Identifying the conflict between religion and science — Part III

science_religion_070703_msby David Kyle Johnson

Santa Claus and the Origin of Belief 

Religious persons will also engage in unscientific thinking in defense of their belief. Consider a child confronting the evidence presented by their older sibling about the non-existence of Santa Claus: the fact that Santa can’t do it all in one night, the fact that there is no workshop at the North Pole, etc. The child is not convinced; why would his parents’ tell an untrue story? The older sibling explains exactly why by retelling the story of how the myth of Santa Claus originated from a pagan god and a (supposedly) historical Christian bishop named Nicholas [30], and then morphed into a story that became popular for parents to trick their children into believing in the early 1800’s [31]. By showing that the origin of the story, and the reason his parents tell it, does not trace back to an actual being named Santa Claus, the older sibling would seemed to have put the final nail in the coffin. But the younger child has taken a logic class, and argues that explaining the origin of the Santa story does not demonstrate that it is false. To think that it does is to commit “the genetic fallacy.”

The younger child is smart, but not quite smart enough; he misunderstands the genetic fallacy, which is commonly thought to entail that the origins of an idea can’t count as evidence for or against the idea. Such an understanding of this fallacy, however, is too simplistic. The genetic fallacy is only committed when we ignore or dismiss the evidence regarding a belief by simply pointing to its origins. For example, to dismiss the ring structure of benzene because the idea came to Friedrich Kekulé in a dream commits the genetic fallacy because his suspicion has been confirmed numerous times since he proposed it; if there were no evidence for it, the fact that the idea finds its origins in a dream would be reason to doubt it.  Specifically, establishing that the origins of a belief in the existence of an entity does not actually trace back to the existence of that entity is good evidence against believing in the existence of that entity. Only if subsequent evidence can be presented can belief in that thing be rational. This is why explaining the origins of the Santa Claus story gives one good reason to believe that Santa Claus doesn’t exist. Of course, it doesn’t prove that Santa doesn’t exist. But nothing can. And, as we have seen, the fact that something can’t be proven false is no reason to think it is true. Such an origin story does, however, give one good reason to doubt. And to think that one can dismiss the origin story of Santa as evidence against the existence of Santa because it “commits the genetic fallacy” is unscientific, it fundamentally misunderstands a basic logical fallacy.

Yet the theist employs the very same reasoning in defense of the objections raised against religious belief atheists such as Nietzsche, Freud and Daniel Dennett, who argue that theist belief does not originate from God, but from natural effects and forces[32]. Against the claim that natural explanations give reason to doubt the truth of religious belief in God, religious persons will claim that such an argument commits the genetic fallacy [33]. But, just like the young child defending belief in Santa, the theist doesn’t understand the genetic fallacy. The origins of belief in God (and why our parents might tell us untrue stories) are not reason to dismiss evidence for God per se; but the fact that belief in God (and the story our parents tell us) does not originate in God himself, but instead in natural phenomena, is good reason to doubt that God exists. Of course, it doesn’t prove that God doesn’t exist. But nothing can. But, as we have seen, the fact that something can’t be proven false is not reason to think it is true. Such an origin story does, however, give one good reason to doubt. To think that one can dismiss the origin story of God as evidence against the existence of God is wholly unscientific; it fundamentally misunderstands a basic logical fallacy.

Responding to Objections 

It was not the goal of this paper to suggest all of religion is unscientific in all its applications. For example, I did not mean to suggest that all religious people endorse all the arguments or believe all the doctrines that I have criticized. Obviously, many individual religious people already reject one or more of them; as a group, religious people are diverse. But this doesn’t mean that my argument is wrong, futile or inappropriate. The fact that my argument doesn’t apply to you (or even anyone you know) doesn’t mean that it doesn’t apply to others or even the vast majority of religious believers. It does. As Pew researchers discovered in 2008, the beliefs I have criticized here are held by the vast majority of religious people today.

One goal of this essay was to show false a claim widely endorsed by atheists and the religious alike: that there is no conflict between science and religion. Many maintain that the important claims common among the religious are outside of the purview of science and one can believe them without being unscientific. By analogy, I have shown that this is false. Some of the most important and widely held religious beliefs (belief in miracles, the soul, God and god-men) are undeniably unscientific — as unscientific as quack medicine, belief in magic, phlogiston and lizard aliens. Such a conclusion may already be obvious to those who have rejected those religious beliefs, but the conclusion itself is not trivial. Most religious people have not rejected those religious beliefs or realized their unscientific nature.

If you realize that my arguments do not apply to you because you believe none of the things I have criticized (and nothing similar to them), then the paper has accomplished another of its goals: it has clarified where the conflict between religion and science lies. It does not lie with people like you. As I mentioned in Part I, religion is not unscientific in all that it does. For example, religions make statements about ethics and meaning, and such statements are merely non-scientific. If my criticisms don’t apply to you, that’s likely because it is only those aspects of religion that you embrace. In fact, you likely reject the beliefs I have criticized as unscientific because you agree with me that they are unscientific. Unfortunately, your take on religion is not the dominant one, so the argument of this paper is necessary to make.

With that in mind, and in conclusion, let me quickly respond to a few common objections.

