This blog post explores whether or not science and religion are compatible. I use the term religion in the usual sense, to mean a system of faith, worship and sacred rituals or duties. Religions typically consist of an organized code or collection of beliefs related to the origins and purpose of humanity (or subgroups thereof), together with a set of practices based on those beliefs. Can such belief systems be compatible with science?
Since this topic is controversial, I only reluctantly decided to write about it. Being a physics professor and a research scientist, I decided not to flee debate on this issue (which is like the third rail of science). Instead, here I detail my thoughts in writing.
Actually, I spent decades trying to reconcile science and (organized) religion, however I made little or no significant progress. Eventually, after much hesitation and discomfort, I was forced to conclude that full reconciliation between science and organized religion may not be possible, even in principle. Although this realization was initially surprising (and unpleasant) to me, I soon discovered new and more fulfilling ways of approaching issues such as ethics, morals and the purpose or meaning of life, which religion has traditionally monopolized.
1. Short answer: science and religion are incompatible
`Religion is a culture of faith and science is a culture of doubt.’ This statement is usually attributed to Richard Feynman. Faith and doubt are indeed antagonistic, like water and fire. How can it be possible to fully reconcile religious views, which are based on faith, with the systematic doubt and the skeptical questioning that are intrinsic to the scientific method? Like many scientists, I too have concluded that full reconciliation of science and religion is not possible.
One caveat: obviously, if one removes the element of dogma and faith from religion, then reconciliation might be possible. But religion without dogma is more like a social club than a traditional religion. What would become of Christianity without faith in Jesus Christ? Can you imagine Islam without faith in the Koran? So, by religion I always mean organized religion, with a set of teachings or dogmas.
Nevertheless, this caveat actually points to a possible way forward at reconciliation of science and religion: if religions do become more like social clubs and less dogmatic, then disagreement with science can be minimized or even avoided. I see some movement in this direction. There is growing realization, even among people of faith, that the arbitrary divisions of race, ethnicity and religion, for example, do not have a clear and well-established scientific foundation. In this context, it is admirable that the new pope of the Catholic Church, Pope Francis, has defended interfaith dialogue. He has said, for example, that even atheists can be redeemed. This concession is a major advance, compared to the old threats about burning in hell in eternal damnation! Moreover, by claiming that he would baptize even Martians, he has (perhaps inadvertently) signaled an openness to the possibility of extraterrestrial intelligence (i.e., aliens). Similarly, his emphasis on raising awareness of climate change is also most encouraging. These are all welcome developments. Other religions have also responded positively to the challenges brought on by science. The Dalai Lama is good example: a Buddhist religious leader who has shown interest in and kept an open mind about science. He has stated that “…if scientific analysis were conclusively to demonstrate certain claims in Buddhism to be false, then we must accept the findings of science and abandon those claims.” Pope Francis, the Dalai Lama and many others like them have contributed positively towards the reconciliation of science and religion. They are forward-thinking and broad-minded religious leaders. Maybe, in some sense, they have more in common with liberal social and political leaders than with the dogmatic defenders of religious orthodoxy and closed-minded conservatism. So I do see a ray of hope. While I welcome the positive change in attitudes brought by religious leaders like Pope Francis and the Dalai Lama, on the other hand the fact remains that their religions are still based on dogma. Religions still have too much dogma, too much superstition and too much bigotry. So, even considering the above caveat, overall I still feel generally pessimistic about science and religion being compatible.
Below I explore these issues in some detail.
2. Dirac and Feynman on religion
In the list of the all-time greatest physicists, Newton and Einstein invariably take the top positions. Paul A. M. Dirac, of Dirac equation fame, is considered to be an intellectual giant, ranking just a few notches below Einstein or Newton. And Feynman, who usually ranks just below or comparable to Dirac, has rock star status in the physics community.
It doesn’t seem to me that this fantastically marvelous universe, this tremendous range of time and space and different kinds of animals, and all the different planets, and all these atoms with all their motions, and so on, all this complicated thing can merely be a stage so that God can watch human beings struggle for good and evil — which is the view that religion has. The stage is too big for the drama.
