Why are scientists atheists?
Category: Society Published: April 8, 2013
Scientists are not necessarily atheists. According to a 2009 Pew poll, 59% of scientists believe there is a God or higher power. In other words, the majority of scientists are not atheists. This makes sense because there is nothing fundamental in science that would require a good scientist to turn away all religion. Science and religion deal with entirely different facets of existence. Science is not an alternative to religion, because it is not a religion at all. Science is not a particular tradition spelled out by a handful of geniuses. In fact, there is no such thing as one, golden-standard Scientific Method. Rather, science is an umbrella term that encompasses all physical truths that are arrived at through repeated observations and through the application of models that successfully predict observations. Science is confined strictly to the observable world, and therefore has nothing to say about any non-observable realm. A scientist that claims that science proves God does not exist is simply a poor scientist. Such a scientist has turned science into his own personal religion. Honest and logically consistent scientists may privately lean towards atheism or towards religion, but they know that science itself is agnostic. Scientists are free to be atheists in good faith, but that is just their personal faith and is not supported by science. Claiming that a strictly observation-based methodology such as science has anything to say about physically unobservable realms is simply illogical. Religion deals mainly with the field of physically unobservable entities: good, evil, love, hate, holiness, sin, spirit, heaven, and God. While the spiritual realm is beyond physical observation, most religions believe that it is still accessible to the human experience through non-physical senses which are given names such as enlightenment, the soul, the inner spirit, the mind's eye, inspiration, consciousness, etc.
Because science and religion address different planes of existence using different tools, they are not mutually exclusive. Science versus religion is a false dichotomy. Pure religion (as opposed to forms of religion that have been misused for political purposes) is not at war with science, and in fact, cannot be. In some cases, science and religion seem to contradict each other, but closer scrutiny reveals that these cases consist of instances where science has wandered beyond its bounds of the observable world, or religious interpretation has wandered beyond its scope of the spiritual world. For instance, extracting tidbits from the Christian bible and interpreting them broadly as scientific facts about the age and development of the earth gives you Creation Science, which is both bad religion and bad science. The Creation Science movement is bad religion because it attempts to take passages meant mainly for spiritual, non-observable purposes, and extrapolate them to have vast scientific meaning. The Creation Science movement is also bad science because it contradicts the wealth of observed data collected by mainstream science. In a similar way, taking neuroscience findings about the brain and extending them to make broad claims about the nature of free will is both bad science and bad religion.
Consider two visitors to an art gallery, Tom and Sally. Tom is fixed on a painting of the ocean, while Sally is gazing upon an entirely different painting of roses. Each is so absorbed so as to be unaware of the other person's gaze. The conversation progresses something like this.
Tom: "What a beautiful hue of blue."
Sally: "What? There isn't a single stroke of blue in the whole painting. It's mostly red."
Tom: "Are you blind? Half of the painting is blue. Look down in the bottom right corner of the painting where the blue is the brightest. You can't honestly tell me that is not blue."
Sally: "You must mean the top right corner. I'll give it to you that there is a patch of sky in that corner, but it's more gray than blue."
Trying to prove anything with a conversation like this is pointless, as the visitors are looking at entirely different paintings.
There is no war between science and religion. There is only war between bad science and bad religion. Bad science is the application of scientific (observable) concepts to the spiritual (unobservable) realm. Bad religion is the application of spiritual concepts to the scientific realm. In other other words, there is only war between science and religion posing as science, as well as between religion and science posing as religion. Historically, there has also been war between science and political powers who used the cloak of religion for political purposes, but this really has nothing to do with pure religion which concerns itself with the spiritual realm. The false notion that there is a fundamental clash between science and religion is promulgated mainly by three groups: 1) anti-religious factions that try to use science to attack religion, 2) anti-science factions that try to use religion to attack science, and 3) journalists looking to sell articles. Group 1 includes aggressive atheists who in their zeal to tear down religion misuse science. Group 2 includes religionists who are so insecure in their faith that they feel that anything they don't understand must be wrong. Group 3 includes journalists who know that drama sells, so they are willing to create drama between science and religion where there is little.