Victor J. Stenger
To be published in Christianity Is Not Great edited by John W. Loftus, Prometheus Books 2014. This is submitted draft. Cite the final publication for any references ad quotations.
Faith is belief in the absence of supportive evidence and even in the light of contrary evidence. No one disputes that religion is based on faith. Some theologians, Christian apologists, and even a few secular scholars claim that science is also based on faith. They argue that science takes it on faith that the world is rational and that nature can be ordered in an intelligible way.
However, science makes no such assumption on faith. It analyzes observations by applying certain methodological rules and formulates models to describe those observations. It justifies that process by its practical success, not by any logical deduction derived from dubious metaphysical assumptions. We must distinguish faith from trust. Science has earned our trust by its proven success. Religion has destroyed our trust by its repeated failure.
Using the empirical method, science has eliminated smallpox, flown men to the moon, and discovered DNA. If science did not work, we wouldn’t do it. Relying on faith, religion has brought us inquisitions, holy wars, intolerance, and antiscience. Religion does not work, but we still do it.
Science and religion are fundamentally incompatible because of their unequivocally opposed epistemologies—the contrary assumptions they make concerning what we can know about the world. Every human alive is aware of a world that seems to exist outside the body, the world of sensory experience we call the natural. Science is the systematic study of the observations made of the natural world with our senses and scientific instruments, and the application to human needs of the knowledge obtained.
By contrast, all major religions teach that humans possess an additional “inner” sense that allows us to access a realm lying beyond the natural world—a divine, transcendent reality we call the supernatural. If it does not involve the transcendent, it is not religion. Religion is a set of practices intended to communicate with that invisible world and enteat it to affect things here in the natural world.
The working hypothesis of science is that careful observation is our only reliable source of knowledge about the world. Natural theology accepts empirical science but views it as a means to learn about God’s creation. And so, religion in general goes much further than science in giving credence to additional sources of knowledge such as scriptures, revelation, and spiritual experiences that are not based on verifiable empirical evidence. This credence is never tested. Believing “on faith” is considered a virtue rather than the delusion it really is.
No doubt science has its limits. It is hard to imagine using science to distinguish between what expert critics decide is good or bad art, poetry, or music; but religion doesn’t do any better. The fact that science is limited doesn’t mean that religion or any alternative system of thought can or does provide insight into what lies beyond those limits. For example, science cannot yet show precisely how the universe and life originated naturally, although many plausible scenarios exist. But this does not mean that ancient creation myths, such as those in Genesis, have any substance—any chance of eventually being verified.
The scientific community in general goes along with the notion that science has nothing to say about the supernatural because the methods of science, as they are currently practiced, exclude supernatural causes. However, if we truly possess an inner sense telling us about an unobservable reality that matters to us and influences our lives, then we should be able to observe the effects of that reality by scientific means. If someone’s inner sense were to warn of an impending earthquake unpredicted by science, which then occurred on schedule, we would have evidence for this extrasensory source of knowledge.
So far we see no proof that the feelings people experience when they perceive themselves to be in touch with the supernatural correspond to anything outside their heads. It follows that we have no reason to rely on those feelings when they occur. Nevertheless, if such evidence or reason should show up, then scientists will have to consider it whether they like it or not.
We cannot sweep under the rug the many serious problems brought about by the scientific revolution and the exponential burst in humanity’s ability to exploit Earth’s resources made possible by the accompanying technology. There would be no problems with overpopulation, pollution, global warming, or the threat of nuclear holocaust if science had not made them possible.
But does anyone want to return to the pre-scientific age when human life was nasty, brutish, and short? Even fire was once a new technology, and a very dangerous one that still takes great effort to control.
We can solve the problems brought about by the misuse of science only by better use of science and more rational behavior on the part of scientists, politicians, corporations, and citizens in all walks of life. And religion as it is currently practiced, with its continued focus on closed thinking and ancient mythology, is not doing much to support the goal of a better, safer world. In fact, religion is hindering our attempts to attain that goal when many believers put their faith in God rather than science.
Irreconcilable differences arising from the differing viewpoints and methodology of science and religion include the origin of the universe and its physical parameters, the origin of complexity, the concepts of holism versus reductionism, the nature of mind and consciousness, and the source of morality. Some authors have ignored or distorted science in an attempt to justify their unquestioned premise of a divine reality. But the folly of faith is even deeper than its history of factual errors and misrepresentation.
