||The Case Against God:
Science and the Falsifiability Question in Theology
By Massimo Pigliucci
But Messier de Laplace, what about God? I have no
need of that hypothesis
Astronomer Pierre Simon Marquis de Laplace explaining his theory of
the origin of the solar system to Napoleon
By all accounts, scientists are human beings. This apparently trivial observation
carries a lot of explanatory power when it comes to rather unscientific practices
many scientists willingly submit to. It is this same truism that led Kuhn
(1970) to propose the idea that the scientific enterprise is mostly determined
by the social context in which it happens, a position termed rationalist
Casti (1989). Even though Kuhn then searches for ways to establish which
of a series of paradigms is better, his philosophy of science
fundamentally transcends any idea of an objective and knowable external reality.
Pushing the envelope just a bit further obviously leads to the absurd position
of Paul Feyerabend (1975), an irrationalist relativist who claims that there
is no such thing as the scientific method, and that science has the same
ontological status as astrology and mysticism.
As a practicing scientist, I obviously couldnt disagree more with either
Kuhn or Feyerabend. I am certainly not about to deny the fact that science
is a human activity, and as such quite clearly is subject to the full spectrum
of human weaknesses, including irrational and emotional thinking, if not
downright fraud (Gould, 1981). Nevertheless, science remains by far the single
most successful set of tools to learn about the natural world and to predict
its behavior. Furthermore, science is the human activity most capable of
self-correction when tested against the real world.
This is why, for example, scientists are so stubbornly opposed to equal time
for the teaching of creationism alongside Darwinism in biology courses.
Creationists appeal to the democratic soul of the American public
by arguing that if there are two alternatives, lets hear both of them
and let the people decide which one is best. But the best science, unlike
what Kuhn might think, does not proceed by consensus and advertising, certainly
not by granting equality among theories.
There is, however, one island of irrationalism that has gone almost untouched
by scientists, and that is the huge, mysterious, and fascinating continent
called religion. To put it as Will Provine did in 1988, if you are a scientist
and go to church you simply have to check your brains at the church
door. In the following, I shall explore why though two recent examples
of scientists in their dealings with religion. I will then attempt a brief
discussion of the dynamics of this phenomenon, as well as suggest a couple
of modest proposals as possible solutions.
Scientists Still Dont Believe in God
Edward Larson, a science historian at the University of Georgia, and Larry
Witham, a Washington Times reporter, published a peculiar commentary on the
April 3, 1997, issue of Nature (Larson and Witham, 1997; Genoni, 1997). The
title of the article was Scientists are still keeping the faith.
The story reports a study carried out by the two authors to replicate a classical
survey performed by the psychologist James Leuba in 1916. Leuba set out to
test the hypothesis that the more people were educated, the less likely they
were to believe in God. He asked 1,000 American scientists their beliefs
and his results confirmed the idea that scientists as a group are much less
likely to believe in God than the general public. Leuba attributed this to
the scientists better education, and ventured to predict that with
the passing of time and the presumed increase in the education of the general
public, religious beliefs would become more and more rare.
Larson and Witham attempted to replicate Leubas study as closely as
possible. For example, they considered the same number of scientists, divided
among biologists, physicists, and mathematicians, and got their sample from
the same source used by Leuba, i.e. the directory published in American Men
(and Women) of Science. The attempt to repeat the original conditions met
with some problems, as freely admitted by the authors themselves. For example,
the original sample of 1,000 scientists represented about 20% of the available
entries, while an equivalent sample today constitutes about 3% of the total;
this increases the likelihood of statistical errors in comparing the two
samples. Furthermore, Leuba distinguished between great scientists
and ordinary ones, finding that the belief in God was markedly
lower within the first category. Such a distinction is no longer reported
in American Men and Women of Science. Even though it would certainly be possible
to rank the scientists based on a number of criteria (time allocated to teaching
vs. research, number and quality of publications, and so on), Larson and
Witham did not feel compelled to mirror the original research that closely.
