Science Or Religion? — Is It That Simple?
In this blog post I will discuss one of the main conclusions of Michael Shermer’s paper Science and Pseudoscience: The Difference in Practice and the Difference It Makes, namely that science and religion are in competition with one another. In conjunction, I will expand on the relationship between science and religion, how common scientific literacy is, whether belief is correlated with the lack of scientific knowledge if science and religion are at odds and whether religious academics can justify their beliefs. We will also discuss the categories that Shermer uses to demarcate science from pseudoscience and then apply the demarcation question to two specific court cases that Shermer mentions in his paper, but to much less of an extent.
Throughout these blog posts, I will be using the term evolution or natural selection both referring to macroevolution as understood by the scientific community to be the large-scale random mechanism that through adopting traits and characteristics introduces new cellular structures, organisms, and species. Correspondingly, whenever the word religion is used it is addressing evangelical fundamentalist Christianity considering that the predominant monotheistic belief in the United States — the country in question — is evangelical Christianity. Liberal, Roman-Catholic, and Eastern-Orthodox Christianity are exemptions not discussed in this essay.
Background on Shermer
First, it is important to mention why Shermer is an appropriate appeal to authority when discussing science and pseudoscience. As we will see throughout this essay, one of the main reasons pseudoscience is still prevalent in today’s society is that it relies heavily on the preferential treatment of evidence and listening to an inappropriate authority. Shermer is primarily a writer and holds a Ph.D. in the history of science from Claremont Graduate University and as such is able to reliably comment on scientific theories. He is not a scientist, nonetheless, he has through his writing proven himself to understand the scientific theories and thus has been accepted by the scientific community and is often included in panels alongside tenured science professors. He boasts a prolific writing career with numerous New York Times bestsellers. Some of his books include
- The Believing Brain: From Ghosts and Gods to Politics and Conspiracies — How We Construct Beliefs and Reinforce Them as Truths
- How We Believe: The Search for God in an Age of Science, and
- Skeptic: Viewing the World with a Rational Eye.
The Popularity of Science:
Shermer starts his essay by presenting a Harris Interactive poll that seems to indicate that scientific literacy is at odds with monotheistic belief. In the poll, 2303 individuals were asked to indicate for which pseudoscientific claim they believe in. The options included anything from religion to less held beliefs such as Bigfoot sightings, ufology, and reincarnation.
The poll shows that just over 80% of the people answering held fundamentalist Christian beliefs such as believing in Jesus, God, the Resurrection, Heaven and Hell, and the Virgin Birth. Beliefs in other superstitious claims were less common but still present ranging from 40–20%. These included Ufology, BigFoot, Creationism, witches, and reincarnation.
This is not the first poll that can testify to the American aptitude for unfounded belief. Another statistic suggests that the United States is second to last of the top thirty developed countries that reject Darwin’s theory of natural selection (Hood 56).
All that lay-people have when thinking about the intricacies of existence is intuition and unfortunately, these tend to dampen the objective perspective that is necessary for conducting science (Hood 57–8).
Intuition is at odds with what evolutionary biology requires people to believe, namely that we not only share an ancestor with chimpanzees but with carrots as well. Shermer sees the prevalence of fundamentalist belief as the result of the absence of scientific knowledge. The Emeritus Professor of Mathematics at Oxford University, John C. Lennox, would argue that Shermer erroneously attributes correlation with causation when relating the lack of scientific literacy to the prevalence of evangelistic belief.
In his book God and Stephen Hawking, he argues that science can not answer why “something exists rather than nothing” (39). Lennox believes that God is the answer to that question; the explanation for the immaterial resulting in the material. Science simply attempts at explaining the observable not the unobservable. In the words of Lennox, “[T]heories and laws do not bring matter/energy into existence” (43).
In his essay, Shermer does not provide much time nor effort to properly represent the Christian side of the argument which we will look at in more detail here. Shermer simply assumes that the Harris Interactive poll is indicative towards concluding that scientific literacy and Christian belief are at odds.
It is less clear that scientific literacy and religious belief are contrary to one another and more clear that the scientific method is at odds with what makes up the foundation of religious beliefs. Be that as it may, intuition and critical thinking seem to be at counter ends of the spectrum of knowledge. Granted, science relies heavily on empiricism and rejects all hypotheses that lack credibility.
Religion is dependent on the lack of evidence — belief is celebrated, not the lack of it.
Science and Religion, by definition, thus have been seen as opposites. It is important to see the differences between the scientific method, religious belief, and belief in claims based on insufficient evidence. Theists believe that their faith is not blind but guided by an objective understanding of physics, biology, and mathematics.