Religions are characterized by hardened beliefs that when changed result in a new spinoff sect while the old one continues with perhaps depleted membership. By contrast, from the beginning science has been one continuous, if not always smooth, flow of new knowledge and progress as old ideas are cast off and new ones take their place.
Today science and religion find themselves in serious conflict. Even moderate Christians do not fully accept Darwinian evolution. Although they claim to see no conflict between their faith and evolution, they insist that God still controlled the development of life so humans would evolve. This is not at all what Darwin’s theory of evolution says. It’s intelligent design. There’s no role for God in evolution.
In another example, greedy corporate interests and unscrupulous politicians are exploiting the antiscience attitudes embedded in popular religion to suppress scientific results on issues of global importance, such as the overpopulation and environmental degradation, that threaten the generations of humanity that will follow ours.
Those who rely on observation and reason to provide an understanding of the world must stop viewing as harmless those who rely instead on superstition and the mythologies in ancient texts passed down from the childhood of our species. For the sake of the future of humanity, we must fight to expunge the fantasies of faith from human thinking.
In his 1999 book Rocks of Ages, the late renowned paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould proposed that science and religion are “non-overlapping magisteria” (NOMA). He argued that the two knowledge systems deal with different aspects of life. Science, Gould wrote, is concerned with describing the “outer” world of our senses, while religion deals with the “inner” world of morality and meaning.
NOMA recalls the position enunciated by Galileo when he ran into trouble with the Church for teaching that Earth goes around the sun. He is often quoted as saying, “The Holy Spirit’s intention is to teach how one goes to heaven, not how the heavens go,” although it is generally assumed that he was in turn quoting Cardinal Cesare Baronius.
Many scientists—believers and nonbelievers—have adopted the NOMA position. Believing scientists compartmentalize their thinking by not incorporating into their religious thinking the doubt-everything position they were trained to take in their professions. A prime example is geneticist, Francis Collins, who directed the Human Genome Project and at this writing directs the National Institutes of Health. His 2006 book The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief, was a bestseller. However, his so-called evidence was not, as you might have thought from the title, based on his deep knowledge of DNA. Rather it was based on his own inner feeling that the world is a moral place and only God could have made it that way. Nowhere does Collins come close to applying to religion the critical skills he exhibited in his outstanding scientific career.
The founders of the scientific revolution, notably Descartes, Newton, and Kepler, freely mixed science and religion. But as science came to contradict more and more religious teachings, scientists compartmentalized their beliefs. Modern-day believing scientists, such as Collins, do not incorporate God into their science. This even includes those scientists who happen to also be members of holy orders, such as the Belgian Catholic priest Georges-Henri LemaĒtre who proposed the big bang in 1927 but urged Pope Pius XII not to claim it as infallible proof that God exists.
Most nonbelieving scientists want to just do their research and stay out of any fights over religion. That makes the NOMA approach appealing because it allows them to not have to think about what religion is or how it affects our social and political world. In my view, these scientists are shirking their responsibility by conceding the realms of morality and public policy to the irrationality and brutality of faith.
The U.S. National Academy of Sciences, along with several scientific societies and pro-science organizations such as the National Center for Science Education, have compromised their principles in order to stay on good terms with religion. Even the prestigious science magazine Nature has adopted Gould’s NOMA, editorializing that problems arise between science and religion only when they “stray onto each other’s territories and stir up trouble.”
However, Gould’s proposal and these views from the top tiers of science do not describe the true roles science and religion play in society. Traditional religions are based on the belief in divinely inspired scriptures and other revelations, and they do try to tell us what “is” based on those beliefs. In doing so, they have proved to be almost universally incorrect.
Now, clever theologians will say that I am using science as my standard of what is correct and incorrect. Of course, scriptures could be correct, but then we have to believe (as many fundamentalists do) that God is pulling the wool over our eyes, planting phony evidence for carbon-dated fossils, geological formations, and redshifts from galaxies implying they are far older than the 6,000 years since creation implied in the Bible.
