Posts Tagged Relationship between religion and science

Science and the folly of faith Ken Perrott Apr 04

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Book Review: God and the Folly of Faith: The Incompatibility of Science and Religion by Victor Stenger.

Price: US13.46; NZ$22.60
Paperback: 408 pages
Publisher: Prometheus Books; Original edition (April 24, 2012)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 1616145994
ISBN-13: 978-1616145996

Victor Stenger wrote recently: “A majority of scientists at all levels do not believe in any god. Yet most are unwilling to challenge the religious beliefs of others.” That’s also my impression. The situation reminds me of our Prime Minister John Key’s reactions to many apparently important questions – “I’m relaxed about that”; “I’m comfortable with the situation” – even when we all know he should be taking problems more seriously.

Apathy of scientists

There really does seem to be a bit of confabulation going on here. Stenger describes what he calls The party line among scientists- believers and non-believers alike -:”

“science and religion are what Stephen Jay Gould called “non-overlapping magisteria”. In 1998 the US National Academy of Sciences issued a statement asserting “Science can say nothing about the supernatural. Whether God exists or not is a question about which science is neutral.”Yet according to a survey the same year, 93 per cent of the members of the academy do not believe in a personal god.”

As if this apathy were not bad enough it is accompanied by religious interest in co-opting science.  Dan Barker, in his Forward to this book, describes the situation as “theistic mosquitoes buzzing around pretending to understand the science (and only managing to misrepresent it).” A personal experience recently bought this home to me. I did an internet search attempting to locate a specific quote of Galileo’s referring to the importance of deriving scientific ideas from the real world. Almost all the links returned were from theological writings, websites or blogs. I also notice that many theologians and philosophers of religion actively write and comment of scientific philosophy and history.

Of course it’s good the theologically inclined take an interest in important fields outside their own. Even comment on them. But the inevitable ideological bias in such writings produces  many anti-science ideas and ideologically motivated interpretations of history and philosophy. The apathy of scientists towards these issues means such ideas are not often challenged and sometimes squirm their way into academic writings on science method, philosophy and history.

Stenger’s “God and the Folly of Faith” directly challenges many of those ideas. As Barker says Stenger “swats away the theistic mosquitoes”.  His “unflinching and uncompromising attitude” and his scientific and philosophical background makes him ideal for the job. And, as the many readers of a long series of books* on science and pseudo science know, Victor Stenger’s writing style means the issues are communicated clearly and understandably.

Conflict – myths and reality

I have often commented that the “warfare model” of science and religion is a myth. That science and religion are not always and everywhere inevitably in conflict. This is the model that some of the theologically inclined attribute to anyone who sees any conflict between science and region.

Such an extreme claim is obviously mythical – after all there are many scientists who are also religious. However, scientific and religious epistemology, “ways of knowing” are completely different. This leads to inevitable conflicts when the areas of interest of science and religion overlap. And they do – consider the debates over evolution, consciousness, life after death, and morality.

The warfare model is often blamed on two books written in the 19th century: John William Draper’s History of the Conflict Between Religion and Science and Andrew Dickson White’s History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom.  Stenger puts Whites book into context:

“His book was largely in reaction to attacks from the religious community for his refusal to impose religious tests on students and faculty” at Cornell University. “nevertheless, White’s efforts at Cornell helped lead to the conversion of the great private universities in America and Europe from the church-centered institutions they were originally to the secular ones they are today.”

 ”Modern historical scholars, some with ideological motives of their own” have been sharply critical of Draper’s and White’s books – but in the process have ignored, even covered up, the real ongoing conflict between science and religion.

Stenger is quite clear – this epistemological conflict does sometime lead to real conflict and difficulties in acceptance of science. For example:

“many religious people will say they believe in evolution, but evolution guided by God. Darwinian evolution by natural selection, as the overwhelming majority of biologists now view it, is unguided.”

To introduce divine guidance into evolutionary science is to throw away a central part of that science.

Faithful reason

This epistemological difference also shines through in the different approaches to reasoning. Stenger is adamant that:

“the conflict between science and religion should not be regarded as a conflict between reason and unreason” – as some people present it. “The distinction between theology and science is in the objects on which to apply reason. Nothing can be learned from reason alone. A logical argument contains no information not already embedded in its premises.Reason and logic must be supplement by additional hypotheses about the nature of reality and the sources of our knowledge about that reality. In the case of science. that source is solely observation. In the case of theology, that source is primarily faith, with some observation thrown in as long as it does not conflict with faith. Theology is faith-plus-reason, with some observation allowed. Science is observation-plus-reason, with no faith allowed.”

Faith-plus-reason quickly deteriorates to rationalisation supporting preconceived beliefs. There is no mechanism to keep one honest.

Chauvinistic history

Some of the theistically inclined have a habit of claiming their religion (or their god) is responsible for so may things. From the “big bang” to human ethics. From human reason to social laws. And – something that gets up my nose – for modern science. Inevitably this creates conflict.

An example are the snearing predictions of the content of “God and the Folly of Faith” made by critics at  The Quodlibeta Forum. These included the forum’s administrator James Hannam – Catholic apologist and author of God’s Philosophers and The Genesis of Science: How the Christian Middle Ages Launched the Scientific Revolution).  Their predictions were wrong – because they relied on their own mythology about science, the history of science and atheism. Their active promotion of the myth of the conflict myth. By this I mean the habit of some students of history to vilify anyone who disagrees with their ideology-based histories as promoters of the “conflict thesis” – the idea that science and religion are always and inevitably in conflict.

Of course the real world is not like that. Religion and science may be epistemologically exclusive but they are not always and inevitably in conflict. Nor is an author who writes about the history of science and religion guilty of promoting the “conflict thesis” because they are a scientist (rather than historian) or not a card-carrying religious apologist.

Stenger is actually relatively balanced in his treatment of the relationship between science and religion throughout history.Where Stenger and Hannan deal with similar issues their factual history is basically the same. Mind you,  interpretations of facts can differ – and ideology plays a role here. Hannam, for example, interprets the 1277 condemnations (a list of “errors,”  issued by Bishop Tempier of Paris, which would lead to excommunication for anyone teaching or listening to them) as a good thing: 

“placing limits around as subject is not the same as being against it.” The condemnations “protected natural philosophers from those who wanted to see their activities further curtailed . . philosophy was safe to develop in peace and without fear.” (from “God’s Philosophers”).

In contrast Stenger mentions that interpretation (a speculation of Pierre Duheim) but points out that in contrast  the historian David Lindberg described the condemnations as “a ringing declaration of the subordination of philosophy to theology.” (28 – p 75)

In fact , I think Stenger is so balanced that he has conceded too much in at least one case -  his treatment of the history of the Galileo affair. He says that “Galileo brought much of his trouble on himself:”

“Galileo used a foolish character, foolishly named Simplicio, to express some arguments that had been advanced by Pope Urban VIII, a long-time friend and supporter of Galileo. The pope must have said, ’We are not pleased.’”

“Although the Inquisition had worked out what we today call a ’plea agreement’ that would have left Galileo with little more than a slap on the wrist, the Pope intervened in his case, and in 1633 Galileo was tried by the Inquisition, found guilty, and sentenced to house arrest.

It’s true that much of Galileo’s behaviour must have been provocative, but any balanced consideration should also include the pressure on Pope Urban to make an example of Galileo – hence his intervention. These included personal opposition within the Vatican as well as the reformation and the religious wars.

As for the Simplico issue – this does not appear to have been an issue until after the trial. Historian Maurice Finnachiro (who specialises in the Galileo affair and the subsequent history of its reporting) writes in Retrying Galileo, 1633-1992:

” this accusation is not mentioned in any documents prior to December 1635; . . . Thus, it seems more accurate to regard the Simplicio-as-Urban allegation as a new slander against Galileo”

An eternal battle?