There is also some discussion about the precise way the questions were phrased.
Larson and Witham attempted to follow Leubas definition of God as
hearing prayers and giving immortality. They felt, however, that
several interviewees would have answered differently if given a less traditional,
more modern (I would say more vague) definition of God. Perhaps.
Unfortunately, the choice here is either to replicate a fundamental study
conducted 80 years earlier, or to start from scratch. And the appeal of Larson
and Withams attempt lies precisely in the comparison with Leubas.
The results are summarized in Figure 1, with an additional column showing
the level of belief of the general public. I am reporting here only the answers
to the question Do you believe in a personal God? We will get
to the other two questions below. The results were as clear as they were
astounding, but their interpretation is more than open to alternative views.
The fact is, scientists have not changed their opinion that much. True,
physicists have supplanted biologists as the leading group of atheists, but
pretty much the same percentages reported in Figure 1 were found by Leuba
in 1916. Larson and Withans conclusion, as evident from the title of
their paper, is that scientists kept their faith after 80 years. My conclusion
would be that scientists were still by and large without faith. Why? One,
as Figure 1 clearly showsand as was reported by Leubascientists
have a dramatically lower probability of believing in God than the general
public, and this fact has remained unchanged throughout the past 80 years.
It seems much more logical to use the general public as a control
group and claim that the control and the treatment groups have maintained
the original respective positions (believers and non-believers), rather than
twisting things around by asserting that scientists held onto
a minority position within their own group!
Two, Leubas original hypothesis is very difficult to test by a simple
repetition of his experiment. Leubas contention was that more educated
people would be less likely to believe in God. Since scientists tend to be
among the best educated people, his decision to poll scientists follows
logically, and his results are consistent with the hypothesis. However, to
repeat the test 80 years later is more tricky. One of the underlying assumptions
is that knowledge has accumulated, and education improved, for scientists
across the board. But this can be questioned. While our knowledge of the
physical universe has indeed improved during the 20th century, the level
of general education of most scientists is probably comparable to, or at
least not dramatically different from, what it was 80 years ago. Our general
vision of the universe has not changed that dramatically (as opposed to what
it was, say, in Galileos time). We already had the theory of evolution,
astronomy had long ago swept the Earth from the center of the Universe and
of the galaxy, and the old age of the Earth was becoming accepted knowledge
when Leuba conducted his research. Quantum theory and molecular biology have
certainly revolutionized physics and biology respectively, but did they really
add much to an educated persons understanding that there is little
place for God in the real universe?
Further, Leubas original projection was based on the reasonable assumption
that the education of the general public will steadily progress and that
eventually everybody will consider God on the same level with astrology or
telepathy. There are two problems with this line of reasoning. First, even
though more people than ever are attending college, belief in astrology,
parapsychology, and UFOs is at an all-time high. Clearly, there is not much
of a correlation between the level of general (as opposed to scientific)
education and the ability to discriminate between fiction and reality. As
for scientific education, while this reportedly went up during the 1960s
and 1970s as a result of a national effort to catch up with the Russians
in the space race, any science college teacher can testify that todays
standards are not what we would like them to be (Edmunson, 1997).
