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
—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,
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
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
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
• 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
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
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
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
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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