Reading the history of science one becomes aware of an ongoing battle between ideas driven by evidence and reason, and those driven by faith, even when reason is used. And if we look around today at the debates over consciousness, evolution, climate change, etc., we see that the battle continues. It didn’t stop with Galileo and the blossoming of the modern scientific revolution. The science-religion conflict is not just a matter of history.

On his final page Stenger concludes:

“Religious faith would not be such a negative force in society if it were just about religion. However, the magical thinking that becomes deeply ingrained whenever faith rules over facts warps all areas of life. It produces a frame of mind in which concepts are formulated with deep passion but without the slightest attention paid to the evidence that bears on the concept. Nowhere is this more evident than in America today, where the large majority of the public hold onto a whole set of beliefs despite a total lack of evidence to support these beliefs and, indeed, strong evidence that denies them.”

But what about the future? As he points out:

“Science is not going to change its commitment to the truth. We can only hope religion will change its commitment to nonsense.”

And Stenger makes an appeal to “scientists and all thinking people:”

“The eradication of foolish faith from the face of this planet.”

He doesn’t think this will be achieved “in the lifetime of the youngest amongst us.” But it is required for the survival of humanity.

Somewhat pessimistic!

Personally I think that a certain amount of wishful thinking, faith and irrationalism is probably inherent to being human. It is certainly expected from human diversity. Perhaps this issue is not the final eradication of “foolish faith” but its minimisation and/or neutralisation with its accommodation by the rest of humanity.


If these subjects interest you this book is a “must read.”

This is just the last of a series of Stenger’s books on science and its relationship with religion and pseudoscience.* For those interested in a scientific viewpoint on these subjects these books are a valuable resource. They deal with issues such as quantum theoiry and it misuse and cosmological issues like fine-tuning arguments, the “big bang” and the origin of the universe, the eternal universe and the multiverse. To some extent he briefly repeats some of the content of his previous books here – useful for those not wishing to read further. And  arguably this current book is his best yet. But, for more detail I also recommend his other books.

* Victor Stenger’s books on science, religion and pseudo-science

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The [in]compatibility of science and religion Ken Perrott Jan 19


There have been several books lately promoting the idea the religion and science are compatible – or at least challenging any suggestion that they might be incompatible. Of course, these were written by advocates of religion, or at least advocates of “belief in belief.”

While many of these books were critiqued in reviews there has been very little challenge presented in book length. So I was very pleased to see news that Victor Stenger has a new book, released in Apri,l called God and the Folly of Faith: The Incompatibility of Science and Religion.

John W. Loftus at debunking Christianity has read a pre-release copy and is very impressed (see  Stenger’s New Book: God and the Folly of Faith: The Incompatibility of Science and Religion). He calls it a tour de force.

Loftus says (in part):

“The reader is treated to the history of the conflict between science and religion where Stenger argues there is a fundamental conflict between the two. “Science” he writes, “has earned our trust by its proven success. Religion has destroyed our trust by its repeated failures. Using the empirical method, science has eliminated smallpox, flown men to the moon, and discovered DNA. If science did not work, we wouldn’t do it. Relying on faith, religion has brought us inquisitions, holy wars, and intolerance. Religion does not work, but we still do it.” (p. 15)”

I have often said that religion and science are not incompatible at the individual level. After all many scientists are also religious. But their basic approach to knowledge, their epistemologies, are incompatible. So I agree with this comment by Loftus:

“Believers generally do not trust science. Stenger’s book is the antidote. Believers will see just how science works and why it is to be trusted over anything religion has ever produced. “Science and religion are fundamentally incompatible,” Stenger argues, “because of their unequivocally opposed epistemologies–the separate assumptions they make concerning what we can know about the world.” (p. 16)”

Loftus thinks this is Stenger’s best book yet – because it is ” written for the average intelligent reader. There isn’t a lot of technical jargon in it.” He believes it will “appeal to a broad range of readers . . . because he’s hit the nail on the head, writing about the essential problem between scientifically minded people and believers.”

Another book to look forward to.

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Who drives the science/religion conflict? Ken Perrott Jan 12

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A recent poll of 1,000 American Protestant pastors is perhaps not surprising, given the well know opposition to evolutionary science amongst the US public. (see Poll: Pastors oppose evolution, split on earth’s age). As the figure below shows over 80% of these pastors believe Adam and Eve were literal people and over 70% oppose evolutionary science. And about half believe the earth is about 6,000 years old!

I think this does identify a problem in the science – religion relationship. There are currently strong attempts to deny any conflict between science and religion. Those making this assertion will insist that opposition to evolutionary science and similar attitudes is restricted to fundamentalists. That most Christians have a more sophisticated attitude to their religion.

But surely this poll indicates that this opposition is actually widespread amongst Christian leaders. The pastors who in many ways do provide an alternative education and ideology to their flock. It indicates that not only are anti-science attitudes common amongst protestants, that actually are very strong amongst protestant leaders and are inevitably taught or communicated to lay church members.

Personally, I don’t think the religion/science conflict is inevitable (except at the epistemological level). But there is no doubt that it exists, especially in the US. And that it is being fed by these dogmatic attitudes of religious leaders.

I suspect that we have a similar situation here – just nowhere as big. In a post over three years ago (see New Zealand supports evolution) I suggested that the 20% of New Zealander opposing evolutionary science mean that about 40% of New Zealand’s Christians oppose evolutionary science.

There are stories of scientifically inclined Christians who feel unable to mention their support for evolution amongst their church community. But perhaps a high proportion of New Zealand’s pastors, or ministers of religion, are happy to promote that attitude.

Maybe they even actively teach (or preach) an anti-science message?

Science and the ’supernatural’ Ken Perrott Sep 19

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I have discussed the issue of “supernaturalism” and science before but return to it having just read  Can Science Test Supernatural Worldviews?  by Dr  Yonatan I. Fishman. It’s an excellent paper which I recommend you read as it may challenge some of your ideas. You can download the full text here.

The non-overlapping magisteria argument

Dr Fishman takes issue with the idea that science can say nothing about the “supernatural,” or be used to evaluate “supernatural” claims. This argument has often been used by opponents of science, eg. the theologically motivated  who argue that science is too restrictive, that it should be “opened up” to “supernatural” explanations.

But it has also been used by those defending science from such religious intrusions. As Fishman says this position argues:

 ”that science, by definition, is limited to studying phenomena of the natural world and hence can neither confirm nor deny supernatural claims. Thus, science is necessarily mute on the question of whether or not supernatural phenomena exist. Consequently, to the extent that religion involves supernatural entities or phenomena, there can be no conflict between scientific claims and religious claims.”

On the one hand opponents argue this is a limitation that should be removed from science. On the other hand defenders of science concede the limitation and argue that this enables science and religion to coexist harmoniously – provided they keep to their own “magisteria.” They put a lot of weight on their claim that science only deals with the “natural” world.

The latter approach was implicit in Stephen J. Gould‘s description of Non-Overlapping Magisteria (NOMA) in his book Rocks of Ages: Science and Religion in the Fullness of Life (see Overlapping Magisteria?). An approach supported by many, but not all by any means,  scientists, philosophers of science , religious philosophers and theologians. For example Fishman refers to statements of position by two prominent US scientific institutions, the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and the National Academy of Sciences (NAS). And the arguments against intelligent design (ID) presented by supporters of science, like philosopher Barbara Forrest, at the Kitzmiller vs Dover trial. This approach was incorporated into the judgement from this trial which is often quoted by supporters of science.