The scientific descriptions of the world we observe with our senses and instruments aren’t necessarily correct just because they are science. They simply work better than those found in scriptures. And if religion doesn’t work in the sphere of nature, why should we expect it to work in the moral or other spheres?
Nothing prevents science from concerning itself with issues of morality and purpose. If these questions involve observable phenomena, such as human behavior, they can be analyzed with the rational methods of science. Science is more than making measurements with billion-dollar instruments and formulating models using highly sophisticated mathematics. It is about applying empirical reasoning to every aspect of life.
In Science and Spirituality: Making Room for Faith in the Age of Science, philosopher Michael Ruse argued, “the basic, most important claims of the Christian religion lie beyond the scope of science. They do not and could not conflict with science for they live in realms where science does not go.” But, the fact that science cannot reject all conceivable worlds cannot be used to argue for their existence. Furthermore, many fundamental Christian claims do not lie beyond the scope of science: they conflict with it, The virgin birth, miracles, prophecies, revelations, the resurrection, are just a few of these.
There can be no dispute that the scientific revolution in the seventeenth century occurred in an atmosphere in which religious and scientific ideas were deeply intertwined. But religion still held the upper hand. Historian Charles Webster writes, “No direction or energy toward science [in the seventeenth century] was undertaken without the assurance of Christian conscience, and no conceptual move was risked without confidence in its consistency with the Protestant idea of providence.”
It is difficult to extract precise causes of the scientific revolution from the complex history of seventeenth century Europe except to say that it happened there and no place else. China had made significant advances in technology, but failed to develop science. And while science and learning flourished for a time in the Islamic world, there, too, a culture of scientific development failed to endure.
Christian apologist Ian Barbour argues that the decline in science in the Islamic world was the result of the tight control of higher education by religious authorities. Although Barbour doesn’t admit it, the same can be said of Christendom until the Renaissance and Reformation. Similarly, government authorities controlled education in China.
Europe would not have been closed to independent thinking in the first place except for the Catholic Church. Science had flourished in polytheistic Greece and Rome, and, as mentioned, in medieval Islam. When the Roman Empire fell, the Catholic Church was there to pick up the pieces, producing an authoritarian society that brutally suppressed the slightest traces of freethinking for a thousand years.
Surely it is no coincidence that the onset of the Dark Ages coincided with the rise of Christianity. It was only with the revolts against established ecclesiastic authorities in the Renaissance and Reformation that new avenues of thought were finally opened up allowing science to flourish.
And, these new avenues of thought are what we want to explore. Artistic and social activities with no significant political ramifications are far less important in comprehending the incompatibility of science and religion than are intellectual matters. Scientific thinking is not dissonant with Church art, music, and charitable work, or with the Church’s function of providing a structure where people can meet to enjoy one another’s company and help each other. However, as Sam Harris says, “science and religion—being antithetical ways of thinking about the same reality—will never come to terms.” And when religious notions dominate the political scene, as they do in Muslim countries and to a growing extent in America today, the world is in big trouble.
In the Dark Ages, much of Greek and Roman science and philosophy was lost in Europe but preserved and developed to new heights in the Islamic empire. However, gradually scholarship crept back into Europe as theologians such as Augustine of Hippo and Thomas Aquinas developed rational theologies that incorporated the philosophies and logic of Plato and Aristotle and translated texts became available. However, God and revelation remained the unquestioned principles upon which reason was applied.
When the Roman Catholic Church founded the first universities in Europe, Aristotle became the prime authority. Scholars used his logic, science, and philosophy to forge an amalgam of Greek and Christian thought that became known as scholasticism. While the value of reason and observation was recognized, these were generally viewed as inferior to revelation since they were the products of imperfect human activity, whereas revelation came directly from God.
But then the Renaissance and Reformation defied the authority of the Church, and a new science blossomed in which revelation and authority were replaced as the final arbiters of truth by observation and measurement. Significantly, the scientific revolution occurred outside the church-dominated universities, which remained steeped in Aristotelian scholasticism. Today, our secular universities lead the way in science while students at many church-connected universities and colleges are being taught creationism and other pseudosciences, along with mind-numbing Biblical apologetics.