Second, what does it actually mean to be more educated? My experience
of the American educational system is that this translates into acquiring
very specialized knowledge in a particular field, usually a practical one
such as business administration. What causal and therefore predictive link
could possibly exist between knowing how to improve your companys bottom
line and deeper insights into the ultimate questions about life, the
universe, and everything (Adams, 1986)? I am not faulting Leuba for
this at all. He approached the problem from the optimistic viewpoint of one
who was witnessing the fruit of Darwins and Freuds work. The
education he had in mind truly was universal, wide-ranging, and presumably
would really lead to a better understanding of who we are and where we come
from. That vision was incomparably more liberal than the liberal
education that is under such intense fire in the United States since the
Republican party and the Christian Right have become more powerful (Shorris,
In the 1997 survey scientists were queried about their belief in human
immortality (a corollary of most religions). The result was clearly along
the lines of Leubas predictions: the percentage of believers decreased
from 51% to 38%! The last question probed the desire for immortality. While
34% of Leubas interviewees had answered that they would like to be
immortal in some sense, about 10% of modern scientists did. Therefore, even
though the answer to the main question has not changed appreciably, there
is plenty of support for the conclusion that the belief in a personal God
with the attributes and corollaries of mainstream religion has significantly
eroded among scientists (but not the general public). Overall, it seems that
the same low proportion of scientists believes in God, but that their concept
of such an entity has become more refined and abstract (usually the first
step toward atheism, Smith, 1991).
Given this, I feel justified in completely turning around Larson and
Withams take on the subject. Instead of concluding that scientists
are keeping the faith (insinuating that it isnt such an
irrational thing to do), I would suggest that the two surveys dramatically
point to a general failure of our educational system. We are not becoming
more educated, we are simply acquiring more knowledge. There is a fundamental
difference between the two. Ironically, Leubas research contributed
in to this sad state of affairs. His findings were one of the sparks which
started Williams James Bryans crusade against the teaching of evolution
in the 1920s, which culminated in the infamous Scopes trial in Tennessee
in 1925 (Larson, 1997; Webb, 1997).
Should Scientists Get Involved?
The answer to this question is a resounding No! from one of the
leading biologists and skeptics of the century,
Gould of Harvard. Before I will try to show the fallacy of his position,
let me make one point extremely clear. I do not belong to the category of
Gould-bashers. I have the utmost respect not only for his scientific
achievements, but also for his stated political and philosophical positions.
Nevertheless, I think he got it wrong this time.
Gould published an article in Natural History (Gould, 1997) in which he
promulgated his NOMA principle (for Nonoverlapping Magisteria). The cardinal
points of the principle can be summarized as follows:
1. The net of science covers the physical universe and what it is made of
2. The net of religion extends over questions of moral meaning and value.
Simple enough. But as H.L. Menken, the caustic journalist who covered the
Scopes trial said: For every complex problem, there is a solution which
is simple, neat, and wrong. The NOMA principle is not really new. In
1923, as a response to the first manifestations of the fundamentalist movement
that led to the Scopes trial, the moderate Presbyterian pastor James Vance
cosigned a widely publicized statement with 40 others, including the Nobel
laureate Robert A. Millikan and the famous biologist Henry Fairfield Osborn
(Larson, 1997). The document called for entirely separate spheres of influence
for science and religion: science would deal with the facts, laws and
processes of nature, while religion would address the consciences,
ideals and aspirations of mankind. Goulds NOMA principle came
out of his (and other biologists) enthusiasm for the fact that the
Pope finally acknowledged that Darwin may be right after all (Pellegrino,
et al., 1997). The Catholic Church historically maintained an antagonistic
stance towards evolution, perhaps best summarized by words written in the
Humani generis (On Human Kind) encyclical by Pope Pius XII in 1950:
Some imprudently and indiscreetly hold that evolution
explains the origin
of all things
Communists gladly subscribe to this opinion so that, when
the souls of men have been deprived of every idea of a personal God, they
may the more efficaciously defend and propagate their dialectical materialism.
As modern Protestant fundamentalists put it, evolution is the root of the
tree of evil. As he did with Galileo in 1993, Pope John Paul II (not otherwise
known as a liberal) attempted to correct this when he wrote in Truth Cannot
Contradict Truth (in a message to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences that
does not have the authority of an encyclical):
new knowledge has led to the recognition of more than one hypothesis
in the theory of evolution. It is indeed remarkable that this theory has
been progressively accepted by researchers, following a series of discoveries
in various fields of knowledge. The convergence, neither sought nor fabricated,
of the results of work that was conducted independently is in itself a
significant argument in favor of the theory.
of transition to the spiritual cannot be the object of this kind of observation.