If we are honest — and scientists have to be — we must admit that religion is a jumble of false assertions, with no basis in reality. The very idea of God is a product of the human imagination. It is quite understandable why primitive people, who were so much more exposed to the overpowering forces of nature than we are today, should have personified these forces in fear and trembling. But nowadays, when we understand so many natural processes, we have no need for such solutions. I can’t for the life of me see how the postulate of an Almighty God helps us in any way. What I do see is that this assumption leads to such unproductive questions as why God allows so much misery and injustice, the exploitation of the poor by the rich and all the other horrors He might have prevented. If religion is still being taught, it is by no means because its ideas still convince us, but simply because some of us want to keep the lower classes quiet. Quiet people are much easier to govern than clamorous and dissatisfied ones. They are also much easier to exploit. Religion is a kind of opium that allows a nation to lull itself into wishful dreams and so forget the injustices that are being perpetrated against the people. Hence the close alliance between those two great political forces, the State and the Church. Both need the illusion that a kindly God rewards — in heaven if not on earth — all those who have not risen up against injustice, who have done their duty quietly and uncomplainingly. That is precisely why the honest assertion that God is a mere product of the human imagination is branded as the worst of all mortal sins.
I do not accept arguments from authority. But it is nevertheless interesting to read about what these eminent physicists had to say.
3. Scientists abandon God and religion
Most scientists are non-religious. Many are atheist. A Pew survey from 2009 found that while over 80% of Americans believed in God, less than 50% of scientists believed in God. The percentage was actually 33% in that particular survey. These numbers are typical. For instance, among the members of the US National Academy of Sciences, more than 60% of biological scientists had disbelief in God (i.e., were what most people call `atheists’) according to a study from 1998. In the physical sciences, 79% had disbelief in God.
This issue is relevant in society because most politicians and people in leadership positions are, at least outwardly, sympathetic to religion if not actively religious. So there is at least this one important difference between the majority of scientists and the rest of society. Whereas most people are religious, most scientists are non-believers.
More worrying is that many politicians actively campaign against science and science education. We have all heard about attempts by the religious to eliminate (or water down) the teaching of Darwinian evolution in schools. At least in the West, these attempts have largely failed.
Fortunately, the voting population does not particularly crave a return to the dark ages. It is easy to understand why. The experience of the last few centuries has shown that social and economic development is only possible when there is political support and commitment to science research and education. Science is responsible for the invention of the Internet, cell phones, radio, TV, cars, trains, airplanes, X-rays, MRIs, the eradication of smallpox, etc. Rich and socially developed countries are precisely those in which science education and research are well funded. Economic pressures have thus led to investment in science and in science education.
At the same time, science has led to unintended consequences. The more a person is exposed to science, the less religious they are likely to become. (Possibly as a consequence, wealth is also negatively correlated with religiosity. In other words, on average the richer you are, the less religious you are likely to be.)
Especially among those with less science education, there is a fear that exposure to science and to “subversive” ideas such as Darwinian evolution will infect the minds of young people and turn them into “Godless infidels.” In fact, fear is a constant theme in religion: fear of God, fear of divine punishment, fear of hell, fear of forbidden knowledge, etc. Science education dispels such fears, and replaces it with the cultivation of curiosity, wonder, questioning, doubt and awe. Since fear is often used as an instrument of control and power, the loss of fear can be a setback for the power structures of organized religion. In this sense, science and science education sometimes directly threaten some religious movements.
Consider, as an example, suicide bombing as a form of jihad by Islamic militant organizations. It is perfectly fair for us to ask: is it even remotely plausible that these hapless suicide bombers correctly understood the scientific method? This is a rhetorical question, of course. A genuinely curious and scientifically literate potential candidate for suicide bombing would immediately ask questions, especially when faced with death by suicide. Is life after death a sure thing? Will Allah really reward a suicide bomber? How it is possible for the big-breasted and hot Houri girls and women to recover their sexual virginity every morning? The young man may then go on to ask: is there a remote possibility, perhaps, that such ridiculous claims are not a sign of pulling the wool over the eyes of the naïve young men in their sexual prime who crave sex and intimacy with women, but who are forbidden by religion to engage in casual sex? And why is recreational and free sex allowed in Paradise but not on earth? A scientifically literate young man would probably say `Thanks but no thanks, I’ll let you go first to set the example!’ Hence the fear and loathing of doubt, curiosity and questioning. Indeed, scientific illiteracy makes people gullible and easier to manipulate.
