allowed is for apologists to postulate unchallenged that religion is the place that one should go to as the source of meaning and morality, and they should be asked to justify why the answers to such questions could not just as well have come from some non-religious source such as the study of psychology or the social sciences or cognitive science or neurology or evolution

Another claim of religion is that it is the source of wisdom. Sacks says, “There is more to wisdom than science. It cannot tell us why we are here or how we should live.” Mary Midgley, a frequent writer on religion, says that ‘real wisdom’ can be found in the Bible. But what exactly is this wisdom of which they speak? When pressed, the answer that is provided is usually some variant of what is known as the Golden Rule, that one should treat others the way that one would wish to be treated. But this precept transcends any particular religion and is something whose value and utility also arises quite naturally out of evolutionary thinking, so claiming that it is an insight arising purely from religion cannot be justified.

It is not that wisdom cannot be found in the Bible (or the Koran or the Bhagavad Gita). Of course it can. Real wisdom can also be found in complex works of literature, including Shakespeare and Tolstoy and Tagore and Gabriel Garcia Marquez. People from all walks of life who have thought long and hard about the nature of the human condition are bound to come up with insights that are meaningful even if not always original.

Religious apologists should be asked what is it that lifts religious insights above those emerging from any other deep thinker. The answer is, of course, nothing. And there is certainly nothing to suggest the usually banal insights that it does come up with originate from the kind of entity that most people identify as god.

POST SCRIPT: Religion! What is it good for?

Replace ‘war’ with ‘religion’ in this Edwin Starr classic and the song still makes sense.


  1. says

    “What should not be allowed is for apologists to postulate unchallenged that religion is the place that one should go to as the source of meaning and morality, and they should be asked to justify why the answers to such questions could not just as well have come from some non-religious source such as the study of psychology or the social sciences or cognitive science or neurology or evolution.”

    Surely you are not suggesting that meaning and morality can be derived from science? Science (and even the pseudo-sciences) can say a lot about cause and effect. For example, WHAT will happen if you murder someone, but they cannot pretend to answer WHY you should not murder someone (other than that you might not like the consequences). To get a “moral” reason for acting you must find a source outside the system of cause and effect.

    Possibly there’s no such thing as principled morality (Sartre spent about 30 years trying to find it). But maybe there is that “something more” which could give a reason from the outside.

  2. says

    Shalom Ken,

    I think that is precisely what Mano is suggesting. Not only is there no evidence of an “outside,” there is no vacuum in our understanding of our Universe that requires an “outside.”

    If you and I view a Monet painting and write down our responses to the question “What does it mean?” we will most likely arrive at different answers because all questions of meaning (beyond a very narrow set that includes examples such as “what does seven mean?”) are subjective. When we ask “What does it mean?” we are saying “I am emotionally puzzled by this and wish someone to explain it in a way that is acceptable to me.”

    Literature (and I include all religious writings attributed to deities in that category) serves as a vehicle for humans to explore possible answers to the above question. Throughout history people have wrestled with basic questions of fairness and tragedy: why did my child die? why did the plague wipe out my village and not the village across the river? why were our warriors defeated by the invaders? Early literature created pantheons of demons and deities as vehicles for tragedy and jurists of fairness. “My child died because I failed to put out the bowl of milk for the fairies.” “The plague wiped out our village because we offered a less-than-perfect calf in our offering, while the other villagers selected the very finest calf.” “Our deity was tricked by the invaders’ deity and thus was not present when we were attacked.” Possibly one of the greatest blows to religion came with the creation of the first microscopes and the establishment of germ theory. How much sense does it make to offer grilled kidneys to your gods or pray for healing when washing with soap and water is more effective?

    Science, the process of inquiry, experiment and assessment we use to understand our Universe, is easily accepted in the above case because we have done the testing. If you cut your finger, you don’t recite prescribed words and light a candle; you wash it thoroughly, apply a little anti-bacterial cream and cover it with a bandage. The testing of our emotional response to events in our Universe, however, is more difficult because it involves a greater number of variables which are harder to understand. How I will react to an event is not the same as the way you will react to an event. Yesterday, our nation, observed the 9th anniversary of the 11 September attacks. There was no one response to that event and so there can be no one response to the question: “What did the attacks mean?” Did their god trick our god into taking a day off? Did our god willfully allow the attack because we have not purged homosexuals from our society? Did our god really want Al Gore to be president? Or were geo-political factors at work?

    Literature allows people to explore human responses to life questions and responses suggested by the author’s observations. One of the reasons that certain texts – the works of Shakespeare and Dickens, the Hebrew and Christian bibles, the films of Akira Kurosawa, the Qur’an, and on and on – survive is that people discover explanations for human behavior in those works that they find acceptable for responding to their personal questions of meaning.