But the same argument (the inability of science to accommodate the supernatural) is used by opponents of science to discredit scientific ideas and campaign for reincorporation of theological ideas into science. This is a common argument of supporters of ID (see the Wedge document or Intelligent design/creationism III: The religious agenda for a clear example), conservative Christians and many theologians/philosophers of religion.

The latter groups will often use “arguments from authority”, quoting cherry-picked “secular” or “naturalist” philosophers of science  to support their attacks on science and its findings. I believe this makes the use of this “limits of science” argument by supporters of science doubly faulty because it feeds the opponents of science.

The scientific method

Fishman rejects the thesis that science is unable to investigate “supernatural” claims. After all, those advancing “supernatural” phenomena claim these are real – and science investigates reality. The scientific method is ideal for this because:

“if an entity, phenomenon, or effect exists, it is detectable in some way. Either its existence is directly observable or its existence is not directly observable but it causes effects or implies consequences which are directly observable (such as the track made by a subatomic particle in a bubble chamber).”

Proponents of the “supernatural” open up their claims to scientific investigation because:

“In general, most believers hold that gods, spirits, and paranormal phenomena have real effects on the world and on their lives. These effects should be testable by the methods of science. Indeed, many supernatural and paranormal claims have already been investigated by scientists, often at the behest of those intending to validate the supernatural.”

He mentions as examples the effects of intercessory prayer on patient outcomes, paranormal or ’psi’ phenomena, astrology and the so-called ’Bible Code’ prophecies.

“If these hypotheses can legitimately be examined by science, then there is no principled reason why other supernatural claims cannot be so examined as well.”

Surely this has implications for how we present the scientific method. And the argument “that science, by definition, is limited to studying phenomena of the natural world and hence can neither confirm nor deny supernatural claims” appears disingenuous.

And hasn’t science, throughout its history been doing this. Investigating phenomena which have in previous times been seen as “supernatural” and which we now consider “natural:”

“the history of science has been characterized by the progressive ‘naturalization of the world’, providing non-supernatural alternative explanations for phenomena that were once thought to be explicable only by appeal to supernatural agents.”

In my experience no scientist ever asks herself if phenomena are “supernatural” or not before undertaking an investigation. The question of pursuing investigation of phenomena revolves more around funding, difficulty, availability of equipment and expertise, etc. Not around a “supernatural”/”natural” judgement. (And how can such a judgement be made at the beginning of an investigation, anyway).

Demands for special treatment

The real problem with “supernatural” claims in science is that their advocates very often demand special treatment. They are not looking for their claims to be tested – just accepted purely on the basis of logical possibility. Or they reject scientific findings with arguments like “science has not yet caught up with homeopathy!”

In fact the usual argument of the proponents of “supernatural” claims is to attempt to discredit existing so-called “naturalist” theories and then argue their alternative “supernatural” ideas should be accept as the default (or fallback) position – no testing required. They assure us their claims are “logically sound.” That seems to be the inevitable mode of argument used by proponents of creationism/ID.


“mere logical possibility is not sufficient. As Kelly Smith notes, ’If we accept the mere possibility of an alternative explanation [i.e., supernatural creationism] as sufficient grounds to abandon an hypothesis [i.e., naturalistic evolution], we will never commit to any hypothesis whatsoever, because the alternatives to be ruled out are limited only by our imaginations.’

True, there have been areas science has avoided in the past – like origins of morality, the nature of consciousness, etc. But these are no longer taboo. And I think we are no longer fooled by the idea that such difficult subjects should be handed over to theology.

Scientists are quite happy to acknowledge that a pehomena may, at this stage, be inexplainable. That some things, in the end, may even be beyond human ability to understand or explain. Human may not have, may never have, the required technological, congitive or reasoning skills. But such arguments should never be used to justify, by default, hypotheses or explanations which rely on wishful thinking rather than evidence.

Implications for science education

I agree that the popular NOMA argument and exclusion of the “supernatural” from science misrepresents the way we do science. And it should not be used to dictate the way we teach science.

The data so far. Credit: xkcd (

It is really only a political tactic – used either by supporters  to defend science against theological intrusions or by opponents to demand theological influence in science.

Scientists should not resort to such an opportunist, and incorrect, argument in their defense against current theological attacks. As Fishman says:

“rejection of the supernatural is not a priori, it is not declared ‘before examining the facts.’ It comes only from a scientific investigation of the evidence  . . . .

ID should not be dismissed on the grounds that it is unscientific; ID should be dismissed on the grounds that the empirical evidence for its claims just isn’t there.”

Fishman discusses the implications and challenges of this issue for science education. It is important that science should “pursue truth, regardless of religious or political sensitivities.” But “science educators face the challenge of maintaining both intellectual integrity and the receptivity of students to potentially controversial scientific material.”

They may be assisted by “presenting a historical perspective on science to provide a framework for understanding how science has arrived at its currently accepted theories about the world.” But honesty and good factual information are important.

“It is clear that teaching critical thinking skills in addition to factual information will not only foster scientific literacy, but may have far reaching beneficial consequences for how students conduct their daily lives and for a society all too often enticed by the paranormal and deceived by potentially dangerous pseudoscientific claims. By fostering critical thinking and a scientific frame of mind there is an increased likelihood that students will adopt a skeptical attitude toward supernatural claims in light of the scientific evidence against them. Importantly, critical thinking and a scientific approach to claims are not just for scientists and debunkers of the supernatural. A well-informed population proficient in critical thinking will be better equipped to make intelligent decisions concerning crucial political issues of our day, such as global warming and governmental foreign policy. Indeed, an intellectually honest engagement with reality is a prerequisite for promoting the long-term interest of individuals and society at large.”


These few sentences seem to sum things up from the point of view of education:

“Given that science does have implications concerning the probable truth of supernatural worldviews, claims should not be excluded a priori from science education simply because they might be characterized as supernatural, paranormal, or religious. Rather, claims should be excluded from science education when the evidence does not support them, regardless of whether they are designated as ‘natural’ or ‘supernatural’.”

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Are scientists hostile to religion? Ken Perrott Jul 11


Book review: Science vs. Religion: What Scientists Really Think by Elaine Howard Ecklund.

Price: US$19.72; NZ$59.97
Hardcover: 240 pages
Publisher: Oxford University Press, USA (May 6, 2010)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 0195392981
ISBN-13: 978-0195392982

This book reports on the recent  Religion among Academic Scientists study in the US. A research project identifying the range of views on religion held by US scientists, and determining the statistical distribution  of different beliefs among US scientists.

Elaine Howard Ecklund gives an overview of the research and the questionnaire it used. She also includes data from other studies. Data collection was funded primarily by the Templeton Foundation (the major grant was US$283,549) Participants were randomly selected from seven natural and social science disciplines at 21 US universities (I think the way such studies often neglect the non-university scientific institutions is rather short-sighted). The questions used related to religion, spirituality and ethics.

While the data and interviews of this study are interesting and useful I don’t think they necessarily support the author’s conclusions. I explain why below

Ecklund is a sociologist and currently the director of The Religion and Public Life Program at Rice University.

The ’conflict paradigm’ myth?

The book initially discusses the public perception of scientists and the science-religion conflict in the US and this gives an idea of Ecklund’s incoming agenda. She writes on the first page ’The idea that religion and science are necessarily in conflict has been institutionalised by our nation’s elite universities.’ She describes the desire for the independence of science from religion as ’the conflict paradigm.’ And justifies this by reference to (but no illustrating quotes from) White’s A History of the Warfare of Science With Theology in Christendom.

Many historians of science point out the relationship between science and religion has never been that simple. Nevertheless this ’conflict paradigm’ informs her view of the way the public think of science ’. . many Americans see scientists as not only lacking faith, but as actively opposed to religion. This perception further sustains the conflict paradigm.’