Nevertheless, a clean break between science and religion did not take place immediately at the start of the scientific revolution. All of the great pioneers of science—Copernicus, Galileo, Kepler, and Newton—were believers, although they hardly had a choice in the matter. Open nonbelief was nonexistent at that time. Except for Galileo, these greats incorporated their beliefs into their science. Galileo was the only one of the founders of the new science who tried to separate science from religion.
In the brief period in the eighteenth century called the Enlightenment, thinkers in Europe and America began to distinguish science and philosophy from theology. Deism flourished and atheism became intellectually respectable, at least in France.
The great bulk of humanity did not go along with atheism, however. Christianity found a way to incorporate science within its own system with the notion of natural theology. In natural theology, human scientific observations and theories are seen as a way to learn more about the majesty of the creator who had made the natural world and its laws in the first place.
This was quite a reasonable position at the time. After all, prior to the mid-nineteenth century science had no natural explanation for the complexity we see around us, especially in living things. When geologists showed that Earth was much older than implied in the Bible, and Darwin provided both the evidence and the theory for how life evolved without the need for God, the foundations of religious belief began to crumble.
This resulted in a very specific conflict between science and religion that has lasted to the current day, with the most recent battles being over the intelligent design brand of creationism. While the Catholic Church and moderate Christians have claimed to have no problem with evolution, their own words demonstrate that they do not accept unguided Darwinian evolution. Instead, they subscribe to a form of God-guided evolution that is just another form of intelligent design.
The new physics of the twentieth century—relativity, quantum mechanics, and relativistic quantum field theory—has not struck many nerves with everyday religious believers since these ideas are comprehended by only a tiny fraction of the public. In fact, the theories of modern physics and the data that support them are monumentally misunderstood, misrepresented, and misused by many who naively write on these subjects without the years of study necessary to have any depth of knowledge.
This is especially the case with quantum mechanics, which has been made to look mysterious and weird, even by physicists who know better but think they can spark student and public interest, and sell their popular-level books, with overblown rhetoric.
While not technically theistic, modern quantum spiritualists and pseudoscientists should be included as part of the antiscience movement that is associated with religion and the transcendental world-view. Many members of this community assert that quantum mechanics tells us we can make our own reality just by thinking we can, and that it puts our minds in tune with a cosmic consciousness that pervades the universe.
This claim results from a total misunderstanding of the so-called “wave-particle duality” of quantum mechanics. You often hear, “An object is a particle or a wave depending on what you decide to measure.” This is wrong. No one has ever measured a wavelike property associated with a single particle. Interference and diffraction effects are only observed for beams of particles and only particles are detected, even when you are trying to measure a wavelength. The statistical behavior of these ensembles of particles is described mathematically using equations that sometimes, but not always, resemble the equations for waves.
The other, more forgivable, misuse of quantum mechanics is that made by science-respecting theologians who look for a way for God to act in the universe without violating the laws of physics. They think they can do this by appealing to the Heisenberg uncertainty principle of quantum mechanics that puts limits on what you can measure with precision. They imagine God poking his finger into matter, making particles change their motion without any physicist noticing.
Sure, God can do that, but he then would be breaking a law of physics, which theologians say they are trying to avoid. And, think of all the poking he would have to do at the atomic level to affect the behavior of a macroscopic object such as a tennis ball.
Theists and quantum spiritualists claim that modern physics has replaced reductionism, which has marked physics and indeed all science from the time of Democritus, with a new holism in which a system cannot be understood by simply considering the interactions of its parts but must include additional principles of the whole. In fact the opposite is true. By the late seventies physics had returned to an even deeper reductionism than before with the standard model of particles and forces. The whole is still equal to the sum of its parts, and those part are elementary particles—just as the Greek atomists said in the fourth century BCE. This is another place where scientific and religious thinking profoundly disagree.
Once again, some scientists and science writers who should know better have been roped into joining with theologians to announce a grand new scientific principle called emergence. They point to the fact that nature has a hierarchy of levels of complexity ranging from elementary particles to human society. At each level we find a new scientific discipline—from physics to chemistry to biology and so on up to sociology and political science. The scholars at each level do not derive their models from particle physics but develop models for each discipline by applying their own unique methods. However, at least at the physics and chemistry level, the principles they uncover can be seen to “emerge” from the level below by what is called “bottom-up causality.”