There is no denying the statistics: exposure to science is correlated with loss of religious faith. This raises two questions: (i) why does this happen and (ii) is this good or bad? I am mostly concerned here with question (i) and only briefly touch upon point (ii).
4. Overlapping magisteria of science and religion
Often, people turn away from religion simply because they start to realize that religion and science are incompatible. In the last decade or so, several books by famous authors have taken a hard look at such issues. My own exposure to these arguments happened a little earlier, during my college years and later in grad school. For example, The Selfish Gene and The Blind Watchmaker had quite an influence on me when I read them in my 20s, and showed me that one does not need religion to explain natural phenomena.
However, until my 30s I really thought that science and religion play mutually complementary and distinct roles: science gives us knowledge and religion gives us morals and ethics. My beliefs at that time corresponded to what Stephen J. Gould called the non-overlapping magisteria of science and religion. According to this view, science and religion are compatible. In fact, there is nothing to reconcile at all because there is no conflict in the first place. Science and religion can even complement each other, like our right and left hands, or like Yin and Yang, or male and female.
We have all heard these trendy (but flawed) ideas. Einstein is often quoted as having said that religion without science is lame, but that science without religion is blind. Indeed, the seed of Gould’s idea is originally of much older origin. For example, there is the old metaphor that science and religion are two wings of a bird. The `bird of humankind’ needs both wings to fly.
According to this view, the domain of science extends over the realm of facts concerning the physical world whereas religion deals with issues of ethics, values, aesthetics, social norms and everything that goes under the sweeping term “spirituality.” These two branches of knowledge are separate domains — non-overlapping magisteria. They are separate domains, each with exclusive authority within its well defined border. Science rules over the realm of facts whereas religion rules over the realm of values, morality, etc. The harmony of science and religion is, in this view, not only possible, but necessary and a very good thing indeed.
I could not disagree more. In my view, there is no clear boundary between science and religion. Recall that David Hume taught us that all knowledge ultimately comes from sensory experience. In other words, the basis of all knowledge is empirical in origin. So there can be no knowledge about the world which does not ultimately have physical origin. Hence, there is no field of knowledge to which the scientific method cannot be applied. It is the one and only way of obtaining objective knowledge about the world we live in. Even mathematical discovery, which can be considered to be a priori rather than a posteriori knowledge, is ultimately dependent on having a posteriori knowledge gained from reading books or listening to teachers, etc. I consider it beyond reasonable doubt that all knowledge is – ultimately – empirical.
If all knowledge is empirical, however, then even knowledge about morals and ethics must ultimately be empirical. I did not come to this conclusion easily. For many years I tried to find some way to reconcile science and religion, including in my personal life. Like most people, I come from a religious family. As a child in a Hindu family attending an international catholic school in Rio de Janeiro, I was exposed to multiple religions (and atheism) from an early age. I still recall how a British student in my second grade class started to cry when my teacher, an American nun, told him that he would burn in hell for not believing in Jesus. She told me I too would go to hell, actually, but I did not really understand what that meant because, not coming from a Christian background, hell was a foreign concept to me. If I had understood what it meant to go to hell, maybe I too would have cried. My father soon afterwards explained to me that the Christian hell was actually the better place to go compared to heaven, because our entire family, relatives and most of our friends would also end up there! If on the one hand I was exposed to diverse religions from an early age, on the other hand I was also already inclined towards the sciences even in childhood. It was thus only a matter of time for me to start thinking scientifically about religious questions.
As an adult, I eagerly read all I could about the various religions. I would ask msyelf, could there be a kind of common core in all religions? Religion also led to a number of very interesting philosophies. To this day, I still feel impressed with the reasoning underlying the monism of Shankara and Spinoza. I still get goosebumps when I recall the ideas of the Buddhist philosopher Nagarjuna, who argued that there is no fundamental difference between nirvana and samsara.
