It’s Bigger than You Might Think

Skeptics sometimes frame the science versus religion debate as one of knowledge and enlightenment versus ignorance and superstition. This framing oversimplifies the problem in a number of ways. It leaves the impression that worldviews rejecting religion pose no danger to science. It also fails to make distinctions between religious approaches that are hostile to science and those that are not. Similar to the way this framing implicitly views religion as unitary, it implicitly views science as unitary—ignoring the varied disciplinary perspectives on the debate. Moreover, it often assumes that “science” refers to the physical and biological sciences, thereby omitting important evidence- and logic-based contributions from the social and behavioral sciences. And by implicitly treating the debate as essentially a philosophical one, it often overlooks important cultural information.

Varieties of Skeptical Experience

A series of books in recent years, including a number of best-sellers, has made a compelling intellectual case for skepticism about religion. Reading them, one is struck not only by the force of their arguments, but by how little substantive overlap exists among them. Perhaps this is because, in addition to bringing strong academic credentials, the authors come from different disciplinary backgrounds: biology (Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion), journalism and literature (Christopher Hitchens, God Is Not Great), philosophy (Daniel Dennett, Breaking the Spell), neuroscience (Sam Harris, The End of Faith), and physics (Victor Stenger, God: The Failed Hypothesis).

Following the spread of Islamic fundamentalism abroad and the religious right at home, these authors and others have highlighted the conflict between science and religion. In its simplest terms, the conflict is between two ways of understanding the world: evidence and logic versus unquestioned authoritative texts and faith. But to understand the conflict and its implications better, the definition needs to be expanded—from science versus religion to science versus ideology, with some forms of religion (especially those fundamentalisms currently on the rise) being a subset of the ideologies that conflict with science.

Some have claimed that there is no conflict. Stephen Jay Gould, for example, referred to the non-overlapping magisteria of science and religion, with the former describing reality—what is—and the latter dealing with values—how we ought to act. It’s true that you can’t derive an “ought” from an “is,” but critics of religion argue that knowledge of what the world is actually like better equips one to make moral judgments than do faith and dogma. On the other hand, theologians spend a lot of time considering issues of right and wrong and engaging in moral reasoning, and these must have the effect of sharpening their thinking. Still, reasoning from those faith-based premises which are at best unverifiable (e.g., God is everywhere) and at worst demonstrably false (e.g., the universe is only six-thousand years old), can only diminish the confidence we have in their conclusions.

Science does offer the possibility of experimental ethics—using controlled studies and cross-cultural evidence to understand the sociocultural, psychological, and biological processes involved in moral reasoning, and to evaluate the empirical consequences of different values or systems of values. It is true that the results of any such investigations would have to be considered with reference to some independent criteria, so that values (or meta-values) can’t be kept out of the equation. However, nonbelievers would argue that our species evolved social tendencies—albeit tempered by widely varying cultural circumstances—that would prove adequate to the task, without added benefit from consulting religious authority. For example, the characteristically human traits of caring for children over many years and living with one another in social groups provide a sufficient explanation for viewing murder as wrong, without recourse to the Ten Commandments.

Insisting that the two magisteria are non-overlapping also would seem to imply that certain issues are off-limits for scientific investigation. This is a bad idea, since it’s quite possible that future research will have strong implications for the religious domain—for example, turning religious experiences on and off through brain stimulation or drugs (psychedelics have been known to produce the latter effect, albeit unreliably), or making people more or less moral (the latter is known to result from certain brain injuries and toxic states).

Scientists as Skeptics

Comparative studies of the religious beliefs among Americans in the various natural and social sciences have produced some variability in results, related to differences in methodologies and samples. In one study, psychology and biology had the highest proportion of atheists and agnostics (over 60 percent), while in a larger study it was biologists and physicists (over 70 percent). Still, the pattern of results is clear. The percentage of nonbelievers and doubters is highest among scientists with the strongest intellectual credentials (members of the National Academy of Sciences; professors at elite research universities), and diminishes—while still remaining high—as the distance from this peak increases.

One might point to the differences in rates of disbelief among the sciences to ask whether the various disciplines differ in the degree to which they encourage an application of their professional skepticism to matters of religion. And since Americans are much more religious than Europeans, the percentage of atheists and agnostics among European scientists is probably significantly higher.

