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Thank God for the Atheist

On the Controversy between Religious and Scientific Explanation

It felt like something not-himself, something from outside, and yet he also knew that it was coming from within him, that it was his own strength, his own determination, his own refusal of defeat, his own strong will. —Salman Rushdie, Luke and the Fire of Life (2010)

Much of the world population believes in some sort of divine being(s). This belief doesn’t discourage the dedicated worshippers, however, from using scientific creations like modern medicines, artificial fertilizers, or mobile phones. These products could only have arisen from a manner of methodological thinking that has also led us to understand the natural world as a product of evolutionary processes. And even though this scientific—or, if you prefer, naturalistic—view of the world is incomplete and the world is not fully comprehensible, the worldview is the logical consequence of the methodology.

Many Christians believe in a ‘god of the gaps’ that is called upon when scientific explanations fail, and they may even advocate Intelligent Design creationism (Dixon, 2008). Traditional (young-earth) creationists, Jews, and Muslims are less hypocritical in their rejection of scientific theories about the evolution of life and the universe: they stick to their belief in a divine Creator in the teeth of the evidence.

What is it that causes people to cling so firmly to their religion, and to become so suspicious of science?

Evolution of God?

In earlier times, scholars, inventors, and alchemists dedicated their work to God, their religious belief having been self-evident, their inspiration God-given. This mentality was severely affected after the broad scientific acceptance of the concept of natural selection. This new view of nature was so catching that it not only changed biology entirely, but also affected astrophysics and the social sciences. Creation was no longer seen as a divine feat of manipulative skills; holy scriptures were superseded by naturalistic logic, rites and rituals were replaced by ratio and reason, perpetual change took the place of immutability—at last philosophy of nature seemed to have matured.

The naturalistic view certainly made itself known in the United States, where almost everybody believes in God. Nearly one-third of worshippers here believe in God because of nature’s perfect ‘design’ (according to science); whereas only ten percent believe in God due to emotional considerations of comfort and hope (Shermer, 2003). However, the majority of human beings, including highly educated and intelligent people, persist in believing absurdities and hearsay.

Still, most people take their God to be the reason for their existence. Without religion, they say, their lives would become meaningless and all morality would be lost. The latter is certainly false, as thorough investigation has indicated. There’s a universal sense of right and wrong across a wide variety of cultures, suggesting an innate quality to morality (de Waal, 2009). Opinions about the meaning of life differ. Melancholic and depressive people often welcome an end to their suffering, and so not infrequently commit suicide. Worshippers typically believe that if the human race is merely an accidental product of evolution, then human life has no meaning. The semantic argument that evolution is a contingent process (Gould, 1999) through which the meaning of life is bestowed on its current state is found wanting.

To me, the meaning of life is found in life itself. Its intrinsic value doesn’t need a semantic label.

The results of genetic recombination and mutation may be random, but the evolutionary process leading to living things is certainly not a matter of chance. Most mutations lead to dead ends, and the survival of complete organisms depends entirely on the interaction with their environment. It is no coincidence that the best adapted organisms are the fittest. That point is not circular since, for each generation, only a few offspring will continue on to the next generation. The long-term emerging feature of generations of such differential survival is called evolution. Although one cannot predict exactly which path the evolutionary process will take, progressively increasing complexity is inevitable. These considerations are relevant to the billions of planets in our galaxy alone that have conditions similar to those of Earth. What sort of reaction would you expect from a person who believes that man was made in the image of his Creator? It would be unsurprising for such a person to oppose funding of any attempts to make contact with extraterrestrial intelligence.