Ultimately however, if a religious hypothesis is in principle empirically testable (i.e. falsifiable) then it is a scientific hypothesis, according to Popper. So, on the one hand, if a religious idea is testable, then science and religion are overlapping magisteria. On the other hand, if a hypothesis or idea is not testable in principle, then it is no better than the corresponding null hypothesis. Such an untestable hypothesis has no explanatory power — hence it is worthless knowledge. So Gould could have had his non-overlapping magisteria, but only at the high cost of losing whatever residual explanatory power (if any) allegedly possessed by religion.
The more time I spent thinking about it, the more I became convinced that non-overlapping magisteria is just plain wrong. Moreover, it has some of the signs of wishful thinking. Believing that science and religion are compatible is less controversial and disturbing (to most people) than believing that they are incompatible. On this note, I wish to make clear that I do not claim credit for these criticisms, many of which are well known.
Much to my chagrin, however, even the US National Academy of Science (NAS) apparently endorses (or endorsed as late as 2008) Gould’s view on the harmony of science and religion. I quote:
Science and religion are based on different aspects of human experience. In science, explanations must be based on evidence drawn from examining the natural world. Scientifically based observations or experiments that conflict with an explanation eventually must lead to modification or even abandonment of that explanation. Religious faith, in contrast, does not depend only on empirical evidence, is not necessarily modified in the face of conflicting evidence, and typically involves supernatural forces or entities. Because they are not a part of nature, supernatural entities cannot be investigated by science. In this sense, science and religion are separate and address aspects of human understanding in different ways. Attempts to pit science and religion against each other create controversy where none needs to exist. (From Science, Evolution, and Creationism, NAS)
I confess that I was disappointed to read about `supernatural entities,’ especially in an NAS publication!
5. Hume’s guillotine and positive psychology
Wait a minute! Not so fast, you say. Science is amoral, after all. It cannot tell us right from wrong. Science and technology can be used for good as well as for evil. To be fair, even if Gould was wrong, couldn’t we still argue that religion and science are complementary?
I admit that there is a big difference between normative and positive statements, or between descriptive and prescriptive statements. In what follows I use the terms normative and prescriptive to mean the same thing, and similarly for the terms positive and descriptive. Loosely speaking, normative and prescriptive statements are “shoulds” and “oughts” whereas positive or descriptive statements are free of value judgements.
Religion deals mainly with normative and prescriptive concerns (e.g., “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s wife”). In contrast, science deals with data and descriptions of the physical world (“your neighbor’s wife is indeed very hot”). It is not possible to logically derive a normative statement from a descriptive one, a fact known as Hume’s Guillotine. Popper refers to this dichotomy as the “dualism of facts and decisions.” So I admit that there is a sort of “non-overlappingness” between descriptions vs. prescriptions. Maybe this is why Gould was led to his (flawed) idea.
While I am on this topic, let me briefly digress and mention that, in my current understanding, I now side with Abraham Maslow and no longer view as fundamental or insurmountable the difference or “split” between normative and positive statements. Maslow, best known for the hierarchy of needs, was the person who coined the term “positive psychology.” One can generate a number of positive statements out of any normative one, e.g., the prescriptive statement “it is wrong to kill” can be made into a descriptive statement via “most people believe that it is wrong to kill.” Similarly, descriptive statements can be translated into the language of prescription, e.g. the descriptive statement “solid matter is made of atoms” naturally suggests to most educated people the prescriptive statement “we should consider solid matter as being made of atoms.” They do not imply each other logically, of course. But we can approach ethics descriptively rather than prescriptively (see descriptive ethics ). The flip side is that just as one can study normative statements descriptively, one can also approach facts normatively, i.e. prescriptively. Indeed, most scientists would agree with the normative statement that we should or ought to seek out truth. In fact, I believe that these kinds of observations are what motivated Maslov to attempt to go beyond the dichotomy between positive and normative statements, known in this context as the fact-value split. In his goal to better understand self-actualizing people, he seems to have concluded that facts generate normative content in the minds of healthy and self-actualizing people. In other words, healthy and self-actualizing people are not heartless, mindless zombies, but rather have a heightened ethical and aesthetic sensitivity. “Facts create oughts,” according to Maslow. Note that he does not say “facts imply oughts” but rather facts create oughts. Our minds do the creating.