    Science is central to how literature accomplishes what it does. Writers observes their world and the players in it and form hypotheses on why people do what they do. Through a loop of observation and testing, writers create fictionalized worlds in which protagonists face and deal with adversity; they assign meaning, as they perceive it, to the actions of their characters. If those actions somehow make sense to an editor and ultimately readers, then the writer’s work is judged worthy. If not, it hits the circular file.

    That is science, not religion.


    Jeff Hess

  3. says

    Just to be clear, Jeff, I agree that there is no vacuum in scientific theory that requires the intervention of religion. Science is a self-contained theory, and it has long been clear to me (and lots of people I assume) that religion makes a fundamental mistake in tryin gto interject itself into the scientific framework and to try to answer scientific questions with religious answers. The writing has been on the wall on that for quite some time, and the only question was when, or if, science would find its limits.

    I’m not sure the latest theories answer more questions than they leave, but perhaps that is simply because I haven’t dedicated myself to its study for a while. I’ll assume that Mano, who surely knows what he’s talking about, is right that gravity’s creation of everything out of nothing tells us something. And any implied skepticism you hear is simply because it seems counterintuitive to me.

    My point is simply the old cliche: the map is not the territory. Because of the incompleteness theorem, we know that science is either not complete or it is not consistent. My argument has been that this very fundamental limitation of thought leaves room for things outside of thought. Religion might be a handy way of describing them. And a lot of people have seemed to think it was.

  4. says

    Shalom Ken,

    First, Science is not a theory and there is nothing called scientific theory. Science is a rational methodology for understanding how the Universe works through inquiry that involves the assertion of a hypothesis, an educated guess by the observer as to how the observed works; testing of the hypothesis through reproducible experiments and modification of the hypothesis based upon those experiments until enough testing and modification has been done, to the limit that further testing is possible, the hypothesis is given higher status as a theory and accepted as our best understanding of that being studied.

    Contrary to popular use in non-scientific circles, there is no such thing as just a theory. Once an understanding is given status as a theory, major new information is needed to remove that status.

    I fail to see how Gödel’s incompleteness theorems which deal with mathematics and number theory are applicable to this question. They certainly don’t demonstrate that Science, or our scientific understanding of the Universe, is not complete or inconsistent. Our understanding is incomplete, not because of Gödel’s work, but rather because we’ve only been at it for a few centuries. Getting beyond “42” takes time. Could you elaborate please.

    I also am unable to comprehend what you mean by things outside of thought. Would you clarity that please?



  5. Steve LaBonne says

    Ken, please read Prof. Singham’s new Sept. 13 post, in which he aptly characterizes the kind of fudge which you’re purveying here. You might find it a useful clarifying exercise to try to answer the questions which he poses there.

  6. says

    Jeff, thanks for your comment. Yes, I made a typo in referring to science as a theory. Of course it is a “method.” And I did not intend to adopt the religious/reactionary ploy of saying that since they’re all (just) theories, we should be able to pick and choose.

    But that said, I find the discussion here dishearteningly like what you might find out of religionists. It appears to be more about winning debates or establishing which of two fundamentally different ways of looking at the world is right. I believe this is a mistake.

    Godel’s theorem was directed primarily at Bertrand Russell and Albert North Whitehead’s Principia Mathematica, which purported to establish a system that included a consistent theory of all mathematical systems. What Godel proved was that not only were the mathematical systems incomplete, but they were also shot-through with inconsistencies. It is a very short step (which has most definitely been made) from that to the more encompassing fact that “truth” is a broader concept than provability. Or to put it more plainly, that there are truths which cannot be proven. For an excellent discussion, complete with references, I refer you to the first two chapters of Godel, Escher Bach, by Douglas Hofstadter. In other words, what Godel proved is that the reason we don’t know everything is not that we haven’t been at it long enough…it is that we cannot know everything.

    I believe the discussion here for the most part wishes away that limitation and adopts a more faith-like approach.

    I would also argue that it is not weird or inconsistent, or any other form of intellectually dishonest, to believe that a force unknowable in one realm could reach in and “act” within a system. In a sense, that is exactly what an unprovable truth is all about. That’s another point Hofstadter makes persuasively in my opinion, in his analysis of set theory (among other things). There are rules, and “metarules” and metameta rules (etc.), the nature of which is to reach down and govern things which do not include them (because many sets do not include the rules defining those sets--and trying to include them immediately introduces a strange loop leading to paradox). My disagreement here is with Mano, who seeks to limit any actor in the material world (a sort of set) to the rules governing the material world. I’m not convinced, and to go a step further (with all due respect--which is a lot) I believe this failure to grapple with the limits of science is precisely the murky sort of thought the good professor warns against.

