Should Scientific Progress Affect Religious Beliefs?

Sure it should. Here’s a new video from Closer to Truth, in which I’m chatting briefly with Robert Lawrence Kuhn about the question. “New” in the sense that it was just put on YouTube, although we taped it back in 2011. (Now my formulations would be considerably more sophisticated, given the wisdom that comes with age).

It’s interesting that the “religious beliefs are completely independent of evidence and empirical investigation” meme has enjoyed such success in certain quarters that people express surprise to learn of the existence of theologians and believers who still think we can find evidence for the existence of God in our experience of the world. In reality, there are committed believers (“sophisticated” and otherwise) who feel strongly that we have evidence for God in the same sense that we have evidence for gluons or dark matter — because it’s the best way to make sense of the data — just as there are others who think that our knowledge of God is of a completely different kind, and therefore escapes scientific critique. It’s part of the problem that theism is not well defined.

One can go further than I did in the brief clip above, to argue that any notion of God that can’t be judged on the basis of empirical evidence isn’t much of a notion at all. If God exists but has no effect on the world whatsoever — the actual world we experience could be precisely the same even without God — then there is no reason to believe in it, and indeed one can draw no conclusions whatsoever (about right and wrong, the meaning of life, etc.) from positing it. Many people recognize this, and fall back on the idea that God is in some sense necessary; there is no possible world in which he doesn’t exist. To which the answer is: “No he’s not.” Defenses of God’s status as necessary ultimately come down to some other assertion of a purportedly-inviolable metaphysical principle, which can always simply be denied. (The theist could win such an argument by demonstrating that the naturalist’s beliefs are incoherent in the absence of such principles, but that never actually happens.)

I have more sympathy for theists who do try to ground their belief in evidence, rather than those who insist that evidence is irrelevant. At least they are playing the game in the right way, even if I disagree with their conclusions. Despite what Robert suggests in the clip above, the existence of disagreement among smart people does not imply that there is not a uniquely right answer!

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65 Responses to Should Scientific Progress Affect Religious Beliefs?

  1. Shmi Nux says:

    Theism comes from the need to personify the universe. As the saying goes, there are no atheists in foxholes. That this personification is not grounded in anything but emotion and so results in wild inconsistencies is beside the point if the need is still there. As long as it is, people will find a way to justify it. Fighting faith with logic is a losing battle, as only those already receptive would listen.

  2. I’ve recently been reflecting upon the lifelong progression of my thinking regarding the nature of things. What began as a tracing of experience into its roots in existence has evolved into an ongoing reconciliation of contemporary scientific understandings with that fundamental existential perspective.

    By way of background, I was born into a devout Catholic family; attended a high school seminary; majored in philosophy and minored in theology under Jesuit tutelage at Marquette University; and soon thereafter drifted away from religion in general. However, my quest to understand the underpinnings of experience has never abated.

    Early on, I was impressed with the notion that existence is the necessary basis for any phenomena. Given the Catholic symbolism of the Trinity, I gravitated toward a vision of a Supreme Being as pure immutable existence, lacking nothing, including perfect self-knowledge. In this schema, infinite existence is the first person; identical self-knowledge the second person. The third person is the unity of this identity—a coming to oneness that’s parent to human knowing.

    As an aside, since this Trinity is all-encompassing, it necessarily includes you and me. If it didn’t, it would be incomplete—imperfect, and not the intended eternally infinite Supreme Being.

    So my perspective has long been centered in this nifty construct, as I see no coherent alternative to it. This leads to a mapping upon all recognitions; finding vindication in Big-Bang cosmology, and bringing interesting implications to the quest to reconcile quantum theory with general relativity.

    Experience has led me to conclude that religious belief is redundant at best, as an elegant concept of a supreme being is far more readily derivable through the marvelous findings of contemporary science than it is through nostrums rooted in ancient understandings that are essentially lacking in the validations afforded by careful observation using available technology.

  3. masoume says:

    when there is no empirical evidencefor the existence of God, how one could expect to find any notion of God that can be judged on the basis of empirical evidence ?