The very fact that positive psycology and neuroscience are studying ethics and morality from a scientific point of view is evidence that the magisteria of science and religion do in fact overlap. Again, we see that Gould was wrong.
6. Non-physical souls and not-so-Intelligent Design
Every religion or spiritual tradition makes metaphysical claims of some kind or another about the physical world. Most religions assume the existence of a force, energy, God, gods, or spirit-beings, and so forth. They also often assume that human consciousness carries on after death, either via reincarnation or else by passage onto the next world, heaven or hell, etc.
To be objectively meaningful, all such claims need to have consequences of a physical nature. After all, if claims had no consequence of a physical nature, it would have no bearing on us as physical beings. It makes no difference if it makes no difference! Buddhism and Hinduism uphold reincarnation. Christianity preaches eternal salvation and damnation. One on hand, if these are empirically testable claims, then they fall into the domain of science. So you have overlap of magisteria. On the other hand, if these claims are not empirically testable, then what exactly is being claimed? Nothing at all, of course!
Consider an illustrative example to clarify the point above. Imagine that Religion X claims that we all have souls. First consider the case where this soul is completely undetectable by physical means and that in fact the soul makes no contact with physical phenomena or physical reality, including one’s brain and mind. In this case, having a soul is completely physically indistinguishable from not having a soul. So it could not possibly matter whether or not a person has a soul. But if having a soul makes no difference empirically, then it is worthless. How can something which is completely undetectable be useful or beneficial? Even admitting Gould’s conciliatory idea of non-overlapping magisteria, this kind of “neutered” soul is completely worthless. It is a meaningless “nothing.” So let us discard as nonsense the possibility of a soul which makes no contact with the physical world.
We then have left the other possibility — a soul that does make contact with the physical world. Let us consider this scenario more carefully. If the soul does, in fact, have a physical component or physically measurable effects, then the soul is susceptible to the scientific method. The magisterium of science and of Religion X thus overlap. Either way, the idea of non-overlapping magisterium falls apart under scrutiny. It is a politically correct but ultimately misleading fiction.
These basic criticisms against religious dogmas apply to almost any kind of religious or spiritual claim:demons, angels, fairies, elves, goblins, even Santa Claus etc. All kinds of other religious concepts become unstable: God, Satan, gods, reincarnation, virgin births, transubstantiation, life after death, views about life beginning at conception, circumcision of the foreskins of penises, homophobia, the divine or special origin of various books or founders of religion, etc. Beliefs start crumbling one by one once they are investigated with a scientific attitude.
Moreover, whenever science and religion disagree about the physical world, science always wins, for instance heliocentrism vs. geocentrism. Every metaphysical or physical claim of a religious nature can be compared against a corresponding null hypothesis. Consider the controversy about the pseudoscientific theory of Intelligent Design, put forth by religious thinkers as a thinly veiled proxy for the theory of biblical Creationism and other genesis myths. Here, the magisteria of science and religion have overlapped, not because science has invaded the space of religion but rather because religion has attempted to change the scientific debate. Religion has invaded the magisterium which is supposed to be reserved for science. So much for non-overlapping magisteria! Quite fittingly, the theory of intelligence design has been shredded. The only time I have heard my colleagues mention this “theory” is when they are telling jokes about human anatomy (which I judge unsuitable for this article).
7. Three lemmas for our Lord
For many years, I tried to pretend that reconciliation was possible. But it probably isn’t. A little more than a decade ago, I abandoned all hope of reconciling science and religion, for the reasons explained above. Very soon afterwards, I also gave up hope of reconciling belief in a traditional divinity of any kind: I became atheist.
Of course, no empirical knowledge is certain. Empirical knowledge by its very nature is probabilistic. I see about as much empirical evidence for a God as I do for, say, elves, goblins and tooth-fairies. Show me a real elf or goblin and I will happily believe in their existence! The only reason I believe in atoms and electrons is empirical evidence.
