In What Sense Religious Scientists “Shouldn’t” Exist

Unqualified Offerings lives up to its moniker with this post:

I often hear people explain that it is simply impossible to be a scientist and religious. They have eloquent arguments for why there shouldn’t be any people who are religious and also accomplished scientists. It’s a great, well-argued, self-consistent theory with impeccable logical foundations. There’s just one problem: The theory predicts that religious scientists shouldn’t exist, yet they do exist, and in significant numbers. As a theoretical evil fiziks type, I hate when data interferes with a perfectly good theory!

The claim that religion and science are incompatible is the result of a normative, epistemological argument that when scientists leave the laboratory they should not leave behind the same critical skills that they employ in it.  To say that religious scientists “shouldn’t” exist is not an empirical prediction but a normative prescription.  No amount of data that they actually do exist “disconfirms”, or otherwise “interferes” with, the normative claim or undermines the normative argument.  The argument attempts to persuade scientists to be more consistent with their epistemic practices.   Forgive those who advance such arguments for not waving the white flag and conceding that simply because certain people behave in a certain way right now our claims that they should change their behavior are eo ipso futile or “refuted” by evidence.  It’s a ridiculous way of trying to silence arguments for a change in people’s ethical attitudes (in this case, the ethics of their beliefs and participation in institutions which perpetuate irrational habits of thought).

The data that many scientists actually do leave behind their high standards for belief when they go to church has little does not at all counter the normative epistemological claim. Norms are about what should be done, not what is done. And, yes, in terms of what should be done, all those logical arguments should be persuasive. The simple fact that there are powerful cultural and psychological forces that lead even scientists to participate in, and thereby help prop up, irrationality-based institutions, gives no good reason to think they should do so.

It’s no moral victory for religion if it cannot be defended with epistemolgoical or ethical norms that it nonetheless remains extremely powerful. Might does not make right. And it’s continued stranglehold on aspects of the majority’s souls and minds have far more to do with their centuries of real world power than anything to do with a normatively sound justification.

So, yeah, let all the scientists in the world go to church (but, of course, they don’t all, and collectively they ARE on the West’s vanguard of slowly-but-inexorably-increasing secularism and atheism) and that would still not count one bit as evidence that the thesis that they should not support religious institutions is true.

Unqualified Offerings went on to make this argument about what scientists who are religious allegedly proves:

I think the problem with the theory is that religion as actually experienced by many people is not about miracles and strict codes written on pages. It is a combination of a personal thing and a social/cultural thing. You can explain all day long why somebody who does science should have no part of it, you can explain all day long that the words on the page are inconsistent with a scientist’s profession, and you can even explain all day long that the non-violent Muslims are failing to adhere to the words on the page (I never get why some idiots do that–do they really want to persuade a Muslim on that point?), but all of these arguments miss what actually matters to many religious believers.

Go here to read my case that it is irresponsible for religious moderates to enjoy their demythologized religious beliefs while perpetuating institutions that simultaneously encourage superstition, religious literalism, authoritarianism in epistemic justification, rank rationalization, irrational group-think, and circular reasoning, and which demonize the very practice of doubting that is integral to all critical thinking.

Finally, the attempt to convince religious people that they are not adhering to the words on the page is an attempt to get them to use their critical thinking and their moral sensibilities to recognize that books which encourage genocides and forcibly imposed belief systems are wicked and not holy and therefore not “divinely revealed.”   Those of us who make such arguments point these things out because they are true. We are pointing out the dangerous, irrationalistic, and authoritarian logical implications of religious literalism and hoping that people will see it as the morally repulsive and intellectually bankrupt approach to thinking and behaving that it is.

We are not interested in simply spinning the truth for political ends and paying lip service to respecting the beliefs of people whose beliefs have such awful logical implications.

And, finally, we non-accommodationist atheists do recognize that many people pariticipate in religious institutions not out of belief but for personal and cultural reasons and that’s why there is now a concerted effort being made to organize alternative institutions for meeting those needs for people without dogma and training in irrationalism.  And what are these efforts of atheists to organize disparaged as?  “Militant” and “religious” and “fundamentalist.”  Which is all the ridiculous attempt by religious hegemony to assert its turf and ensure that people in perpetuity will have to compromise their brains for ethical community, ritual, and meditation.

I’ve written a lot about these themes of late, so I encourage you to read the following posts if you haven’t already but are interested in these issues:

Against The Faitheists’ Belief In Belief

On The Alleged Intolerance Of The New Atheists Towards “Faitheists”

Anti-Theism or Pro-Atheism?

Should Freethinkers Give Up On Replacing Religious Rituals With Their Own?

“Just Leave Us Our Fictions”

When (And How) Should We Bother To Push The Issues?

Your Thoughts?

About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.

  • DavidM

    “No amount of data that they actually do exist “disconfirms”, or otherwise “interferes” with, the normative claim or undermines the normative argument.” – LOL! That’s hilarious. Spoken like a true fundamentalist. At some point you actually do need to wonder about the significance of the data and about the accuracy of your patently self-serving narrative about its irrelevance – IF you’re an honest, rational person, that is. “Just because everyone else is wrong doesn’t change the fact that I’m right” – yeah, that’s logically possible, but really not likely. It’s actually much more likely that you’re really not understanding the position of all of those intelligent and rational people that disagree with you.


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