  4. FrankL says:

    Religion without science is blind, science without religion is lame – A. Einstein
    (but what he understood by religion was something far more subtle than what is usually meant by the word in popular discussion)

  5. Richard Olson says:

    When the set that includes supernatural ex nihilo creation is assumed a given, what claims may rationally be excluded from this set on grounds of simply too preposterous an assertion/supposition to possibly be true?

  6. simon morley says:

    I am astonished that you would have such a strong view on God and religion, and the inadequacy of any view based – in the absence of empirical evidence – on faith alone. Isn’t this entirely your (and the entire science establishments) view on Time? There is absolutely no empirical evidence that Time is anything but an abstract (and hence space-time too must be abstract) and yet blind faith seems to lead you to still seek its tangible existence.
    Bizarre double standards – particularly by one of the “smart” people…

  7. Tony says:

    Smart people tend to disbelieve that which they can’t fit into their minds. You can’t fit the infinite into a finite mind. No matter how smart you are.

  8. Brent Meeker says:

    People reading this topic will probably be interested to know that one of the best writers on the subject of science and religion, Vic Stenger, died Wednesday. Vic wrote several books debunking mystics and theologians who claimed support from physics. He debated William Lane Craig twice.

  9. Agron says:

    Time is a concept created by humans to measure the change that happens in forward sequence direction at the level of macrocosm or microcosm. Like ‘mass’ is a concept to measure the quantity of the matter in the same level but in all directions. The problem with the time is the unit. This here the confusion is. But since the concept of time is created by human then the unit used is their problem as well.
    This is time!!!!!!!!!

  10. Ron Murphy says:

    “I have more sympathy for theists who do try to ground their belief in evidence, rather than those who insist that evidence is irrelevant. At least they are playing the game in the right way …”

    No. They cheat. They claim hearsay of Josephus as ‘independent’, ‘corroborating’ evidence for the existence of Jesus, when it’s only evidence of the reports about and from Christians. They use evidence like Josephus as evidence for Jesus the man, and then extrapolate to that being evidence of the supernatural stuff. They make assertions about cosmology when our best scientists show them where they are going wrong (no ass kissing intended – cough!WLC). And then when all this is pointed out they just repeat it all from scratch.

    There may be strong psychological forces at work causing this dishonesty. We demonise lying politicians and bankers, but the slippery equivocating rhetoric of theologians, and undue deference to their ‘smart’ opinions gives them a pass.

    They need to be called out on their dishonesty.

    OK, rant over. Thank you.

  11. Sean Carroll says:

    Wow, I hadn’t heard about Vic Stenger. Thanks for passing that along, Brent.

  12. Avattoir says:

    If folks were truly reverent about the faith of Christian antiquity, there’d be an annual ritual of boiling alive of a spouse deemed difficult or superfluous, to honor the memory of the instigator of the First Council of Nicaea.*

    Not to feel left out, each of the other faiths of antiquity, even recent antiquity like Mormonism, could find a more-or-less equally salutary celebration — such as, say, issuing commemorative stock in a currency swindle while declaiming to be sole holder of “the keys of the mysteries, and the revelations”.**

    [*not necessarily a human; maybe a crustacean***]
    [**not necessarily repeating the actual swindle***]
    [***tho departure from historical accuracy does risk attack as encouraging idolatry]

  13. Jerry Salomone says:

    What we know about physics really negates the possibility of any “God” as imagined by all current and former religions. I’m not so sure it 100% negates some possibility of some sort of “intelligent design” however.
    Earthlings are certainly not created in God’s image, but maybe God is the equations…

  14. Me says:

    My god can beat up your god.

  15. Mel says:

    This is a worthwhile read (at least for its application to religious thought, or a certain type of religious thought, even if an uncommon type)

    For those without JSTOR access

    It more or less agrees with the assertion that any notion of God that can’t be judged on the basis of empirical evidence isn’t much of a notion at all, but it draws a different conclusion from it.

  16. Tony says:

    Wow, you people didn’t like my comment, which means it’s true.

  17. John Call says:

    Simon Morely,
    “I am astonished that you would have such a strong view on God and religion, and the inadequacy of any view based – in the absence of empirical evidence – on faith alone. Isn’t this entirely your (and the entire science establishments) view on Time?”