Okay, so the Catholic Church has now admitted that the Earth is a sphere,
that it rotates around the Sun, and that all living beings originated from
a single ancestor by descent and modification (i.e., evolution). But these
concessions,welcome as they are, have only come after church leaders found
themselves in increasingly indefensible territory on each of those specific
cases. But as you can see above, John Paul is hanging on to the
spiritual. The implication is that morality is not to be subjected
to one of the fundamental processes of scientific investigation: self-correction.
As fundamentalist Danny Phillips once put it, Science changes every
day, and for us starting believing in something that changes every day, over
something thats stood fast for over 3,000 years; thats hideous,
and we dont need to do that (quoted in the newsletter of the
Rationalists of East Tennessee, March 1997, see http://www.korrnet.org/reality).
But it is science, in the form of cultural anthropology, which clearly shows
us that moral beliefs are relative, they depend on cultural context,
andabove allthey evolve. So, why relinquish our right to rationally
discuss and modify moral beliefs to an authority that doesnt have a
shred of supporting physical evidence to submit?
Goulds NOMA gives religion total control over moral issues and over
matters of value. But is alleged divine inspiration the only source of morality
for humans? Setting aside despicable trends toward natural morality
and Social Darwinism (see Skeptic, V.4, No.2 for a discussion
of evolutionary ethics), do we not have a multi-millennial history of thinkers
and philosophers who attempted in-depth discussions of human morality? Is
Kants moral imperative necessarily given by God? And what about Plato,
Aristotle, or Bertrand Russell? In fact, the argument can be easily made
that divine laws as they are expressed in the Bible or the Koran are simply
the canonization of human agreements and social contracts, girdled with
super-human aura to make them more easily enforceable.
Think, for a moment, about the evolution of emotions. As Darwin showed (1890),
it is easy to realize that the psychological, moral, and ethical characteristics
of humans are in fact the product of evolution. They are an epiphenomenon
of the complexity of our brains, intertwined with our meandrous history as
primates and hunter-gatherers. My conclusion is that there is no real distinction
between the two spheres that Gould so neatly and Solomonically partitions
between science and religion. They both are a legitimate subject of rational
investigation, and our best hope for a better society and human condition
is the application of reason and self-correction in both areas.
God as a Falsifiable Hypothesis
To see what science has to say about God, we need to be clear in what we
mean by that term. According to The Encyclopedia of Philosophy (1967, 174-189)
there are three conceivable kinds of gods: the metaphysical god, the infinite
anthropomorphic god, and the finite anthropomorphic god.
A metaphysical god is one that does not have any relationship whatsoever
with the physical world. This kind of god is usually invoked to explain the
existence of evil, which is patently incompatible with any kind of
anthropomorphic god. The argument is that good and evil
are human concepts that do not apply to god. We can dismiss this kind of
god on two grounds: first, it is unintelligible. What does it mean to have
a god that does not reflect any human value? Second, it is psychologically
useless. Let us not forget that the main reason people believe in a god is
to gain comfort about the meaning of the world. But a metaphysical god cannot
offer such comfort at all, and therefore loses any function in a human society.
An anthropomorphic god can be either infinite or finite. The infinite version
is the most popular one. It corresponds to the Christian tradition of an
omnipotent entity. The finite version is a somewhat minor god,
called the demiurge by some Greek philosophers (Jaeger, 1947). We can dismiss
the idea of a finite god, since most people throughout the worldand
especially in western societieswould not subscribe to it for the same
reasons that they would be unsatisfied with a metaphysical god. Interestingly,
the reason to propose an imperfect god is psychologically the same for purporting
a metaphysical one: to explain the baffling presence of evil in a world that
clearly is not the best of all possible worlds (Voltaire, 1759).
What about the most common and psychologically satisfying god of them all,
the omnipresent, omniscient, omnipotent, infinite anthropomorphic god? The
first question to answer about this kind of god is: should we take an atheistic
position, or be more moderate and maintain agnosticism? Atheists have a bad
reputation, sometimes being described on the same terms as fundamentalist
Christians, Jews, or Muslims, as intolerant, narrow-minded individuals that
are sure about things no one can be sure about. Yet, my position here is
that an infinite anthropomorphic god can be treated as a hypothesis about
the physical universe, a situation that gives atheism an edge over simple
Let me clarify this point. Even though believersespecially when cornered
by obvious unpleasant realities of the physical universemaintain that
belief in god requires faith, and it is therefore immune from any contingent
or scientific investigation, they dont really mean it. Fundamentalists,
for one thing, freely claim that god created the universe in so many days,
in a specific sequence of events, and not long ago. They further claim that
all species of living organisms were hand-crafted by this god, and that he
literally runs the every day affairs of the universe. These statements are
obviously falsifiable (and false!). But even nonfundamentalists tend to think
of god as somewhat interacting with the physical universe (otherwise, what
would be the point of having a god?). If he is not literally running it,
he certainly originated and designed it (at least by picking
the right physical laws. So, god interacts, to a more or less limited extent,
with the physical world. Which means that god is somewhat a part of the physical
universe. By this definition, the existence of god is a question within the
realm of scientific investigation.
Now, if we admit that god can be thought of as a hypothesis about the real
world, then we have to clarify what we mean by the terms hypothesis and theory.
A hypothesis is a specific prediction made within a general theoretical
framework. Unfortunately, there are two kinds of usage for the word
theory, one scientific, the other vernacular:
1. In science, the usefulness of a theory lies in its ability to explain
and make specific predictions about observable phenomena. Such a theory may
produce a set of hypotheses which in turn can be verified or falsified (i.e.,
rejected, Popper, 1968). A scientific hypothesis can be investigated by empirical
means. For example, modern astrophysicists have proposed a complex theory
about the origin of the universe, known as the big bang. One
of many predictions of the big bang scenario is that the universe should
still be permeated by a background radiation, a sort of leftover heat from
the initial explosion. This hypothesis is subject to empirical investigation.
Indeed, the background radiation was discovered by radiotelescopic observation
in the 1960s (Hawking, 1993), and it matches perfectly (i.e., quantitatively)
the theoretical predictions. Notice that this does not mean that the big
bang theory is true, only that it is consistent with available
2. In laypersons terms, the word theory implies a diminutive or derogative
tone (as in it is just a theory). This kind of theory is made
of a series of vague statements which cannot be tested scientifically and
it is therefore truly outside the realm of science. For example, god
created the universe is a vague statement, with no real explanatory
power, since it simply substitutes one mystery (the origin of the universe)
for another, less parsimonious one (where did god come from, anyway?). The
agnostic position is simply that the second kind of theory, being outside
the realm of scientific inquiry, cannot be proven false or true, and therefore
cannot be rejectedas the atheists would do. But this is a gross
philosophical and logical mistake. This equates rejection with disproof.
Simply put, we do not need to disprove many things that we reject outright
as silly or inconsequential. For example, we reject the existence of flying
horses a la Pegasus not because we have proven that they do not exist (because
to do so would require a thorough search of the whole universe), but because
their anatomy flatly contradicts everything we know about vertebrate evolution
(and a few aspects of aerodynamics, too). Notice that this skeptical position
is always open to revision, should a flying horse suddenly appear. By analogy,
atheists are not stubborn unbelievers. Most of them would readily convert
if given a decisive proof of the existence of supernatural entities. Even
believers use the rational argument, paradoxically against other believers!
Why is it that a Christian (or any rational person today) does not believe
in Zeus and Apollo and cheerfully dismisses them as fantasies? Because they
are vaguely defined entities which are very unlikely ever to have been historical
figures, despite the fact that the ancient Greeks didnt feel that way!