The different sciences provide differing reasons for skepticism about religion. For physicists, introducing God as a cause would interfere with or contradict their extremely powerful explanatory models that go all the way back to the Big Bang. The view of God as the cause of the Big Bang has many limitations in that it’s unverifiable and merely raises the further question of what caused God. In a similar way, for biologists, introducing God as a cause would interfere with or contradict their extremely powerful explanatory model of Darwinian evolution—as has been widely discussed in recent years.

For psychologists, the evidence for religious belief comes from religious experience; and a pervasive finding from the scientific study of behavior is that subjective experience does not reliably correspond to reality. From perceptual illusions to false memories to socially influenced judgments, psychologists have learned to view people’s experiences as phenomena to be explained, and not to be taken at face value. Thus, intense and even life-altering religious experiences are viewed as interesting psychological phenomena, rather than as telling us something new about reality. Among the explanations available for any particular instance are: expectancy (including cultural expectations and norms), the placebo effect, suggestibility, and hypnosis; stress; grief; sleep deprivation; sensory deprivation; toxic and drug-induced states; a variety of infectious diseases, metabolic disorders, and other medical conditions; various neurological conditions, including epilepsy; and a variety of psychiatric disorders. Furthermore, many scientists have experiences of religious intensity—of natural or human-made beauty—and may even produce works of art, music, or literature. Certainly they value such experiences deeply—they just aren’t likely to attribute them to the existence of a reality that contradicts scientific evidence.

Given the general principle that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, it’s not surprising that scientists—from whatever discipline—find that religious claims fail to meet the tests that they and their colleagues use in their everyday work. Anthropologists have provided detailed descriptions of hundreds of faithfully held, wildly different, and mutually contradictory systems of religious belief. These can’t all be true, and since they’re based on faith there can be no basis for deciding among them. These ethnographic studies foster what might be called “disbelief by exhaustion.” Furthermore, linguistic and other scientific analyses of religious texts, as well as comparative studies of religion, all point to the human origins of religious claims. For example, one study classified over 400 societies into six different types and examined their beliefs about God. A belief in a “Supreme Creator who is active and supports human morality” was found to be most characteristic of herding societies. One can easily see that herders who care for their flocks might view people as a flock under the care of a Supreme Herder. The ancient Hebrews were a Middle Eastern herding society, so their view that “The Lord is my shepherd” is more or less what one would expect from them.

Ideology versus Science

History shows that religions and their associated beliefs, like other cultural phenomena, change over time. The causes of such changes are diverse and often political (like military conquest or a ruler’s fiat), but it is difficult to think of a better reason than persuasion by scientific evidence. In the words of the Dalai Lama, “If science proves some belief of Buddhism wrong, then Buddhism will have to change.” In contrast to fundamentalists, many believers and theologians from a variety of religions would have no problem agreeing with such a statement—substituting their own religion for Buddhism in the sentence.

Like religious fundamentalism, nonreligious and anti-religious political ideologies have also rejected scientific evidence when it conflicts with their tenets. Two prominent twentieth-century examples are Lysenkoism and the racist theories of Nazi Germany. Lysenkoism was a Soviet version of Lamarck’s eighteenth-century theory of the inheritance of acquired characteristics; it rejected genetic findings that conflicted with the communist ideology of environmental determinism. The Nazi theory of Aryan superiority erroneously asserted biological reasons for group differences in culture and a biological justification for exterminating inferior cultures. Many scientists were imprisoned or perished under Stalin and Hitler, and many more buckled under pressure and committed acts of scientific dishonesty as the price of self-preservation.

More recently in the United States we have seen a rejection of Darwinian evolution and interference with stem cell research because of conflicts with some forms of Christianity, and distortions of and impediments to research on global climate change because they conflict with capitalist ideology and economic interests. While scientists haven’t been imprisoned, their employment and research funding have been threatened and there has been a chilling effect on scientists’ freedom of expression.

In other words, the key conflict is not between religion and science, but between ideology and science. As far as scientists are concerned, there are two key differences between religion, communism, fascism, capitalism, and other isms on the one hand, and science on the other. The first is that ideologies know the answer before you ask the question and require their adherents to agree; and the second, more problematic one is that they also require scientists to agree.

It is both fascinating and extremely difficult to try to understand the complex interactions of nature and nurture at the various levels of gene, organism, and ecosystem; of individual, society, and culture; of patterns at a given point in time and of changes over time on scales from nanoseconds to billions of years. It takes many years of hard work to gain the technical expertise to ask the relevant questions and chip away at finding answers. So it is easy to see that many scientists view it as hubris when religious people (many of whom lack the education or interest to inform themselves) dismiss their work out of hand because it conflicts with something in a book they consider holy.

