Myths within a myth

By Ken Perrott 18/03/2011

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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0 Responses to “Myths within a myth”

  • You have a point, good data is always preferable.

    Religion and myth go hand in hand and in America in particular I think this is very true.

    My perception of the American public is that they are easily fooled: their prized ‘freedoms’ are taken from them without them realising, their money is handled carelessly without them understanding why or how. Their children are sent to die for unclear purposes (or flat out lies), their quality of life is stripped away, their health is compromised and their welfare comes second in the eyes of their leaders. Perhaps they don’t care, perhaps they’ve been taught not to care.

    The American middle class is being severely exploited and disadvantaged for the benefit of very few and yet they still buy into the capitalism propaganda.

    I think all of these things are symptoms of a society that spurns critical thinking, a society that buys whole0sale into the myths of religion in particular. If you condition a population to never question authority and to believe what they are told purely on faith, then they will do that and such a population is easy to exploit.

    America is devolving back to feudalism and they do not realise it. The wealth is controlled by a few and the majority live or die by the wishes of their masters and it is in the interest of those in the authoritative position to propagate the myths against science.

    Religion makes all of this possible and the scientific method and critical thinking fights against this.

  • I am not going to comment on the subject of this thread. However, I have twice seen references to Dr Victor Stenger on your website. One was under comments about Hawking and Mlodinow’s book “The Grand Design”. You quote as reference material I think Stenger’s “The Grand Accident” which appears on his website. The other reference is above where he is mentioned as a New Atheist along with Richard Dawkins. I have a major problem with Dr Stenger.

    Dr Stenger appears to be the only person who refers to Dr Stenger as being a New Atheist. He is not on the list of the 25 most influential atheists,

    I doubt that the quality of his work justifies any great respect for him. If we look, for example, at his book “God:The Failed Hypothesis”, we see the quite definite claim that “…science has advanced sufficiently to be able to make a definitive statement on the existence of a God …” P 11 of the paperback edition published 2008. (I deliberately don’t rely on the subtitle of the book – although he says on the same page I am about to refer to that the subtitle is his.) And yet on p 263 in the “Postscript to the Paperback Edition” he says (apparently in response to comments on the first edition 2007 “Scientific prrofs involving emprical judgements, on the other hand (he is referring to such things as the deductive process in mathematics here), are more like those in a court of law, where decisions are not made by way of abstract logical reasoning, but rather on the basis of what the actual, available evidence shows to be true “beyond a reasonable doubt”. He goes on to say scientific judgements are always open to appeal based on new evidence … etc.

    The problems I see here is that he acts as judge and prosecutor and there is no mention of a defence lawyer so there is no equivalence to processes in a court of law. Furthermore, he does not state what “reasonable doubt” means or who decides what is reasonable. I actually see other problems throughout the book but that would take up too much time to mention.

    Frankly, I think Dr Stenger’s attempt to pass his hypothesis off as a scientific one of any sort is misleading. Perhaps a reader may be able to explain to me where these “scientific proofs involving empirical judgements” fit in with science. I am aware that the Higgs particle has never been detected (at least knowingly) and that if it is included as part of the standard model of physics it would be a judgement. But I am unaware of anything like a court of law approach being part of scientific procedures. I think that any hypothesis that the Higgs boson exists is simply a hypothesis still being investigated – not an unusual situation in physics.

    I prefer what I think PZ Myer’s approach would be on the subject (I suspect he would say that the God hypothesis is a load of BS – he has a tendency to call a spade a spade).