No one should expect particle physicists to answer every question. However, speculations are being widely bandied about that some emergent principles have the power to control entities at lower levels by way of “top-down” causality. At the very top of the pyramid, of course, is God up in heaven acting down on us particles below. Emergence by bottom-up causality is trivial. Emergence by top-down causality is world-shaking. But like so many imaginative proposals that would shake the world if true, top-down causality has exactly zero empirical support.
On the cosmic scale, twentieth century cosmology has been also distorted by theists as constituting evidence for a creation of the universe when, in fact, modern cosmology points in quite the opposite direction. Some previous gaps in our understanding of the physics of the cosmos provided some temporary comfort for those seeking evidence for a creator. However, these gaps were decisively plugged with astronomical discoveries as the century progressed.
Today cosmologists can provide a variety of plausible, mathematically precise scenarios for an uncreated universe that violates no known laws of physics. Furthermore, we have every indication that, despite the well-confirmed big bang, the universe, defined as all there is, had no beginning and thus no creator.
Combining a naēve understanding of physics and cosmology with their preformed unscientific beliefs, many theist authors have trumpeted that the constants of physics are so delicately balanced that any deviation would make life impossible. From this they conclude that the physical constants could only have been fine-tuned by God.
However, in fact there is no evidence that the universe is fine-tuned for life and all we have here is yet another argument from ignorance.
Besides, surely any God worthy of the name would not have been so incompetent as to build a vast, out-of-tune universe and then have to delicately twiddle all these knobs so that a single planet would be capable of producing sentient beings.
The fundamental religious tenet is that a transcendent reality beyond matter exists. Evidence for this reality is supposed to be found in human experiences termed mystical or spiritual. Specifically, a large amount of data have been accumulated over the years, and published in journals and books, on near-death experiences (NDEs). These occur in about 20 percent of people resuscitated from clinical death, or something close to it. They return with a memory of light at the end of a tunnel that they are convinced was a glimpse of heaven. (Few ever glimpse hell).
However, NDE researchers have not been able to find any empirical evidence demonstrating that the experience is not all in the head. Furthermore, experiments that have attempted to independently verify the events reported by subjects, such as floating above the operating table and reading a series of numbers sitting on a high shelf not visible from the table, have uniformly failed.
At the current stage of scientific development we can confidently say that no empirical or theoretical basis exists for assuming anything other than that we inhabit a universe made entirely of matter (and energy into which matter can be transformed, and vice versa). Please understand that this is not a dogmatic position. Of course we don’t know everything, and never will. The essential point is that within our existing knowledge we do not have a credible reason for requiring anything transcendent to explain anything we experience or observe. All science is provisional, and if sufficient evidence that meets all the most rigorous scientific tests were to come along to demonstrate the existence of a world beyond matter and energy, then nonbelieving scientists will change their minds.
Other metaphors for the “stuff” of the universe such as information do not diminish the need for, and primacy of, matter.
Until recent times it has been widely assumed that the human being possesses an immaterial “spirit” or “soul” that is responsible for thoughts, emotions, and conscious will. However, the evidence has become overwhelming that these all results from purely physical processes within the brain. While we still do not have a complete theory of what we call “mind,” we have no empirical reason to assume that it will require any immaterial elements.
Anther important issue where fundamental disagreement between science and religion exists concerns the source and nature of morality. Believers cannot see how our notions of good and evil can come from anyplace other than God. They are joined by many nonbelievers who think science has no right to say anything on the question. But scientists are investigating morality anyway and coming up with discoveries that few believers will like. While a primitive morality can be found in animals and early humans that evolved biologically, our modern ideas of morality more likely evolved socially as humans found ways to overcome some of their animal instincts by force of intellect. Not only did these developments allow people to live together in some semblance of order, they also allowed us to use the ability to act cooperatively to obtain resources from the environment, to protect ourselves from predators, etc. The incompatibility between science and religion becomes especially striking on the question of the origin of morality and ethical behavior.
The incompatibility of science and religion is more than just an intellectual debate among scholars. Faith is a folly. It requires belief in a world beyond the senses with no basis in evidence for such a world and no reason to believe in it other than the vain hope that something else is out there. However, while a false belief may be comforting or even temporarily useful, it is a dubious guide to personal life or the foundation of a successful society.