Objection 1: Religious Experience

One might suggest that somehow one’s personal experience can render acceptance of a religious hypotheses scientific. It can provide a kind of evidence that renders belief rational. Such arguments would most likely come from reformed epistemologists, like Alvin Plantinga, who would claim that something like the “sensus divinitatis” can provide non-propositional evidence for religious beliefs that makes them rational [34].

The problem with such a response is that the idea that personal experience can trump evidence and adequacy is, itself, an unscientific suggestion. What drives and motivates science is the realization that our personal experience is not always reliable, and is more often than we realize easily led astray. It is readily molded by our expectations and biases. As mentioned earlier, the criteria of scientific reasoning are designed to counteract such things, and have proven to be significantly more reliable than personal experience, when they are in conflict. To refuse to accept what clearly is the most adequate and reasonable hypothesis because of one’s personal experience is unscientific. It is akin to someone continuing to believe in ghosts because “they saw one,” despite the fact that their experience (and all others) has been accounted for completely in terms of natural phenomena. In short, not even our own eyes can be trusted in the face of contrary scientific reasoning. How much more then should we doubt the “sensus divinitatis”?

Objection 2: Selective Reasoning

Some might say that, although they think scientifically in the other areas of their life, they choose to be unscientific when it comes to religious belief and that doing so is “acceptable” — even rational. This, it might be thought, is akin to methodological naturalism, where one assumes nothing supernatural in the lab, but allows for such possibilities in church.

This of course, grants me my thesis: that religious belief is unscientific. Such a person admits that they can’t be religious while they are being scientific, and so they leave their scientific thinking in the lab. Still, this reply needs response. Presumably, such a person doesn’t just assume naturalism in the lab, but everywhere else in everyday life. They wouldn’t think that money can “just disappear” from their wallet, they wouldn’t believe someone who claims to walk through walls, and they don’t believe magicians are really magic. They only suspend scientific reason when it comes to religious matters. But it seems obvious that there is no justification for such compartmentalism. It is not noble, it is not justifiable, it is not rational. It is merely the only way they have of protecting cherished beliefs, or maintaining their social or familial connections.

Maybe they still want to claim that doing so is acceptable and rational, but if they do this, they lose their ability to criticize anyone who ignores scientific reasoning and the scientific method for any reason. They can no longer claim that those who believe in ghosts, UFOs, ESP, dowsing rods, astrology, creationism, intelligent design, the vaccine/autism link, parapsychology, conspiracy theories, Lizard aliens, Big Foot and the Loch Ness Monster are doing anything wrong or irrational. For, if religious people can ignore scientific reasoning to protect their beliefs of choice, so too can anyone else. In a nutshell, if the religious person ever points the “irrationality” finger at any person for believing something contrary to scientific evidence, they must acknowledge that there are three fingers pointing back at them.

Objection 3: Strawman

Lastly, some may claim that I have been attacking a strawman. “Of course,” one might object, “the common person’s religious beliefs are unscientific, but you have ignored the well thought out religious views of academic theologians and philosophers. You will have shown that religion and science are in conflict only when you have shown their religious beliefs to be unscientific. After all, you wouldn’t criticize science based on the common person’s understanding of science.” There are numerous responses to this.

First of all, the analogy is weak. Yes, I would not criticize science based on the common person’s understanding, but the common person does not practice science — they are not a part of the scientific community and do not determine scientific consensus. The common religious person, on the other hand, is religious, practices religion and is a part of the religious community, and the above doctrines are what the common religious person believes. In fact, the views I am criticizing are confessed in the creeds, are explicitly stated doctrines, embraced by the Pope, and preached by every pastor I know. I may not have shown that the most academically sophisticated religious believers are unscientific, but I cannot be attacking a straw man if I am attacking the views held by the vast majority of practicing and leading members of the religious community.

Second, I believe one would be hard pressed to find a theologian that rejects all the views I have shown are unscientific. A theologian that thinks petionary prayer does nothing, that souls do not exist, that God does not interact with, intervene in, or control the world in any meaningful or important way, and that believes that Jesus performed no miracles and did not rise from the dead — how is such a theologian different from a deist, or even an atheist? I know theologians that reject one or more of these doctrines, but none that reject them all.

Of course, if a theologian could be found that did reject them all — perhaps they think that all religious language is non-literal or non-propositional and thus think that all such doctrines are not literally true but instead are (as Bart Ehrman termed it in Jesus, Interrupted) “mythically true” — then my argument could not be used to show that their particular brand of religious belief is unscientific. But I admitted that at the beginning of the essay. A religion that is only about ethics and meaning is merely non-scientific, not unscientific. But I dare say if a theologian admitted this — admitted to rejecting such doctrines, in plain English, as literal truths — from any pulpit in the world, they would be run out on a rail.  How can I be strawmanning by not addressing a view that the vast majority of religious practitioners and leaders would openly reject and label as heresy? Individual academics who reject the doctrines I have criticized can save themselves from criticism, but they cannot save all of religion vicariously.

Given my arguments, it is undeniable that the beliefs I have criticized are unscientific. And since they, or beliefs like them, are embraced by the vast majority of religious practitioners (including those outside of Christianity), it is undeniable that — contrary to the suggestions of Gould, Ratzsch, Plantinga, and a host of others — religion is, in very important and significant ways, unscientific. Again, not in every way — but it was only the goal of this essay to identify the conflict between religion and science. I believe we can now see exactly where the conflict lies.