In addition to lack of evidence of a God, there is some circumstancial evidence against the existence of God. I quote this trilemma from Wikipedia:
- If God is unable to prevent evil, then he is not all-powerful.
- If God is not willing to prevent evil, then he is not all-good.
- If God is both willing and able to prevent evil, then why does evil exist?
Of course, this argument does not touch upon non-traditional concepts of God, such as Spinoza’s or Shankara’s. But these more sophisticated ideas about god are not what most people think of when they use the term.
The traditional Christian God, for example, is usually defined as an all-powerful and kind-hearted super-Being who is the creator of the universe. Many other religions hold a similar view. This is how most people think of God.
The trilemma above is devastating to this kind of God.
While on this topic, I have one last comment: I have heard, in response to the above trilemma, that God chose to allow suffering in order to give us free will. To me, this is a classic example of a cure which is worse than the disease! At least the concept of God is more or less well defined. But the concept of “free will” is so nebulous that people cannot even agree on what exactly it means. Can we even be sure that free will is not an illusion? In our book The Physics of Foraging, my co-authors and I briefly discuss free will. (My personal opinion is that we do exert some sort of control, and that we do have some minimum amount of `free will’ in this sense of endogenous dynamics and internal locus of control, but this is merely a hunch. Most of our behavior is not free but rather conditioned.) In any case, even if “free will” does in fact exist, it is not at all clear why an all-powerful and all-good God didn’t or couldn’t stop the suffering, the wars, the genocides, etc.
8. Religion the source of moral order?
Religion has given us some wonderful heritage. The stories of Hainuwele and Mithras and Rudra and Apollo continue to fascinate us. The Norse god Thor has even reincarnated as a superhero! When religion is not taken too seriously, it can have quite a positive influence. Perhaps it would do good for religious people to view their own religion the way they view other peoples’ religions, i.e. not take it too seriously. In the age of science, every attempt to take religion seriously has ended in failure (and sometimes in tragedy).
Indeed, it is vain to hope that religion can somehow substitute for a genuine moral sense or the cultivation of an ethical conscience. Witness how most homophobia is mainly religiously motivated. See how today in the Midde East of 2015, religious fanatics brutally decapitate innocent civilians in the name of the great Allah. Have you noticed that most people who oppose the Darwinian theory of evolution are religious?
On average, scientists may be, from a purely technical point of view, “infidels” and “godless.” But that does not mean that we are not decent human beings. Many people feel more respect and admiration for a sincere and kindhearted atheist than for a mean-spirited religious bigot.
I am convinced that books such as the Bible, the Koran, etc. are not the best guide to moral behavior. There are some good ideas in the Bible of course. The golden rule to do to others what you want them to do to you is found in the Bible and in most religions. While it may be an advance over an eye for an eye, on the other hand it is not, in my opinion, the highest ethical principle. For example, the golden rule has been used as a pretext to force conversion of indigenous and native peoples to Christianity against their will in many places, including Australia and the Americas. I find such behavior to be completely immoral, to say the least. It is a shameful legacy. We can go way beyond the golden rule. Here is my own improvement of the golden rule: do to others what THEY would want you to do to them. This simple moral principle already transcends the Bible and other religious books. (I arrived at this improvement on my own, but I do not claim credit for it because many others arrived at the same conclusion long before I did, for instance Karl Popper.)
9. Science and religion: An unhappy marriage
Science and religion have had a troubled relationship from the start. Galileo was persecuted. Giordano Bruno suffered an even worse fate. His crime was to believe in the existence of atoms. I quote from Stephen Greenblatt’s book The Swerve:
Copernicus’s assertion that the earth was not the fixed point at the center of the universe but a planet in orbit around the sun was still, when Bruno championed it, a scandalous idea, anathema both to the Church and to the academic establishment. And Bruno managed to push the scandal of Copernicanism still further: there was no center to the universe at all, he argued, neither earth nor sun. Instead, he wrote, quoting Lucretius, there were multiple worlds, where the seeds of things, in their infinite numbers, would certainly combine to form other races of men, other creatures. Each of the fixed stars observed in the sky is a sun, scattered through limitless space. Many of these are accompanied by satellites that revolve around them as the earth revolves around our sun. The universe is not all about us, about our behavior and our destiny; we are only a tiny piece of something inconceivably larger. And that should not make us shrink in fear. Rather, we should embrace the world in wonder and gratitude and awe. These were extremely dangerous views, every one of them, and it did not improve matters when Bruno, pressed to reconcile his cosmology with Scripture, wrote that the Bible was a better guide to morality than to charting the heavens. Many people may have quietly agreed, but it was not prudent to say so in public, let alone in print.