This is an assumption and is a big problem with her approach. While she has obtained and presents data on the views of US scientists she provides nothing objective to justify her assumption about the views of the US public. Yet this assumption drives her analysis and recommendations.

Basically she concludes from her survey that ’the general public misunderstand what scientists really think about the relationships between science and religion.’ Something her data, which is not about the views of the public, doesn’t show. And her recommendation – this basically boils down to atheist scientists shutting up and religious scientists taking on all responsibility for the public face of science.

I can’t help asking if she had these conclusions, and recommendations, firmly in her mind before she collected any objective data. Has this influenced her interpretation of the data?

What do the US public think about scientists?

Mind you she does drop in a brief reference to data on public views in the very last section of the book. There she claims ’nearly 25 percent of the American public think that scientists are hostile to religion.’ So this was her basis for saying on page 2 that’. many Americans see scientists . . .  as actively opposed to religion.’? Hardly an objective way of presenting statistical data.

I have had a closer look at the source of her ’nearly 25%” and wrote about it in  Is atheism bad for science? This figure shows some of the relevant data from this source.

%age of US public considering professions of "very great prestige."

I really can’t see how it can have caused her concern that the public has an antagonist view of scientists.

Maybe public respect for the religious clergy declined after 2000, but not that for scientists.

What proportions of US scientists are religious?

While useful, the survey data and interviews are not really surprising. Religious beliefs among scientists are less common than among the public. Only 36% of scientists in this survey believed in a god compared with 94% of the US public. On the other hand 54% of scientists surveyed don’t ’identify with a traditional religious tradition.’ This latter figure was presumably obtained from the survey questions which asked ’In what religion you were raised?’ so ’identification’ may be an unwarranted presumption. Many adults do not identify with the past or present politics or religion of their parents.

That’s the problem with vague statistics like this. A Washington Post review  interpreted this as Fully half of these top scientists are religious’!. And even Ecklund’s summary later in the book could be misleading: ’Nearly 50% of academic scientists have religious identity, and the majority are interested in spirituality.’ As also a description of the book at her personal website: ’It turns out that most of what we believe about the faith lives of scientists at elite universities is wrong. Nearly 50 percent of them are religious.’

I have commented before on her finding that no religious scientists claim their beliefs change in any way the methods they use in their scientific work (see Theistic science? No such thing). Just as we would expect.

On the other hand some of the interviewed religious scientists did claim their beliefs influenced their relationships with fellow scientists and especially students. They claimed it made them more caring and considerate. I can understand how that could be a personal perspective — but one that non-believers could also hold.

While interviews do help to illustrate attitudes revealed by the data, they are open to interpretation and misrepresentation.


Ecklund considers her data on ’spirituality’ of scientists significant. She concludes that many non-religious scientists are nevertheless ’spiritual.’ However, she admits to using the words ’spirituality’ and “religious’ interchangeably in her questionnaire and interviews. So her discussion of this is frustrating. There is no guarantee that she recognises the same meaning of that word that the scientists actually interviewed did.

I think this confounds her conclusions. For example she appears to link ’non-religious but spiritual’ together with religious as a counter to the apparent large numbers of non- religious scientists. This misrepresents people who would describe themselves as atheist and spiritual, as I do. Personally, I think words like ’spiritual’ should be avoided, or defined in such surveys. For example there could have been clear questions related to specific spiritual pursuits like music, drama, etc.

The real conflict – epistemology

I personally believe that the ’conflict paradigm’ is another one of those myths actively promoted by religious apologists. Think about it. While many people do see a conflict between science and religion, and they know of historical and recent examples of conflict, how many actually believe ’science and religion are necessarily and always in conflict?’ Most people are aware that at least some scientists are religious and that this does not usually interfere with their science. And not all religious spokespeople are attacking science in the way that creationists do.

But I think most people are also aware that religion and science are not the same thing. They have different fields of interest. They have different methodologies. This was even formulated by Stephen Jay Gould into the concept of non-overlapping magisteria (NOMA). So no wonder science and religion have different conclusions. — and different uses.

However, these differences do point to an underlying inevitable conflict. Their different methodologies are based on different philosophies. Different epistemologies. In fact, it was not until science broke away from religion, obtained its independence and freedom to use a scientific methodology that a full scientific revolution could occur. Only then could science come out as the extremely effective way of knowing reality that it is now recognised for.

There is a science religion conflict! But it is not the conflict of the ’conflict paradigm’ myth. Scientists and religious believers are not inevitably and always in conflict with each other. Religious believers can do science — and scientists can have religious beliefs. However, this takes mental compartmentalisation (something humans are very good at) There is a conflict — it is epistemological.


Ecklund’s recommendations really mirror her apparent starting beliefs. She sees the public perception of scientists being hostile to religion as important (despite the lack of objective support for this). She also places a lot of importance on her perception that the US public is basically and dominantly religious and that therefore concludes the lower incidence of religious belief among US scientists interferes with the communication of science.

Her solution :

1: Atheist scientists should STFU. They should not be in the role of communicating science. Even when not commenting on religion well-known atheists can give science a ’bad name.’ Well that is her personal belief, made clear in the first few pages of her book where she says ’Aggressive attacks on religion such as Richard Dawkin’s The God delusion do not accurately represent the complex way that scientists — even those who are not religious — actually engage religion and spirituality.’ Well, of course not. No individual scientist’s writings do.

There is no evidence that the publication of The God Delusion has in any way turned the public away from science. But the common use of words like ’aggressive,’ ’militant’ and ’strident’ by opponents of Richard Dawkins are a bit of a give-away. Theistic opponents seem hell-bent on trying to shut up people like Dawkins completely, and not honestly debating them. And unsubstantiated claims like these are a rather obvious tactic.

2: Religious scientists should front for science communication. They are more acceptable to a religious public.

I am all in favour of religious scientists working as science communicators. I say go for it. We need more science communicators, religious or not. This already happens and they often do an excellent job. In the US Ken Miller, a Catholic scientist, has played an outstanding role in defending science against the attacks of creationists and fundamentalists

However, one does have to be careful when ideologically driven science communicators start to give more priority to their ideology than their advocacy of science. Unfortunately this happened with the initiative of Francis Collins when he set up the Biologos web site. It has now become a vehicle for advocating evangelical Christianity and not science. We also see this when scientific issues like cosmological ’fine-tuning’ are used by believing scientists to justify god beliefs.

I believe that when ideological views confuse scientific issues in this way science is no longer being communicated.


The data and interviews reported in this book, and other publications from the survey, will obviously be useful. Even if the results really just confirm other surveys. However, my advice is to take the conclusions and recommendations with more than a grain of salt.

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Does science lead to secularism? Ken Perrott Jul 04


Some writings on the science/religion relationship are important and interesting. But we have to sieve through such a lot of rubbish to find the gems. I guess its one area where most people have their own agenda and can’t keep it out of their reasoning.

Frank James’s  article ’Science and Religion in the London Library Magazine is an example of the latter agenda-driven analysis. He questions the role of science in the decline of Christianity. He claims that most modern science writing assumes an anti-religious stance. And such writings assume ’that science has displaced Christianity during the 20th Century and that has been achieved solely due to science providing a ‘true’, evidence-based description of the world as opposed to mythic beliefs.’

Mind you, he provides no examples or evidence for this claim, although he obviously felt obliged to throw in the usual reference to ’the strident outpourings of Richard Dawkins and others.’

In other words, a classic example of straw-mannery. I certainly have never read such a bald claim in the Dawkins’ writings, or the writings of any scientist. And certainly not in the writings of scientists who have researched religion, its origins and evolution.

