Thursday, June 25, 2009

And another thing…

My exchange with Sam Harris below has attracted some interesting comment on the Reason Project site. While it is natural that a web site like that one will have its share of cheerleaders, I’m heartened that there were several rather more thoughtful and even-handed comments than the posting of my original Nature article in the ‘Hall of Shame’ seemed to provoke. (Incidentally, now that the Hall of Shame has had a bit longer to develop, it seems clearer what kind of articles it will contain: anything that fails to match up to Sam’s uncompromising position. It’ll be a crowded hall.)

I have been thinking a little more about Sam’s last set of comments, and in particular the remark that ‘A person cannot (or least should not be able to) believe something because it “makes him feel better.” ’ I don’t want to fall for the tendency, which I saw in much of Sam’s comments, to plump always for the ‘worse case’ interpretation of any remark that permits of more than one. But I do wonder what he is implying here. It is hard to see it as anything other than an injunction that ‘you should not be free to choose what you believe.’ I guess that if all Sam mean is that we should not leave people so ill-informed that they have no reasonable basis on which to make those decisions, then fair enough. But it does seem to go further – to say that ‘you should not be permitted to choose what you believe, simply because it makes you feel better.’ Doesn’t this sound a little like a Marxist denouncement of ‘false consciousness’, with the implication that it needs to be corrected forthwith? I think (I hope?) we can at least agree that there are different categories of belief - that to believe one’s children are the loveliest in the world because that makes you feel better is a permissible (even laudable) thing. But I slightly shudder at the notion, hinted here, that a well-informed person should not be allowed to choose their belief freely. This doesn’t mean that we should desist from trying to persuade them of alternatives (so long as we do not do so with incessant and intemperate hectoring). And it doesn’t mean we must approve of their attempting to persuade others to share their belief. But surely we cannot let ourselves become proscriptive to this degree?

Although it seems to have perhaps flushed out Sam’s intolerance, however, I must say that my suggestion that for someone to believe in a religious doctrine “because it helps them in life and makes them feel better” … “seems a pretty good reason” isn’t the most transparent way I might have put it. Here, at least, Sam’s interpretation, while by no means unique, is not perverse. That’s to say, I can see how someone might imagine me to be implying not (as intended) that such behaviour is understandable, in a certain sense rational, and can in itself be socially tolerated, but that it is valid in some abstract logical way. All the more so given that this appears to be the only criterion of ‘correct behaviour’ Sam will accept. So let me be more explicit: I see no reason to try to argue out of their point of view someone who quietly and thoughtfully holds a religious faith that offers them support and solace in their life.

This raises the issue of whether or not we should actually approve of such a decision. I am honestly not sure how to answer that. I guess I feel that someone who finds comfort in religion, rather than being oppressed by it or using it as a reason to be judgemental, bigoted or dogmatic, is, in my own terms, seemingly making good use of a belief that I happen not to share.

Sam says “for a belief to be justified, our acceptance of it must be dependent upon its actually being true”. I think his subsequent comment hints at his suspicion that philosophers would tear this statement apart. I believe there was a Big Bang. Is it true? There’s very good reason to think so – but that is utterly different from the Big Bang being true. To think otherwise is to misunderstand science badly (which is why I actually suspect Sam does not mean quite what he says here).

Sam thinks that ‘my religious friends’ (I am in fact not simply arguing from my experience with friends who have a religious belief) are mistaking hope for knowledge. He says “If these friends of yours are really religious—that is, really conforming to the doctrine of Christianity, Islam, Judaism, etc.—they will have taken a further step toward delusion and mistaken this hope for a form of knowledge.” I have sad news, then, for ‘these friends of mine’: Sam Harris says you are not truly religious. Apparently Sam wants to ensure that ‘religious believers’ include only those people whose beliefs he can most easily attack. Well, that’s one way to win an argument, I suppose.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Debating science and religion with Sam Harris

Since publishing my online Muse column in Nature News about the Reason Project (you’ll find all the links below), I have been having an exchange of views with the project’s founder Sam Harris. The results are below. I have added a final comment here that is not on the Reason Project site, but Sam knows about it and may or may not respond. I’ll say no more – judge for yourselves.



Dear Phil --

Well, we seem to have a tempest in a teapot brewing. You were good enough to notice the birth of my foundation, The Reason Project, in your column in Nature (How much reason do you want?, Nature News 14 May 2009), and I repaid this kindness by hurling you into the Reason Project Hall of Shame for perceived indiscretions of rational thought. You then responded to your confinement on your blog ("“Whatever you do, don’t call them militant" 19 May 2009)--and life on earth has not been the same since.

I wonder whether you would like to have a direct exchange on these issues. I'm not entirely sure where our respective misunderstandings leave off and our genuine differences of opinion begin, but it might be interesting for readers to watch us struggle to sort things out.

Please let me know your thoughts.



Sam Harris
Co-Founder and CEO
The Reason Project


Dear Sam,

Thanks for this message. A tempest in a teapot seems an apt way to express it. I do suspect that most of our disagreement hinges on misunderstandings rather than genuine differences, although of course there’s no harm in the latter.

I can appreciate that you wouldn’t welcome the mildly skeptical tone of my Nature article, but I’m still puzzled about why you found it sufficiently objectionable to (as you say) hurl it into your Hall of Shame. (I assume this particular pit is not intended for all critics, but only for those whose message you find especially abhorrent or misguided.) At this point, I’m forced to guess that perhaps you share the views of those who have commented unfavourably about the piece on your site. The primary objections there seem predicated on two notions:

1. That I have said religion and science are compatible.
2. That I am parading Francis Collins and others who seek a conciliatory position as the good guys.

I sincerely believe that you will find neither of these points of view actually stated in my piece, and for the simple reason that I don't believe them. Perhaps my blog post made it a little clearer. My points are that:

1. There seems little point in making religion per se the ‘enemy of reason’. That creates a big and, frankly, invincible foe. And it's a foe that doesn't need to be vanquished. Plenty of religious people – certainly, just about all those I know – are perfectly happy to accept the tenets of science that the fundamentalists find so distasteful, which are mostly connected with questions of origin. That there are logical inconsistencies in that position really doesn't seem to me to be a big deal – we live with all kinds of contradictions, and often because we don’t feel any compulsion to chart our all beliefs with philosophical rigour until we discover where they clash. For many Christians (the religious community I am most familiar with), the Virgin Birth, the biblical miracles, as well as angels, saints and, goodness knows, even heaven and hell aren’t notions they particularly cling to or think about very much at all. They simply find that religion addresses some of their needs. I’m not even sure that I would consider this use of religion irrational – merely woolly.
This is what I meant when I referred to a ‘false dichotomy’ – the fact that I think science and religion can in principle coexist (as they always have done, even if not always comfortably) does not mean that I think they are logically compatible. I know some will say that this is a complacent view, because religion is (outside Western Europe) growing both in its strength and in its intolerance. That is absolutely a cause for concern. But it doesn’t pit religion per se against science per se. It’s a primarily political issue.

2. Religion is not a delusion to be corrected with a little hard science. A lot of the current ‘rationalist’ criticism of religion reminds me of the old deficit model that used to motivate the Public Understanding of Science movement: just give people the right facts, and then they’ll agree with us. This is not just deluded, but lazy. It’s trivial to take religious texts and show how, literally interpreted, they are utter nonsense. But we have to engage with (and sometimes do battle with, it is true) religion as it exists in the world. This is more challenging. On the longer version of my Nature article posted on my blog, I cite the example of Galileo. If we choose to believe that the Catholic Church condemned his heliocentrism because it conflicted with scripture, we have an unassailable case against superstitious dogma. If we recognize that the issue was at least as much about maintaining the Church’s authority, we have to concede some (Machiavellian) rationality in the papal position, however repugnant the motives. (And incidentally, let’s please not hear any more about Giordano Bruno being martyred for his heliocentrism. That’s the kind of contempt for history that polarized positions encourage.)

I claim that religion needs to be seen as a social construct, with all kinds of social functions. Some of the most thoughtful commentators on theology, such as Karen Armstrong, recognise the value and perhaps even necessity of the kind of myth that religion embodies. Many are now happy to accept that aspects of the Bible, and other religious texts, should be read in this allegorical way. We can't meaningfully engage in religion without recognizing this social and cultural aspect - it often functions as a component of how people construct their cultural identity. It seemed to me that this was really what the Royal Society’s former director of education Michael Reiss was trying to say when he suggested that it was best to understand religiously motivated delusions such as creationism as world views rather than as mere ignorance. Reiss’s remarks incited such outrage among a few vocal, prominent scientists that he was of course forced to resign. It troubles me when scientists (and others) get such horrors about religion that they seem no longer able to entertain or even notice any nuance of opinion in these matters. It all starts to sound disturbingly like George W. Bush’s comment that you’re either for us or against us.

The comments on your blog left me dismayed that the initiative you have started might tend to attract those whose views on religion are instead of the most simplistic and reductive sort ('But it's just wrong!'). But I also realise, on reflection, that it is unfair to judge an organization by its web feedback. Nature would not fare at all well if that were applied to them.

I am in favour of any movement that campaigns to kick out of schools the invidious misinformation of creationism, intelligent design and the rest of the shoddy fundamentalist agenda. I am very much in favour of a movement that aims to denounce religious intolerance and that attacks the kind of harmful and ignorant nonsense that seems increasingly to be coming from the Vatican. On my blog, I reacted to your actions and to the comments on your site with a mixture of amusement and irritation, neither of which is terribly constructive, because I have to choose words carefully within the incredibly constrained format that a Nature Muse allows and so am frustrated when they aren't read carefully. But it is possible too that I did not choose them carefully enough. And certainly, I would not want to misrepresent what you are trying to achieve, which I am sure includes much that I would support.

Best wishes,


Dear Phil --

Thank you for a favorable and very substantive response to my invitation. I appreciate your willingness to have this exchange in a public forum. First, I should say that while I can't necessarily endorse every comment that appears beneath your article on the Reason Project website (in fact, there may be many I haven’t read), I suspect there is not much daylight between me and some of the more vociferous critics you encountered there. As evidence of this fact, here is the Letter to the Editor I wrote in response to your column. While I am its principal author, many members of my advisory board have read it, offered minor suggestions, and generally approve its contents. I have told your Editor in Chief, Philip Campbell, that he can print it with multiple signatories, or not, whichever is more attractive to him.


In his column, "How much reason do you want?" (Nature News 14 May 2009) Philip Ball, a consultant editor at this journal, takes members of The Reason Project to task for being too critical of religion. While he accepts the value of "knowledge", "learning," and "intellectualism," he argues that these virtues need not, in principle, undermine the religious commitments of law-abiding men and women in the 21st century. Mr. Ball assures us that while the "abuse" of religion "to justify suppression of human rights, maltreatment and murder is abhorrent," there is no deeper contradiction to be found between scientific rationality and religious faith. As evidence of this underlying harmony, we are asked to contemplate the existence of The BioLogos Foundation, whose purpose (in the words of its mission statement) is to demonstrate "the compatibility of the Christian faith with what science has discovered about the origins of the universe and life."

To give you a sense of how bizarre Mr. Ball's opinions will appear to rational people everywhere, imagine reading a column in Nature that criticized scientists for taking too adversarial a stance with respect to witchcraft—even in Africa, where a belief in the efficacy of magic spells, invisible spirits, and the occasional human sacrifice remains widespread. If the analogy between religion and witchcraft seems hyperbolic, please take a moment to review the actual tenets of the world's major religions.

For instance, a reconciliation between science and Christianity (the explicit goal of The BioLogos Foundation) would mean squaring physics, chemistry, biology, and a basic understanding of probabilistic reasoning with a raft of patently ridiculous, Iron Age convictions. In its most generic and well-subscribed form, Christianity amounts to the following claims: Jesus Christ, a carpenter by trade, was born of a virgin, ritually murdered as a scapegoat for the collective sins of his species, and then resurrected from death after an interval of three days. He promptly ascended, bodily, to “heaven” -- where, for two millennia, he has eavesdropped upon (and, on occasion, even answered) the simultaneous prayers of billions of beleaguered human beings. Not content to maintain this numinous arrangement indefinitely, this invisible carpenter will one day return to earth to judge humanity for its sexual indiscretions and sceptical doubts, at which time he will grant immortality to anyone who has had the good fortune to be convinced, on Mother's knee, that this baffling litany of miracles is the most important series of truth-claims ever revealed about the cosmos. Every other member of our species, past and present, from Cleopatra to Einstein, no matter what his or her terrestrial accomplishments, will (probably) be consigned to a fiery hell for all eternity.

On Mr. Ball's account, there is nothing in the scientific worldview, or in the intellectual rigor and self-criticism that gave rise to it, that casts such convictions in an unfavorable light. This learned opinion is, frankly, amazing to me and to the other members of The Reason Project. One would have thought it might also amaze Mr. Ball's fellow editors at Nature.

Sam Harris
Co-Founder and CEO
The Reason Project

I suspect that you find this response indicative of the some of the misunderstandings and militancy you refer to in your blog post. I'm sorry to say, however, that your subsequent writings—both on your blog and in this exchange—only dig the hole I perceive you to be in deeper still.

On your blog you say the following:

But what depresses me is that the Reason Project and many of its supporters are so sure of the battle-lines that they have lost the ability of basic English comprehension. It is this that has earned me the delightful honour of a place in the Reason Project’s Hall of Shame, no less – because it has decided that I am placing the irenic BioLogos Foundation, the Templeton Foundation, and other apologists, on a pedestal, making them the nice, friendly good guys who only want us all to get along. Does my article say that? No, it simply quotes from the BioLogos mission statement (just as it quotes from the Reason Project mission statement). That this is taken as registering approval is a bit disturbing. The fact that I suggest the Reason Project in some respects ‘should be applauded’, and say no such thing about the BioLogos Foundation, doesn’t seem to be noticed. (The fact is that I’m utterly indifferent to the BioLogos Foundation. I find its aims uninspiring and its current statements about the relation of science and religion somewhat shallow.)

While you clearly expect a paragraph like this to fully acquit you, there is, even here, much to offend the sensibilities of reasonable people who are sensitive to the problem of religion. Please consider how your choice of words strikes a reader who desperately wants to believe that you, a scientist and an editor at the most prestigious scientific journal on earth, has his head on straight:

1. To call the BioLogos Foundation "irenic" is far too charitable. It is, rather, obscurantist and phatasmagorically stupid. If you took a moment to examine what its founder, Francis Collins, actually believes, as well as the means by which he came to believe it, you will see that he is engaged in an obscene re-branding of otherworldly hope and craving as a legitimate arm of science. I'm sorry to say that your charity toward Collins is part of a pattern at Nature, which I have pointed out previously in the pages of the journal. According to Nature, Collins’ atrocious book, The Language of God, represented a “moving” and “laudible” [sic] exercise of building “a bridge across the social and intellectual divide that exists between most of US academia and the so-called heartlands.” And here is Collins, hard at work on that bridge:

As believers, you are right to hold fast to the concept of God as Creator; you are right to hold fast to the truths of the Bible; you are right to hold fast to the conclusion that science offers no answers to the most pressing questions of human existence; and you are right to hold fast to the certainty that the claims of atheistic materialism must be steadfastly resisted….

God, who is not limited to space and time, created the universe and established natural laws that govern it. Seeking to populate this otherwise sterile universe with living creatures, God chose the elegant mechanism of evolution to create microbes, plants, and animals of all sorts. Most remarkably, God intentionally chose the same mechanism to give rise to special creatures who would have intelligence, a knowledge of right and wrong, free will, and a desire to seek fellowship with Him. He also knew these creatures would ultimately choose to disobey the Moral Law.

Half of the American population believes that the universe is 6,000 years old; our president has just used his first veto to block federal funding for the most promising medical research in all of biology on religious grounds; and one of the foremost scientists in the land had that to say. Stranger still, the most influential scientific publication on earth couldn’t find a nit to pick here. Collins’ scientific reputation has been undiminished by these ejaculations—indeed, he seems destined to be President Obama’s choice to run the National Institutes of Health—and yet his thinking here, as elsewhere, is a quite a bit worse than “woolly,” as you put it: it constitutes a perfect repudiation of scientific principles and intellectual honesty.

2. The way in which you paired The Reason Project and The BioLogos Foundation in your Nature column conveyed the sense—quite common in journalism—that the truth must lie somewhere between the two extremes on offer: On the one hand we have some extreme rationalists (who think that most basic standards of intellectual integrity should not be traduced at the highest levels of our discourse out of deference to the uneducated opinions of first century scribes); on the other, we have a man who is convinced that Jesus Christ is the risen Lord and eternal saviour of the earth because he happened to come upon a frozen waterfall while hiking and found it inexplicably beautiful. These two frames of mind are not equally scientific. I think you owe it to yourself, and to your readers, to clearly distinguish them.

There was much else in your column, blog post, and first volley here, that I have not addressed—of particular interest to me is the claim that religion is both an “invincible” and unnecessary foe. Perhaps we’ll touch on that subject later on.


Dear Sam,
I’m a little clearer now about what I’m being accused of, but no more so about why. Your letter to Nature repeats the claim that I say there is no contradiction between scientific rationality and religious faith, and repeats the failure to state where I say that. In fact, I state in my previous response that there are contradictions. Can we accept at least that this charge should be substantiated or dropped? That seems to me to be the rational way to proceed.

Your account of Christianity’s ‘most generic and well subscribed’ form is the scriptural literalist one. It is probably close to the medieval view, but I’d want more evidence that it is the generic view today. It is not the view of the head of the Church of England, which I suspect should count for something. But in any event, my point is, and always was, not that we need accept religious (and in your portrait, undoubtedly nonsensical) views as compatible with science but that you are not going to get very far by simply insisting to people who hold them that they are irrational and therefore should be abandoned forthwith. Rather, you need to consider the sociological questions of why people have a range of religious faiths, why religions as social institutions are so widespread, and why fundamentalism seems to be becoming a powerful political force in some religions in some parts of the world. (I don’t believe there is a universal answer to the last one – look at the resurgence of Hinduism in India, for example.)

To call the Biologos Foundation irenic is to use the word in its literal sense – they seek reconciliation of science and religion. It is simply a description, not a judgement. It may well be that no such reconciliation is logically possible – that doesn’t mean the Biologos Foundation cannot seek it, however misguidedly. There is not the slightest reason why one cannot be irenic for phantasmagorically stupid reasons. And then you’re off again, making criticisms of positions that simply don’t appear in my article. Criticize Nature’s other statements on Collins by all means – they are nothing to do with me or my views.

You end with a further supposition – that by describing two polar positions, I am suggesting that the truth lies in between. That’s your interpretation, and based on nothing I said. My view (and it’s not hard to see this, I think, from the strapline of my article) is that a more productive way to approach the issues lies elsewhere.

Sam, you’re calling yourselves the Reason Project and repeatedly stressing your scientific perspective. Science proceeds by inspecting the evidence objectively, not by prejudging what it means. The evidence here are the words I wrote, but they don’t seem to have been terribly germane to your comments so far.

Best wishes,

Dear Phil –

You still appear to be missing the point: the point is not that there is some legalistic parsing of your Nature column that allows for an (almost) exculpatory reading; the point is that everything you have written on this subject represents a basic failure to acknowledge (1) just how contradictory religious faith and scientific rationality are as modes of thought, (2) the actual profundity and scope of humankind’s religious bewilderment in the year 2009, and (3) the real world effects of (1)&(2). The most charitable interpretation I can find of what you have written is this: such truths could well be acknowledged, if we thought it wise—but it is not wise. If one wants to slay the Dragon of Ignorance, one shouldn’t first wake the Dragon, offend it, and then challenge it to fight to the death; one must be more cunning than this, or the whole project is doomed from the start. If THIS is what you intend to say, then fine, we can debate questions of secular/scientific strategy and marketing (and perhaps your own writing is an attempt to implement such a subtle strategy). But much of what you’ve written suggests that, whether or not you are chiefly concerned about such practical matters, you are also confused about points 1-3.

First off, the generic form of Christianity I described in my Letter to the Editor is not merely “the scriptural literalist one.” Without question, the beliefs I’ve highlighted summarize the majority view of Christianity. You seem to be, frankly, unaware of what most Christians (and perhaps religious people generally) claim to believe. Even your reference to the Church of England (which, I will grant, is more liberal than many) seems to ignore its actual doctrine. The C of E wears the resurrection of Jesus and other hocus pocus right on its sleeve. More generally, I could cite any number of opinion poll results and the doctrinal statements of the largest churches—all would conduce to the general boredom our readers, but would establish, beyond peradventure, that Christianity without a belief in miracles and magic books is not Christianity. And for everything that I would say about Christianity, there is worse to be said about Islam at this moment in history, as you surely must know.

As for your actual words, here is a quotation from your Nature piece, with some trivial modifications. I wonder if you see anything wrong with it:

In other words, this is not a matter of science versus faith [in witchcraft], but of the rejection of scientific ideas that challenge power structures... That’s not to minimize the problem, but recognizing it for what it is will avoid false dichotomies, and perhaps make it easier to find solutions.

So there is little to be gained from trying to topple the temple [of Magic] — it’s the false priests who are the menace. If we can recognize that [witchcraft], like any ideology, is a social construct — with benefits, dangers, arbitrary inventions and, most of all, roots in human nature – then we might forgo a lot of empty argument and get back to the worldly wonders of the lab bench.

Wouldn’t it be a tad strange to read this in the pages of Nature? Doesn’t it matter what people believe about the nature of reality? Doesn’t the nature of reality itself matter? If the basic claims of religion are true, the scientific worldview is so blinkered and susceptible to spiritual modification as to render the whole enterprise ridiculous. If the basic claims of religion are false, most people are living in a state of abject confusion, beset by absurd hopes and fears, and tending to waste their time and attention—often with tragic results. Is this really a “false dichotomy”?


Dear Sam,
You accuse me of “a basic failure to acknowledge just how contradictory religious faith and scientific rationality are as modes of thought”. Given what I have said previously, I must now interpret this as your way of saying “you acknowledge that religious faith and scientific rationality are contradictory, but fail to say that loudly enough”. (We needn’t argue further about whether my original Nature article said otherwise; my words can speak for themselves.)

So it seems that my sin, perhaps more venial than mortal, is not that of defending religion but of failing to attack it with sufficient vigour. This, you say, is a position that “will appear bizarre to rational people everywhere”. I will trust rational people everywhere to be the judge of that. You seem very keen to construct statements that Nature readers will find bizarre, but I think most will not find at all bizarre the notion that it is not science’s duty to eradicate all traces of religion in the world. This is not in any degree a weird or fringe position and it seems a pointless game to find ways of making it appear such.

From what you say, I suspect that what you object to most is my suggestion that the contradictions between science and faith need not in themselves be a big deal. By this I mean that I see no need to be so desperately worried about them when religious leaders and believers are moderates rather than are not scriptural literalists. I see no great threat to science from the kind of Anglicanism advocated by its current leader, or from the liberal forms of Islam that are held by thinkers such as Ziauddin Sardar. There are plenty of people, including many scientists, who are quite able to live with (or open to exploring) the contradictions and feel no need to rewrite or deny the mainstream scientific consensus. And these people are, in my experience, not at all “living in a state of abject confusion, beset by absurd hopes and fears”. It hardly needs to be said that science can thrive in societies in which religion is present (perhaps even strong) – it has done so throughout all of history.

That is why I don't feel a need to cast this in terms of science versus faith. It seems to me that our difference here is that you feel unwilling to live in a world where the contradictions between science and faith are tolerated, whereas I am not.

So I see no dragon that needs slaying, either by might or by stealth. If you accept that anthropology is anything of a science, this monolithic view of religion is in any event unscientific. Are you really saying that Christian fundamentalism, Indonesian Buddhism, African tribal beliefs and Chinese state-sponsored Confucianism are all part of the same beast, with the same causes and the same vulnerabilities? All, I agree, entail irrationality to some degree or another, and all are (as I’ve said) social constructs. But the reasons why, let’s say, fundamentalist Islam is in the ascendant in some parts of the world, and Hindu nationalism in others, are social, cultural and political. You might say that, regardless of the causes, the kinds of problems that ensue would be removed by simply eradicating all religion everywhere. But I don’t think you’d be so na├»ve.

I find your approach of highlighting and ridiculing all the most absurd and irrational aspects of these belief systems too easy. I too find the things you list as irrational (albeit perhaps not always as offensive) as you do. But the problems that religions can cause will be addressed only by engaging with them as social and cultural institutions, not as a string of silly ideas.

I did not say (sorry, this again) that the C of E shares none of the views you listed in your sketch of Christian belief. I said that its position is not that which you sketched, particularly in terms of the part that I suspect we both (and most other non-believers) find most objectionable: “Every other member of our species, past and present, from Cleopatra to Einstein, no matter what his or her terrestrial accomplishments, will (probably) be consigned to a fiery hell for all eternity.” Neither this nor a creationist viewpoint is an essential or inevitable component of Christianity today. If those beliefs are nevertheless on the rise (I simply don’t know if they are – creationism has always been strong in the US), then that is a problem with societal causes and needs to be seen and tackled as such.

Your minor rephrasing of my Nature article makes for interesting reading. To begin with, I’d challenge your implication that all religion is witchcraft – but before you leap down my throat, I do so because I would say instead that it is more accurate and more productive to say that religions and witchcraft are both examples of social constructs based on beliefs and ideologies that cannot be demonstrated and that, among other things, formalize social structures and hierarchies. Like it or not, it seems to be part of human nature to create such constructs. And they are not always expressed as religion.

With that in mind, I see nothing at all objectionable in the second paragraph. Benefits of witchcraft? There are very probably social benefits for the societies that practise it. They don’t necessarily outweigh the problems, and they don’t in any way justify witchcraft. But they help explain it, and we won’t understand these superstitious systems unless we recognize them.

I think that actually the meaning of my first paragraph remains pretty much unscathed too. The point here is that all kinds of irrational belief systems will accept a great deal of science, but some selectively reject those aspects that conflict with their power base. So all I am saying is that, strategically speaking, it seems to make sense to recognize a distinction between ideologies that systematically deny all of science (I’m not in fact sure if there are any such) and ones that exclude only the inconvenient truths. It seems to me that those two positions are likely to have different origins, and thus warrant different solutions.

Best wishes,

Dear Phil –

I trust that many of our readers will share my frustration at this point, as well as my sense that we have failed to get at the heart of the matter. As is so often the case in debates of this kind, more points get raised in each volley than can be addressed in the next—so permit me to ignore what seem like peripheral issues in an attempt to make some sense.

I will say one thing in passing, however, by way of addressing several specific points (your use of the term “irenic”, etc.): you frequently complain that I have either misrepresented what you have written or have drawn the wrong implications from it. While it is tempting to argue otherwise, it is too tiresome to rebut each specific charge. There is another principle at work that I think you should notice: our disagreement draws at least as much energy from what you have not said. To use an admittedly crude example: if the only thing a person can think to say about the morality of Adolph Hitler is that he was a “committed vegetarian,” this would say rather more by way of omission. In your Nature column, and in this exchange, what you haven’t said matters more than you seem to realize.

I am not suggesting that it is “science’s duty to eradicate all traces of religion in the world.” Nor am I denying that science can be practiced alongside religion (in most forms), or that religious people can become scientists, or that smart scientists can sometimes harbor incredible religious beliefs, or that religious imbeciles can hanker after the products of science. Clearly, a juxtaposition between bad ideas/methods and good ones is possible—in a single brain, in an institution, in a culture, etc. And as far as science itself is concerned, it has become all too obvious that many scientists practice their discipline like a trade, without ever attempting to form a truly consilient, or even consistent, view of the world.

But the fact that such things are possible does not in the least suggest that they are optimal—or, indeed, that they do not come at a terrible price. I think it would be very difficult to find instances where incoherence, wishful thinking, and dogmatism have aided scientific progress—or, in fact, progress of any kind. The argument that there is no deep conflict between scientific rationality and religious faith because some scientists are religious, and all religious people value some science, is a false one—and it has become a stultifying shibboleth. Is there generally no conflict between marriage and adultery simply because the two are so often found together? Would it matter if the BioLechery Foundation produced adulterers who could attest, without blinking, to their clarity of conscience? The analogy isn’t perfect, but perhaps you see my point. The cuckold, incidentally, is not merely science itself, but everyone everywhere, and those yet unborn. Who knows how much better our world would be if we had birthed a culture of genuine intellectual honesty in the year 1200 (or 2000)?

So the fact that you find yourself surrounded by scientists and other smart people who may be a little “woolly” on the subject of God is evidence of absolutely nothing worth discussing (on my account), apart from the fact that it seems to have led you to miss the bigger picture and to speak and write in such a way as to give shelter to the deeply religious, powerfully irrational, and shockingly retrograde convictions of entire cultures and subcultures. This is not (as you have charged) to paint religion with a broad brush. I am very quick to distinguish gradations of bad ideas; some clearly have no consequences at all (or at least not yet); some put civilization itself in peril. The problem with dogmatism, however, is that one can never quite predict how terrible its costs will be. To use one of my favorite examples, consider the Christian dogma that human life begins at the moment of conception: On its face, this belief seems likely to only improve our world. After all, it is the very quintessence of a life-affirming doctrine.

Enter embryonic stem-cell research. Suddenly, this “life begins at the moment of conception” business becomes the chief impediment to medical progress. Who would have thought that such an innocuous idea could unnecessarily prolong the agony of tens of millions of people? This is the problem with dogmatism, no matter how seemingly benign: it is unresponsive to reality. Dogmatism is a failure of cognition (as well as a commitment to such failure); it is the state of being closed to new evidence and new arguments. And this frame of mind is rightly despised in every area of culture, on every subject, except where it goes by the name of “religious faith.” In this guise, parading its most grotesque faults as virtues, it is granted a special dispensation, even in the pages of Nature.

Your frequent claim that we must understand religious belief as a “social construct,” produced by “societal causes,” dependent upon “social and cultural institutions,” admitting of “sociological questions,” and the like, while it will warm the hearts of most anthropologists, is either trivially true or obscurantist. It is part and parcel of the double standard that so worries me—the demolition of which is the explicit aim of The Reason Project.

Epidemiology is also “social construct” with “societal causes,” etc.—but this doesn’t mean that the germ theory of disease isn’t true or that any rival “construct”—like one suggesting that child rape will cure AIDS—isn’t a dangerous, deplorable, and unnecessary eruption of primeval stupidity. We either have good reasons or bad reasons for what we believe; we can be open to evidence and argument, or we can be closed; we can tolerate (and even seek) criticism of our most cherished views, or we can hide behind authority, sanctity, and dogma. The main reason why children are still raised to think that the universe is 6,000 years old is not because religion as a “social institution” hasn’t been appropriately coddled and cajoled, but because polite people (and scientists terrified of losing their funding) haven’t laughed this belief off the face of the earth.

We did not lose a decade of progress on stem-cell research in the United States because of religion as a “social construct”; we lost it because of the behavioural and emotional consequences of a specific belief. If there were a line in the book of Genesis that read – “The soul enters the womb on the hundredth day (you idiots)” – we wouldn’t have lost a step on stem-cell research, and there would not be a Christian or Jew anywhere who would worry about souls in Petri dishes suffering the torments of the damned. The beliefs currently rattling around in the heads of human beings are some of the most potent forces on earth; some of the craziest and most divisive of these are “religious,” and so-dubbed they are treated with absurd deference, even in the halls of science; this is a very bad combination—that is my point.

For the purposes of this discussion, the only “social construct” that I am worried about is the one which convinces a journal like Nature that its paramount duty is to be polite in the face of Iron Age delusions. If ever there were a place to call a spade a “spade,” it is in the pages of the world’s most authoritative scientific publication. Let me remind you that the physiologist Rupert Sheldrake had his scientific career neatly decapitated, in a single stroke, by a Nature editorial. Did his vaguely “woolly” thesis about “morphogenetic fields” deserve at least a ride in a tumbrel? Perhaps. Was his book, A New Science of Life, as flagrantly unscientific as Francis Collins’, The Language of God? Not by a long shot. As I have pointed out, the journal’s treatment of Collin’s risible theology has been abject. You’ve also cited Ziauddin Sardar with admiration—but his whitewash of Islam in the pages of Nature was a travesty. Here again is the “social construct” and the double standard that you fail to acknowledge. Religion is probably the most consequential and divisive species of ignorance at work in the world today, and yet it is systematically shielded from criticism, even where it explicitly conflicts with science, and even in the world’s most important scientific journal. Amazing.

Of course, all that you have written is of a piece with the inertia felt in the rest of the scientific community: most scientists are simply out of touch with the religious infatuations that rule the better part of humanity; when in touch, they can’t be bothered to take them seriously. I have met anthropologists who will say, with a straight face, that no one in the Muslim world actually believes in martyrdom, and no jihadist has ever blown himself up with an expectation of entering paradise: it’s all politics and terrestrial grievances and “social constructs” and “societal causes” as far as the eye can see. A quip by Steven Weinberg comes to mind (said in reference, I think, to post-modern critiques of science): “You have to be very learned to be that wrong.” Indeed, one does—and many are. If there is anything good that can be said about the Bible-thumpers in my country, it is that they understand that the Muslim world is ablaze with old-time religion. Needless to say, devout Muslims return the favor. It is the scientists, secularists, and religious moderates—still licking their spoons of Karen Armstrong’s latest pabulum—who are so often confused, mistaking even their confusion itself for wisdom.


Dear Sam,

From what you say, it seems that my article tapped into a reservoir of ill will towards Nature on this issue. Perhaps that explains some of the vehemence of your response. But I am not in any sense speaking ‘for’ Nature, and any views the journal has published on these matters in the past were not mine.

In any case, I think we are (this may surprise you) agreed on the nature of the problem in some respects. That’s to say, I share your view that many of the alleged ‘facts’ that comprise most religious belief – the existence of a deity (or deities), that deity’s capacity to intervene in the world in supernatural ways, the whole paraphernalia of miracles, afterlife, saints, sin, absolution, virgin births, resurrections – are not just outside of science but fundamentally incompatible with a scientific view of the world. And while some agnostics might insist that we cannot ‘know’ that a god does not exist, this does not compel us to give the ‘for’ and ‘against’ possibilities equal weight. We shouldn’t imagine things into being without good reason to do so.

Where we part company is largely (though not entirely) over the practical question of what is the appropriate response to all this. If I have understood it correctly, your view is that, while science need not embark on a crusade to wipe out religion, scientists should at every opportunity criticize religious belief for being a groundless fantasy that encumbers people with false hopes and obstructive (even destructive) dogma. My view is that science need not feel so threatened by religion. Clearly, science sometimes has been and is explicitly threatened and hindered by religion – the stem-cell issue is one such. But I don’t regard this as inevitable (after all, by no means all Christians were opposed to stem-cell research). When scientific advance is blocked because of superstitious beliefs, we should be unequivocal in condemning that (and elsewhere I have done so). However, I believe that sometimes resistance to new technologies and research has come from religious quarters for ethical reasons that one might also hold as an atheist, and which are defensible even if I don’t agree with them. So we need to consider those distinctions carefully.

You say it would be very difficult to find instances where ‘incoherence, wishful thinking, and dogmatism have aided scientific progress—or, in fact, progress of any kind.’ I’m not sure whether you mean to include all manifestations of religious faith as part of this ‘incoherence, wishful thinking, and dogmatism’, but one can certainly make a case that religion has sometimes played a role in promoting a scientific outlook. Since the time of William of Conches in the twelfth century, some people have considered it a religious duty to explore and understand ‘God’s creation’. It seems quite likely that one’s objectivity in doing that is likely to be ultimately compromised if one insists on continuing to see it as God’s creation; but as it happened, this exploration, initiated as a religious imperative, in the end found ever less use for God. Similarly, the value accorded to scientific learning in the Muslim world in the eighth to the twelfth centuries drew some impetus from the interpretation of Islam then in favour.

You might say ‘But wouldn’t have it been even better if people had studied science without reference to God at all?’ But this, as well as your suggestion that we might have ‘birthed a culture of genuine intellectual honesty in the year 1200’, seems to me ahistorical. I can think of no plausible route from the embers of the Roman Empire to the Enlightenment that would not have been centred in Christianity (unless the Muslims had conquered Europe, perhaps – but that was never really their wish). I’m not wishing to make religion the champion of free thought here (God forbid), but only to suggest that the issues are more complex than you seem to want to allow.

Moreover, there is plenty of non-religious dogma that has hindered science too – think of Lysenkoism and the Nazis’ criticisms of ‘Jewish science’. I realise that of course you will deplore these too – but my point is that if, by some bizarre circumstance, Europe had ditched religion in 1200, I’m not sure we could necessarily expect the state of knowledge to be any better today than it is. Some other social construct seems likely to have come along and foiled the Baconian utopia. That, sadly, is what we humans do.

I think we also differ in that you are more of an idealist – perhaps more of an optimist – and I am more of a realist. I think that religion, or ideologies that are mostly indistinguishable from it, are a part of human society. I feel that science needs to find ways of working with that. And I say this not as a defeatist statement of resignation, but just as a recognition of the nature of humanity. I happen to feel – in fact, I am fully confident of it – that religion has made positive contributions to the human condition, as well as unambiguously negative ones. You might again argue that those things, such as charity, can and do exist without religion, and this is surely true. But to my mind, religion is for many people an expression of the very human impulses that allow us to be (for example) charitable. In any event, I suspect that we can no more expect to eliminate religion (or something like it) from society than we can eliminate music.

If that is the case, I feel that science does need to find some way of working alongside religion rather than pouring scorn on it at every opportunity. The relationship doesn’t have to be cosy and convivial, and indeed I think in general it will be, and probably should be, a tense one. But I believe it can be good enough to prevent us from having to tilt at windmills. I agree with you that there should be no reason to handle religion with kid gloves for fear of offending. But neither do I see a need to thrash it like a furious parent, vilify it as though it were a loathsome criminal, or deride it as idiotic. I think we can afford to treat some aspects of religion in a forthright yet adult-to-adult fashion.

Perhaps the crux of the matter is your statement that, although the coexistence of science and religion in societies and in individuals is of course possible, it ‘does not in the least suggest that they are optimal—or, indeed, that they do not come at a terrible price.’ There is a great deal of distance between those two possibilities. If it is simply ‘not optimal’, it doesn’t seem a big deal. If it comes at a terrible price, we should worry. I suspect that both of those things, and all others in between, have applied at different times and places.

Incidentally, your ‘Hitler’ analogy sounds rather compelling until you consider that what you’re saying seems more like the following: rather than say ‘Hitler was German chancellor from 1933 to 1945’, one is always obliged to say ‘Hitler (in my opinion a vile and deranged antisemite) was chancellor from 1933 to 1945’. What is not said doesn’t always imply a particular point of view.

Best wishes,

Dear Phil –

I think we may be seeing the first rays of daylight. As I suspected, our dispute seems to be mostly about practical issues—When should we be scrupulously honest? How can science be best communicated given the state of popular opinion? Etc.—with regard to which intelligent people can have differences of opinion, while sharing the same a worldview. This is not to say that our differences of opinion are inconsequential. I happen to think that that the approach you advocate generally splits the baby and is currently doing much harm to the integrity of science. Perhaps I should mention in this context that I have just heard back from your employer regarding my letter to the editor. It was declined (with a form letter). While I don’t want to read too much into this, let me tell you why Nature’s behavior amazes me (and should amaze our readers) and how it exemplifies many of the problems we have been discussing:

1. Philip Campbell (Nature’s Editor in Chief) contacted me personally in response to your article’s inclusion in The Reason Project Hall of Shame. He wrote to say that, as your views did not represent those of the journal, we appeared to be condemning Nature for printing “individual points of view.” This complaint struck me as something less than a masterpiece of candor, given Nature’s repeated coddling of religion and the fact that you are not just any scientist; rather, you are a "consultant editor for Nature" (and had been a physical sciences editor there for over a decade). But okay, I thought, perhaps I was wrong to assume that your column might in some way reflect the current position of the journal. Needless to say, I told Mr. Campbell that I was overjoyed that he published “individual points view.” Perhaps, he would consider printing another—and then I appended my letter to the editor.

2. In submitting this letter to Campbell, I made it clear that some of the most prominent scientists on the Reason Project advisory board had contributed to it and were eager to sign it as co-authors, if this would make it more attractive to him from a publishing point of view. I didn’t name names, but I more or less gave him his pick of a dozen 800 lb gorillas. Campbell told me that the journal would be back in touch soon.

3. Weeks passed. You were kind enough to check on the letter’s fate and learned that there was some speculation on Nature’s part about whether our debate-in-progress might make such a letter “redundant.” Nevertheless, you heard that it might still be published, perhaps with a few edits.

4. This morning, some nameless correspondence editor or intern (email address = sent me a form letter regretting that my letter could not be published due to “limited space.” There was no offer of publication on Nature’s website.

So, here is where we stand: Nature's editors have just rejected a strongly worded letter written, as far as they know, by any possible combination of RP advisors. Again I don’t want to read too much into this, but given that we are talking about some of the most influential scientists and public intellectuals around, I find this a pretty remarkable editorial decision. Needless to say, “limited space” is euphemism—especially given the possibility of publication on the Internet.

It seems to me that there is still something that you (and Campbell) haven’t quite absorbed about the problem with, as you say, “working alongside religion.” By remaining politely silent and hoping to just get on with its work, the culture of science has enabled religious delusions of all kinds—because whenever it opens its mouth, all (real) religion claims to describe reality as it is. Silence in the face of these assertions is generally indistinguishable from assent. Of course, intellectual apathy on the part of individual scientists and their leading journals would be a bad thing all on its own, but add to this the advocacy of organizations like the Templeton Foundation, which uses its 1.5 billion dollar endowment to carefully blur the line between reason and faith, and the effect is an almost a total ceding of the argument in favor of religion.

Here is an example of “working alongside religion” in practice. You may remember that Nature recently published an editorial that read like a press release for the Templeton Foundation. While it included a few mumbled lines about the difference between science and religion, the piece amounted to an almost giddy endorsement of John Templeton and the work of his foundation. Indeed, the greatest sin attributed to the Templeton foundation was that it sometimes supports areas of research deemed “marginal” by some scientists. And the examples Nature chose to highlight — positive psychology and cosmological theories that posit multiple universes — are, it seems to me, perfectly respectable fields of inquiry. The editorial included several unctuous and embarrassing assertions about John Templeton being “deeply spiritual” and inspired by “his love of science and his God”—as though statements of this kind begged no questions at all from the point of view of science. In its effort to keep “working alongside religion” (again, your phrase), Nature counselled “strict atheists” (who, by implication, must be outliers in the scientific community) to just “happily ignore” Templeton. The journal concluded that “critics' total opposition to the Templeton Foundation's unusual mix of science and spirituality is unwarranted.” While I can imagine Campbell felt he had struck a deft balance here, all things considered, this editorial constituted as forthright an act of fellatio as Templeton could have ever hoped to receive from the world’s leading scientific journal.

The Templeton Foundation’s work is quite a bit more insidious (and clever) than funding marginal research, or even obscenely silly projects like Collins’ BioLogos Foundation. Two examples of their work should suffice [1. here and 2. here].

Templeton’s recent advertisement about evolution (1. above), which appeared in almost every major newspaper and magazine in the United States, represents a very clever manipulation of scientific opinion. When faced with the question “Does Evolution Explain Human Nature?” even I would have said something like "Not entirely." Of course, Templeton knows that most people will only read the titles of these essays. The general effect of the page is to communicate the inadequacy of evolutionary theory and the perpetual incompleteness of science—and to encourage readers to draw the further the inference that one needs religion/faith to get all the way home to the Truth. It is an especially nice touch that the one unequivocal "Yes" comes from the journalist Robert Wright, who has become a committed apologist for religion. (Leave it to Francis Collins to deliver the eminently reasonable, "Not entirely.") Thus, whichever door one opens in this fun house of obfuscation, one finds a message that is comforting to religion. An earlier ad entitled “Does the Universe Have a Purpose?” played the same game with a carefully picked sample of respondents. Out of 12 responses, only two were direct answers of “No.” Glancing at the ad, one could only conclude that atheism must be a minority opinion in science. These ads amount to religious propaganda, pure and simple. And the Templeton foundation has spent millions of dollars on them (Full disclosure: I was asked to participate in an earlier series of ads, where I was told that the entire campaign would consist of one page of my heresy set against one page written by Francis Collins, to be placed in every major newspaper and magazine in the land. I declined.)

The d'Espagnat citation (2. above) produces a similar effect, at nauseating length. I’m not in a position to quibble with d’Espagnat’s science, nor do I intend to impugn him as a recipient of the Templeton Prize. But this citation represents another instance of religious propaganda. Reading it, one is given to understand that d’Espagnat would throw the full weight of his scientific reputation behind the following assertions: there is a hidden reality; science can't quite glimpse it; religion offers a glimpse of its own; thus, religion and science are complimentary--but religion is likely the deeper of the two. Of course, the juxtaposition of a brilliant scientist and the “world's largest annual award given to an individual” makes the Templeton Foundation appear both very important and intellectually credible. Whereas, in reality, all they are is a great pot of money surrounded by some very “woolly” ideas.

How is it possible that Campbell doesn’t see the problem with all this? Why wouldn’t Nature feel that it was editorially bound to draw the CLEAREST POSSIBLE distinction between real science and ancient delusions? After all, Nature fancies that it can distinguish groundbreaking science from merely pedestrian science—publishing the only former. Why can’t it see that there is a distinction of much greater consequence to society, and to the future of science, that it should also make: there is a difference, after all, between having good reasons for what one believes and having bad ones. Incidentally, this is the only distinction one needs to become a “strict” atheist.

All of this runs to the larger issue of intellectual honesty. Perhaps we can define “intellectual honesty” as the ratio between what a person has good reason to believe and what he will assert to be true. In the ideal case, this number would equal 1, and in science it approaches as near to 1 as it does anywhere in human discourse. It seems to me that most religions subsist, and even thrive, on values that can be brought arbitrarily close to zero for centuries on end—and, indeed, grow smaller the longer any religious authority speaks about content of the faith. This disparity between what counts for honesty in serious discourse, depending on the topic, is as strange as it is consequential. Is it really so “idealistic” to think that a journal like Nature might object to it?


Dear Sam,
I’m glad that you see ‘some rays of daylight’, by which I take you to mean, if not convergence then at least understanding of our positions. I’d like to feel that it should always be possible to be scrupulously honest in these matters, as well as polite as far as is warranted – I’m not sure there should ever be reason to hold back from saying to a religious believer ‘I feel there is no credible evidence for what you believe’ (so long as they don’t have a gun in their hand). But neither do I feel an obligation to say that at every opportunity, or to think that the debate ends there.

Incidentally, I note that I will no doubt be seen as one of those atheists who Richard Dawkins laments under the rubric ‘I’m an atheist but…’. But I’m not bowled over by Richard’s responses to the five variants he lists. For example, in suggesting that religion is a social construct I might be construed as a Type 1: “I’m an atheist, but religion is here to stay. You think you can get rid of religion? Good luck to you! You want to get rid of religion? What planet are you living on? Religion is a fixture. Get over it!’ That is (I hope this is clear by now) not at all how I’d put it, and frankly I don’t know whether it is ‘here to stay’ or not (who could?). I simply observe that since time immemorial human societies have organized themselves into hierarchical systems based on more or less arbitrary tenets, of which religions are a prominent example. That’s what we’re dealing with. I think this is probably a more productive way to regard the situation than to think that humans are ritualistically inculcated into stupidity for which a dose of cold reason is the cure. (It’s a shame, incidentally, that Richard doesn’t really address this position, but just caricatures it.)

And let’s not forget that, however much you might disagree with my position, it makes me closer to your own than Darwin was. (There is no tenable defence of the idea that he called himself an ‘agnostic’ rather than an atheist merely to spare people’s feelings.) But I don’t figure on seeing Darwin in your Hall of Shame any time soon…

It’s a pity that Nature rejected your letter, not least because that issue clearly preoccupied you in your last response. The problem is that I am not Nature, nor a spokesperson for Nature, nor in any way disposed to defend its decisions. The matters you cite had nothing to do with me. And while it is true that both Phil Campbell and I feel there is something to be said for ‘working alongside religion’, I don’t intend this to mean ‘remaining politely silent and hoping to just get on with its work’. I simply feel we need to choose our battles. And while you suggest that the distinction between science and religion is that of ‘having good reasons for what one believes and having bad ones’, I would disagree. By ‘good reasons’, you presumably mean ones that can be logically defended on the basis of objective evidence. I know plenty of religious people who believe because it helps them in life and makes them feel better. That seems a pretty good reason to me, even if I don’t share the view. (I hope it’s clear that, if ‘good reasons’ like that lead people to deny evolution or refuse blood transfusions, my magnanimity soon evaporates. I guess that makes me one of those British empiricists.)

I’ll say this about the Nature decision, however. I’m not a fan of form letters, although I worked long enough as an editor to understand the occasional need for them. My problem is that, as you say, they are euphemistic and often give little clue to the real reasons for a decision. I simply don’t know what the reason was in this case – it may really have been ‘limited space’, for all I know (for indeed space is limited). But I wish that had been made more explicit. However, bear in mind that it is almost unheard of for a letter about an opinion piece published only online to be given even a moment’s consideration for the print journal – normally the position is that the online-only content is completely separate from the print content, and so the latter does not carry comment on the former. Bear in mind also that you do not need permission to comment on the website – the feedback facility is open to all. (I suspect, however, that you were thinking in terms of something more than that.) There is also the consideration that the editors knew you intend to put some form of our dialogue online, and may feel that this will address the matter more adequately and comprehensively than a letter might have.

I was happy to help discover what Nature intended to do with your letter, but otherwise had no role in the decision (nor would it have been proper that I did, of course). I confess, however, to being a little surprised that you wanted to press on with having it published in the light of this exchange, which I feel has shown that your criticisms fall on a somewhat different target to the one the appears in your letter. I had hoped to assiduously avoid revisiting the issue, but the fact is that you have never refuted my argument that the letter misrepresents and misinterprets what I said, however much you continue to feel that I let religion too lightly off the hook. I’d be interested to know if any of ‘the most influential scientists and public intellectuals around’ would be inclined to defend putting their names to the letter in the light of this. I have deep respect for the scientists on your board, and would consider myself to be on warm terms with several of them – but even the most weighty of thinkers have to justify their positions.

All the best,

Dear Phil –

Perhaps I was wrong about that daylight…

In any case, I think our debate has run its course. I’ve participated in enough of these exchanges to no longer be surprised when a proper meeting of the minds fails to occur. But I must say that my feelings of futility and boredom are always compounded, in a way that I fear will be shared by many of our readers, whenever I find myself grappling with the vapors of “I’m an atheist but…” The problem with this view—which I agree, well summarizes your own—is that it so often takes the form of simply missing the point. In fact, “I’m an atheist but…” generally represents a commitment to missing the point—as it derives most of its content from simply not seeing what all the fuss is about. Such obliviousness can always be given a positive spin (“we need to choose our battles”), but there is no escaping the fact that yours is the perspective of one who does not quite see the depth and scope of the problem. This position is easy enough to maintain: all one need do is avert one’s eyes. Indeed, the “I’m an atheist but…” school generally believes that ignoring the problem of religion is the wisest course of action (some call this “realism”). I hope it does not seem ad hominem when I say that your view of these matters strikes me as intellectually lazy—but it is lazy in the extreme. There is a certain genius in laziness, however, as it can never be proven wrong. Or, rather, it can never be made to notice when it has been, again and again.

While I have little hope of getting through to you at this late hour, I should address a few points in closing: First, you seem to view my focus on Nature’s accommodation of religion as some kind of personal obsession and a distraction from the subject of our exchange. Here you have, I’m afraid, missed the point of our exchange (or at least missed my point in initiating it). In my view, your article was remarkable and worth debating for two reasons: (1) it appeared in Nature, and (2) it represented a further instance of Nature’s blinkered appeasement of religion. The point I have made repeatedly, and will now make one final time, is that it really matters that the world’s most influential scientific journal seems both deluded about religion and committed to remaining so. Had your article appeared in the Guardian, there would have been no reason for us to have this debate. (While I find it depressing, I actually expect a newspaper like the Guardian to pander to religion.)

Secondly, the fact that you can unselfconsciously assert that people believe in one or another religious doctrine “because it helps them in life and makes them feel better” and then say that this “seems a pretty good reason” to you indicates how little you have thought about the conflict between religion and science. If I told you that I believed that the H5N1 virus will never become a pandemic, or that string theory will be fully vindicated in the near future, or that complex life first developed on Mars and was later transferred to earth, and I gave as my reason for holding these beliefs that each “makes me feel better,” I am confident that your response would not be this “seems a pretty good reason to me.” Don’t you see how bizarre it is to accept such shoddy thinking with respect to the existence of a personal God or the divine origin of a specific book? A person cannot (or least should not be able to) believe something because it “makes him feel better.” The fact that people occasionally do manage such contortions is what renders phrases like “self-deception,” “wishful thinking,” “experimenter bias,” etc., so important to keep on hand. Please notice that these phrases describe how it looks from the outside when people believe a proposition because “it makes them feel better.” Please also notice that this frame of mind represents a failure of cognition and reasoning that all sane people decry in every area of serious discourse but one.

A world in which people believe propositions merely because these propositions “make them feel better” is a world gone utterly mad. It is a world of private and irreconcilable epistemologies. It is a world where communication, even on the most important issues—perhaps especially on the most important issues—is guaranteed to fail. Of course, you have tried arrest your slide into the abyss in your parenthetical remark about evolution and blood transfusions—but one can draw no such boundary unless one draws it based on some deeper principle. You cannot say that a person’s reason for believing in the virgin birth is “good” just so long as this belief has no negative consequences on his behavior. Whether a belief is well founded or not has nothing to do with its consequences.

Generally speaking, for a belief to be justified, our acceptance of it must be dependent upon its actually being true (and not be dependent upon how its being true would make us feel). Needless to say, the preceding sentence does not suffice as full account of epistemology: uniting both science and commonsense and reconciling their frequent disagreements. But there can be no doubt about the difference between a belief that is overtly motivated by emotional bias (and other non-epistemic factors) and a belief that is comparatively free of such bias. I wonder if we will live to see the day when scientists and their leading journals might be counted upon to recognize this difference without having to be pilloried by “strict” atheists.

Your blithe acceptance that belief can be something other than epistemic—something other than an effort to reliably map reality in our thoughts—makes it impossible to differentiate belief from mere hope. I’m sure many people you know hope that there is a God; they hope that they will see their friends and loved ones after death; they hope that their lives are aligned with some larger cosmic purpose; and they are disposed to make much of this hope—to celebrate it, and to gather with others who hope for these same things. Your friends might say that this hope has enriched their lives or has in some way become indispensable to their functioning in the world. But if these friends of yours are really religious—that is, really conforming to the doctrine of Christianity, Islam, Judaism, etc.—they will have taken a further step toward delusion and mistaken this hope for a form of knowledge. They may have yanked their bootstraps this way: “How could I find this hope so consoling if it were not, in fact, well founded? Perhaps this feeling of hopefulness itself attests to the truth of thing hoped for… Praise be to God!” Of course there are many other ways to chase one’s tail under the aegis of religion. Such “woolly” thinking is enabled by the fact that it almost never meets resistance, even from scientists (who, as we know, must “choose their battles”). It should be abundantly clear, however, that mere hope does not constitute knowledge, no matter how lovingly one tends it and props it up in the wind.

In your last email you summarize the situation as follows:

“I simply observe that since time immemorial human societies have organized themselves into hierarchical systems based on more or less arbitrary tenets, of which religions are a prominent example. That’s what we’re dealing with. I think this is probably a more productive way to regard the situation than to think that humans are ritualistically inculcated into stupidity for which a dose of cold reason is the cure.”

It is amazing that you can advance this as a serious position. First off, it is undeniable that most humans are “ritualistically inculcated into stupidity” from birth onwards by their religious parents. Second, it is a perverse (and highly condescending) article of faith among secular academics that people can never be reasoned out of their religious convictions. I have heard from literally thousands of people who used to belief in the God of Abraham—indeed, many used to be scriptural literalists—who were stripped of their faith after a proper collision with Reason. It is quite possible for people to notice how “woolly” their thinking has been, how they were part of a culture grown incandescent with lies, how their parents and elders raised them in a near total vacuum of critical thinking and in complete ignorance of the scientific worldview. Indeed, I once had the pleasure of having dinner with a woman could pinpoint the very moment she lost her faith, as it had been purged from her mind that morning while reading one of my books. Her overwhelming feeling was of regret for all the time she had wasted over the course of her life. No doubt such a terrific sense of sunk cost keeps many people stuck to a pew. Perhaps not everyone can be reasoned out of his or her faith—but the problem is that we don’t know how fully people’s minds could change because we haven’t really tried (please don’t feel tempted to make yet another tendentious excursion into history and bring up the French Revolution or the gulag). You’d do well to notice how easily children can be reasoned out of their belief in Santa Claus. The all enter school as devout believers, and they all exit as perfect sceptics. How is this dialectical miracle accomplished? Quite simply: there is no cultural support for a belief in Santa past a certain age, and no one likes to be laughed at. Do we replace Santa Claus with anything? No. We just oblige people to grow up.

In any case, the problem isn’t that human societies are organized in “hierarchical systems based on more or less arbitrary tenets” (can you really be serious? It is rare to find such a crystalline example of academic cant. I think you’d be wise to remove the letters H-I-E-R-A from your keyboard for a while). The problem is that intellectual honesty is still a very scarce commodity in our world; we are rather bad at producing it, and it is taboo to even try once the conversation turns to the subject of God.

I realize that my tone of chastisement has probably grown very tedious and could be mistaken for hostility. But I can’t help but feel that there is a great asymmetry between our points of view – both in how fully they have been thought out and in their degree of the moral seriousness. I see the perpetuation of ancient tribalism and ignorance (read “religion”) to be a grave problem, and the source of much unnecessary suffering in the world; you claim that the problem is either not very serious or that it is unavoidable—in either case there is not much to be done. You do not seem to see what an astonishing number of the world’s conflicts and missed opportunities arise from people’s false knowledge about God, and when specific instances are pointed out to you, you deem them to be inevitable (if it’s not religion it would be something else), or you defensively say, well of course I object to that instance of religious stupidity: parents shouldn’t withhold blood transfusions from their children!... But the truth is, a comprehensive response to the problem of religious ignorance is possible, and a piecemeal response is totally unprincipled and bound to seem so. Our world has be shattered, and is reliably shattered anew with each subsequent generation, by irreconcilable claims about God and his magic books. Until we stop enabling these competing delusions—by our silence and by our silly attempts to change the subject—we will have no one to blame but ourselves when medieval ideas come crashing into public life—as they do, and will, to our great detriment.

But enough… As I said at the outset, I sincerely appreciate your willingness to debate these issues at length. I remain hopeful that exchanges like this are useful (for someone, somewhere, sometime), whether or not the participants themselves budge an inch.

Thanks for your time, Phil. I wish you all the best,


Dear Sam,
One somewhat frustrating aspect of this exchange for me has been that you seem to insist that any disagreement with your point of view is not genuine disagreement as such but is missing the point. My sense is that you cannot conceive how any sane, rational person can hold a point of view different from your own, so that if they insist on doing so, they are obviously being either obtuse or stupid. Your first long paragraph is all rhetoric along those lines. I’d add here that, while I won’t accuse you of intellectual laziness, I do feel that your absolutism is, like most absolutisms, the easy way out. There is then always a right answer, and your convictions supply it ready-made. I understand everything you say about religion being generally filled with irrational beliefs, and it would be very easy for me too to say that ‘people should not believe anything for bad or invalid or flaky reasons, and therefore we must strive to ensure that they never do.’ I suspect that philosophers might find that an epistemologically dodgy position to take, but I can see that it makes life easy. I don’t find it either attractive or useful, however.

In your second paragraph, I fear that – dare I say – you have yourself missed the point in regard to Nature. Had I written a column saying that thank goodness the Reason Project has finally appeared to blast away Francis Collins and all apologists of that ilk, Nature would have published it. It is a matter of indifference to me whether you will scoff at this statement; I simply know it to be true. I can see that as it stood, my column fed into your disenchantment with what Nature has said before. But it is utterly independent of that, and to think otherwise is to become a conspiracy theorist.

But to the meat of your argument. I stated in my original article that at least your position can claim some philosophical rigour. I think this is the one aspect of the piece I might now have to withdraw. You say:
“If I told you that I believed that the H5N1 virus will never become a pandemic, or that string theory will be fully vindicated in the near future, or that complex life first developed on Mars and was later transferred to earth, and I gave as my reason for holding these beliefs that each “makes me feel better,” I am confident that your response would not be this “seems a pretty good reason to me.” Don’t you see how bizarre it is to accept such shoddy thinking with respect to the existence of a personal God or the divine origin of a specific book? A person cannot (or least should not be able to) believe something because it “makes him feel better.””

There are two answers to this. One is at the human level. Let’s imagine a person, say a well educated doctor, who has thought deeply about the religious faith he feels, and concludes that it is something he cherishes and finds meaningful and doesn’t interfere with his trust in science. His faith in God is valuable to him. Now, you will say he is deluded and hasn’t thought deeply enough about all the contradictions this creates. I believe that he holds an incorrect belief about the world. But do I think that it is intolerable that he should continue to find solace in his belief? No, I think that the fact that he finds solace in it makes it perfectly rational on one level for him to maintain that belief, even if it is irrational in other respects. It is rational to do what makes us feel good. That doesn’t always make it right for us to do so, but that’s another matter. Your charge is that the problem comes because this chap considers he has a form of knowledge – he thinks he knows there is a God. Yes, often this is what happens for people who are superficially religious, and many, many are. And here they are plain wrong, I don’t dispute that. If my chap thinks this way, he is mistaken. Hold the front page: ‘Man is mistaken’. But if he knows his theology, he knows why religion – and in honesty I only really know about Christianity here – emphasizes faith, not knowledge.

Let me add that it strikes me that we have different imaginary ‘believers’ in sight. I agree with you that it would be condescending to think that no believer could ever be dissuaded from their belief by logical argument. Indeed, if they’ve been insulated from any logical thinking, they might very well be susceptible to that approach. But it is equally condescending to think that believers only believe because they’ve never thought seriously about the issues. I suspect that the ‘convert’ you mention had never had the opportunity or means to do so. Not all believers are like her.

Here is my other answer to your passage above. If you told me you believed those things about bird flu and string theory and life on Mars because they make you feel better, I’d say, well, we’ll find out won’t we? We’ll some day have objective evidence that proves or disproves your belief. If you told me that you believed in God because this gives your life meaning, am I going to say the same thing? Not if I know the first thing about philosophy. Despite what Richard Dawkins has asserted, the existence of God is not amenable to scientific testing. Or rather, we could come across evidence that God exists, but not that he doesn’t. But that’s the problem, you say! Yes, that is the problem. That is why belief in God holds no meaning for me. But it also means that your comparison here is utterly bogus.

A better analogy might be with someone who believes the universe will last forever ‘because it makes me feel better’. (I’m not totally sure that this isn’t scientifically falsifiable, but it’s hard to see how it might be given the present state of play.) That doesn’t sound so objectionable, does it? It sounds rather meaningless to me, but I’m not sure it need incite our outrage.

You might reasonably say that what is objectionable is if this person expects others to take his belief seriously and treat it with respect, and even to create academic departments and organizations devoted to exploring it. To put it another way (which you might recognize), we would not rush to create faculties of leprechology just because someone chose to believe in leprechauns. This is fair enough. But I believe it is disingenuous to compare the major religions with a belief in leprechauns, or even with a belief in the eternity of the universe. The major religions have an ethical code, a rich tradition of art, they are woven into social and cultural fabrics. (All of it based on a false premise, you might say, or rather, on a premise that is unfalsifiable and for which there is not a shred of evidence.) But my view is that, at its best, religions can provide ways to think about the human condition. I don’t believe it is fair to simply dismiss them as childish. I would like to think, as I suspect you do, that everything that is positive about religion could also be attained without a belief in God, let alone miracles and saints and all the rest. (I do suspect that ritual is less dispensable.) But it seems unfair to deny that religion has any of these good aspects, as well as undoubtedly becoming encumbered with a great deal of dogmatism, delusion and claptrap (much of which does not necessarily accord with good theology).

Onward. I’m not clear why you object to the notion that human societies tend to be organized ‘in hierarchical systems based on more or less arbitrary tenets’, because here again you use rhetoric in place of debate. I live in one; you live in one. Over a billion people in China live in one. Martin Luther lived in one. Your point is?

You say ‘You do not seem to see what an astonishing number of the world’s conflicts and missed opportunities arise from people’s false knowledge about God’. Which are you going to cite – Northern Ireland? Iraq? The Crusades? If only it wasn’t for that pesky God and his offspring, all these places would have lived in blissful peace! The Taliban? – why, they’d be lovely folks if they weren’t Muslim extremists! How wonderful, how simple and easy, to be able to blame all these things on a false belief in gods! Gosh, this counterfactual history is easier than I ever imagined!

Sorry, facetiousness is no help. I am afraid that I fall into it here as a substitute for real anger, because I find it maddening to see the suggestion that sectarian violence in Belfast, tribal conflict in Iraq, Hindu-Muslim violence in India, and goodness knows how much else suffering in the world could be solved if we could just persuade people to give up their ridiculous faiths. I fully accept that it is no good either to simply say, as I know some do, ‘Oh, it’s only human nature, and religion is just the excuse.’ No, the truth is, sadly, much more complicated. And that is why I think the answers are too. But I have been left from our exchange with the feeling that ‘complicated’ is for you just a cop-out. I guess maybe that is where we fundamentally disagree. You seem to feel that any attempt to introduce into the debate considerations about culture, history, society and politics are unwelcome and even wilfully deceitful diversions from the main business of demolishing religions for believing in things for which there is no evidence. That seems to be your ‘point’ – I’m afraid I simply can’t accept it.

Thank you for engaging in this debate. It has helped to focus my own thinking, and I hope you have seen some value in it too.
Best wishes,

Saturday, June 13, 2009

The Dan Brown trail

Here is my latest Lab Report column for Prospect. I have realised with a degree of unease that I have just done the Dan Brown tour of Europe – first CERN, then Chartres Cathedral. I was giving a talk at CERN, while at Chartres I was taking part in a Nova documentary. I’m still not sure entirely what the thrust of it will be – something to do with how science and religion interacted in the Gothic era, and they have been filming at Amiens (and I think Beauvais) as well as Chartres. We’ll see. But it took me to parts of the cathedral I’d not had access to before, including the roof (scary) and the gallery in front of the rose window in the north transept – amazing to see that glass close up. And I got a photo of the ‘transitional flying buttress’ between the nave and chevet, which is hidden away out of sight. I’ll put it on the web once I can get it off my mobile.

But it was striking that both CERN and Chartres are having to reach an accommodation with Dan Brown. At CERN they are quite explicit about embracing the connection – making the most of things, I guess. I’ve only seen a brief clip of Angels and Demons, which was enough to make it plain that the science is a bit of a joke. I imagine the Chartres business is even worse (I can see that I will be unable to postpone for much longer the day when I have to read those bloody books). The cathedral’s representative was eager to ensure that I made no mention of Dan Brown-style ‘mysteries’, numerology, Templars and so forth. The curious thing was that this very congenial chap was apparently at first horrified that Nova were hoping to film me at the cathedral, saying that they’d been getting all kinds of crazy pagan visitors wanting to dance in the labyrinth on the basis of Universe of Stone. I can only imagine that he’s got it mixed up with some other book, since a part of my book’s aim is to debunk all that tiresome nonsense. Anyway, he seemed to be reassured after having glanced through the book, and eventually trusted us enough to leave us to our own devices. not a word about sacred geometry passed my lips (and if it had, it would have been a rude one).


The Large Hadron Collider at CERN, near Geneva, is due to resume its search for the elusive Higgs particle in September. The Higgs, thought to be responsible for giving other fundamental particles their mass, is the last piece in the jigsaw of the Standard Model, the theoretical framework used to understand all known particles and forces. Finding the Higgs particle is one of the LHC’s key assignments. It is thought to be too massive to be made in any existing particle accelerator – the bigger this (still unknown) mass, the more energetic particle collisons have to be to spawn a Higgs. The mightiest previous accelerator, the Tevatron at Fermilab in Illinois, lacks the necessary oomph.

The LHC’s much heralded opening last September ended in tears just nine days later. An electrical short circuit caused a leak of the liquid helium coolant, which in turn ripped from its moorings one of the immense magnets used to accelerate particles through the 27-km circular tunnels, blasting a hole in the ring and contaminating it with debris. The clean-up and installation of new safeguards have been going on ever since.

Engineering failure is hardly surprising in a project this complex, and of course the space programme has suffered far worse. But it was an illustration that, as physicist John Ellis put it when I visited CERN recently, no matter how much brain power lies behind the planning, it’s usually the ‘stupid things’ that go wrong. Yet the delay wasn’t entirely unwelcome – a physicist working on one of the LHC experiments admitted that they weren’t really ready for switch-on last September. He was talking about preparation for collecting data, not factors connected to the accident – but in any event, everyone seems confident that another such mishap is unlikely.

There’s optimism all round, especially since communications between the scientists and management improved when the new director-general Rolf-Dieter Heuer took his post in January. But a year’s delay is a long time for graduate students waiting for data to study. To make up for lost time the LHC will run during the coming winter, when the higher cost of electricity, and holiday-season depletion of maintenance crews, usually compels a shut-down. That will hurt the budget – but with a cost of E6.6 million so far, who’s counting?

Meanwhile, the LHC’s venerable competitor the Tevatron faces an uncertain future. Despite its illustrious career – the bottom and top quarks were both discovered there – the Fermilab collider will soon switch off for good, having pretty much exhausted its potential. But it’s not yet agreed when that will happen; the accelerator has the go-ahead for 2010, and might run in 2011 too. Fermilab scientists dearly hope to glean more information about the Higgs first. They have already claimed to put a lower limit on the particle’s mass, although it’s debated how trustworthy the figure is (and not clear that more experiments can improve it much).

But the Higgs is not the whole story. Arguably a more exciting goal of the LHC is to seek new physics that the Standard Model cannot explain, especially a relationship called supersymmetry that might unite the known particle families. Supersymmetry implies that the particles in one superfamily, called bosons (including protons), have partners in the other superfamily, called fermions (such as electrons). The LHC hopes to find these supersymmetric particles, if they exist. An experiment at the Tevatron looking at the properties of particles called B mesons might just catch a glimpse of supersymmetry’s influence first. That will stretch Fermilab’s capability to the limit, but it would steal a big slice of the LHC’s thunder.


CERN scientists were caught unawares when, in May, Austria’s science minister Johannes Hahn announced an intention to withdraw from the international collaboration. Austria contributes 16m euros to CERN, 2.2 percent of the funding provided by the 20 member states. That’s just 0.5 percent of Austria’s science budget, but Hahn decided that it swallowed too big a share of the pot assigned for international research. Austria has been a CERN member state since 1959, and has some of the most able physicists in Europe.

Hahn offered no explanation for why the investment was a poor one. Worse, he seems to have taken the decision unilaterally, consulting neither the scientists involved nor the Austrian chancellor Werner Faymann. That was too much. Hahn’s conservative People’s Party forms a tense coalition government with the centre-left Social Democrats led by Faymann, and Hahn’s decision smacks of political manoeuvring rather than considered judgement. To general jubilation, Faymann quickly stepped in to overrule him. With other new European states, such as Romania, queuing up to join CERN, Hahn was in any case clearly out of step with the mood of the times.


Surprisingly prominent in the corridors of CERN are posters advertising ‘the science behind Angels and Demons’. The Dan Brown book, in which Robert Langdon foils a plot to obliterate the Vatican with a bomb made from antimatter manufactured at CERN, drew so many enquiries that the centre was compelled to set up a dedicated website, which immediately became the most visited page on its domain. Now the movie is stirring up interest afresh. Given the shaky physics on display there, it must seem something of a mixed blessing. But the PR team can be forgiven for seizing on both an educational opportunity and a diversion from the LHC’s travails.