The proposal that science and belief are fundamentally at odds has been promoted in the public eye from a wide range of secular thinkers most recently by the “Four Horsemen”. The group is comprised of:
- the neuroscientist and philosopher Sam Harris,
- the philosopher Daniel C. Dennett,
- the evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins,
- and lastly the now deceased journalist Christopher Hitchens.
Religious thinkers have publicly voiced their disagreements with the Four Horsemen and other proponents of “scientism” for the past decade. Scientism, the claim that science can explain the origin of the Universe, human values, and objective moral laws has received its fair share of criticism.
The Reasons for Rejecting Natural Selection:
It would be easy to say that the primary reason Darwin is vastly rejected by almost half of the individuals polled is due to their Religious inclinations. This sort of reasoning is unfortunately almost certainly false. Many Christians readily accept Darwinism and teach it in classrooms. The lack of acceptance of natural selection is more likely due to the great political divide between the secular left and the religious right (Dixon 10).
The evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, on the other hand, explains that the mass rejection of evolution could be the due to how counterintuitive it is.
We do not have the experience of living multiple lifetimes and so it is impossible for us to personally observe traits and characteristics being obtained and passed down by species in order to adapt to their environments. Theists find this characteristic to be a fault and discredit its validity. That is, however, exactly what constitutes the scientific method.
The mass rejection of evolution could be due to how counterintuitive it is.
Thomas Dixon, in his book Science and Religion: A Very Short Introduction writes that this question tends to arise from not understanding how scientists conduct their research:
“[O]nly the tiniest fraction of what you know is based directly on your own observations. And even then, those observations only make sense within a complex framework of existing facts and theories which have been accumulated and developed through many centuries” (7).
The scientific community conducts the science, understands it, and relies heavily on peer-critique to weigh the evidence. It is important to mention that after being confirmed by peers in the field, science is still open to refutation and correction. Until additional evidence is revealed the general public is safe to believe the evidence and consider the theory reliable. Otherwise almost every piece of objective knowledge could be considered false.
There is also a difference between the way the public accepts theories that are tied to commonly held religious skepticism, such as natural selection, and beliefs that are tied to biology. For example, regular scientific theories such as the movement of bats in the dark are not put into question. The theories that are questioned tend to be connected to the larger skepticism towards corrupt institutions and governments.
In the year 1790, Lazzaro Spallanzani determined that bats use their ears to navigate in the dark. Before it was not explained as to how bats are able to move around at night since it was known that bats were blind. Through Spallanzani’s research scientists were later able to conclude that bats use echolocation also called biosonar to maneuver without sight. There is no reason for the general public to doubt Spallanzani’s findings due to the fact that the scientific community has confirmed the theory.
The question then is what piece of evidence is sufficient in proving a scientific theory and instituting a well-rounded science. Shermer helpfully distinguishes what these categories of science and non-science are but first, it would be important to discuss the tension between religion and science and whether they are incompatible as Shermer proposes.
My aim is not to provide an answer to this question, it is more to stress that if we are to formulate a conclusion, it should be based on accurate arguments and not on statistics and polling. It would be easy to brush off most theists as wishful thinkers, but it is not responsible critical thinking.
One need not be reminded that most early contributions to science were from theologians — in some cases contributing to theology more than to science as is the case for Newton, by most considered to be the father of modern science. Other theist scientists include:
- Galileo Galilei
- Francis Bacon
- Blaise Pascal
- Robert Boyle, and
- Johannes Kepler
Christian scientists are not only restricted to the period where most of the population believed in a deity. Contemporary scientists such as:
- the already mentioned mathematician John C. Lennox;
- the former director of the Human Genome Project, Francis Collins;
- Nobel Prize-winner in Physics, William Phillips; and
- the 2002 Templeton Prize-winner and former professor of mathematical physics at Cambridge University, John Polkinghorne, all regularly publish works on Christian apologetics.
It is clear that scientists can hold religious beliefs and still conduct responsible science.
It would be easy to brush off most theists as wishful thinkers, but it is not responsible critical thinking.
The Three Categories of Science:
Shermer writes that most scientific claims can be put broadly into the following three categories: normal science, borderlands science, and pseudoscience. He writes that
“membership in these categories is provisional” and may be frequently revisited upon further investigation of the data (206).
includes heliocentrism, evolution, quantum mechanics, the Big Bang, the neurophysiology of brain functions, and others. These are accepted by the mainstream scientific community.
includes creationism, holocaust revisionism, reincarnation, Freudian psychoanalytic theory, and extrasensory perception (ESP), among others.
includes theories that do not yet have enough confirming data to prove that they are normal science. Among these are inflationary cosmology, theories of consciousness, String theory, hypnosis, acupuncture, and chiropractic. There are many different methods of distinguishing these theories from one another and Shermer expands on them in repetitive and extensive detail.