But perhaps the straw man is just a literary device to enable James to convey his own onions on the relationship between science and religion and the real cause of secularism.* Let’s look at his claims:

1: Religious beliefs fundamental to science?

He argues religious beliefs are fundamental to ’scientific practice and understanding of the world.’ Rejecting the ’strident and noisy opinions of Hedley, Tyndall or Draper’ (which he blames for the idea that there is a conflict between science and religion) he falls back on Faraday’s religious beliefs. ’That God had written the laws of nature into the universe at the time of the creation, in such a way that they could be discovered.’

Religious apologists have been chauvinistically pushing that explanation for science recently. It parallels their claims to morality and is just as fallacious. Humanity realised the rational nature of reality through its own observation and experience. And it is only human to attempt to understand and discover.

Scientists who were Christian may have in the past given the sort of justification for science that James refers to. But that justification enabled them to move away from revelation to deriving evidence and ideas from reality without first discarding their religion. They initially converted their god into a retired engineer by recognising a rational, understandable reality. The first step along the road to disposing of any scientific need for gods at all.

2: Secularisation is social, not individual

James demands a standard of evidence for his straw man – ’it would be required to show that there were a large number of individuals who abandoned Christianity because of science.’ And he argues there a few examples.

This is no doubt true — but the decline of Christianity (and growth of secularism — not necessarily the same thing*) is part of social evolution. Changes occur over generations and social groups. It is far too simple to analyse abrupt changes in the beliefs of individuals.

3: Secularisation of science is inevitable

He concludes that science did not cause society to become more secular. Rather ’the causality of events is reversed . . . science became secular because society became secular, not the other way around.’

Again, far too simple — in fact devoid of any evidence or logic.

Scientific practice and epistemology is thoroughly secular today. Scientists themselves hold a range of different religious beliefs, but their working epistemology is secular. No revelations from ’holy’ scripture are used in scientific research. No gods have a role in scientific theory, hypotheses or speculations.

Evolution of the modern scientific approach has been the driving force in this secularisation of science, not society.

And let’s face it. Most societies are far less secular than science. Religion often has connections with the state, or demands and receives special privileges from the state. This is true even in a very secular society like New Zealand’s.

4: Theologians to blame?

Finally, James attributes the decline of Christianity, not to science, but to religion itself!’Theologians in part must shoulder the responsibility for the rise of secularisation through their own attitude and behaviour.’ Liberal biblical interpretations within Christianity had provoked a ’violent reaction from both the catholic and evangelical wings of the Church of England  . . . . throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and indeed down to today, with the misogynist row over women bishops, contributed, in my view, far more to the decline of Christianity and the creation of a secular society, than ever science did.’

So, having disposed of the straw man — that science caused secularisation of society — James has lumped for yet another simple solution — religion is itself to blame. But he himself suggested that simple explanations (like his straw man) are far too naïve. I at least agree with that.

Secularisation of society and science inevitable

Sure, the inevitable conservatism of theology and religious morality has turned many people off. But it also attracts many people. Judgementalism is a human intuition (and a vice). But there will have been many reasons for secularisation. The behaviour of the church and conservatism of theology are just one reason.

Inevitably science and technology has played a role. The myths and superstition of religion are far less attractive as we have obtained better knowledge. But science and technology has dramatically influenced society in material ways. Our mobility and communication has been radically improved. We are now exposed to many cultures and peoples we were previously ignorant of. We have far more avenues of entertainment and socialisation than we used to — not only physically but electronically.

All this has reduced the once important social and moral roles of religion. There have been a number of material and spiritual factors but secularisation of society has been inevitable.

Secularisation of science was also inevitable. But this was driven mostly by development of scientific principles and practices. By philosophical and epistemological evolution. In spite of, and independent of, religious beliefs of practitioners. And assisted by, but not dependent on, the secularisation of society in general.

*I am using “secular,” “secularism,” etc. here with the dictionary meaning of “to transfer something from a religious to a nonreligious use, or from control by a religious body to control by the state or a lay body.” A religious believer can participate in secular civil activity or scientific research without discarding their beliefs. I do not use the words in the sense of atheism, as some people do.

Thanks to James Hannam (@DrJamesHannam) for publicising the London Library Magazine article.

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Christianity gave birth to science — a myth? Ken Perrott Mar 25


Ibn al-Haytham – a pioneer of the scientific method

This theological myth seems to surface in any debate about the relationship between religion and science. It is the claim that Christianity gave birth to science. That modern science was not possible anywhere but in the European Christian culture.

The myth is actively promoted by some Christian scholars — theologians and philosophers of religion. And sometimes it even appears that less critical non-religious philosophers who are largely ignorant of the history of science accept the myth.

Perhaps we should expect a bit of Christian chauvinism. After all, nationalists claim all sorts of things originated in their own country (People of my generation may remember when the Russians were claiming all sorts of technologies were invented by their countrymen – I fondly remember their claim for lampposts!). And Christian chauvinism is alive and well in areas like human rights and morality.

An offensive myth

But this myth is offensive. It’s insulting to medieval Islam. To the scientists and philosophers of the Roman Empire and classical Greece. To the civilisations of ancient Egypt, Babylonia, China and India and beyond.

There is a useful chapter on this myth in a book recently edited by Ronald Numbers — ’Galileo Goes to Jail and Other Myths about Science and Religion.’ It’s ’Myth 9: That Christianity gave birth to modern science’ written by Noah J. Efron. He is President of the Society for Israeli History and Philosophy of Science.

No one denies that many scientists were, and are, Christian – or that Christian philosophers were involved in developing ideas about nature. But there is simply far more to the story of modern science than that. Efron points out that ’the imprint of Greek and Roman ideas on Christian intellectuals remained vivid; they provided the starting point for nearly all inquiries into nature until the start of the modern era. For many centuries, Aristotle’s philosophy was knit most tightly into the woof and warp of Christian theology.’

And ’excluding the place of classical philosophers from an account of the history of modern science is an act of intellectual appropriation of breathtaking arrogance. . . .Christian astronomers (and other students of nature) owe a great debt to their Greek forebears.’

Importance of Islamic science

Christian philosophers also took from Muslim. ’It was in Muslim lands that natural philosophy received the most careful and creative attention from the seventh to the twelfth centuries. . . .By virtue of its geography alone, Islam became ’the meeting point for Greek, Egyptian, Indian and Persian traditions of thought, as well as the technology of China.’ This was an asset of incalculable value.’

Muslim scholars translated ’great numbers of Greek, Indian, and Persian books of philosophy and natural philosophy into Arabic.’ Muslim scholars added to the original texts and wrote original material ’that advanced every major field of inquiry. . .They developed intricate instruments of observation.’ These translations and new work were of immense worth. They were later translated into Latin and became available to Christian scholars.

’Many of these Muslim achievements were, in time, eagerly adopted by Christian philosophers of nature.’ Efron stresses that ’this grand body of new materials forever changed the course of Christian philosophy of nature.’

Dialogue of civilisations

Scientists are used to proper attribution. To acknowledging that we all stand on the shoulders of giants — and it’s a bit like ’turtles all the way down.’  Efron writes: ’Modern science rests (somewhat, anyway) on early modern, renaissance, and medieval philosophies of nature, and these rested (somewhat, anyway) on Arabic natural philosophy, which rested (somewhat, anyway) on Greek, Egyptian, Indian, Persian, and Chinese texts, and these rested, in turn, on the wisdom generated by other, still earlier cultures. .  .  . ’This has been called ‘the dialogue of civilisations in the birth of modern science’ [by Arun Bala in his book The Dialogue of Civilizations in the Birth of Modern Science]’

Other European sources

Even going no further than Europe at the time of the scientific revolution we can see other sources of modern science besides, or as well as, religious scholarship. Commerce and trade: ’the values inherent in the world of commerce were explicitly and self-consciously recognised to be at the root of the new science by contemporaries.’ The early-modern voyages of discovery also contributed. There were invention and importation of important technologies (eg. clocks, printing press) which boosted inquiry. ’Europe’s legal systems influenced the development of both scientific theory and practice.’ And: ’Early modern Europe also saw the emergence of other secular institutions that came to play an important role in the growth of modern science. Scientific societies, for example, were established across the continent beginning in the seventeenth century.’

Science a human endeavour

This history and the current situation where a large percentage of scientists are not Christian, many not even religious, show an important fact about modern science. ’The rich diversity of the cultural and intellectual soil deep into which its roots extend.’ And: ’With the passage of time, the ethos of science came to stand at odds with the particularist claims of any religion or ethnic group.’ Science is a non-sectarian, democratic and inclusive enterprise.

The chauvinistic approach of the myth that Christianity gave birth to science opposes this scientific ethos. It is denigrating to non-Christians and immature. As Efron points out assigning credit is not a zero-sum game. ’It does not diminish Christianity to recognise that non-Christians, too, have a proud place in the history of science.’

Efron concludes his chapter with: ’For better or worse, science is a human endeavour, and it always has been.’

Amen to that.

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Myths within a myth Ken Perrott Mar 18


Yes – this is going to be about religion – a common source of myths. Specifically the “conflict paradigm,” “conflict hypothesis” or “conflict myth.” Really the myth that there is such a “paradigm”, “hypothesis” or “myth” claiming  religion is and always has been at odds with science.’ If you see what I mean. Think of Russian Matryoshka wooden dolls.

This is a story put about by Christian apologists (“militant Christians”) who would have us believe that there is no conflict between science and religion. That actually Christianity is the mother of science. And any conflicts that do occur are really the work of atheists, or “atheist scientists.” These atheists are the ones putting about a false myth.

I want to unpack the myth advanced by these militants.

Of course there are conflicts between religion and science – inevitable when the epistemology is so different. Whereas religious knowledge is based on revelation and authority, science is based on evidence, reason and testing against reality. But this is a principled difference – it’s not the same as claiming religion is and always has been at odds with science.’

Religious and non-religious scientists work alongside each other with no ideological conflict. And “atheist scientists” are hardly to blame for the very public attacks on science by creationists and intelligent design proponents.

The public view of science

But what about the public? How do they perceive science and religion? Do they only see conflict? Or do they accept the differences. After all, they don’t go to a mechanic when they are ill – so why should they go to a religious leader when they wish to find out about the world and the universe.

I ask this because I am currently reading Elaine Howard Eckland’s book Science vs. Religion: What Scientists Really Think.

Eckland’s research for this book appears to be inspired by a belief, or concern, that the US public is suspicious of science. The public is described as highly religious and it is thought to perceive that scientists are mostly atheistic and hostile towards religion.  This could in the future lead to decline in public funding and other support for science. It is imperative that scientists communicate better with the public. That current scientific personalities are perceived as atheist and only fanning the flames of the conflict. And that religious scientists must come forward to speak for science. Particularly to deny any conflict between religion and science. To give a religious veneer to science.

But she doesn’t offer any data in her research to support the concern. No survey or interviews with the non-scientific public. The research (funded by The Templeton Foundation) was solely about the religious attitudes and traditions of scientists. The public attitudes seem to be assumed.

Personally I would like to see some good data

What is the public perception?

Do the public really think scientists are hostile to religion?

Is it based on misinformation from creationists and intelligent design proponents?

Is it really a perception of religious hostility to science rather than vice versa (Creationist/intelligent design hostility to science)?

Is the public still motivated by historical events like the Galileo affair?

Is there anything in the militant Christian claim that the “new atheists” like Richard Dawkins and Victor Stenger have promoted this myth?

Has there been a huge swing in public perception as a result of best sellers like Dawkins’ “The God Delusion?”

And why should this be, given that the numbers of “new atheist” books are minuscule compared with the numbers of those supporting religion?

Or is it based on expectations that science must be based on the real world, not myths or faith? That such conflicts are therefore inevitable?


Well I have now finished the book.  And on the 4th to last page I find Eckland’s only reference to any quantitative estimate of the public concern with science that she appears to have assumed: “according to a recent national  survey, nearly 25% of the American public think that scientists are hostile to religion.”*

Bloody hell – “nearly 25%”! And for this she is warning that the public may resist future funding and support for science?

This figure is relatively small – considering that over 45% of the US public regularly oppose evolutionary science in surveys. Surely this indicates that despite ideological pet beliefs, which may interfere with public understanding on a few issues, the US public still overwhelmingly respects science. And is not concerned with the fact that some US scientists are non-believers. Over 75% of the US public do not think scientists are hostile to religion. That’s about the same proportion of the New Zealand population that accepts evolutionary science.

My conclusion

The whole issue is full of myths. Just like a Matryoshka doll the Christian militants’ claim that the science-religion conflict is a myth promoted by “atheist scientists,” is itself a myth. As is the story that atheist scientists, and current scientific personalities,  are turning the public away from science and therefore threatening future public funding and support. A myth within a myth.

These are myths within the apologists’ overall myth about the relationship between science and religion.

* This survey was the 2006 “Science and Engineering Indicators” developed by the National Science Foundation’s Division of Science Resources Statistics.  (There is a similar survey for 2010). I have had a brief read through the report and actually can’t find the relevant statistic. Eckland has possibly calculated it from the other data in report though.

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The scientific study of religion Ken Perrott Feb 03

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Book Review: The Fracture Of An Illusion: Science And The Dissolution Of Religion by Pascal Boyer, Editors Thomas M. Schmidt and Mi­chael G. Parker

Price: € 39.90 EUR [D]; US$58.00; NZ$109.00.
Paperback: 112 pages
Publisher: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht (July 21, 2010)
ISBN-10: 3525569408
ISBN-13: 978-3525569405

I recently saw this quote: In the old days, religion was needed to make sense of the world. These days, the world can’t make sense of religion I don’t know who it’s from but I liked it. Religion is widespread. It can motivate people for good and for bad. So, like it or not, modern societies find it necessary to interact with religion and this is sometimes problematic. This book is helpful for this as it provides an overview of findings from the scientific study of religion

It’s a version of lectures given by Pascal Boyer at the Universities of Frankfurt and Gießen, in May 2008 (as part of the Templeton Research Lectures on science and religion). Boyer explains that ’being lectures, these were delivered in the form of sermons — that is, in this case, with greater emphasis on argument than evidence.’ Descriptions of experimental studies are minimal but each chapter is well-referenced and there is a 7-page bibliography.

This has the advantage of providing an authoritative overview and access to the literature in a short book (112 pages in total, including a 5-page afterword or critique of the lectures by theologians Elisabeth Gräb-Schmidt and Wolfgang Achtner).

As well as describing conclusions from the scientific study of religious thought Boyer also explores the implications for several questions: ’Can there be a free civil society with religions? Does it make sense to talk about religious experience?’ And ’Do religions make people better? ’

Don’t be deluded by ’illusion’

If recent theological reviewing practices are anything to go by this word ’illusion’ is going to be misrepresented. To be clear, Boyer’s book is not about the illusory beliefs common in religions. As he says, that ’was conclusively argued more than two centuries ago by Kant and other Auflärung scholars.’