In summary, if the god hypothesis is simply a vague statement, it can be
at least provisionally rejected as silly and unnecessary even though technically
we cannot prove gods non-existence. If, on the contrary, it is meant
as a relatively precise statement about the physical world, then we can
investigate gods existence with the well established hypothetical-deductive
method. How do we do that? By considering the supposed attributes of such
a god, and treating them as testable hypotheses.
For example, one of the most powerful of the theses used
by theologians in pre-Darwinian times was the argument of intelligent design
It is astounding that this same argument is still at the center of modern
controversy thanks to some amazingly uninformed books published recently
(Behe, 1996), coupled with rampant die-hard ideological blindness, and
notwithstanding the fact that Hume (1976) had
demolished the argument even before it was advanced by Paley. This is even
more extraordinary since Darwin himself cleverly turned the argument around
by painstakingly demonstrating that the universe is not perfect at all
1996). Take the human eye, one of the creationists favorite examples.
Several people can see dark spots on their eyes if staring at a very bright
light (or sometimes even the blue sky). Those spots are caused by the fact
that the blood vessels serving the eye are positioned in front of the optical
nerves. This is a rather annoying feature, which a competent engineer would
have certainly avoided. In fact,
(i.e., squids, octopuses, and the like) have their eye (which evolved
independently from the vertebrates) built the other way around, so
they dont have to suffer from this inconvenience. The only possible
conclusions are: a) god didnt design the thing; b) god is pretty sloppy
and not worthy of all our unconditional admiration; or c) god likes squids
a lot better than humans.
Here are some other scientific or simply logical reasons not to believe in
an anthropomorphic god, based on actual statements about the physical world
that are an integral part of or are implied by most modern religious beliefs.
The list is far from exhaustive, and its sole purpose is to make the argument
that logic and science can indeed say a lot about specific gods purported
by different religious sects.
Statistics vs. god. There is a very clear inverse relationship between
the amount of human knowledge and the credit (or blame) we are willing to
give god for direct intervention in the universe: the more we know, the less
we attribute to supernatural causes. Any scientist faced with such a remarkably
consistent trend would not hesitate to extrapolate and declare god very likely
Astronomy vs. god. Biblically-derived cosmologies put the Earth at
the center of the universe, and imply that the Sun rotates around our planet.
Copernicus (1543) and Galileo (1632) took care of that hypothesis and of
any possibility that the Sun ever stopped.
Geology vs. god. The Earth is definitely and significantly older than
the few thousand years allowed by western religions (even eastern ones
dont come much closer, see Dalrymple, 1991).
Biology vs. god. Biology is rich with challenges to established religions.
The neo-Darwinian theory of evolution is probably the most powerful blow
of them all, but the demonstration from modern molecular genetics that humans
and chimps are very closely related and almost genetically identical is another.
Current biodiversity studies clearly cast a cloud over the story of Noahs
Ark; given modern estimates of the existence of millions of previously unknown
species, as well as paleontological studies (the dinosaurs and the ammonites
clearly didnt make it on the ark), this is yet another myth we can
safely relegate to allegorical truth.
Anthropology vs. religion. Religions are historical products of changing
human cultures. They come in a variety of flavors, often making very different
claims about the nature of god and the universe. How are we supposed to choose
the right one? Be careful, because many religions will send you to hell if
you make the wrong choice. Furthermore, religions are born, evolve, and die,
as demonstrated by the extinction of ancient Greco-Roman gods, or by the
evolution of the text of the Bible. Therefore religion, and the belief in
any particular god, is a relative concept, subject to historical accidents.
Why Do Scientists Offer the Other Cheek?
