Top 10 reasons scientists should stop attacking religious beliefs

Top 10 reasons scientists should stop attacking religious beliefs

Have a listen to the slide-show version on YouTube

(Just in case, like me, you suspect the whole science v’s religion thing may have gone a little far.)

reason number…

10 – It isn’t scientific

“If it’s not testable, it’s not science.” Karl Popper, originator of the principle of falsifiability and generally regarded as one of the greatest science philosophers of the 20th century, said, “all knowledge is provisional [and] capable refutation at any moment”. (1)

Arguably this is one of science’s greatest strengths. All theories are subject to challenge at any time.

Equally, the limits to knowledge must be admitted. Ignorance and uncertainty must be recognized fearlessly and explored passionately.

T.H. Huxley – the British biologist known as ‘Darwin’s Bulldog’ because of his fierce advocacy of evolution – called for “the rigorous application of a single principle … follow your reason as far as it will take you … (and) … do not pretend that conclusions are certain which are not demonstrated.” (2)

Far from intellectual cowardice (with the greatest of respect to Darwin’s modern bulldog, Mr. Dawkins) this agnostic approach to knowledge requires intellectual rigor and bravery and lies at the core of science.

As a private individual, feel free to cherish your beliefs as zealously as you wish (including a belief that the universe does not have a creator), but don’t claim them in the name of science. As a scientist (or simply as a scienceophile), be passionately agnostic.


reason number…

top10reasonsb2b9 – It isn’t necessary

In 1633 (only five human lifetimes ago) Galileo was imprisoned for the rest of his life, for believing that the earth revolved around the sun. (3) In 2007 Pope Benedict XVI said that debate between creationism and evolution was an “absurdity,” saying that evolution can coexist with faith. (4)

  • the Church of Latter-day Saints – “leave geology, biology, archeology, and anthropology, no one of which has to do with the salvation of the souls of mankind, to scientific research”,
  • the Episcopal Church – “belief in the glorious ability of God to create in any manner, and in this affirmation reject the rigid dogmatism of the ‘Creationist’ movement”,
  • the United Methodist Church – “science’s descriptions of cosmological, geological, and biological evolution are not in conflict with theology” and “many apparent scientific references in [the] Bible … are intended to be metaphorical [and] were included to help understand the religious principles, but not to teach science”,
  • Evangelical Lutheran Church in America – “God actually may have used evolution in the process of creation”,
  • Presbyterian Church – “evolution and the Bible do not contradict each other”,
  • United Church of Christ – “Evolution helps us see our faithful God in a new way … calling forth life through complex processes spanning billions of years … Evolution also helps us see ourselves anew, as creatures who share a common origin with other species”,
  • Buddhism – the Dalai Lama routinely affirms that “when science proves that Buddhist scriptures are incorrect, then the scriptures should be rejected”. (5)

Certainly there are churches and religious individuals who actively resist science but for the most part, religions have been flexible enough to accommodate science. Doctrines have adjusted, interpretations have changed and most churches are content to accept most scientific knowledge.

You may perceive direct contradictions between scientific knowledge and religious teachings and accordingly be incapable of accepting both but it isn’t necessary for you to do so. You need only stand back and allow others to do so.

If religious people can reconcile science with their religion (and clearly many can) then does it really matter that you cannot?



reason number…

top10reasonsc108 – It isn’t smart

When you attack people, you invite a counter-attack. In the case of people whose cultural identity is defined, to a large extent, by religion, you are attacking their society, their friends and family, their way of life. Expect a strong response.

But if you don’t attack their beliefs, if you don’t back them against a wall, you leave the door open for them to support science.

According to Win-Gallup’s 2012 “Global Index of Religiosity and Atheism” survey, 59% of people describe themselves as religious, 23% as ‘not religious’ and 13% as atheist. (6)

It could hardly be described as strategic for the 13% to attack the 59%. To make matters worse you alienate some or all the 23% who, despite being ‘not religious’ choose not to identify themselves with the vocally anti-religious ‘atheist’ group. So attack religious belief and you make it 13% against somewhere between 59% and 82%.

It would be even less smart for the 13% to attack the 59%, not for what they believe, but for what a minority of them believe.

According to a Pew Research survey of religious people in the U.S. (where belief in god is around 88%), only 33% believe that their holy book should be taken literally, word for word. (7)

If the same proportion holds for the rest of the world then roughly a third of Win-Gallup’s 59% – call it 20% – believe that their holy book should be taken literally.

So up to 80 percent of people are potential supporters of science… unless you attack half of them.

Respect others’ beliefs, even when they contradict yours. Instead of attacking them, invite them to embrace and support science at the same time as they embrace their religion.


reason number…

top10reasonsd97 – It misses the point

Increasingly, scientific research is showing that religious involvement is associated with better physical health, better mental health, and longer survival.