No. He argues ’the very existence of something called ‘religion’ is largely an illusion.’ That religion as a package, ’an integrated set of moral, metaphysical, social and experiential claims . . . .does not really exist as such. Notions of supernatural agents, of morality, of ethnic identity, of ritual requirements and other experience, all appear in human minds independently. They are sustained by faculties or mechanisms in the human mind that are quite independent of each other, and none of which evolved because it could sustain religious notions or behaviours.’

Scientific investigation should not, therefore, concern itself with ’religions.’ That would be a sidetrack into specific dogma, teachings and histories of institutions. The domain of theology, not science. Rather it should concentrate on religious behaviour, thoughts, ideas and norms and their acquisition. These are accessible to investigation by evolutionary science, anthropology, cognitive science and psychology.

Boyer describes this as the ’Kant-Darwin axis.’

Even for most members of organised religions, their religious thoughts have little to do with what their religious institutions profess. And these thoughts and behaviour also occur without religious institutions or theology.

’So that knowing theology, or being conversant with the scriptural traditions, does not, unfortunately, add much to our understanding of religious thought and behaviour, because most human societies throughout history have managed to have religion without theology.’ And this appears true even where organised religion exists.

Today it is common to see conflicts between religious institutional doctrine and the beliefs, thoughts and behaviours of members of those institutions. Struggle between the officers of the church and their ’flock.’ And this is even truer for academic theology. We have the situation described by Karl Krauss — ’scholars of religions and their audiences are in complete harmony. The latter do not hear what the former say and the former do not want to say what the latter expect!’

The book has useful discussions on the irrelevance of religious behaviour and thoughts to morality, the nature of ’religious experience’ and the problems religion presents to freedom and democracy. Here I will concentrate on the discussion more relevant to science and reason.

Escape routes – fundamentalism and “spirituality”

Boyer rejects the idea that religion is the ’sleep of reason’ Rather is ’natural’. ’It is quite clear that explicit religious belief requires a suspension of the sound rules according to which most scientists evaluate evidence. But so does most ordinary thinking of the kind that sustains our commonsense intuitions about the surrounding environment.’

’The ‘tweaking’ of ordinary cognition that is required to sustain religious thought is so minimal that one should not be surprised if religious concepts are so widespread and so resistant to argument.’

After all, we know solid objects are largely open space and gravity is a curvature of space-time. However, even scientists in their day-to-day lives intuitively see solid objects as full of matter and objects falling because of their weight. It’s not hard to understand why human ideas of spirits and agency can lead to god ideas or belief in minimally counter-intuitive supernatural agency.

But in modern pluralist, democratic, educated societies, members of religious institutions can nevertheless be effectively living in two different worlds. Their own community with its specific dogmas and beliefs and the world at large where such beliefs are considered strange.  This creates a conflict from which religious people have two ’escape routes’ — fundamentalism and ‘spirituality.’

Fundamentalists resort to dogmatism to resolve the conflict. They ’take the contents of institutional religious messages seriously, as saying what they say and prescribing what they prescribe.’

’Compared to many forms of modern institutional religion, fundamentalism is of course strikingly (indeed stridently) coherent.’

Fundamentalists will often despise the vagueness of other believers. ’The desire to ‘return’ to a largely mythical past, where people’s beliefs were not troubled by modern notions of evidence and pragmatic efficacy’ usually accompanies their dogmatic search for clarity. Despite this they will make use of modern technology if it helps their purpose. Their presence on the internet shows this.

Fundamentalists are preoccupied with commitment and its signalling, Like all dogmatic institutions (and political parties of the extreme left and right come to mind). They seek to keep their institutions pure and make defection costly for their members.

The opposite escape route is ’a retreat into comfortable vagueness.’ Confusing terms like ’spirituality’, ’connectedness’ the ’sacred source of our being’ and ’oneness’ are bandied around.

’The vagueness here is not just a problem of expression. Far from being the accidental outcome of some author’s particularly poor writing, there is in general a deep reluctance in this field to commit oneself to any specific claim.  . . . The whole point of spirituality-talk, it seems, is to avoid particular topics rather than address them.’

I am sure many readers will recognise this problem. The standard of argument in many modern theological books and debates is relevant. Lacking real evidence or consistent logic these debaters and writers can nevertheless write and speak confidently using weasel words, flowery language and naive logic. I suspect that this vagueness is part of their theological training.

Science and Religion

I found Boyer’s comments on the science vs. religion issue useful and a little sobering. For him the question of a science-religion dialogue just doesn’t arise. It couldn’t. ’This very notion of a ‘debate’ or ‘confrontation’ or even comparison is hopelessly confused.’

Firstly there it assumes there is such a thing as religion — concentrating on official doctrines, teachings and institutions rather than religious thought and behaviour. Also such a dialogue and conflict implies a likeness. ’But there is none between scientific theories, held and understood by a very small number of people in a small number of human groups, and the religious imagination, easily acquired and maintained by millions of people with no effort. A more sensible comparison would be between scientific activity and theology, or between popular representations of science and popular religiosity on the other.’

It is humbling to be reminded that ’scientific research and theorising has appeared only in a very few human societies . . The results of scientific research may be well-known but the whole intellectual style that is required to achieve them is really difficult to acquire. By contrast, religious representations have appeared in all human groups that we know, they are easily acquired, they are maintained effortlessly and they seem accessible to all members of a group, regardless of intelligence or training. . . . . religious representations are highly natural to human beings, while science is quite clearly unnatural. That is the former goes with the grain of our evolved intuitions, while the latter requires that we suspend, or even contradict most of our common ways of thinking. So it makes sense to see these two domains as diametrical examples of cultural transmission, two limiting-cases in the connections between evolved cognition and cultural creations.’

Non-overlapping Magisteria

Boyer describes Stephen J. Gould’s idea of ’non-overlapping magisteria’ (NOMA) as ’rather  misguided in both descriptive and normative terms. . . first, it is not at all clear that issues of values and morality necessarily fall outside the domain of science; second, even when they do, it is not clear at all that religious doctrines are a relevant source to resolve them.’

So, on the one hand religious imagination and science belong to different realms of human knowledge which makes division of labour implied in NOMA meaningless. ’Scientific developments have made all religiously inspired pronouncements about the world simply unnecessary.’

On the other hand religious behaviour, thoughts and imagination are widespread, popular and easily maintained and transmitted because they accord with our evolved intuitions.

So much for any naïve atheist confidence that religion will disappear any time soon.

Persistence of religion

Religious notions persist and will continue to do so because ’they are firmly rooted in the deepest principles of cognitive activity.’ In summary Boyer describes three reasons:

1: Religious ideas violate some of our most basic intuitions (e.g., that agents have a position in space, that live beings grow old and die, etc.). This makes them memorable and easily transferred.

2: Religious ideas conform to many intuitive principles.

3: ’Most religious norms and emotions are parasitic on systems creating similar norms (e.g., moral intuitions) and emotions (e.g., a fear of invisible contaminants)  in non-religious context.’

I think, however, that we should recognise these reasons don’t necessarily, or inevitably, lead to religion, or religious beliefs, as commonly understood. They can result in other forms of superstition or magical thinking. They can also contribute to the variety of human personality and thinking styles present in human diversity. Including atheist ones.

Is ’New Atheism’ naive?

In a sense yes, says Boyer. He comments that modern atheists (’new atheists’?) are, ’like their eighteenth-century predecessors’ concentrating on critique of religion, rather than understanding ’how religions work and what made them culturally successful.’

I agree, having often thought that modern atheist authors spend little time discussing the origins and persuasiveness of religion. However, Boyer’s criticism is a little strong considering that Daniel Dennett’s book Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon does concentrate on this aspect, and makes use of Boyer’s work. Indeed, Dennett’s main message is that the ’spell’, the taboo against scientific investigation of religion, must be broken.