It is difficult, if not impossible, to fight the irrationality of the religious message. It’s thus tempting to give up the fight and exclaim “Why bother?”—were it not for the protection of the receptive minds of young people. Their indoctrination is far from malevolent, and it has probably evolved as an adaptive contribution to group loyalty. The religious message may contain both altruistic and exploitative elements that together could have increased group fitness.[1] Social behavior in general is genetically determined, and in human beings it is culturally inherited (memetically determined) during the long period of upbringing and education. Especially during the very early stages of their development, children are extremely sensitive to imprint. In analogy to the interaction between the development of an infant’s motor skills and the development of the cerebellum and the motor areas of the cerebral cortex, there is most likely an interaction between the development of the social environment and that of the association areas of the temporal lobes (where propensities toward spirituality are localized). Children mimic their elders in speech, standards, values, and opinions until they reach an adolescent stage of critical reconsideration. Very few are able to distance themselves from the loved ones that they trusted throughout early childhood. Such a psychological hindrance can be impossible to negotiate, and it goes a long way toward explaining the tenacity of (religious) imprint.

Even if you were not indoctrinated at an early age, you stand a good chance of joining a spiritual movement as an adult, or else of exhibiting fanatical support in politics, pop music, or soccer. Human beings apparently have some sort of mental void that must be filled. Once the sweet is in the chocolate, it is hard to get it out. It doesn’t seem to matter which team is best (or has God on their side), but to the people involved, this is of the utmost importance. Although the neurophysiology of this mental gap is unclear, the irrational need to be part of a group may contribute to why people find it so hard to break away.

Eternal Soul or Transient Self-Awareness?

All living creatures seem motivated to escape their elimination. From an evolutionary point of view, this is easy to understand, for to have been motivated otherwise would have caused their immediate extinction. This propensity is more evident in animals than in plants since the former exhibit recognizable behavior. In multicellular animals like arthropods, mollusks, and vertebrates, this behavior is primarily controlled by the center of their complex nervous systems, their brains. The motivation to survive is associated with self-awareness and located in the brain. Self-awareness (awareness of the self) is not restricted to human beings. Legislating human superiority over the rest of the animal kingdom by positing an exclusively human soul is based on ignorance and a lack of respect for life in general.

The soul (or breath of life) is a vague and controversial concept that can be taken to be a trinity of thinking (ratio), perseverance (motivation), and feeling (emotion). It is regarded as the essence of an individual and, Buddhist views notwithstanding, I will refer to it as the self. The self, being a subjective phenomenon of the highest form, can hardly be studied scientifically, although its elusiveness inspires a great deal of speculation and reflection (see, for example, Hofstadter & Dennett, 1981). In many (non-Buddhist) religions there is a belief in an eternal human soul that allows for a life after death. But I experience my self only when I am conscious, not when I am unconscious or sleeping (dreams only exist in my memory when I am conscious). Maybe there is something wrong with me, but I regard the self to be an emergent phenomenon that disappears as soon as I am not awake.

The problem probably lies with the intuitive conception of the self being separated from the body. It is worth considering the implications of such a dualistic view (Spenard, 2011). I myself find it impossible to imagine a mind without a body; belief in a separate soul, even if it’s part of an all-enfolding entity, is to me equally elusive as belief in God.

The experience of self-awareness (being aware of the self, or the ‘soul’) blocks the mind from imagining nonexistence. The stronger the self-awareness, the harder it is to imagine yourself not existing. This paradox has initiated a quest for answers about eternity, infinity, and spirituality, answers that inevitably are speculative and insulting to the rational mind. I do not advocate silence when things are beyond comprehension, I merely oppose subjective generalizations. Whatever it may be that we cannot comprehend, it should never be attributed the status of truth without objective and irrefutable evidence. Actually, defined that stringently, there is no ‘truth’ since everything that one can imagine can be invalidated by its counterpart. However, that sort of philosophical resignation decides a priori that certain questions cannot be answered. The suggestion seems to be that absolute truth has no meaning; only statistics does.

Explaining the (Super)Natural

Survival leans on the sort of self-confidence that is supported by faith in the sweet hereafter. We derive comfort from this belief as a counterbalance to the notion of our own transiency. To submit one’s destiny to the will of a Supreme Being, however, would deny that the struggle for life is eventually won by sheer force of will. There is evidence that widespread belief in God arose from the operation of natural processes of the mind in ordinary human environments. For example, belief in God may be the result of a hypersensitive agent-detective device in the brain that stimulates our belief in intentional creatures (Barrett, 2004). Using the association areas of the cerebral cortex, we are also prepared to interpret stimuli according to a model of what we should expect to see (Shermer, 2003). This patternicity, or the tendency to find meaningful patterns in meaningless noise, can be considered as an error in cognition. Evolutionary modelling has demonstrated a beneficial selection for believing that most patterns are real, whether those beliefs are correct or not.