A U.S. National Health Interview Survey (Hummer & others, 1999) followed 21,204 people over 8 years. After controlling for age, sex, race, and region, researchers found that those who did not attend church were 1.87 times more likely to have died than those who attended more than weekly. This translated into a life expectancy of 83 years for the church-goers compared with 75 years for non church-goers. (8)

If you ask religious people – in a non-adversarial manner – what is important to them about their religion you will, of course, encounter a wide range of replies, but usually focusing on community or purpose or morality. Rarely will you find someone who follows their religion because they have a burning desire to understand where the universe came from.

You may feel that your beliefs about nature and origin of the universe underlie your approach to life, and affect everything you say and do. And from a theological perspective, most religions appear to take the same approach.

But… (as Robert McCauley of Emory University points out) the religions that the majority of people actually practice in their daily lives have a completely different focus (9), so criticizing literal interpretations of their theology will fail to persuade, dismally.

Don’t expect others to give up their source of comfort and community and purpose – and the associated physical and psychological benefits – for questions of cosmology that they may see as of little relevance to their daily lives.



reason number…

top10reasonse86 – It isn’t nice

Enough said.

Actually, although it should be enough to simply say, ‘it isn’t nice’, I suspect some think that challenging what they perceive to be falsehood, is more important than being nice, so here’s something to think about.

Robert Cialdini of Arizona State University lists six triggers that influence us to act, to believe, to be persuaded (10). One of these is that people are more easily persuaded by people they like. (The full list is; reciprocity, commitment, social proof, authority, liking and scarcity.)

Psychological experiments (like that of Jerry Burger from Santa Clara University and others in 2001) have showed that compliance to a request can be doubled by simple interactions designed to encourage mild affinity. (11)

If you want to persuade religious people to support science, be pleasant and respectful. Play nice. Enough said?


reason number…

top10reasonsf125 – The door is pretty wide open

So now for the big, big question: what is the origin of the universe?

No, really.

A singularity we call the Big Bang? Okay well that’s what the standard model says, but what was the origin of the big bang? Cosmologists offer up a zoo of possibilities including;

  • colliding branes
  • a quantum fluctuation in a previous universe
  • a perpetual cycle of bangs and crunches
  • a black hole
  • a superfluid of spacetime
  • it’s just one of an infinite number of universes in the multiverse
  • it’s a hologram projected onto a two dimensional surface
  • it’s a simulation

And while we’re at it… is the universe really five dimensional and shaped like a Pringle or was that eleven dimensions and shaped like a funnel and what the heck is dark matter anyway and does it really exist or do we just have gravity wrong and what’s dark energy and are scientists really telling us they can’t find 96% of the universe?

Okay, so no-one’s perfect but in the context of the ideas above, is the concept of a creator so outlandish? Could the universe simply be a figment of some entity’s imagination? A work of art perhaps? And wouldn’t that make said entity our omnipotent, omniscient god?

The honest answer is, we don’t know. As Stephen Hawking says, “The greatest enemy of knowledge is not ignorance, it is the illusion of knowledge.” So lets bravely admit the limits of our knowledge and leave the door open (even just a crack) to the possibility of some sort of creator.

reason number…

top10reasonsg134 – It’s hard to imagine

Essentially, science tells us that at first, space and time didn’t exist. Then for some undetermined reason, a singularity came into being, infinitely small but exploding in size at a fantastic rate. As it grew, it cooled and some of its energy converted into matter and antimatter. Most of this stuff collided with its antiparticle and was annihilated but mysteriously there was a little more matter than antimatter so our universe of matter particles prevailed and the elementary particles grouped together to form atomic nuclei which eventually combined with electrons to form atoms. Strangely, these atoms weren’t evenly distributed though, and so they began to group together to form clouds of dust, galaxies and stars, which created heavier elements. The stars exploded, spraying the universe with the heavy elements which formed planets, upon which some of these heavier elements combined in complex ways to create nucleic acid which somehow began replicating itself, sometimes erroneously and thereby changing and adapting to the environment and becoming more and more sophisticated. These organisms began operating in colonies that, in turn became increasingly sophisticated, developing specialized cells for different functions. These multi-cellular organisms then mutated and changed, becoming worms, fish, dinosaurs and large brained primates who spend inordinate amounts of time wondering why it all happened.

Okay. So in other words…

Explosion. Energy coagulates into hydrogen and helium, which randomly clumps together to form stars which explode to randomly spray the universe with heavier elements, which randomly clump together to form planets and self-organizing, replicating collections of particles which very un-randomly think, feel, live and love: us!

Yeah right. Likely story.

Admit it. It’s hard to stomach, isn’t it? All that happened randomly? Life kick-started itself, completely spontaneously? It’s tempting to attribute some purpose, some guidance to it all, isn’t it? It’s not all that hard to understand the mindset of someone who does, is it?

reason number…

top10reasonsh143 – It isn’t really about assessing the evidence

From what I read, thousands of scientists have assembled a massive body of evidence tracking the motion of stars and galaxies, confirming the accelerating expansion of the universe, and analyzing the cosmic microwave background radiation, all confirming some sort of ‘big bang’.

And mathematicians have modeled the universe backwards and forwards and confirmed the veracity of the standard model of physics and cosmology and the existence, of something like dark matter and dark energy.