For his views on science and religion and belief in atoms, the pious people of that age proclaimed him a heretic. I again quote Greenblatt, narrating Bruno’s fate:
On February 17, 1600, the defrocked Dominican, his head shaved, was mounted on a donkey and led out to the stake that had been erected in the Campo dei Fiori. He had steadfastly refused to repent during the innumerable hours in which he had been harangued by teams of friars, and he refused to repent or simply to fall silent now at the end. His words are unrecorded, but they must have unnerved the authorities, since they ordered that his tongue be bridled. They meant it literally: according to one account, a pin was driven into his cheek, through his tongue, and out the other side; another pin sealed his lips, forming a cross. When a crucifix was held up to his face, he turned his head away. The fire was lit and did its work. After he was burned alive, his remaining bones were broken into pieces and his ashes — the tiny particles that would, he believed, reenter the great, joyous, eternal circulation of matter— were scattered.
Science and religion have had an unhappy marriage. Divorce is sometimes preferable to an unhappy marriage, much more so when there is physical abuse.
10. Life without religion not so bad
On the bright side, loosing religion does not imply loss of morals or ethics. This point should be obvious. Religion is certainly not the source of moral order or of ethical behavior, because apes and other animals are able to make moral decisions. These animals, of course, do not subscribe to any of our traditional religions! Indeed, “justice” seems to have a biological origin. We may even have neural “brain circuits” dedicated to moral reasoning and researchers are now studying morality from the perspective of neuroethics.
Not so fast, you say! Even if religion is fiction and even if you can live a decent life without religion, isn’t religion still important and overall a good thing? Fiction can be beautiful, after all. I have heard people bemoan that science removes the magic from life. Santa Claus is so much fun, they say, but then the heartless scientist comes along and demystifies Santa to the innocent children, by explaining it away in terms of cosplay and ritual tradition. Isn’t it better to let children enjoy the fantasy while they are still young? I cannot answer for other people, but at least in my own experience, I think that Santa Claus is no less fun if you know that he is fictional. A roller coaster ride is no less fun just because you understand Newton’s three laws of motion. A film at the cinema is no less pleasurable just because you know that what you see is not what is really there. To me and to many scientists in general, truth is often more beautiful (and stranger) than fiction.
Science is a source of awe and wonder to me. I did not become a scientist to make money or with dreams of fame and status. To those unfamiliar with academia: don’t ever count on becoming rich and famous being a physics professor! (Try sports or fashion modelling instead!) Rather, I went into science because it fascinates me. I get a rush of pleasure from understanding how things (and people, societies, ecosystems, etc.) work. There is an enjoyment in understanding and in figuring things out. In fact, I believe that it is possible to have so-called “religious experiences” even without religion, for instance in museums, by hiking in the great outdoors, or by dancing or listening to music. It is also well known that drugs such as LSD can induce mystical and religious experiences.
I am not pessimistic about the future of our society. The more we understand the mind, the brain, and society, the more efficiently we will be able to motivate ethical behavior in society as a whole. Science may finally allow us to become more ethically minded and less cruel and violent.
Finally, without going into details, let me point out that most non-religious people get along just fine without religion, at least in secular countries with formal separation of church and state.
Maybe life without religion can, after all, be quite liberating!
Indeed, John Lennon’s Imagine alludes to a better world without religion:
Imagine there’s no heaven
It’s easy if you try
No hell below us
Above us only sky
Imagine all the people
Living for today…
Imagine there’s no countries
It isn’t hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion too
Imagine all the people
Living life in peace…
Can you imagine?
Acknowledgements: I thank Marcelo Felisberto, Heather Dea Jennings and Luiz Felipe C. Pereira for helpful comments.