God and the Folly of Faith by Victor J. Stenger

This excerpt as not been edited and should not be copied, quoted, or distributed.


Divine revelation, not reason, is the source of all truth.

—Tertullian (d. 225)


The knowledge exists by which universal happiness can be secured; the chief obstacle to its utilization for that purpose is the teaching of religion. Religion prevents our children from having a rational education; religion prevents us from removing the fundamental causes of war; religion prevents us from teaching the ethic of scientific co-operation in place of the old fierce doctrines of sin and punishment. It is possible that mankind is on the threshold of a golden age; but if so, it will be necessary first to slay the dragon that guards the door, and this dragon is religion.

—Bertrand Russell1


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, and intolerance. Religion does not work, but we still do it.

            Science and religion are fundamentally incompatible because of their unequivocally opposed epistemologies—the separate 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 visible 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 so that we can either cause forces from it to affect things here or at least apply insights gained from it to human needs.

            The working hypothesis of science is that careful observation is our only reliable source of knowledge about the world. Natural theology accepts empirical science and views it as a means to learn about God’s creation. But religion in general goes much further than science in giving credence to additional sources of knowledge such as scriptures, revelation, and spiritual experiences.

            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, although computers can do a credible job of producing works that the expert judges often can’t distinguish from the “real thing.”

            However, 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 the fact that science does not at present have a definitive answer to this question 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. Claims of “divine prophecies” have been made throughout history, but not one has been conclusively confirmed. In just one of countless examples of the same nature, the claimed prophecy that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem was fulfilled after the fact by the Gospel writers inventing implausible, inconsistent, and historically disprovable scenarios by which Jesus could have been born there.2

            So far we see no evidence that the feelings people experience when they perceive themselves to be in touch with the supernatural correspond to anything outside their heads, and we have no reason to rely on those feelings when they occur. However, 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. The growing distrust of science found now in America can be understood by observing the disgraceful examples of scientists employed by oil, food, tobacco, and pharmaceutical companies who have contributed to the unnecessary deaths of millions by allowing products to be marketed that these scientists knew full well were unsafe.

            But does anyone want to return to the prescientific age when human life was nasty, brutish, and short? Even fire was once a new technology. Unsafe products are more than overshadowed by miracle drugs, foods, and technologies that have made all our lives immeasurably better than those of humans in the not-too-distant past. At least in developed countries, women now rarely die in childbirth and most children grow to adulthood. This was not the case even just a few generations ago. Unlike our ancestors, we lead long, fulfilling lives largely free of pain and drudgery. The aged are so numerous that they are becoming a social problem. All this is the result of scientific developments.

            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, as we will see, religion is hindering our attempts to attain that goal.

            Many theistic-leaning historians and sociologists claim that religion contributed importantly to the development of science and so the two can live in relative harmony. They argue that treating the historical relationship between science and religion as a “war” is an oversimplification and inaccurate representation of the actual facts, at least up to the Enlightenment. Not until the seventeenth century was a distinction made between science (or “natural philosophy”) and religion; many great scientists of the past merged the two in their thinking. While this may have been true in the past, it is not true now. Science and religion today mix like oil and water. Even scientists who are religious keep religion out of their work.

            No doubt the great theologians of the past had few problems with science, seeing it as another way to learn more about the majesty of the Creator. Similarly, liberal theologians today fully accept the discoveries of science. Nevertheless, we will see that the theologies of all ages still promote a worldview that is antithetical to that of science. The differences between science and religion are not merely matters of different points of view that might be harmonized with some effort. They are forever irreconcilable.

            Nevertheless, a common misunderstanding needs to be corrected. The conflict between science and religion should not be regarded as a conflict between reason and unreason. From the time of the ancient Greeks, reason has been a tool to gain insight into the nature of a postulated divine reality. The great Catholic theologians, notably Augustine of Hippo (d. 430) and Thomas Aquinas (d. 1274), applied reason in much of what they wrote—and they wrote a lot.

            The distinction between theology and science is in the objects on which to apply reason. Nothing can be learned from reason acting alone. A logical argument contains no information not already embedded in its premises. Reason and logic must be supplemented by additional hypotheses about the nature of reality and the sources of our knowledge about that reality. In the case of science, that source is solely observation. In the case of theology, that source is primarily faith, with some observation thrown in as long as it does not conflict with faith. Theology is faith-plus-reason, with some observation allowed. Science is observation-plus-reason, with no faith allowed.

            Now, that is not to say that theology always was and still is “reasonable” in every respect. For example, Saint Augustine (with a lot of help from Saint Paul) is primarily responsible for Christianity’s obsession with sex, which is surely unreasonable.

            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. I will document instances where religious 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 error and misrepresentation.

            Suppose a new religion was invented and it taught dogmatically that all that existed were material atoms that interacted exactly as described by physics, that Darwin was right and all life arose from the same primitive matter, and that the universe was not created but was part of an infinite and eternal multiverse. In other words, the new religion was based totally on the best scientific models of today. This religion would nonetheless be incompatible with science. The new religionists would still “believe” in an unchanging dogma while scientists would be open to change tomorrow, next week, or whenever new evidence is found.3

            And this should provide a rebuttal to the oft-heard claim that “science is a religion.” 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 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 believers 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, which is not at all what the theory of evolution says. 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 overpopulation and environmental degradation, which 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.

            As we will see in chapter 14, while other authors have documented the role of extreme conservatives in opposing scientific findings, none have emphasized the connection with religion. Others have chronicled the role of religion in the conservative movement, but have not emphasized the connection with antiscience. Here we complete the triad: religion, antiscience, and extreme conservatism.

            This is not to say that antiscience does not exist on the liberal end of the political spectrum. It does, of course, and was particularly rampant in the sixties and seventies. But the extreme Left possesses little power in America today, while conservatives wield huge resources that give them influence far exceeding their actual numbers, making the extreme Right the far greater threat.

This book is a call for scientists and other rationalists to join together to put a stop to those who insist they have some sacred right to decide what kind of society the rest of us must live in—for the sake of the future of the planet and the betterment of humankind. Hopefully, in perhaps another generation, America will have joined Europe and the rest of the developed world in shucking off the rusty chains of ancient superstition that stand as an impediment to science and progress.



1.   Bertrand Russell, Has Religion Made Useful Contributions to Civilization? An Examination and a Criticism (London: Watts & Co., 1930).

2.   Bart D. Ehrman, Jesus, Interrupted: Revealing the Hidden Contradictions in the Bible (and Why We Don’t Know about Them), (New York: HarperOne, 2009).

3.   I thank Brent Meeker for suggesting this scenario.