If the idea of an anthropomorphic god can be considered a testable statement
about the physical world, and therefore amenable to scientific investigation,
why is it that the overwhelming majority of scientists avoid the whole affair,
claiming as Gould does that it isnt sciences business to mess
with religion? Why is it that we do not feel compelled to actively fight
ignorance and superstition in all of its forms, as our role as educators
should oblige us to do? After all, we do not have any remorse leaving the
ivory tower and engaging in open battle against the dragons of astrology
or parapsychology. So why is it that we do not treat religion as we treat
other forms of superstition, as a threat to human reason and welfare? I offer
three distinct, yet not mutually exclusive, explanations for this puzzling
1. Scientists are schizophrenic. This is what Provine refers to as checking
your brain outside before entering the church. I have met several rational
scientists who simply shut down their higher cognitive functions when it
comes to religion. They truly and honestly do not see any contradiction between
studying evolution or the big bang while simultaneously believing in a
supernatural being in charge of the whole business. The detailed, intimate
acquaintance with a particular discipline fails to translate to the level
of wide-ranging philosophical generalization. In other words, knowing how
to apply the scientific method to solve specific problems does not necessarily
make the application a way of life.
2. The ivory tower effect. Even scientists who are perfectly
aware of the contradiction between a rationalist approach and the belief
in god would rather keep it to themselves in order to avoid conflict. Scientists
know very well that in modern times their ability to live the good intellectual
life could be threatened if they went on a collision course with religious
authorities. It is happening wherever fundamentalists have political power.
Sciences (but, astonishingly, not politics) image has already
been tarnished by two world wars and a host of technological threats to human
survival. Moreover, most people are frightened by novelty, and especially
technological novelty, per se. The invention of the computer is being hailed
as one of the greatest achievements of humankind, and at the same time blamed
for all sorts of evil social consequences, from downsizing to the moral
corruption of Americas youth. There has been much discussion on the
extent to which scientists can claim that the result of their work is value-free,
the extent to which they are personally responsible for how their work will
be applied. Instead of entering such a debate, and attempting to educate
the public and the politicians about the complexities of science, we have
avoided the conflict as much as possible. We have retreated to the ivory
tower, hoping that the problem will go away. Well, it isnt. And the
less we get involved, the more ultraconservatives will demolish the foundations
of the ivory tower.
3. Its the money, stupid! The last explanation for the widespread equivocal
attitude of scientists toward religion is connected to the second one, but
it lies far from philosophical or even political considerations. Instead,
it strikes much closer: our laboratories, summer salaries, and graduate students.
To put it candidly, science has always been a luxury activity at the mercy
of wealthy and powerful people. Galileo had to thank the Medici family and
named the newly discovered satellites of Jupiter after them, and we have
to thank the National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Health,
or the Department of Energy.
While these modern sources of funding for science are admittedly less labile
than an authoritative monarch or aristocrat, they are still far too unreliable
for most scientists peace of mind. In the United States, a steady movement
on the part of conservative political forces is trying to undercut not just
the easy target of government funding of the humanities, but also of the
scientific enterprise. Or at least that part of science that does not have
a direct application to human health or welfare. I am sure that I do not
have to convince this audience of the indirect benefits of basic science,
or even of the radical idea that the pursuit of knowledge per
se is one of humankinds noblest aspirations (fatti non foste
per viver come bruti, ma per seguir virtute e canoscenza says Ulysses
in Dantes Infernoyou were not made to live like brutes, but to
seek virtue and knowledge, Dante, 1321). But perhaps a sobering little-known
fact may serve as a warning and an explanation for why most scientists are
not eager to engage religion. I get most of the funding for my own research
through the National Science Foundation, which provides millions of
(taxpayers) dollars to evolutionary biology every year. Yet, NSF does
not have an evolution panel. Worse yet, if you (as I did) write the e-word
in your layman summarythe statement about your funded research
that is public recordit will be erased and some more politically correct
locution will be substituted. Why? Because the U.S. House of Representatives
and Senate are filled with superstitious people who not only believe in god,
but link the study of evolution to pure evil. And who wants to attract the
attention of budget-minded bigots to his or her source of livelihood?
What Do We Do About It?