David Kyle Johnson is an Associate Professor of philosophy at King’s College in Pennsylvania. He has done extensive work using popular culture to explain and illustrate philosophical ideas and arguments. He has written articles on everything from South Park to The HobbitDoctor Who to The Onion, and Quentin Tarantino to Christmas. He edited a book on Heroes and on Inception. He also co-edited Introducing Philosophy Through Pop Culture: From Socrates to South Park, Hume to House with William Irwin.

[30] For a researched history of Santa this draft of a chapter from a book I am working on entited The Myths that Stole Christmas.

[31] See: Stephen Nissenbaum’s The Battle for Christmas. Vintage Books, 1997.

[32] Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon. Penguin, 2007.

[33] For a famous example of William Lane Craig accusing Richard Dawkins of this fallacy, see this YouTube video.

[34] See, for example, Alvin Platninga’s Warrented Christian Belief. Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2000, Ch 6.

68 thoughts on “Identifying the conflict between religion and science — Part III

  1. When analyzing religious beliefs and practices, critics have often attributed functions to these practices and argued that they were undesirable. For example, the notion of God’s Providence serves as an illusory justification for repressive social practices, as in “God rewards the believers with happiness and prosperity, while unbelievers suffer from their chosen depravities.” Thinking again of the principles of science offered in the first part, I cannot see how this kind of criticism could possibly be accepted. Therefore I think we have to take your silence as conclusive. Social science does not exist, therefore cannot criticize religion consequences.

    That means, I think, the fundamental thrust of your critique rests on the rejection of selective reasoning. I too think this is irrational, but unlike you I am not agnostic. You don’t even think it’s
    possible to prove there’s no Santa Claus. Given this agnosticism, which for you is a fundamental principle, why would it be irrational to write a letter to Santa each Christmas? If you object that the probability of Santa doesn’t make investing in a stamp worthwhile, put the letter in the mailbox without a stamp! Besides, who could possibly say they know the fun of daydreaming isn’t worth a stamp?

    The thing is, on an individual level, isn’t that exactly the same situation for the religious believer who conducts most of his or her life as a philosophical materialist? Prayer is no more costly than sending the letter to Santa, maybe less. The actual investments in religion tend for most to be pretty minimal, with great psychological rewards claimed. It is extremely common for self-professed believers to suspect, or even dislike and fear, religions which make large demands on their adherents. They tend to call such religions “cults.”

    Your probabilistic interpretation of science seems to me to put the ordinary believer somewhat in the position of a man or woman buying a lottery ticket. Your principle of epitstemological agnosticism on the existence of magic parallels the grotesque odds against the ticket holder. But, is it really “irrational” for a person to amuse themselves by buying a ticket with pocket change on occasion? The irrationality only arises when so much money is spent that it is a sacrifice, rather than an entertainment. It’s a matter of degree, rather than principle. After all, somebody will win the lottery. That of course is where we differ, I think science really can prove that nobody wins the lottery.


  2. The conflict between religion and science is clearly defined in these essays. As I was reading these, I saw a story of the biologist Ken Miller receiving a prominent Catholic award* from Notre Dame University. Miller is known for his debates with creationists and IDists. He has stated that he does not accept “theistic evolution” either. Still, he believes in the doctrines of Catholicism (the belief that the Virgin Birth and the Resurrection were actual events, the stories in Acts of the Apostles actually happened, the magisterium or teaching authority of the Church, etc.) and says there is no incompatibility between Catholic beliefs and scientific evolution.

    I don’t get it though. It seems like a form of maintaining dual and contradictory cognitive states.



  3. Dear David,

    Is there any certainty in science or is it still a scientifically proven dice game of uncertainty or probability at best? While religion has difficulty with the proof of God requiring a great deal of faith, has science found the truth, the absolute yet, doesn’t science require the same amount of faith? But then, how would science measure faith anyway, have they measured themselves?
    Perhaps God or the truth or proof can be found in this question of self measure,
    Or is it in the immeasurable?
    Which Way is absolute?


  4. It’s not possible to prove that Santa Claus does not exist, but it is irrational to actively believe he exists and to expend any effort at all which comes out of assigning his existence any kind of significant probability (including mailing a letter with no stamp).

    It’s not irrational to pray and go to church if this makes you happy for its own sake. It is unscientific to actually believe God exists and it is unscientific to believe you will win the lottery.


  5. Yes, agreed. What I am talking about is belief, and the unscientific nature of religious belief, not whether someone wants to waste their time on beliefs that are likely false. The whole point of the Santa Claus section was just to show the error of how some religious people apply the genetic fallacy.
    I find it quite telling that to defend religious belief this commentator essentially had to degrade religious belief all the way down to a form of entertainment–like the lotto, we know it’s not likely true–we just do it for fun. Whether such a thing is fun, is irrelevant. It would be irrational, and unscientific, to really believe that you actually will win the lotto.


  6. Yes, thanks Philip! That is what I am getting at. There are mainstream scientists and believers who say that they believe in things like the virgin birth, and that they are not unscientific in doing so. I am saying that is clearly wrong.