But I haven’t done any of that myself. The truth is, I’m not competent to judge the evidence and, with respect, neither are you. Even lifelong cosmologists only study tiny pieces of the jigsaw puzzle individually.

So how do we decide whether science’s picture of the universe has any validity or not?

We do what we always do. We decide whom to trust.

I’m happy to trust science, which has given us medicines and electricity (and cars and phones and washing machines and computers, and…). I observe a disciplined approach to assessing evidence, where claims are subject to independent confirmation and vigorous challenge by appropriate specialists, and I’m comfortable with that.

Religious people trust their church because… it gives them a sense of community or purpose or a basis for their morality… or for whatever reasons they choose.

In practice, for most of us, it isn’t really about assessing cosmological evidence. The difference is simply in whom we choose to trust. It’s not really such a big difference when you think about it that way, is it?

reason number…

top10reasonsi122 – It’s unnatural

Psychologists tell us that from the earliest age, as our minds grapple to understand the world around us, we learn to distinguish between objects (things which are acted on) and agents (things which initiate actions).

In 1999, Deborah Kelemen and colleagues from Boston University showed that young children tend to reason about natural phenomena in terms of purpose. (12)

In 2008, George Newman and his colleagues at Yale University conducted a series of experiments on infants (which reinforced previous experiments with verbal age children). The experiment involved a setup of blocks that would become ordered or disordered after an action. (13) These actions included a rolling ball (an unintentional agent) or a ball with eyes on it (an intellectual agent). Later experiments used a human hand (representing the intellectual agent) and a robotic hand (the unintentional agent). They observed that the children were significantly more surprised when the non-intellectual agent would order the blocks.

It seems we naturally seek the agent hiding behind unexplained actions. It’s a fundamental aspect of our cognitive development and the tendency apparently doesn’t go away with maturity. As adults, we routinely use language that describes inanimate objects as if they were agents, even when we ‘know better’.

So the tendency for people to attribute the order we see around us to an agent, and to imbue that agent with purpose, is a natural function of the way our minds understand the world we live in. It’s arguably more natural than to envisage order spontaneously emerging. In this context, religious belief is natural. Entirely understandable.

And with understanding, comes empathy, and with empathy comes tolerance, and…


reason number…

top10reasonsj191 – Tolerance is more important than knowledge.

Albert Einstein said that “imagination is more important than knowledge” not because he didn’t value knowledge. He dedicated his life to the pursuit of knowledge, but he valued imagination even more highly.

In the same way, you could dedicate your life to the pursuit of truth but uphold the principle of tolerance as being even more important.

Yes, the truth is vitally important. Sometimes we make decisions, particularly as societies, of great consequence. And in order to make good decisions, we need to base them on fact, on truth. Decisions based on falsehoods, misunderstandings and delusions can’t be expected to be good ones, and bad decisions sometimes lead to great suffering.

But throughout human history, one thing has led to more suffering than poor decision making.

Whether religious or secular, whether of race or gender or tribe or ideology, intolerance has arguably been at the core of more human-caused suffering than any other source.

No doubt this is what led Karl Popper to say “we should consider incitement to intolerance and persecution as criminal, in the same way as we should consider incitement to murder, or to kidnapping, or to the revival of the slave trade, as criminal.”

So by all means, dedicate your life to pursuing the truth, but when you have to choose between truth and tolerance…

…choose tolerance.




  1. I disagree with most of this.

    As the citations of “deeply held religious beliefs” become a bad, repetitive joke worthy of a drinking game when it comes to debates on the liberties and equality of LGBT people, women, and other populaces, I find the experience of incredulous arguments for legal and rhetorical repression/lockout of human beings and against scientific advancement of our societies to be emotionally hardening.

    Furthermore, how can exercises in tolerance or non-exercises of majority religious privilege stay for long when those who are steeped in such privilege deride/mock/misconstrue tolerance only to mean the denial of their poor, injured privilege? “What about tolerance for us Bible-believing Christians/true Muslims? The government is persecuting us! Take the country back!”

    Tolerance doesn’t work without understanding. And the understanding simply isn’t there when orthodox belief – that which is plenished by passionate rhetoric – colors everything.

    And tolerance for orthodox Abrahamic religions is a one-way street. Orthodox Abrahamism can damn a person like me to eternal torture for my non-belief and non-obedience, and ideologues of the same can throw their weight against people like me in all possible aspects, but I have to tolerate such ideologies? How can I be tolerant of hateful, anti-intellectual ideologies which condemn my existence? How can I *not* speak against those ideologies, or publicly urge people to reject Abrahamic ideology in their considerations about, well, anything?

    • I understand your frustration, Harry. I also understand that the extreme fundamentalists will never accept you or display tolerance toward you. But, the moderate majority might, a lot of them, anyway, if you don’t attack their way of life. You have an acute understanding of what it’s like to be attacked for what you are. You know how that feels. So if you treat the moderate majority like they are extreme fundamentalists, and attack them, they’ll feel the same way about you, that you feel about the extremist minority.

      And the cycle will continue and worsen.

      Or you could have a go at breaking the cycle.

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