In this essay, I will simply provide one that I found most important and that is the method that scientists call the “Hypothetico-Deductive Model”. They apply it in order to define science and thus differentiate science from non-science.
This method includes:
(1) formulating a hypothesis,
(2) making a prediction based on the hypothesis, and
(3) testing whether it is accurate (208).
Science is therefore about the “past or present” and “open to rejection or confirmation” in the words of Shermer (208). Noticeably this is a very simple way of defining science and does not address the key issue that is at the heart of the demarcation question, namely what evidence is sufficient in proving a conclusion. Shermer, therefore, elaborates on this point further writing that in order to demarcate extensive claims. He considers the following five factors:
(1) the proponent of the claim,
(2) the methodology,
(3) the history of the claim,
(4) attempts to test it, and finally
(5) the coherence of the theories with other theories (208).
This method of demarcating between science and pseudoscience can be particularly useful when addressing beliefs that rely on historical documents and tangible data such as the Resurrection of Jesus Christ or Ufology.
The Resurrection is more convoluted than UFO sightings and is accepted by almost half of the planet’s inhabitants and so we will put more focus on it.
The English New Testament scholar N. T. Wright is perhaps most responsible for popularizing the widely accepted notion among Christian academics and apologists that the resurrection aligns with historical accounts. Bart D. Ehrman, a leading American New Testament scholar, on the contrary, insists that there is not enough evidence for accepting the Resurrection. Two contradictory accounts of the data must be the result of some underlying bias, motives, or preferential acceptance of evidence.
It is important to acknowledge that conflicting accounts can be present not only among the unscientific but among academics as well. If we are to apply Shermer’s five points to demarcate science from pseudoscience we need to first acknowledge that distinguished and even tenured professors are susceptible to making invalid conclusions based on preconceived notions or insufficient evidence. Ufology, creationism, Bigfoot sightings, supernatural interactions, and Holocaust revisionism all rely on an inappropriate historical appeal to authority in order to be justified.
With respect to the Resurrection in particular Christian scholars point out that eyewitness testimonies are enough to confirm that Jesus rose from the dead, stating that Mary Magdalene, doubting Thomas, and the rest of the twelve disciples personally witnessed Jesus’ resurrection from the dead and could not possibly fabricate the truth since that would mean that they would put the lives of all the disciples in jeopardy.
Secular scholars, however, argue what any court accepts to be true today; that eyewitness testimony is unreliable for the obvious reason: everyone is open to bias and fabrication. Thus the debate is not simply about whether the person or supernatural being existed, but rather what historical evidence is sufficient and reliable.
The question then is why people, even academics, accept ideas on insufficient evidence. The answer is once again convoluted.
Belief and Knowledge
Cognitive scientists have been attempting to understand and explain this phenomenon for the past century, if not longer. It is simply a matter of fact that we rarely question the scientific studies that we come across.
Biologists have empirically observed that blue whales are the largest mammals on earth to which few of us object since we have no apparent reason to doubt this study. We accept this claim despite having not personally observed all the mammals on earth.
David Hume infamously argues that this is the underlying Problem of Induction, also known as the Problem of the Uniformity of Nature. Scientists, on the other hand, see the Problem of Induction as the glory of science since it implies that both refutations and errors are what expand our current scientific knowledge. Blue whales are perhaps not the largest mammals on earth as much of the ocean remains unexplored.
This does not mean that we should be skeptical of all objective scientific knowledge.
Most do not understand this important distinction and accept claims readily even when they are obviously false. If we are to accept the claim of Nazis, for example, that Jews are inferior to the Aryan race, then it would matter what evidence is presented in support of that claim. And even then, if it was found that certain races hold higher Intellectual prowess over others, it would still not suggest that one race is superior to another.
Widely held scientific claims, such as heliocentrism, or natural selection, however, are not only accepted by the scientific community but have strong evidence in support of their claims, which are available to the public. We have still not addressed why intellectuals continue to hold claims based on insufficient evidence.
French cognitive scientists Dan Sperber and Hugo Mercier attempt to explain why this is the case and published their findings in their widely cited study, Why Do Humans Reason? They conclude that our reasoning faculties evolved to provide support for views we already hold and not to be objective about every piece of knowledge we come across.