  7. Thanks DM. I find it quite telling that this kind of argument raises the “I don’t believe the things this argument is critiquing–therefore this argument is ill-motivated” objection. If I were, say, arguing that medical quackery was unscientific, people would not be saying that. Instead, they would be saying “I don’t believe the things he says are unscientific, but I know people who do. I think I will share this with them.”

    The only example of another argument I can think of that generates this kind of objection would be if I were, say, arguing that the MMR vaccine doesn’t cause autism. If someone were in the anti-vaxer camp, but instead thought that some other vaccine (let’s say the flu vaccine) causes autism, you might see this kind argument: “Ah, he is just picking on the easy targets by picking on the MMR people. We all know that is crap. The Intelligent anti-vaxers know that it’s actually the flu vaccine. Why is he even making this argument?”

    I wonder if there is a parallel sort of motivation.


  8. Mike
    No one way is “absolute” but that doesn’t mean that both science and religion require the same amount of faith or that the claims of each are equally valid or established. You are presenting a false dichotomy, something like:
    1) everything is either absolute or its just a crap shoot
    2) nothing is absolute,
    3) so its all a crap shoot. Basically everyone–the scientist, the religious–is just guessing.

    That is false. There are degrees of evidence and justification between absolute certainty and guessing.

    Science is a game of probabilities–there is no certainty because it is inductive–but it’s all high probabilities. Scientific confirmation of a theory makes it very very likely–so likely that you would have to be irrational to reject it. Just like you can’t prove that Santa doesn’t exist, you can’t 100% prove the world is round, or other scientific truths–but the evidence is so good that you would be an idiot to believe otherwise.

    But Religious beliefs, like belief in God, have no good evidence. The arguments don’t work.
    The evidence is faulty (as you yourself admit).

    So no, science does not require faith–faith is belief without sufficient evidence, and confirmed scientific theories have more than sufficient evidence. Religious beliefs, however, requires faith in the fullest sense of the word–they are belief without sufficient evidence.

    Of course, on every other topic you require evidence before you believe something. Ask yourself, why don’t you require it when it comes to religious belief> If someone today told you they were a god because they rose from the dead, you would demand concrete evidence before you believed. I doubt you would just take his, or his friends, word for it. Why don’t you demand this kind of evidence for your religious beliefs?


  9. Given that there are literally scores of millions of people–not a small amount–who are religious and do not believe the supernaturalist stuff that you are focusing on, your argument *is* of the form: “Supernaturalist religions are unscientific.” You really don’t see why a number of us don’t find that claim very interesting?

    Your appeal to “the overwhelming majority of religious believers” is an appeal to percentages, in a way that is misleading in a discussion like this. If a small percentage of believers nonetheless constitutes scores of millions of people, it is a significant group, regardless of the percentage.

    The point is not that you are wrong. It’s that you aren’t saying anything that everyone and his grandmother don’t already know. Of course superstitious supernaturalism is unscientific. But that doesn’t characterize “religion” in any general sense, other than the percentage-sense just mentioned. And I don’t see why adding Stephen jay Gould to the mix makes the argument any more interesting.


  10. There’s another thing I wonder, here, and it’s “So what”?

    Okay, let’s put to the side the question of whether the argument is trivially true (and therefore, uninteresting.) Let’s say its substantially true. Let’s even stipulate that all the most science believing, liberal religious people also hold a number of supernaturalist beliefs (like a physicist believing in the Virgin Birth.) My question then, is “so what”? So what if religion is scientific? So what if everyone, in some moments in their lives, even significant ones, are unscientific?

    In short, granting everything the author has said, in its best possible version, why does it matter?


  11. Aravis, I may have missed this in the comments section the last two essays but which groups of millions of people that have non-superstitous supernatural beliefs?


  12. You will find that the religiosity of many Reform and Reconstructionist Jews includes little to no supernaturalism, but is based entirely in community, meaning, and values. The same is true of any number of liberal-progressive Protestant denominations and of course, of Unitarians.

    But I suspect it is even more than this. Modern, liberal Catholics, in places like the US, Canada, and Western Europe are often also religious, primarily in the sense of community, meaning, and values. I personally know several such people and have no reason to believe that there are not many more.

    Again, the author’s percentages are undoubtedly correct. But when you are talking about these sorts of numbers, the percentages really aren’t the relevant point. To suggest that religion = supernaturalism is difficult to maintain, when it is untrue of scores of millions of people, regardless of the percentages.


  13. Aravis, right on. Prayer, worship and unscientific belief are far more complicated in real life than these essays suggest. I’ve lived for many years in Africa and Asia, and while people observe various traditions and pray (often to the most universal world religion, ancestor worship, whether called buddhism, shintoism or in Africa Islam) the people I’ve known don’t actually believe, for instance, that the ancestors will intervene for them. They pray because their parents and grandparents prayed, and to keep some part of the memory of the old ones alive – as they hope their children and grandchildren will pray for them. All this has nothing to do with being scientific, but with being human, and it is everywhere except perhaps here (unless expensive funerals and graveyards count).


  14. Aravis, thank for your reply. I guess I’m confused as to what “religion” really means to you in this context. I just did a quick google search and found several definitions, all of which define religion with at least some supernatural beliefs, with the exception of Webster. Webster provided the following three.

    1. the belief in a god or in a group of gods
    2. an organized system of beliefs, ceremonies, and rules used to worship a god or a group of gods
    3. an interest, a belief, or an activity that is very important to a person or group

    So are you claiming that the groups such as reform and deconstructionist Jews are defined as the third category? If so, I don’t necessarily find that as a meaningful definition as it includes virtually ever human group under it or even individuals who just have strong beliefs about anything. It seems to me that at some level, religions always include some supernatural belief. If so, depending on how central that idea of supernaturalism is to the religion, I think he criticisms that Kyle offers stand. We can talk about degrees perhaps of how much the religion relies on supernaturalism but the general criticism still would be valid. One would be irrational to adhere to those beliefs outside of simply engaging in cultural rituals that one finds pleasing.


  15. While religion has difficulty with the proof of God requiring a great deal of faith, has science found the truth, the absolute yet, doesn’t science require the same amount of faith?

    It is totally wrong to equate different degrees of “faith” like this. Science doesn’t do absolute proof, but it does do beyond-reasonable-doubt proof from copious evidence. Does one need “the same amount of faith” to believe that Obama is currently President of the USA (supported by copious evidence) as to believe that Obama is a lizard alien (supported by zero evidence)? Not at all.


  16. This has also been discussed in the other thread, but I am happy to repeat the point here. Very few words admit of rigorous definition, in the sense of necessary and sufficient conditions. For most words, what one can at best do is give an account in terms of family resemblances. I.e. for all the things commonly called “religions” there are any number of overlapping strands of similarity, but no set of conditions that all and only the members of the set share.

    So, I can’t define ‘religion’ for you, because I don’t think there is one. I can tell you the ways in which Judaism is similar to, say, Christianity or Buddhism (as well as the ways in which they are different), but I can’t give you a list of properties, by which something is a religion and only a religion.

    Speaking for myself, what does my Jewishness consist of? A shared history and “peoplehood”; shared values; a shared sense of significance, meaning, and “sacredness;” shared customs and practices. Things of that sort. And the same is true for my liberal Protestant friends, with respect to *their* religious affiliations.


  17. David, thank you for your contribution to Sciencia Salon. The title of your piece led me to think you might explore the differing approaches and objectives of scientific and religious viewpoints as well as the value of their respective contributions to human culture and tradition. If the purpose of the piece was to demonstrate that much of religious dogma and doctrine can be disproved scientifically or in many cases supplanted by scientific thought, you won’t get much argument from me. Some of the commentators –for example, Aravis Tarkheena and dpzora, to name two–raised issues that I might have myself. You addressed them within the framework of your thesis.

    Nevertheless, I’m sure there are many religious believers who may feel that you have not refuted the NOMA thesis in a compelling way. Even The National Academy of Science, so far as I know, supports the view that religion and science aim to address differing experiences, comittments and needs of mankind, as does artistic endeavor for that matter. To some extent, and speaking figuratively, you seem to have seeded the field and then proceeded to suggest that you are engaged in dove hunting. Some would disagree.

    This seems to me particularly evident when your write:

    “What is religion? Articulating and defending an all encompassing definition is beyond the scope of this essay, but we can at least identify what religion is not. Gould suggests that religion is a system of beliefs concerned only with ethics and meaning [7]. If this were true, it would seem that there could be no conflict between religion and science. But clearly this is not the case.”

    Of course, it is not the case. Nor is it the case that Gould’s suggestion is necessarily adequate to the task. Another commentator offered what I think was Emile Durkheim’s exploration of the question. I am an agnostic, but find Durkheim’s exploration of this question more satisfying. It goes without saying that it would be pointless of me to wonder why you felt it necessary to take this approach to a rather complicated subject. Nevertheless, I do. I’m left with more questions than answers. But perhaps this in itself is a good thing and sufficient justification for your post.


  18. Hi Aravis,

    As you mentioned previously, words are defined by usage and not by dictionary definitions.

    That said, I think any conception of religion which does not regard it as a belief system is pretty idiosyncratic, and you seem to be saying to me that it isn’t a belief system at all, in that it’s not telling you what you should hold in your ontology.

    I think reform Judaism is a religion for those who believe in God and a set of cultural practices and traditions for those who don’t. I just don’t think you’re a religious Jew if you don’t believe in God, you’re a non-religious cultural Jew.

    (I do admit to feeling uncomfortable telling you what you are. Please understand that I’m only explaining how I would describe you in my language and the language I feel is most common)


  19. My Jewishness involves plenty of beliefs, just not beliefs in supernatural things.

    I don’t deny that one can further distinguish different portions of the population, in the way that you do. But all of us, when we are in the synagogue on Shabbat, are practicing a “religion” as understood by everyone from the Southern Baptists down the street, to the IRS who grants our institution certain exemptions.


  20. Well, this article did bring up the issue of hypocrisy. If a liberal protestant or reform Jew thinks it’s OK to hold some unscientific beliefs (not merely non-scientific ones), then that person cannot really call out a creationist on their unscientific beliefs, and the more people we have who can freely criticise such harmful doctrines the better.