While not all believers have an uncompromising faith, and most recognize the power and value of science, an influential minority of American Christians see that materialist science needs to be “renewed” so that God is restored to his rightful place in the scheme of things.
If the conflict between science and religion were just a matter of intellectual debate, a battle between (scrambled) eggheads in theology and (hardboiled) eggheads in science and philosophy, the stakes would not be very high. But the role of religion in today’s political and social scene is ubiquitous, from Islamic terrorism to attempts by the Christian right in America to replace democracy with theocracy.
A theocracy? In America? Most of my scientific colleagues in the comfort of their cluttered campus offices would scoff at the notion. But they need to be good scientists and look at the data. Religion has been injected into the political dialogue as never before, with politicians even claiming divine guidance. Many see no need for science, in fact, view it with suspicion. And they are cutting back research funding drastically, which you would think should worry my colleagues just a bit.
Christian fundamentalism has been playing an increasing role in American political life. In his 2006 book American Theocracy, former Republican strategist and bestselling author Kevin Phillips wrote, “The rapture, end-times, and Armageddon hucksters in the United States rank with any Shiite ayatollahs, and the last two presidential elections [2000 and 2004] make the transformation of the GOP into the first religious party in U.S. history.”
In her 2006 bestseller Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism, journalist Michelle Goldberg chronicled the takeover of America by rightwing Christians. In the same year Damon Linker, former editor of the Catholic magazine First Things, told how in over three decades a few determined men have succeeded in injecting their radical religious ideas into the nation’s politics.
Also in 2006, in American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War on America, Pulitzer-Prize-winning author and theist Chris Hedges noted:
Democratic and Christian [values] are being dismantled, often with stealth, by a radical Christian movement known as dominionism, which seeks to cloak itself in the mantle of Christian faith and American patriotism. Dominionism takes its name from Genesis 1:26-31, in which God gives human beings “dominion” over creation. This movement, small in number but influential, departs from traditional evangelicalism. Dominionists now control at least six national television networks, each reaching tens of millions of homes, and virtually all of the nation’s more than 2,000 religious radio stations, as well as denominations such as the Southern Baptist Convention. Dominionism seeks to redefine traditional democratic and Christian terms and concepts to fit an ideology that calls on the radical church to take political power.
More recently, Hedges has written about the role of Dominionism and the related Christian Reconstructionism in the thinking of Texas Republican Senator Ted Cruz, who has assumed the mantle of leadership of the extreme conservative movement. Here’s how Hedges describes it:
This ideology calls on anointed “Christian” leaders to take over the state and make the goals and laws of the nation “biblical.” It seeks to reduce government to organizing little more than defense, internal security and the protection of property rights. It fuses with the Christian religion the iconography and language of American imperialism and nationalism, along with the cruelest aspects of corporate capitalism.
In The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power, published in 2009, journalist Jeff Sharlet revealed how small, secretive group of extremely conservative Christians called “The Family” have wielded increasing national and international political power. They organize the yearly Washington Prayer Breakfasts attended by presidents and foreign diplomats, provide prayerful retreats for congressmen, senators, and Supreme Court justices, and preach a gospel of biblical capitalism, military might, and American empire. In a follow-up volume published in 2010, C Street: The Fundamentalist Threat to American Democracy, Sharlet told how The Family also aided several prominent senators and congressmen in covering up their extramarital affairs.
In a 2011 essay in Religion Dispatches, Peter Montgomery summarized how “religious right leaders and activists have spent decades creating fertile soil for anti-union campaigns through the promotion of “biblical capitalism’.” They have proclaimed that Jesus and the Bible oppose progressive taxes, capital gains taxes, estate taxes, and minimum wage laws. They also enlist Jesus in a war against unions, which they regard as unbiblical.
The founder of The Family was a Norwegian immigrant, Abraham Vereide. According to Sharlet, also writing in Religion Dispatches:
In 1942 [Vereide] moved to the capital where the National Association of Manufacturers staked him to a meeting of congressmen who would become students of his spiritual politics, among them Virginia senator Absalom Willis Robertson—Pat Robertson’s father. Vereide returned the manufacturers’ favor by telling his new congressional followers that God wanted them to break the spine of organized labor. They did.