Karl Popper, the notorious philosopher of science, originally argued that this sort of reasoning will inevitably lead to confirming a belief we already hold. To Popper, for instance, Freud is an exemplary case of confirmation bias since his method of experimentation sets out to confirm beliefs rather than disprove them. To come back to the previously discussed case of the Resurrection and for the reason why Professor Wright and Professor Behrman are at opposing ends of the spectrum, Popper would argue, that if we are to look for evidence that Jesus Christ was the son of God then we are likely to find them, both from history and literature.
If we are to prevent bias we should seek contradictory evidence — not remain satisfied with that which confirms our hypothesis. If the findings are overwhelmingly in support with our hypothesis, then it is safe to assume that the premises are true.
Most religious belief, however, is not based on a reliable method of distinguishing between valid premises and invalid premises. The cognitive neuroscientist and psychologist, Bruce M. Hood of The University of Bristol explains in his book The Science of the Superstitious that,
“[T]he number one reason people believe in the supernatural is that of their own personal experience. No amount of scientific explanation seems to shake the foundations of such belief” (43).
The already mentioned professor Lennox firmly disagrees stating in a debate with the Princeton University philosopher Peter Singer that his worldview is rational and evidence-based. As we have mentioned above, most religious belief is based on insufficient evidence, some of it based on bias, and the rest is held because of not looking at all the data presented. Lennox would be in the last category since he holds that biologists are too quick to confirm evolution and that the theory has holes that need further explanation, namely what he sees as the mathematical “impossibility” of the evolution of the human eye since the origin of species.
Lennox quotes Colin Patterson, who presents a deductive argument stating that natural selection is not a scientific theory, by definition, but a truism:
- (1) All organisms must reproduce.
- (2) All organisms exhibit hereditary variations.
- (3) Hereditary variations differ in their effect on reproduction.
- Therefore, variations with favourable effects on reproduction will succeed, those with unfavourable effects will fail, and organisms will change.
Patterson thus observes:
“This shows that natural selection must occur but it does not say that natural selection is the only cause of evolution, and when natural selection is generalized to be the explanation of all evolutionary change or of every feature of every organism, it becomes so all-embracing that it is in much the same class as Freudian psychology and astrology” (104)
In quoting Patterson, Lennox attempts to persuade his readers that chance does not cause any action and thus can not be the explanatory force of the Universe. Natural selection, however, is a law-like biological system that has been established out of pure necessity not out of chance.
Traits and genes are adopted because they are the most likely to promote survival. Lennox and Patterson, however, do not see this necessity. Lennox writes that “[Natural selection] helps preserve any beneficial mutation. . . . But [it] does not cause the mutation. That occurs by chance” (105).
Lennox is not the only mathematician that has voiced their opposition to evolution.
The most notable of which is perhaps the exchange that occurred at the Wistar Institute in Philadelphia in the year 1966 between mathematician Stanley Ulam and biologists Sir Peter Medawar and the chairman of the conference, C. H. Waddington. Ulam argued that it was highly improbable for the eye to have evolved by mutational changes due to there simply not being enough time (Kaplan and Moorhead 29–30).
A Professor of Mathematics from Paris and Member of the French Academy of Sciences, Marcel-Paul Schutzenberger, agreed with Ulam’s calculations, concluding that biologists too readily agree with macroevolution. Sir Fred Hoyle, astrophysicist and mathematician, encapsulates these conclusions by writing,
“When ideas are based on observations, as the Darwinian theory certainly was, it is usual for them to be valid at least within the range of the observations. It is when extrapolations are made outside the range of observations that troubles may arise. So the issue that presented itself was to determine just how far the theory was valid and exactly why beyond a certain point it became invalid” (7).
To Hoyle, then, the mathematical probability of rabbits evolving from primeval soup is not only unlikely but mathematically impossible.
The Emeritus Director of the Faraday Institute for Science and Religion at St. Edmund’s College, Cambridge, molecular biologist, and author on science and religion, Denis Alexander, strongly disagrees with Lennox’s portrayal of macroevolution. He writes that Chapter 7 of Lennox’s book “presents a smorgasbord of misrepresentations and straightforward error.”
Lennox compares natural selection to an unfalsifiable theory, stating that it fails Popper’s Demarcation Question and subsequently by quoting Patterson compares it to Freudian psychology and astrology (102), to which Alexander says that comparing the two is deceptive and that macroevolution is in fact “a theory with real explanatory power.”