  21. So now non-supernatural religious folk are akin to anti-vaxers. Good to know. I’m sure the Reform/Reconstructionist Jews will be happy to hear that, as well as a large number of Protestants and Catholics in countries the Netherlands, as well as the 150 million Theravada Buddhists, etc, etc. Maybe actually being scientific and taking seriously the claims of non-supernatural religious people and not (in a weird, inverted way) acting as a shill for Fundamentalism’s definition of religion would be more productive. After all, if one were a botanist and defined all trees as x and then, when it was pointed out that a number of species did not fit that definition, replied “Well, those aren’t *real* trees,” one would be committing the No True Scotsman Fallacy, which I think is one of several problems with this analysis. One would think that if someone like Richard Dawkins can admit he is a “cultural Christian” and talk favorably about the celebration of Christmas and also about about “cultural Jews” and “cultural Muslims” that this point about non-supernatural membership in religious congregations wouldn’t be that hard to grasp and receive a bit more than an “anti-vaxer” label.
    On Dawkins:
    On Atheist Muslims:


  22. The Southern Baptist church down the street would not deny that our synagogue is a religious institution and that what goes on in side constitutes religious practice. They simply would think it was the wrong kind.

    As for your other question, I can accept the wisdom and goodness of Maimonides’ 8 levels of charity, without any supernatural commitments.


  23. One other small point (perhaps this has been addressed elsewhere, although I don’t recall seeing it): while you are busy comparing the behavior of non-supernatural religious people with anti-vaxers, could you address the problem that the statistics re: religiosity that you base your critique on are in and of themselves problematic, and perhaps even more problematic because of extraneous factors than other survey data? I’m thinking of Phillip Brenner, a sociologist at UMass-Boston, who believes that there is over-reporting of religious behavior by survey respondents in the US. And if that is true, perhaps there’s also over-reporting of belief as well. Not sure if this would change the stats all that drastically, though.


  24. Yes, this. This is one of the terrible things that Fundamentalism here in the US does- it forces religion to speak as science, and thereby undercuts precisely what is so important about religion in terms of what we might broadly call sociological factors.


  25. I’m afraid I still believe it is possible to prove there’s no Santa Claus. I’m also pretty sure that no one buys the lottery believing they will win. They just think somebody will win, and there’s a calculable chance it can be themselves. I’m afraid I must insist calling this belief unscientific is nonsense. And it is a misrepresentation to call it belief they will win, as the proper term would be hope.

    By the standards of science set forth in the first part, I agree with you (and the OP, judging from his reply to your post,) that there is a sense in which it is entirely rational for an individual to pray. That is the point I was trying to make, that believers can be selectively rational because their belief frequently does not entail any measurable sacrifices at all. Young people often evade belief in Christianity because they are under the impression it mainly consists of forbidding sex and swear words, and maybe tobacco, alcohol and other recreational chemicals. Commonly views change when the benefits of delayed gratification and/or hypocrisy are grasped.

    Under the view of science in the first part, however, I do not see how it is any more irrational to believe in an improbable God than an improbable lottery win. You admit you can’t prove the believer can’t win (erroneously I think.) Believers can be perfectly rational and (maybe even most) agree that there’s little ir no plain evidence of God.(See their discussions of problem of evil.) But since there might be a God according to the view of science presented here, it cannot be called irrational to hope there might be, So what if believers care to call their hope a kind of belief called faith? That is simply a terminological quibble.

    Personally I have never found a believer who wouldn’t redefine God as Goodness. I believe in right or wrong and I’m not much interested in arguing against good. But as it happens I do think there is a tremendous problem with superstition and bigotry. I’m not sure how this view of science allows us to refute superstition. What kind of a jerk would argue with a man buying a lottery ticket? This view of science is also ill equipped to study any kind of society or history. (Lest we forget, it also has problems admitting geology and evolutionary theory to be scientific!)

    Going back to the man or woman praying in church. I think science does show that petitionary prayer is impossible. There is no hope to it, therefore faith in it is indeed irrational, even if the person takes comfort.


  26. A liberal Protestant may have an unscientific belief, like the Resurrection of Jesus (though many don’t seem to even have that belief anymore), so for them to criticize a Southern Baptist creationist for their unscientific belief about the age of the Earth does seem a bit hypocritical. But they are going have a bigger and more practical division on other things (like whether Planned Parenthood should get government funds).


  27. Notwithstanding the points I have made, there is no doubt that most religious thinking is unscientific.

    But what about the “conflict” part? Is unscientific thinking in conflict with scientific thinking or does it just occupy another space and meet different needs?

    After all there are any number of people who manage to be religious and effective scientists at the same time – Francis Collins comes to mind.

    And science gained impetus in medieval Europe not just through religious figures such as Robert Grosseteste, Roger Bacon, Nicolas Oresme, Thomas Brawardine and others, but also through the explicit patronage of the early medieval church itself.

    On the other side there are the explicit conflicts, such as the persecution of Galileo and the ongoing battle between conservative Christians and the theory of evolution.

    But on the other hand I have noticed a tendency among atheists, even those who are scientists, even those who preach the need for evidence, to propagate a revisionist version of history. I have been trying to correct some of this for over ten years through various blogs. There has been some little progress, most people now do not claim that the medieval and Renaissance church believed and taught a flat earth cosmology. But in other cases people seem too fond of the narrative to want to go and check the evidence.

    This is also unscientific and in conflict with science.

    So, unless we are to include atheism and Naturalism as religions, the problem seems to be more than just religion, but human nature.