The role of a skeptic cannot be limited to just debunking. There has to be
a positive, constructive part, lest we further the popular perception of
skeptics as cynical individuals with nothing of value to contribute to humanity.
In Descartes words, the pars destruens of our arguments needs to be
followed by an equally compelling pars construens (Descartes, 1637).
Unfortunately, as any demolition derby driver or politician knows, it is
much easier to bring down than to build. Nevertheless, let me advance a few
modest proposals for the relationship of science and religion.
First, what is our goal? Belief in the irrational and supernatural is due
mostly to ignorance (and to a few atavistic fears which might be much more
difficult to eradicate). Therefore, our first goal is to educate. This may
be an elusive goal, especially because it is not even clear what we mean
by education. The overwhelming majority of people in the world
are, unfortunately, ignorant. By this I mean not necessarily that they do
not hold college degrees, or that they are illiterate. I mean that they have
a very poor understanding of the real world. Ironically, real
world refers here not to the world of private corporations and stock markets
(as opposed to the unreal world of academia), but to the physical
universe. Poll after poll of the American public reveals a very poor
understanding of such fundamental scientific facts as evolution or the expansion
of the universe. How can we cry foul against people who believe in superstitions
throughout their adult lives, if they do not comprehend even superficially
the world they live in? The fault, I suggest, lies in part with us as scientists
and educators. We do not accept as our mission to seek and spread the truth
to the best of our abilities. We do not see that it is our duty as human
beings to use our laboratories, classrooms, articles, and books to stimulate
and guide people in the quest for a rational interpretation of the world
in which we live. What is at stake here is not just the survival of one form
of superstition or another, nor even the continuation of academic freedom
or of science itself. It is the endurance of the human race in the face of
environmental problems so complex that our best and possibly only hope for
delaying extinction is the widespread application of science to our problems.
Surely the survival of humankind cannot simply rely on good old fashioned
faith in superior beings who supposedly created this perfect place and will
take care of their creatures in the best possible manner. Only when the majority
of our fellow human beings are as proficient in the understanding of the
human world as the majority of scientists are today, will we really see
qualitative changes in human behavior.
How do we pave the way toward such a rationalist society? To be frank, we
may never get there. Nevertheless, scientists and educators have one simple
step to make to start the process. Stop being on the defensive. Do not recoil
whenever students feels their personal beliefs challenged because of a lecture
you delivered on evolution. Do not avoid confrontation with school boards,
trustees, journalists, and politicians. Everybody has the right to believe
whatever they wish, but you have an equal right to teach the best of what
you know to whoever will listen, just as a preacher has the right to stand
at the corner of my department handing out free Bibles. Never forget that
religious fundamentalism doesnt play fair. It is literally out to get
you. Its objective is nothing less than a frontal attack on science and
rationalism. Finally, do not make the error of underestimating the current
trend and dismiss it as a passing swing of the pendulum. By the time the
pendulum swings back, the world might be a much worse place to live than
if we had stood the ground we have inherited from Galileo and Darwin. As
Thomas Huxley observed:
It is as respectable to be a modified monkey as modified dirt.
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Massimo Pigliucci is assistant professor in the departments of Botany and
of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville.
He has a Doctorate in genetics from the University of Ferrara (Italy), and
a Ph.D. in botany from the University of Connecticut. He has been a post-doctoral
associate at Brown University. His academic research focuses on the ecology
and evolution of genotype-environment interactions, that is on the old nature
vs. nurture problem. He wrote two popular science books in Italian: The Romance
of Life, on evolution for high school students; and The Road to the Stars,
on the exploration of the solar system, co-authored with Franco Foresta Martin.
Sinauer is about to publish is technical book Phenotypic Evolution: A Reaction
Norm Perspective (co-authored with Carl Schlichting), and he is now finishing
a second technical book, Phenotypic Plasticity: Environmental, Molecular,
and Organismal Perspectives for Landes-Academic Press.