The need to know what’s behind a natural phenomenon has probably evolved as a survival strategy from a simple hide away to a thorough exploration behavior, and the communicative interaction within a human society has enormously enlarged this property. The motivation to understand the world includes the inner self, which may lead to the mystical experience of an omnipotent and omnipresent being that is regarded as (the origin of) everything—in other words, the divine Creator.

Spiritual fantasies are based on mystical rationalism lost in mathematical contemplation and metaphysical humbug. Too many people, scientists included, are insufficiently familiar with a scholarly acquisition of knowledge, and more often than not, they have no idea about theory of cognition. The cyclic process of taking observations, formulating theories, making predictions, and taking novel observations leaves no room for angels and demons. Although historical theories cannot be falsified by experiment (Popper, 1972), no one would now reject a falsification effected by means of indirect observations of the sort found in astrophysics and evolutionary biology. Some theistic scientists claim that evolutionary theory cannot be proven, from which they conclude that life, the universe, and everything must have been created. What is it that makes some intelligent people use the argumentum ad ignorantiam so easily?

Religious solidarity undoubtedly strengthens group loyalty, and so may have been adaptive at one time. Whether it has remained so during the short evolution of humanity by means of controversial group selection, or as a psychological spin-off, is of no consequence toward answering our initial question: why do many people cling so strongly to religious beliefs while others do not? The ability to sense some sort of at-oneness with the universe (self-transcendence) is not the same in every human being. Spirituality—the interrelationship between emotional, empirical, and rational contemplation—may have a physiological foundation that is partly genetic and partly environmental (Hamer, 2005). Religiousness, being the local fulfilment of spirituality, is therefore not only widely spread, but can vary greatly between individuals. Another physiological point that helps make sense of the variation of self-transcendence is the correlation between religious and epileptic experiences (Swaab, 2011). It should be noted that self-transcendence and rational thought are located in different parts of the brain (or of the genome) and operate independently of one another. That could explain how both views can exist within one brain, and why their mutual expression varies among people. It seems plausible that the hallucinations induced by a specific balance of neurotransmitters causes an attractive mental state. Self-transcendence may have a similar effect to endorphins in producing a feeling of well-being that will force people to satisfy their need.

Holding tightly to religious convictions may also have to do with a fundamental human need to belong together and simultaneously discover one’s own identity. In an esoteric context, people want to be part of a (religious) community, whereas in an exoteric context, the individual investigates his/her ego. If the individual investigation follows sufficiently transparent logical steps, it may inspire others to do the same. The connected necessary communication suppresses the development of an independent identity, and religious faith arises from the indoctrination of young children’s brains. In essence, the social difference between religion and science is nothing more than the difference between community and privacy, between the group and the individual. Sense of security and social recognition seem to run counter to self-realization.

Some existential questions can be rather awkward. What is the meaning of life? Who am I, and why? As reality closes in, the individual is brought to bay even more. What is feared most is what’s closest, inside, its own identity. The closer you reach the core, the more distressful the inner search becomes. The core exists. It is your self, the smallest particle you can imagine. To some, this is the Higgs boson that gives reality to the rest of the universe. To others, it is much smaller (e.g., Giudice, 2010). It is ineluctable, yet elusive. It seems to have a fractal nature. The spiritual experience that is often aroused by such an inner search is a personal experience that, by definition, cannot be shared. Unlike a scientific (naturalistic) observation that is not accepted unless it is also made by others.

If the spiritual experience gives birth to believing in fairy tales, you should also ask yourself where a circle begins or ends. Or try to imagine a color that you have never seen before. Zoom in on these little letters, and after a while you will see mere pixels while the text has gone. The emergent character of this message, however, doesn’t make it divine. Modern genetic engineers may be able to tinker at the core of living beings as their knowledge of the entire organism becomes more and more reduced. Naturally, the genetic core does not equal the spiritual core I mentioned above. Still, the message is clear: don’t lose sight of the whole. The more comprising the surrounding world, the more qualities and features can be attributed, and vice versa: the closer you get to the core, the more details are lost. This apparent paradox gives no reason to become religious. The search for the Higgs boson only serves to understand our universe, while a total picture of the multiverse space-time continuum tells us little about superstrings. Larger wholes with emergent characteristics can be composed out of many separate parts. When analyzing the larger wholes, however, these characteristics simply disappear as if they never existed.

Faith or Fact?

World religions like Christianity and Islam are invariable and unassailable. In science these characteristics are like deadly poison. Heraclitus’ concept of perpetual change (panta rhei; Herakleitos, 2011) would evoke a collective agony among worshippers during the individual awakening of their self. The principles of religion should not be changed, as after all they were embedded in holy documents centuries ago (irony intended). A philosophy of immutable life may offer a kind of shelter, oppressive yet protective at the same time. Change, on the other hand, reflects a kind of freedom, although it makes one vulnerable and sometimes insecure. Maybe this metaphorical claustrophobia versus agoraphobia underlies the separation of minds.

Worshippers believe in a world of immutability, and just like the Greek philosopher Parmenides, they regard apparent change as illusory (Thanassas, 2008). Scientists argue the opposite. Each claim should be questioned, and every allegation verified or falsified, by anyone at any time. The scientific bastion is continuously under construction. While the authority of the Supreme Being may be self-evident, brilliant scientists can always be criticized, even when they are placed upon a pedestal. Isaac Newton’s law of gravity is overtaken by Albert Einstein’s general relativity, Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalysis is no longer available under the national systems, and even Charles Darwin’s natural selection is no more than a small (if crucial) part of the great evolutionary paradigm in understanding universal diversity (Kuhn, 1962). Naturally, it is a matter of change indeed, and that clashes with every belief in the Omnipotent Creator.

It is beyond question that an explanation of natural phenomena should be trusted to the analyses and reasoning of scientists, and that it should not be attributed to some divine interference. This may not imply that faith has lost every raison d’être. If religion concentrates on morality and the meaning of existence, and leaves the actual knowledge of the universe to science, there seems to be no problem. This separation of spiritual domains, however, is a sham. Agnostics and mutually different worshippers do not share value judgments, and they completely disagree about the meaning of existence. No wonder that the principle of the nonoverlapping magisteria (Gould, 1999) was largely rejected.

Some scientists find it impossible to break away from their God. That doesn’t surprise Muslims, as the Qur’an says that it is indeed devoted learning that will elicit God Almighty. Advocates of Bucaillism (Bucaille, 1976) consider the Qur’an, in contrast to the Bible, as true Divine Revelation, being in perfect agreement with the findings of modern science. They seem to forget that science changes continuously, and that future scientific facts may not be in support of the guidance from Allah anymore. So either they wishfully (but poorly) think that the naturalistic methodology permits immutability (a contradiction in terms if there ever was one), or else they truly believe that modern scientific data demonstrate the supremacy of Islamic religion.

After creationists came up with Intelligent Design (ID), Christian scientists who judged ID to be extreme introduced theistic evolution (Collins, 2006). In that scheme God is presented as the Creator of all scientific laws without meddling in any scientific contribution. In this agnostic yet theistic view, God exists merely as a spectator. From a philosophical point of view, it is defensible to combine a religious belief in God with a scientific interpretation of natural phenomena. The two lines of thought would belong to different domains of the mind (the mind in a ‘living apart together’ relationship, in essence). God has no part in scientific thinking, and science cannot prove the existence or nonexistence of God.

But some have thought otherwise (e.g., Dawkins, 2006). Thank God for the atheist who roused us from the misconception that there is Someone watching over us and not watching over us. Simultaneously following evolution and believing in creation remains impossible to explain. Take the Big Bang theory. This is a scientific concept thought of by a Catholic priest on the analogy of Creation: in the beginning, something came out of nothing. The initial scientific recognition is more and more under fire. Unlike religious institutions, agnosticism cannot be stopped by any establishment. Fancy a Scandinavian Imam proclaiming the duration of Ramadan to depend on the degree of latitude. Or imagine a vicar preaching active confession of homosexual preference. The bluntly unthinkable in the shackles of religion is the essence of true (agnostic) science.

Science Corrupts, Too

The scientific contributions to the improvement of global food supply, to the fight against disease, and to the comfort of communication are beyond question. Yet science has brought evil as well. The same methodology that gave us green revolutions and the internet also enabled mankind to produce ever deadlier weapons, polluting industries, and a dearth of remaining natural resources. No wonder many are suspicious of natural science. Moreover, individual scientists have political opinions and weaknesses like any other human being, which may give rise to even more distrust in science. The latter implies the presence of fraudulent practices like making up or selectively deleting data and plagiarism (van Kolfschooten, 2012; Goodstein, 2010). Maybe there is nothing new under the sun but the public attention. In this connection the role of the internet should not be underestimated. Conspiracies and manipulations are rife, and strikingly they never concern religion.

I daresay! To most people religion provides the moral compass to lead them through the wilderness of tempting sins. So, if religion itself becomes corrupted, its followers get really lost. Mostly feared is the atheist threat of disturbance or even theft of the moral compass. It would leave the worshippers in doubt, just like everybody else, about right and wrong. There is no natural logic to tell the two apart, which doesn’t mean that the atheist is immoral. It is just scientifically impossible to explain why dilemmas may exist between evils and never between beautiful, lovely, or simply good things.

It is often claimed that man is the only living creature that is aware of its own transience. It is also claimed that this unique feature initiated a belief in the supernatural, an afterlife, and ultimately set forth complete religions. A general motivation of all living creatures to survive provokes our agony concerning the inevitable mystery of death. In contrast to the earlier mentioned emotional experience of the self, this awareness is unquestionably true in every individual, although its strength may vary with age and with still unsolved brain activities. The scientific concept of evolution is simply impossible without death and extinction. Each individual creature contributes in this way to the developmental process of life on earth. In this view, the afterlife is life, just without oneself, and what seems transient is actually eternal like cell division: continuance through vanishing.

Finally, to line up the answers to the initial question, “What is it that causes people to cling so firmly to their religion, and to become so suspicious of science?”:

  • Consolation. Every organism can be demonstrated to possess the will to survive; to comfort their awareness of dying, humans imagine a hereafter where they can return to their Creator. The idea is spread in a cultural context.
  • Congenital. Humans have the innate propensity to believe in intentional creatures like angels and demons.
  • Sociality. Their need for social interaction persuades humans to share their mystic experience of the self. This is stimulated by education.
  • Innocence. Most humans are unfamiliar with the scientific procedure and its continuously skeptical premises.
  • Indolence. Religious comfort offers immutable security, whereas scientific procedures offer but tantalization.
  • Fear. In the name of science undesirable developments may occur. Also, fear of the unknown afterlife seduced mankind to believe in fairy tales.

The object of the scientific concept of evolution is an understanding of the coming about of natural phenomena, including man and human products, according to logic procedures. With these procedures man set out to manage the world in his own way. The object of the religious concept of creation, in spite of fundamentally different descriptions in, for example, the Bible and Qur’an, is to recognize the absolute greatness of the Divine Creator and worship Him accordingly to enhance the glory of God, Allah, JHWH, or whatever name the Creator was given. It pursues man’s subjection to some unmanageable force. These conflicting, rational and irrational, essentials emphasize once more the incompatibility of science and religion, and indicate the self-presumed superiority of the latter. It also accounts for the atheist’s fierceness in his struggle against religion.


[1] Mind you, in evolutionary theory group selection can be highly controversial. Here it refers to intraspecific selection within tribes of early hominids.


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