    From my point of view it seems that the only really scientific world view is one which is completely agnostic with respect to metaphysics. The Logical Positivists rejected Naturalism and Spiritualism in the same breath and that seems to be more or less the position that most closely aligns with a scientific world view.

    But then again, that might be my bias as an agnostic.

    In the end none of us can claim that we are never unscientific. We are the type of animal we are and cannot escape it, we can only do our best.

    When someone is promoting a rational, scientific world view it is always couched as a criticism of others.

    I think that it might have a little more traction if we could also admit to the unscientific thinking that we do ourselves.

    It is not enough to say that the scientific method sorts out biases and irrationalities because we are clearly capable of believing something has passed those tests when it has not. Countless times I hear “Science has shown that …” when really the person is just repeating an opinion about an interpretation about an experiment or a set of experiments or what some scientist has written in a book somewhere.

    I am not saying that no one should criticise the unscientific claims of religion, of course we should. We should take every opportunity of getting people to think about their beliefs and to question why exactly they believe as they do and to think about how they should investigate claims.

    But I think it should be done with a little less arrogance and a little greater self knowledge. Less of the “you should stop being unscientific” and more “we should stop being unscientific”.


  28. “The Southern Baptist church down the street would not deny that our synagogue is a religious institution and that what goes on in side constitutes religious practice.”

    I imagine they also think that what goes on inside constitutes worship of a supernatural God.


  29. And, as I point out below, if atheists propogate a revisionist version of history then they can hardly criticise others for being unscientific.

    If Naturalists insist upon theirs being the one true metaphysic without demonstrating that this is the case then they can hardly criticise others for doing the same.


  30. “You seem very concerned with what we are “allowed to call each other.” I must admit to not being concerned about this at all.”

    Not really. If you trace back the discussion you’ll see that I’m interested in explaining and defending the motivation of the article. As discussed in this most recent post, you are simply not the target of the piece. Different people understand different things by the term “religion” and you are not what the author has in mind.

    On the other point, people can call each other what they like, but hypocrisy undermines the message.


  31. Kyle Johnson wrote: “But Religious beliefs, like belief in God, have no good evidence. The arguments don’t work.
    The evidence is faulty (as you yourself admit).”

    But let me quote one of your own arguments:

    “… the singularity from which the universe began [25] — seems to be (if anything is) something that requires no explanation (it is something that literally exists nowhere, in no space, for no time)”

    Would you say that this is an example of a good argument or an example of scientific thinking?


  32. @David Kyle Johnson:

    Excellent article! With any rational mind, no one can argue with you. Unfortunately, human has three faculties, the rational, the emotional and the spiritual, while the rational is the weakest one among three.

    With these three faculties, both sciences and religions are human endeavors, social constructs. Thus, any conflict between the two (Religion and Science) is the result of human bickering. There is absolutely no conflict can be between them two in essence, as they are two totally different animals.

    There are many ways to define both science and religion. In reality, they are defined with ‘historical’ contexts, not by the ‘essences’ of what they should be.

    One, science studies the empirical knowledge. At this point, the empirical tool is unable to probe the issue of ‘creating something from nothing’ which is the most genuine ‘rational’ question that human can ever come up with.

    Two, religions discuss the issues beyond the reach by all empirical means, such as the creation.

    With these simple definitions above, there cannot be any conflict between them two in ‘essence’. Of course, there are bad sciences, such as the ‘multiverse’ which by all means is not empirical. And, all those ‘religious issues, doctrines, beliefs and even their thought processes’ are bad religions.

    On this bad sciences and bad religions level, I agree with you 100%. But, if anyone thinks that the terms of ‘unscientific and non-scientific’ have any moral authority to label the unscientific is wrong or inferior, I will disagree with him 100% too.


  33. Robin, precisely, your questions above (“But what about the ‘conflict’ part? Is unscientific thinking in conflict with scientific thinking or does it just occupy another space and meet different needs?”) point to what some find unsatisfying about the post, regardless of how one prefers to linearly position oneself with regard to them. It calls to mind Joshu’s response of “Mu” to the monk’s question regarding whether a dog has the Buddha-nature. This suggests that perhaps the “scientific/unscientific/non-scientific” jargon is perhaps sometimes unwittingly and arbitrarily self-limiting. A Zen master might prescribe a koan to confront one’s over-reliance on binary conceptualizations. The koan becomes an illogical barrier that must be penetrated to reach a different form of realization. Perhaps, the “a-scientific” is deeply embedded in the religious response. One intuitively understands the inherent inadequacy of any reasoned response when being repeatedly asked, “But do you *really* love me?”


  34. Dear Professor,

    I demand the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help me science or God.
    And yes there is One absolute Way,
    If you need directions or clues try these: Michelangelo said to find the truth study Nature, Einstein new the truth could be found through simplification, and Descartes found a method for truth whilst sitting in a stove in Ulm. The people of Ulm are mathematicians don’t you know? Oh and Einstein was born there too. Hmmm, imagine that!
    Truth is the light at the end of the tunnel,
    The truth that will set us free!
    Happy trails,



  35. Philip Thrift wrote: “I don’t get it though. It seems like a form of maintaining dual and contradictory cognitive states.”

    Yes, I think it is just that.