However, Boyer sees these objections to ’modern militant atheists’ as irrelevant.  After all, their role is advocacy and consciousness-raising, rather than scientific investigation. ’Modern atheists are trying to maintain the visibility of a particular intellectual positions (that religion is intrinsically ridiculous) and by implication of a certain kind of discussion (e.g. of moral issues without the help of superhuman agency) and a certain kind of existence (a life without constraints from religious institutions. That, I think, is a positive outcome by itself, and I would claim, it is so even for religious believers, once we consider the modern relations between religious institutions and civil society.’


Pascal Boyer’s previous book Religion Explained has become of a popular classic on the findings of the modern scientific investigation of religion. This present book is much shorter (112 pages compared with 375 pages) but provides a useful, compact and easily accessible overview of the field.

Further, it uses some of these scientific findings to explore issues like the science-religion relationship, the role of (and claims made by) religion in the moral sphere, and the problems religious thinking presents to modern and secular societies.

I think it is a valuable resource. And of use to a wider audience than the academic one its price suggests.

See also: The god gene — or is it a meme?

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Overlapping Magisteria? Ken Perrott Jan 05

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The relationship between science and religion, and the demarcation of their fields, or magisteria, seems to be topical at the moment. On the one had the boundary appears to be violated by religious promotion of creationism and attacks on evolutionary science. On the other, scientists are starting to make assertive comments about the nature of morality and the lack of any requirement for gods in understanding the origins of the universe and life.

This has been accompanied by debates among scientists about how to relate to religion. Whether religion should be immune from criticism or not? Should we challenge religion’s fanciful claims about reality?

So its not surprising that the concept of “Non-Overlapping Magisteria” is being discussed again.

This concept has both its supporters and critics. Different people ascribe different meanings to the concept. And there are of course political and ideological reasons for this.


It’s not a new concept but today it is usually attributed to the evolutionary scientist Stephen Jay Gould. In his 1977 essay Nonoverlapping Magisteria he proposed a system of non-overlapping magisteria (or NOMA) as a way of avoiding conflict between science and religion. (The article actually attributed the concept in part to Pope Pius XII.) Gould also elaborated on the concept in his book Rocks of Ages: Science and Religion in the Fullness of Life:

’Science tries to document the factual character of the natural world, and to develop theories that coordinate and explain these facts. Religion, on the other hand, operates in the equally important, but utterly different, realm of human purposes, meaning and values — subjects that the factual domain of science might illuminate, but can never resolve. Similarly, while science must operate with ethical principles, some specific to the practice, the validity of these questions can never be inferred from the factual discoveries of science.’

It is important to be aware of the meaning Gould attributes to the word “religion” here:

’I will accept both Huxley’s view and the etymology of the word itself — and construe as fundamentally religious (literally, binding us together) all moral discourse on principles that might activate the ideal of universal fellowship among people.’

So Gould was using “religion” in its widest possible meaning – one which doesn’t necessarily include supernatural propositions.

I think this explanation is important although it is almost universally ignored (and indeed was effectively ignored by Gould himself through the rest of his book).

A captured magisteria?

In effect, the prevailing interpretation gives unwarranted exclusivity to established religion. While Gould’s original meaning provided for a magisteria of an informed public dealing with the “realm of human purposes, meaning and values” it now seems almost universally assumed that this is the magisteria of established religion. A position which the established religions are of course happy to promote.

In fact some seem to have forgotten about “purposes, meaning and values.” A local Christian apologist even went so far as describing this magisteria as involving religious questions; questions about theology, about God, about questions about subject matter that’s not part of ’nature.’” He was certainly clear that the non-religious have no role in this magisteria.

In my post 3 years ago, Morals, values and the limits of science, I commented:

“Few people would object to Gould’s description of the role and limits of science and few scientists would claim a sole right to solving ethical questions. Modern science is more and more raising ethical questions about application of new technologies and even the research protocols themselves. Ethical problems related to introduction of genetically modified organisms into the environment and the harvesting of stem cells are only two recent examples. These question cannot be left to the researchers involved (how can they be objective) but should also involve an informed public.”


“So yes, let’s acknowledge the limits of science and agree that when it comes to morality and ethics there is no straightforward way of deciding what is ’right.’ There are no absolutes in such areas. Resolution depends on the prevailing ethics of the specific society and times, as well as the empirical indication of consequences. Consequently, society as a whole must decide such matters. Full information will assist such decisions. But, also essential, is a democratic process enabling involvement of all sections of society.

And this is where I have a problem with Gould’s presentation of NOMA. It is basically undemocratic because it grants religion (and only religion) a special role in moral and ethical questions. It defines morals and ethics as the special domain of religion (and only religion). It says we should hand these problem over to religion. It denies any role for those of us with non-religious ethical and spiritual beliefs. Surely, as humans we non-religious are as equally qualified (or as equally at a loss) on such questions. It is undemocratic to hand these problems to one section of society and deny a role to the rest of society.”

So there are huge problems in the practical interpretation and application of NOMA. Religion is interpreted in a narrow way (always a problem of trying to redefine words away from common usage). This disenfranchises the non-religious in the areas “human purposes, meaning and values.” No doubt welcomed by the religious apologist and church establishments but hardly democratic.

NOMA in tatters?

Nevertheless the NOMA concept is promoted by some scientific organisations. I believe this is largely for opportunist political reasons. An attempt to placate religious sensitivities by ruling “out of bounds” religiously sensitive subjects from scientific enquiry. As well as the disenfrachising this opportunism supports, though, it is also patently unrealistic. Out of touch with reality.

NOMA is in ruins today and it’s supporters were foolish and unrealistic to expect it could survive. There are real issues, real conflicts, between science and religion and an artificial structure like this has absolutely no hope of hiding these. Even Gould, in his 1977 essay, was clearly underestimating the religious attacks which were to come on his own field of evolutionary science.

Today religion still intrudes into areas outside it’s “magisteria.”.Evolution and cosmology are topical. As also is the history of science where apologists are attempting to excuse the persecution of Galileo and make chauvinistic claims about science originating from within Christianity!

Scientists like Stephen Hawking are prepared to acknowledge publicly (if only to sell their books) that humanity can understand reality without resorting to gods and other supernatural “explanations.” And the theological reaction to this rather obvious point has been extreme.

Science is intruding into the “religion magisteria” with modern research into human morality. We now talk about the “new science of morality.” And theologians bristle again – as do some scientists.

Also, there is less reticence among scientists about criticising religion and its claims. People like Victor Stenger and Richard Dawkins get attacked for daring to suggest that the question of the objective existence of gods is a scientific question. And religionists are not at all happy about anthropologists, psychologists and cognitive scientists who have the temerity to research the origins and nature of religion as a natural phenomenon.

I think the genie is out of the bag on this one (or is it Pandora out of the box). Science will certainly make more inroads into areas religion thought it had captured for itself. This seems to be an inevitable result of the progress in scientific technology and our understanding of the brain and human consciousness.

On the other hand we can expect established religion to object to  scientific progress from time to time. But this is likely to fall on deaf ears. Humanity has too much to lose if scientific progress were to be abandoned.

I am sure theologians and philosophers of religion will continue their battle in the philosophical arena. They may even develop new and intriguing arguments.

Predictions are always difficult. But if we look at the trends over the last 400 years it seems to be a safe bet that they will continue in the same direction. Organised religion has had to make one concession after another since it disciplined Galileo in 1632 for daring to think outside the Inquisition’s square.

Surely this progress will continue, with religious leaders being forced to take note of, and accommodate, the news of new scientific discoveries. However, I can’t see physicists or any other scientists having to adjust their own theories because of some new Papal announcement or paper published by a theologian.

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