    No, not really (I don’t presume to speak for Sean Carroll). Physicists base there opinions on the nature of time on evidence. But there isn’t necessarily a solid consensus on what time is, Sean discusses his view here:

  18. allan J says:

    Many clever people have a belief in a deity. It’s almost always the deity of their culture/childhood indoctrination. Could there be a connection?

  19. Doc C says:

    All of science is based on experiences in the natural world, which follow mathematical principles. What can we say about a state of reality that has no math at all? We cannot comprehend it. So if an illusion is an accurate but incomplete view of reality, how should we address the possibility of a mathless state that we cannot comprehend? In that mathless void we might find what some call God, the loving creator of a random, mathematical universe where loving creatures could evolve independently of the original creator’s will.

  20. kashyap vasavada says:

    In Hinduism, God (Brahman) is essentially identical with laws of nature. Thus empirical verification of laws of nature is already understanding that part of God. That is why Hinduism (and eastern religions in general)) do not have any problem whatsoever with science. If, however, one wants to realize Brahman fully with one’s limited brain, one has to have a non-sensory experience. There is a prescribed way to do this, namely meditation. But to try to get a non-sensory experience by sensory experience using the empirical method is oxymoron! That should be the end of such arguments!!

  21. Caroline O'Donnell says:

    Interesting argument, but I never find such arguments worth while to start with as even if you believe in the existence of God, at least from the standpoint of Christianity, God is unknowable, so trying to prove his/hers/its existence is a mute point in futility. What we don’t know to begin with is so vast that wether God exists seems beside the point!

  22. Kalam says:

    “(The theist could win such an argument by demonstrating that the naturalist’s beliefs are incoherent in the absence of such principles, but that never actually happens.)”

    It does, but Carroll seems unaware. See

    ‘come into existence’ in the 16-step argument can be replaced by ‘begin to exist’ and the argument would still work.

  23. Tony says:

    Just maybe those scientists, that won’t admit to a Creator, want to see science as the supreme belief system, to have science stand at the pinnacle of human existence, to which we must all bow and worship and the scientist as the high priest.

  24. paul kramarchyk says:

    Very smart religious people is an oxymoron. If, the term “religious” means belief in a supernatural deity(s) that hears prayers and is able to change the course of events by suspending the laws of physics to grant the wish said in the prayer. — A tornado destroys house A and kills three children in the process. While the same tornado misses nearby house B. The neo-Nazi living in house B says, “God answered my prayers, He must have a plan for me.” — If you believe that, you are not smart.

    If, however, you do not believe “your supernatural deity” can change the course of events. That events unfold consistent with the laws of physics. Then, what is so super about your supernatural deity?

  25. Latverian Diplomat says:


    That’s a very good video, and you expressed your position (one I happen to agree with) very well. I think Robert Lawrence Kuhn does deserve a little credit as well for allowing you to express these ideas without interruption even though he found them challenging.

    In your post I think there’s one possibility you left out. Which is that of a God who actively “hides” from empirical investigation (this can be as simple as the Deist notion of a God who creates the universe and then steps away, never to intervene, though it doesn’t have to be that simple). Theologians don’t like to bring this possibility up, I think, for a couple of different reasons.

    First, the idea of an elusive, even deceptive God runs counter to the popular notion of a God who wants to be acknowledged, worshiped, and obeyed.

    Second, at best it transforms your statement that “any notion of God that can’t be judged on the basis of empirical evidence isn’t much of a notion at all” to “a field of study whose hypotheses can’t be judged on the basis of empirical evidence isn’t much of a field of study at all”. In other words, a hiding God renders theology pointless.

    Lest that conclusion about theology be over-extended, I would argue that even very esoteric fields of study like ethics and aesthetics have to come to grips with real world problems. Indeed, some of the best work in these areas incorporates recent results from psychology, sociology, and neuroscience.

    Another interesting point of comparison is the philosophy of mathematics. Mathematics seems to depend on the existence of abstract entities, many of which can’t be realized in the physical world. Yet many mathematical results are vital to science and technology, and are seemingly tested daily in common applications. So in one sense, mathematics is put to the empirical test to a degree that theologians could never hope to match, and in another, it’s core objects of discourse (e.g., the infinite set of natural numbers) are so fundamentally abstract that fictionalism is actually a viable, if radical, position: