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 relativism” by John 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 couldn’t 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, let’s 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 Don’t 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 Leuba’s 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 Leuba’s 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 Witham’s attempt lies precisely in the comparison with Leuba’s.

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 Withan’s 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 shows—and as was reported by Leuba—scientists 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, Leuba’s original hypothesis is very difficult to test by a simple repetition of his experiment. Leuba’s 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 Galileo’s 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 person’s understanding that there is little place for God in the real universe?

Further, Leuba’s 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 today’s 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 company’s 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 Darwin’s and Freud’s 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, 1997).

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 Leuba’s predictions: the percentage of believers decreased from 51% to 38%! The last question probed the desire for immortality. While 34% of Leuba’s 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 Witham’s take on the subject. Instead of concluding that scientists are “keeping the faith” (insinuating that it isn’t 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, Leuba’s research contributed in to this sad state of affairs. His findings were one of the sparks which started Williams James Bryan’s 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, Stephen Jay 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 (facts).
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.” Gould’s 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):

Today…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.….However…The moment 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 that’s stood fast for over 3,000 years; that’s hideous, and we don’t 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, and—above all—they evolve. So, why relinquish our right to rationally discuss and modify moral beliefs to an authority that doesn’t have a shred of supporting physical evidence to submit?

Gould’s 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 Kant’s 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 world—and especially in western societies—would 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 agnosticism.

Let me clarify this point. Even though believers—especially when cornered by obvious unpleasant realities of the physical universe—maintain that belief in god requires faith, and it is therefore immune from any contingent or scientific investigation, they don’t 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 data.

2. In layperson’s 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 rejected—as 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 didn’t 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 god’s non-existence. If, on the contrary, it is meant as a relatively precise statement about the physical world, then we can investigate god’s 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 (Paley, 1831). 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 (Dawkins, 1996). Take the human eye, one of the creationist’s 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, cephalopods (i.e., squids, octopuses, and the like) have their eye (which evolved independently from the vertebrate’s) built the other way around, so they don’t have to suffer from this inconvenience. The only possible conclusions are: a) god didn’t 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 non-existent.

• 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 don’t 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 Noah’s Ark; given modern estimates of the existence of millions of previously unknown species, as well as paleontological studies (the dinosaurs and the ammonites clearly didn’t 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 isn’t science’s 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 behavior.

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. Science’s (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 America’s 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 isn’t. And the less we get involved, the more ultraconservatives will demolish the foundations of the ivory tower.

3. It’s 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 humankind’s noblest aspirations (“fatti non foste per viver come bruti, ma per seguir virtute e canoscenza” says Ulysses in Dante’s Inferno—you 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 summary”—the statement about your funded research that is public record—it 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 doesn’t 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.

Skeptic.com

 

 
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