Some claim that science itself is an ideology, dogma, or religion, and point to reigning scientific orthodoxies that have been and continue to be overturned. There is a big difference, however, between the use of evidence and logic to change scientific beliefs, and the use of power and unverifiable claims to change religious ones.

Scientists are human. They are products of their own society, culture, and epoch. They have their own strengths and weaknesses; ideals, foibles, and prejudices; and in their private lives may have strongly held religious or political beliefs. These may even influence the questions they investigate, or may create psychological blinders that lead them to misinterpret their findings. But science itself, with its emphasis on open discussion, skepticism, and testing alternative explanations, and its reliance on evidence and logic, contains a built-in corrective feedback mechanism that ideologies lack.

Religion, like other group identities, serves to create an us-versus-them division that can be used to further many ends. It unites a large group by convincing members that they share a common identity and interests, and disciplines wayward members. Ethnocentrism—viewing the world from the perspective of one’s group—is a key element in holding groups together, whether united by religion, political ideology, or other social identities such as race, class, or gender (or some combination of any of those factors). And when a group is internally united by its ideology and ethnocentrically opposed to outsiders, it is easy to see how it might want to impose its ideology on others—including both potential members, and opponents such as scientists.

It is this coercive power of ideologies that constitutes the real problem for science.

And yet ideologies are extremely useful. Anyone who has tried to mobilize individuals to act knows how difficult it is; but governments need to do this on a massive scale. Dictatorships can use brute force, but democracies need ways to motivate the masses—to get people to want to do what their leaders want, without feeling that they are merely doing their bidding. Seneca recognized this nearly two thousand years ago when he wrote, “Religion is regarded by the common people as true, by the wise as false, and by the rulers as useful.” During the Cold War, for example, when the Soviet Union suppressed religious expression, it was a useful tactic for the United States Government to contrast American religiosity with “godless Communism;” and the words “under God” were added to the Pledge of Allegiance. (Perhaps this tactic has outlived its usefulness. If we are now to be mobilized in a war against Islamic extremism, where religious conformity is forced on many people against their will, a secular state with individuals having the right to practice any religion or no religion would seem to have more appeal in the Muslim world than a Christian crusade pitting “our” religion against “theirs.”)

Even so, it’s understandable to ask, why now? Why are fundamentalist anti-scientific ideologies spreading rather than declining?

The Contributions of Science to Anti-Science

During the nineteenth century, as the United States population advanced westward, displacing the indigenous peoples in its path, a religious movement known as the Ghost Dance spread among Native Americans of the Great Plains. In one version of the movement, the spiritual power of Ghost Shirts was said to protect their wearers from bullets—a claim demonstrated to be false when over 150 Lakota Sioux died at Wounded Knee.

Revitalization movements like the Ghost Dance occur during periods of great change, when old social forms no longer enable people to satisfy their needs. Such movements are usually transient and can be seen as rear-guard actions, bound to fail (though perhaps at catastrophic cost) before the inevitable adjustment to the new realities of the natural and social environment. Calls for Islam (or other fundamentalisms) to “accommodate to modernity” recognize that some cultural beliefs—no matter how widespread or useful they may have been in the past—are no longer adequate to functioning in the twenty-first century. It is noteworthy that these revitalization movements are occurring in the West—especially the United States—and not just in the less-developed Muslim world.

Meanwhile, the rate of change appears to be—if anything—accelerating. Whether we speak of technological innovation and economic globalization, or of the population explosion, environmental devastation, depletion of natural resources, and climate change, not only does change take place on a breathtaking scale, but it is often for the worse. Under conditions of pervasive and continuous change, the future is unpredictable. This means that, while the old ideologies may have to change or disappear, there will be no stable social or natural environment in the foreseeable future to which new social forms can adapt.

The best we can hope for is a world in which rapid and unpredictable change is understood to be normal, and cultural adaptation is seen as a rapidly evolving process, rather than the continuation of cherished traditions. Since cultural forms tend (almost by definition) toward self-perpetuation, one must be skeptical about this actually occurring. Furthermore, the fruits of science have helped people to live longer, and older people adapt to change less easily and often become more religious. Thus, both science-caused change and science-caused longevity may indirectly contribute to the rise in anti-science ideologies.

In summary, broadening the debate from science versus religion to science versus ideology, highlighting the differing contributions of the various sciences to the debate, and especially adding the knowledge and perspectives of the social and behavioral sciences to the mix create the context for a greater breadth and depth of understanding to the issues involved.