Montgomery writes that the 1990 Christian Coalition Leadership Manual co-authored by Coalition founder Ralph Reed cites four biblical passages instructing slaves to be obedient to their masters. For example,
Slaves, submit yourselves to your masters with all respect, not only to those who are good and considerate, but also to those who are harsh. For it is commendable if a man bears up under the pain of unjust suffering because he is conscious of God. (1 Peter 2:18-19)
Reed interprets this to mean, “Christians have a responsibility to submit to the authority of their employers, since they are designated as part of God’s plan for the exercise of authority on earth by man.” We see here the same argument that has been used for millennia to justify the right of monarchs, no matter how incompetent or brutal, to rule over everyone else: God put them there so it must be his will.
In 2005, journalist Chris Mooney documented how the anti-science attitudes of the George W. Bush administration, motivated in part by the heavy representation of Catholics and evangelical Christians in virtually all federal offices from the president on down and dominating most advisory panels, suppressed reports by government scientists on issues such as birth control, global warming, and stem-cell research.
Antiscience is implicit or even explicit throughout this movement. Scientists have to stop just sitting back and avoiding challenging religion. The welfare and, indeed, the survival of our species are at stake.
The Republican Party today is completely dominated by the Christian right while the Democrats at least exhibit some cautious independence from Christian ideology. Here’s a typical example of religious intrusion in American politics. In 2011 Senator Jim DeMint (then Republican from South Carolina and currently president of the right-wing Heritage Foundation) appeared on the Family Research Council’s weekly radio show and said:
Some are trying to separate the social, cultural issues from fiscal issues, but you really can’t do that. America works, freedom works, when people have that internal gyroscope that comes from a belief in God and biblical faith. Once we push that out, you no longer have the capacity to live as a free person without the external controls of an authoritarian government. I’ve said it often and I believe it – the bigger government gets, the smaller God gets, as people become more dependent on government and less dependent on God.
He then added:
We’ve found we can’t set up free societies around the world because they don’t have the moral underpinnings that come from biblical faith. I don’t think Christians should cower from this debate, should be told that their views and their values should be separate from government policies, because America doesn’t work without the faith that created it.
Consider the recent phenomenon called the Tea Party. A 2011 poll from the Pew Forum showed a strong religious right influence on the Tea Party. Among registered voters, 69 percent of those who agreed with the religious right said they also agreed with the Tea Party. Only 4 percent disagreed. Tea Party members support the social agenda of religious conservatives by large fractions: 64 percent oppose same-sex marriage; 59 percent say abortion should be illegal in most or all cases.
The religious beliefs of Americans who consider themselves part of the Tea Party were reported in a survey by Robert P. Jones and Daniel Cox as part of the Third Biennial American Values Survey. They found that 47 percent believe that the Bible is the literal word of God compared to one-third of the general population and 64 percent of white evangelicals.
From 1860 to 2013 the carbon dioxide level in Earth’s atmosphere increased steadily from 290 to 395 parts per million. There can be no doubt that this has been the result of the fossil fuel burning associated with industrialization. Ninety-seven percent of the world’s climate scientists agree that the resulting greenhouse effect will produce an increase in Earth’s temperature that will lead to disastrous changes in climate and ocean levels.
This conclusion has been met with fierce opposition as powerful economic interests in the fossil fuel industry have bankrolled a huge propaganda campaign designed to prevent any government actions to limit greenhouse gases and reduce the industry’s obscene profits.
The fossil fuel industry has adopted many of the disinformation techniques that were developed by the tobacco industry a generation ago in order to cast doubt on the scientific evidence connecting smoking to cancer and other diseases. These include (1) raising doubts about even the most indisputable scientific evidence and (2) promoting scientific spokespeople who misrepresented peer-reviewed scientific findings or cherry-picked facts in the attempt to persuade the media and the public that there is still serious debate among scientists that burning fossil fuels has contributed to global warming and that human-caused warming will have serious consequences.
Those who promote global warming denialism have found a willing ally in the Christian Right. Along with a basic mistrust of science, global warming apparently conflicts with the "deeply held belief" of many Christians that God would never allow such a thing.
A 2011 poll showed that only 31 percent of evangelicals believe there is any global warming at all, while 58 percent of those unaffiliated with any church not only believe Earth is warming but agree it is the result of human activity.
Let’s look at some examples of this thinking. In 2011 an organization called The Cornwall Alliance for The Stewardship of Creation issued what it called "An Evangelical Declaration on Global Warming."  Here are some selected quotations from that document:
Š We believe Earth and its ecosystems--created by God's intelligent design and infinite power and sustained by His faithful providence--are robust, resilient, self-regulating, and self-correcting, admirably suited for human flourishing, and displaying His glory. Earth's climate system is no exception. Recent global warming is one of many natural cycles of warming and cooling in geologic history.
Š We deny that Earth and its ecosystems are the fragile and unstable products of chance, and particularly that Earth's climate system is vulnerable to dangerous alteration because of minuscule changes in atmospheric chemistry. Recent warming was neither abnormally large nor abnormally rapid. There is no convincing scientific evidence that human contributions to greenhouse gases is causing dangerous global warming.
Š We deny that carbon dioxide--essential to all plant growth--is a pollutant. Reducing greenhouse gases cannot achieve significant reductions in future global temperatures, and the costs of the policies would far exceed the benefits.
In 2009 Representative “Smokey Joe” Barton (Republican from Texas) told C-Span:
I would also point out that CO2, carbon dioxide, is not a pollutant in any normal definition of the term . . . I am creating it as I talk to you. It’s in your Coca-Cola, your Dr. Pepper, your Perrier water. It is necessary for human life. It is odorless, colorless, tasteless, does not cause cancer, does not cause asthma.
A lot of the CO2 that is created in the United States is naturally created. You can’t regulate God. Not even the Democratic majority in the US Congress can regulate God.
If you think greenhouse gases are bad, life couldn’t exist without greenhouse gases. . . . So, there is a, there is a climate theory—and it’s a theory, it’s not a fact, it’s never been proven—that increasing concentrations of CO2 in the upper atmosphere somehow interact to trap more heat than the atmosphere would otherwise.
Since 1900, Earth’s surface temperature has risen by about 0.8o C. The temperature curve shows a bump during World War II when burning fossil fuel was extreme. Other indications of a warming trend include the melting of polar ices and the increasing frequency of violent storms. However, average global surface temperatures have been somewhat flat in the last decade or so, leading many in the public to question whether warming is in fact taking place.
This is a red herring. Deep ocean temperatures are still rising. But rather than try to settle that issue here, let me instead address the assertion of Cornwall and Barton that CO2 is not a problem.
Since 540 million years ago there have been five mass extinctions in which over 50 percent of animal species have been wiped out. Although not the sole cause, there is ample evidence that global warming caused by an increase in carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases played an important role. These gases were released either when an asteroid hit Earth and produced fissures allowing volcanic gasses to escape, or the fissures occurred from tectonic plate movement.
While these releases of greenhouse gases were natural, and our current increase is human-made, we can still ask: Is the sixth mass extinction at hand? If it is, then foolish faith must absorb much of the blame.
Religious faith would not be such a negative force in society if it were just about religion. However, the magical thinking that becomes deeply ingrained whenever faith rules over facts warps all areas of life. It produces a frame of mind in which concepts are formulated with deep passion but without the slightest attention paid to the evidence that bears on the concept. Nowhere is this more evident than in America today where the large majority of the public hold on to a whole set of beliefs despite the total lack of evidence to support these beliefs and, indeed, strong evidence that denies them. These beliefs are not just limited to religion, but extend to the occult (often condemned by churches), economics, politics, and health.
It is not that the public lacks information. In fact, today we are all inundated with information, especially on the Internet. However, much of that information is untrustworthy and it takes a trained thinker to filter out the good from the bad. Magical thinking and blind faith are the worst mental system we can apply under these circumstances. They allow the most outrageous lies to be accepted as facts.
From its very beginning, religion has been a tool used by those in power to retain that power and keep the masses in line. This continues today as religious groups are manipulated to work against believers’ own often unrecognized best interests in health and economic well-being in order to cast doubt on well-established scientific findings. This would not be possible except for the diametrically opposed world-views of science and religion. Science is not going to change its commitment to the truth. We can only hope religion will change its commitment to nonsense.
This essay is based on the author’s book God and the Folly of Faith (Prometheus Books, 2012).
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