    I have often thought I would like to sit down with Francis Collins and talk to him about his moment of conversion. To say to him “that moment by the frozen waterfall, you were tired from walking and likely you were slightly dehydrated and you had been thinking deeply about this question with nothing to divert you from it and suddenly you come across this scene of immense natural beauty”.

    I want to ask “Didn’t the scientist in you advise caution? Didn’t the scientist tell you that you might not be thinking straight, that your emotions and experiences might be caused by something other than an invitation to grace?”

    I want to ask “Isn’t the scientist in you constantly calling baloney to your religious beliefs?”

    I think, probably yes, because I have had the experience of standing in a church reciting a creed and feeling that I believed it and yet having a voice saying also ‘but why do you believe that when you know many reasons that it is not true?’

    So, yes, I have that in me that the baloney detector can be ringing and I am paying no attention.

    I find it fascinating and I like to explore the reasons but I am not sure what to do with it. The rational processes and the belief systems seems not to be fully connected.

    My resolution is to make a distinction in my own mind between what I appear to believe and what I can actually make an argument for.

    I think this is being shown more and more by science, that beliefs have to do with things like social needs and fitting in and I think that this applies to positions like Naturalism and atheism as much as it does to religion.

    That is not to say that I think them false, but it is possible to believe something that is true for reasons that have nothing to do with the truth of the proposition.

    So despite my criticism I find articles like these very valuable and important. I can see the mistakes that Kyle has made with respect to the beliefs that he is criticising but the thesis in general is true.

    I would be interested in responses from Theists to these kind of articles and how they might respond in the comments. I wonder if there are any articles by Theists in the pipeline for Scientia Salon.

    In any case thanks to Kyle for an interesting and valuable contribution and for your willingness to participate in the comments, come what may.


  36. The problem with creationists is not their unscientific beliefs. We all hold such beliefs – even the most rational among us cannot escape that. The problem is there insistence that such beliefs be considered the equal of scientific beliefs and given equal time in the public school science curriculum. I don’t see it as a problem to “call out” creationism in that context that it is to “call out” denial of global warming. Unscientific beliefs can be castigated within any context of public discourse on science and relevant policies. This is not hypocrisy as long as the holder of unscientific beliefs does not use those beliefs to justify opposing public policies that are based on science contrary to those beliefs.


  37. Hi Beth,

    I think the difference is that while I undoubtedly hold unscientific beliefs, I try not to. If I come to realise that a belief I hold is unscientific, I try to discard it. The problem with religion is that it encourages us to cling to unscientific beliefs.


  38. I like the debate here is raising some of the concerns that I have about these kinds of objections.
    I am actually reluctant to consider people religious who reject all of the supernatural religious claims have been common to all religions for thousands of years. (There’s a reason almost all of the standard definitions of religion include some kind of supernatural belief.) The idea that religion is only about meaning and purpose is almost brand-new, seemingly invented by people who are smart enough to reject the supernatural claims but yet can’t stomach rejecting their “religion.” And so they redefine religion so it can include them. (So I’m not saying that religious people are like anti-vaxers, but there might be a similar kind of motivation – realizing the majority of the group is wrong but not wanting to divorce oneself from that group.) But I’m willing to concede that definitional point.

    What I am not willing to concede is your point about the statistics. Even if the minority viewpoint consists of millions of people, it’s still the case that billions of people hold the beliefs that I’m criticizing. I can understand why as someone who rejects those beliefs is not “interested” in my critique, but that is not the objection that was being raised to my argument. The objections were suggested that the article was ill motivated, that I’m just picking on a minority of people who believe these things (“the fundies”), etc.– that the argument doesn’t need to be made, or the point is obvious. When the positions I am criticizing our professed by the vast majority of religious believers, and the vast majority of religious leaders, and even by mainstream scientist to say that they believe these things, the argument definitely needs to be made.

    In addition, you are greatly exaggerating the number of religious people that hold no supernatural beliefs. I’ve been to Unitarian churches, I’ve spoken at them, I’ve attended them – and there is a wide variety of supernatural beliefs. The same thing is true for liberal Protestant churches and liberal Catholic churches – they may reject some things here and there, but belief in God, souls and even miracles is quite common (in the vast majority). Of course, I know some pastors and theologians who reject most of these things – but they never admit it openly in public because they know the vast majority of their congregations, even as liberal as they are, would run them out of town on a rail if they actually admitted to not literally believing in God’s existence, in the miraculous stories, etc. (They couch their sermons in such an postmodern language that can be interpreted multiple ways.) I of course may be wrong, but I’m willing to bet that if you openly and plainly admitted in your reformed Jewish congregation, in plain language, that you don’t literally believe God has a covenant with the Jewish people because you don’t literally believe God exists – there would be more than a little uproar.


  39. “So what if believers care to call their hope a kind of belief called faith?”

    I am talking about people who actually literally believe the things I am critiquing.
    You are talking about people hoping or wishing that something is true, and calling that belief. That is not belief. I may wish there was an afterlife, but that doesn’t mean I believe there is an afterlife.
    Like some others before, you’re redefining your terms so that you continue to say what you want to say. In this case, you are redefining the term “belief” so you can still say that “belief is justified” when all you mean to say is “it’s okay to hope something is true.”
    So this is just a red herring.


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