    Steve, I note, but choose not to respond to your comment in its current state. If you yourself can add any clarity or rigor to the conversation I’d be happy to hear it.


  7. Steve LaBonne says

    Steve, I note, but choose not to respond to your comment in its current state. If you yourself can add any clarity or rigor to the conversation I’d be happy to hear it.

    I once again direct you to Mano’s latest post. Nothing could be clearer than that invitation.

    Clarity and rigor are what are being asked of YOU. (Confusing science with an axiomatic system is not a promising start, by the way.) Go there and see if you can meet that demand. The questions he asks in that post are the questions that you need to ask and answer about your postulated “outside”, on pain of incoherence.

  8. says

    Steve--awaiting substance. My point has been that clarity and rigor are lacking in the discussion. I have tried to show where and how. In detail. Perhaps you can distinguish axiomatic systems from “science!” in a way that shows why the theory of incompleteness and the theories and proofs that have come from it do not apply to science. I challenge you to do so, and I predict that you will fail-utterly. But why not give it a shot? Run it up the flag pole and see if anyone salutes. I certainly will if you can pull it off.

  9. Steve LaBonne says

    Ken, nice try, but it won’t work. I pointed you directly to the relevant substance, and like Brave Sir Robin you chose to run away.

    Science, very much unlike mathematics, is not a formal propositional system in which new truths are arrived at by deduction. Godel’s theorem is thus completely irrelevant to scientific knowledge. (Outside of theoretical physics the relevant kind of formalization is not even conceivable.) If you don’t understand even that much, your taking of Godel’s name in vain is clearly just a smokescreen for your lack of substance. (The fact that you have plenty of company in making this vulgar error is no excuse.)

    Your “something outside” is either not really outside at all- in which case it is subject to demands to produce empirical evidence that it actually exists- or else it is a mere figment with no power to produce real effects. If you think you have an escape from this dilemma, show your work. It is not my business to do your job for you.

  10. says

    “I am a theoretical physicist” --says our host, Steve. So I’ll just note that you excluded the very topic of our discussion when you said, “outside of theoretical physics…” But not to take the cheap way out, surely you realize that in discussing a hypothetical universe where nothing exists, which is energy net zero, but then with a big bang produces lots of different kinds of matter, anti-matter etc. we are dealing with something other than observable, isolatable, reproducible phenomena. We are, in fact, dealing very largely with mathematical abstractions. Scientists are taking a body of knowledge and attempting to generalize and extend that knowledge using “rules” they hope will give their theories integrity. No one will be able to test the theory that gravity could cause nothingness to explode into everythingness. Even if we were not dealing with almost exclusively mathematical abstractions and proofs, the fact that the language of theoretical physics is very largely mathematics (a closed, axiomatic system) imposes its own limitations, and to the extent we are not, we’re dealing with language (words) itself, another system which derives its meaning from a largely metaphorical relationship to the actual world.

    I reiterate my challenge: if you can point to a specific flaw in my reasoning or knowledge, I invite you to do it. Suggesting in a fuzzy, general way, that another post applies to some part of what I said is, as I pointed out before, without substance.

    I plan to take Mano’s post head-on when I get the chance. I’d invite you to take the same approach.

  11. Steve LaBonne says

    So I’ll just note that you excluded the very topic of our discussion when you said, “outside of theoretical physics…

    Again trying to pull a fast one, eh Ken? I intimated that a mathematically formalized “theory of everything” potentially aspiring to be both complete and consistent is (just barely) conceivable ONLY in theoretical physics, not that it’s a sensible or meaningful goal even there (few physicists nowadays would maintain otherwise). Again, Godel’s theorem has nothing whatever to do with science. The fact that mathematical language is sometimes employed in science does not change this one iota- it is not employed in any way that would make incompleteness relevant, since science is not a formal system and also employs natural language.
    (Doing science in French does not make the resulting knowledge somehow French-like, and no more does employing mathematics in science make scientific knowledge akin to mathematical theorems.) That’s your first error of reasoning, and it’s already a doozy.

    Your second and even more serious error of reasoning is clearly stated in the last paragraph of my previous comment, yet for the third time you have avoided addressing it. One might be forgiven for thinking that’s because you can’t.

  12. says

    We have here a very heavy discussion but this is not what I would like to comment. Hope you don’t mind. I would like to refer directly to the title question saying that in my opinion the question if religion is good for anything should be first of all replied by those who believe in God and religion. I’m an atheist but nevertheless I can see that for lots of people a life without faith and religion is almost impossible. And I doubt that this phenomena can be explained with any scientific and logical terms. I don’t know if religion is good for anything but I do know that it is the center of existence of many.

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