Science, Faith and the Public Sector

From Lawrence M. Krauss:

The researchers of the new paper concluded: “Outward displays of belief in God may be viewed as a proxy for trustworthiness … believers may consider atheist’s absence of belief as a public threat to cooperation and honesty.” This probably explains recent electoral successes of openly devout presidential candidates who previously demonstrated dubious ethics, while also explaining the absence of any serious candidates without known religious affiliation.

It is fascinating that lack of belief, or even mere skepticism, is met among the faithful with less respect and more distrust even than a fervent belief in a rival God. This, more than anything, leads to an inevitable and deep tension between science and religion. When such distrust enters the realm of public policy, everyone suffers….

As a result, the longstanding theological and philosophical question, “Why is there something rather than nothing?”, like many earlier such questions, is increasingly becoming a scientific question, because our notions of “something” and “nothing” have completely changed as a result of our new knowledge.

As science continues to encroach on this issue of profound human interest, it would be most unfortunate if the inherent skepticism associated with scientific progress were to drive a further wedge between science and society.

As a cosmologist, I am keenly aware of the limitations inherent in our study of the universe and its origins – limitations arising from the accidents of our birth and location in a universe whose limits may forever be beyond the reach of our experiments.

As a result, science need not be the direct enemy of faith. However, a deep tension will persist until the faithful recognise that a willingness to question even one’s most fervently held beliefs – the hallmark of science – is a trait that should be respected, not reviled.


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  • “However, a deep tension will persist until the faithful recognise that a willingness to question even one’s most fervently held beliefs – the hallmark of science – is a trait that should be respected, not reviled.”

    “Respected” – probably….engaged in within the local community of believers, seems highly unlikely. It’s hard for churches to allow serious discussions about doctrine/theology in official settings such as Bible study groups or small groups let alone bringing science into the mix.

    As our Bible study leader expressed – The churches doctrine is highlighted from the pulpit and explained and reinforced through the Sunday School class. The statement didn’t instill a lot of confidence that we could search for truth in the biblical text. The goal seemed simply seeking to conform the biblical text to the church’s doctrine.


  • Rick

    Although there may be elements of the science/faith issue here, there also seems to be some jumping to conclusions.
    The study indicates that the underlying reasons for the distrust are still unknown.

    I also think the vocal hostility towards religion of some atheists (Dawkins, Hitchens, etc…) does not help the “trust” issue. Faith is the more imporant aspect in one’s life, and if some are antagonistic towards it, rather than encouraging critical thought, trust will not be developed. Therefore, it may due to a PR problem the atheists have.

  • Joe Canner

    A glass-half-full interpretation of this finding is to celebrate the fact that people still find Christians to be trustworthy, despite the many things that Christians have done over the years to undermine trust (e.g., starting wars, dissing science, hating on minorities).

    On the flip side, it is indeed troubling that people instinctively mistrust atheists, particularly those in the sciences. The assumption is (and I’ve heard Christians say this) that someone who doesn’t believe in God can’t be trusted to interpret scientific evidence because they are automatically biased.

  • ao

    Joe (#3),

    Along with your flip side, I’ve also heard my fellow Christians say that atheists can’t be trusted because they have no absolute sense of right and wrong, and can ultimately therefore do whatever they want whenever they want. To these Christians, “atheist” necessarily equals “amoral”.