He then points out that Lennox misrepresents the fossil record and says that the data is “far more impressive than [Lennox] seems aware” of. Alexander writes:
“[T]he inheritance of ‘fossil’ genetic sequences in our genomes in the form of pseudogenes, retroviral insertion and transposons, together demonstrate our own common ancestry with the apes beyond any reasonable doubt” (Alexander).
It is notable that Lennox mentions among other things that the fossil record is insufficient evidence. This is most likely due to him searching for confirmation of his already existing hypotheses or biases. If he were to listen to Popper’s “Test of Falsifiability,” which he is obviously familiar with, he would seek contradictory evidence instead of settling with evidence that has already been contradicted.
It is mentionable that Alexander is an Evangelical that has been vocal throughout his career about his belief and its compatibility with science. Francis Collins similarly generates abundant research in his field and has been an outspoken fundamentalist Christian for most of his academic life. As was mentioned earlier, he was a major part of the Human Genome Project and has publicly confirmed his acceptance of evolution. Collins does not see his Christian belief and his work in genetics as mutually exclusive.
In his book Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief he writes that not even Darwin could have hoped for the sort of strong evidence that him and his team have come across in studying genetics. Mutations in DNA, he writes, are estimated to occur 1 in every 100 million base pairs per generation. The majority of these mutations occur in parts of the genome that are not important and do not result in serious damage.
If a mutation occurs in the more essential parts of the genome, they tend to be extracted out of the population due to relative fitness. Sometimes a mutation occurs that offers an advantage over other organisms. These favorable characteristics are passed down and over a wide period of time result in significant changes in species. These findings help us understand why pathogens are created in bacteria to cope with antibiotics. Collins concludes that,
“Truly it can be said that not only biology but medicine would be impossible to understand without the theory of evolution” (133).
It is clear from the literature that scientists can hold religious belief and also contribute to their respective scientific fields.
- Science and Religion are not at odds with one another.
- The Scientific method is, however, different from belief.
- Belief is necessary for communicating in today’s world and for obtaining knowledge. Without believing authorities in their field we would have to doubt almost every piece of objective knowledge we come across (including blue whales being the largest mammals on earth).
- Skepticism towards belief is still prevalent as we have discussed above the scientific method has thus far been gaining traction and publicity among Religious thinkers as well.
- Thus, it would not be surprising to see superstitious beliefs slowly dismantled as more Christians encounter evidence on a daily basis, decide to abandon their bias and make sure that they don’t base their conclusions on insufficient evidence.
I hope you enjoyed this series (three posts).
Let me know if you have any comments. I realize I chewed on quite a bit when I decided to write about this but it is beneficial to have an opinion on some of these issues and these posts are (I believe) a nice start.
Before you go…
I’d love if you’d share the article on Facebook/TWITTER if you want your friends to benefit from it in some way at all.
I write to keep you thinking and to keep me thankful and reflective. Cheers and until next time,
Collins, Francis S., and Jonathan Davis. The Language of God: a Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief. Howes — Clipper, 2008.
Dixon, Thomas. Science and Religion: a Very Short Introduction. International Society for Science and Religion, 2009.
Hood, Bruce MacFarlane. The Science of Superstition: How the Developing Brain Creates Supernatural Beliefs. HarperCollins, 2010.
Hoyle, Fred. Mathematics of Evolution. Acorn Enterprises LLC, 1999.
Lennox, John Carson. God and Stephen Hawking Whose Design Is It Anyway? Lion Hudson, 2011.
– — –. God’s Undertaker: Has Science Buried God? Lion, 2009.
McKenzie, Ross H. “Soli Deo Gloria.” A Critical Review of John Lennox’s God’s Undertaker, 1 Jan. 1970, revelation4–11.blogspot.com/2014/09/a-critical-review-of-john-lennoxs-gods.html.
Mercier, Hugo, and Dan Sperber. “Why Do Humans Reason? Arguments for an Argumentative Theory.” Behavioral and Brain Sciences, vol. 34, no. 02, 2011, pp. 57–74., doi:10.1017/s0140525x10000968.
Moorhead P.S., and Kaplan, M. M. Mathematical Challenges to the Neo-Darwinian Interpretation of Evolution, Philadelphia, Wistar Institute Press, 1967 pp, 29,30.
“Peter Singer vs John Lennox: Is There a God?” YouTube, uploaded by antipiano, 8 August 2016, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qA7qBtNMayQ.
Pigliucci, Massimo, and Maarten Boudry. Philosophy of Pseudoscience: Reconsidering the Demarcation Problem. The University of Chicago Press, 2013.