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Religion and America's Academic Scientists
May 30, 2010 1:42 AM   Subscribe

Science vs. Religion: a new book, Science and Religion: What Scientists Really Think by Rice University sociologist Elaine Ecklund, discusses the results of her detailed study of 1,646 scientists at top American research universities. Among her findings: ~36% of those surveyed not only believe in God but also practice a form of closeted, often non-traditional faith. They worry about how their peers would react to learning about their religious views. Interview with the author from the Center for Inquiry's Point of Inquiry podcast. Also, here's a webcast from an author discussion forum held at Rice University on April 7th.

The concern:
By not engaging with religion more fully and publicly, "the academy is really doing itself a big disservice," worries one scientist. As shown by conflicts over everything from evolution to stem cells to climate policy, breakdowns in communication between scientists and religious communities cause real problems, especially for scientists trying to educate increasingly religious college students.


The interviewer on the podcast posts the Intersection blog over at Discover Magazine's site. He's been discussing Ecklund and her book for a few weeks now:
Prior to Ecklund’s study, the most prominently cited study of religious beliefs among elite scientists that I know of was by Edward Larson and Larry Withham in Nature in 1998. They surveyed members of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, and found that only 7 percent embraced a belief in God. At the time, this result got a lot of news attention, and it continues to be discussed today–e.g., in Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion.

Ecklund’s findings are very different–she gets 36 percent belief in God, and 50 percent religiosity among scientists at elite universities (the difference is apparently due to the large percentage of scientists who claim some type of religious identity but do not believe in God; many are Jewish).
Here's an additional essay (pdf) from Eckland from 2007 that predates her final survey results. From the Social Science Research Council's (SSRC) essay forum for their Guide to Religious Engagement Among American Undergraduates

2008 Blog post: Beyond the God Delusion

Editorial from the Chronicle for Higher Education: Should God attend chemistry class? Gives an alternate perspective to Ecklund on Christian evangelicals in the classroom.
posted by zarq (89 comments total) 15 users marked this as a favorite

 
The comments on this Intersection post were lively.
posted by zarq at 1:49 AM on May 30, 2010


increasingly religious college students.

Is there some kind of great evangelical revival going on that I don't know about? Here in Texas, the number one religion on campus is the Church Of The Holy Beer Bong.
posted by Avenger at 1:49 AM on May 30, 2010 [2 favorites]


For accuracy's sake, that should really have read "...but also often practice a form of closeted, often non-traditional faith..."
posted by zarq at 1:59 AM on May 30, 2010


That someone is religious doesn't say that much. And we shouldn't overestimate the folks working on universities. Because never before in the history of mankind have so many people earned a living on the merits of so few.

Frits Staal once made a useful distinction between religions. All religions share three characteristics he wrote: they have rituals, mysticisms, and doctrines. Christianity and Islam differ from older religions, because of their emphasis on doctrines and dogmas; and their eagerness to convert the people who don't share those points of view.

As long as distinctions as these aren't made; as long as research isn't saying that universities aren't innovating anymore, because their staff members already know all the answers, since those have been revealed in a Holy Book, I really couldn't care less about the personal opinions of university staff.
posted by ijsbrand at 2:51 AM on May 30, 2010


While this is a really interesting piece of research, I'm unclear as to why we needed research to point out that the head and the heart are not always aligned. One can have faith in both science and the divine; they needn't even ever intersect, let alone conflict, unless one subscribes to very particular dogmas.

With that said, I find the fact that the director of the Human Genome Project is an Evangelical to be fascinating, curious and altogether delightful. You'd think his scientific and religious beliefs would conflict at a pretty basic level, but either he seperates the two completely or, more likely, has a cosmic view that envelopes hard science in a way I suspect is elegant and fascinating.
posted by DarlingBri at 2:58 AM on May 30, 2010 [2 favorites]


First, you'll find that she's avoided using the NAS membership list, which suggests she doesn't like the fairly irreligious picture that gives. You'll obviously find far more religious believe if you simply survey religious belief among professors at 21 universities instead of focusing upon "the best of the best".

Second, you'll also find find that she's included many extremely religious institutions like Notre Dame among those 21 while excluding better institutions. In fact, I'm sure these firs two changes make her work more relevant for religious parents worried about sending their child to university, but usually the "what do scientists believe?" means "what do the best of the best scientists believe?"

Third, she's has included social scientists as "scientists" in her survey and excluded mathematicians, as well as presumably computer scientists and engineers.

Finally, EvolutionBlog has shown that her conclusions are simply not supported by her data. In particular, she has counted almost 50% of agnostics and all who answer “I believe in a higher power, but it is not God.” among her "nearly 50 percent of elite scientists who are religious in a traditional sense." In fact, her only category where scientists responses mirrored the general public was “I believe in God sometimes.”

I'd imagine she feels compelled to give answers that'll make her backers at the John Templeton Foundation happy, which seems unsurprising.
posted by jeffburdges at 3:09 AM on May 30, 2010 [30 favorites]


jeffburdges: The EvolutionBlog post counts practitioners of non-theist religions (I believe in a higher power, but it is not God) as not traditionally religious. I expect that Ecklund counted them to be traditionally religious.
posted by honest knave at 3:17 AM on May 30, 2010


EvolutionBlog concludes from her data that "72% of scientists are explicitly non-theistic in their religious views, compared to 16% of the public generally," while "just 25% of scientists who will confidently assert their belief in God, [compared to] 80% of the general public." And that's still using her definition of scientist and her selection of institutions.
posted by jeffburdges at 3:25 AM on May 30, 2010 [1 favorite]


but yeah. "nearly" half was a pretty absurd stretch. "Over a third" would have been much better.
posted by honest knave at 3:25 AM on May 30, 2010


So? Unless you know how their religious belief lines up with their field of study you don't really know what this means. If a chemical engineer thinks the universe was created as it is now 5000 years ago, while wacky, there isn't anything fundamentally in conflict between vapor pressure laws and a young earth. But if an astrophysicist thinks it was all created from nothing 5000 years ago we have a problem.

Who cares if scientists are religious, as long as it doesn't lead to bad science?
posted by y6y6y6 at 3:45 AM on May 30, 2010


"Janice" is a Christian who says she has not experienced discrimination, but only because most of her colleagues have no idea about her faith.

There is no reason whatsoever why her colleagues should have an idea about her faith.
posted by StickyCarpet at 3:58 AM on May 30, 2010 [5 favorites]


I was mostly taking issue with her counting half of agnostics as traditionally religious, while actually agnostics are usually atheists being overly polite. I'm also doubtful that “I believe in a higher power but it is not God” should corresponds with traditionally religious, well you'll definitely find pretty non-traditional stuff there.
posted by jeffburdges at 4:04 AM on May 30, 2010


If a chemical engineer thinks the universe was created as it is now 5000 years ago, while wacky, there isn't anything fundamentally in conflict between vapor pressure laws and a young earth...Who cares if scientists are religious, as long as it doesn't lead to bad science?

Science is a method, not a litany of facts. If a scientist decides that a scientific epistemological stance is only compelling enough to apply to their own field of research, and not other categories of claims, I think there's something wrong.

Why should a religious scientist be surprised when colleagues question religious belief? They work in a field whose primary goal is to make claims about reality using scientific methods. When a person in science (publicly) believes things about reality that are not based on scientific methodology, and, indeed, have no evidence backing them, they should expect to be questioned.

One needn't be hostile about it, but it is perfectly acceptable for scientists to expect other scientists to care about how they justify their beliefs.
posted by Philosopher Dirtbike at 4:22 AM on May 30, 2010 [5 favorites]


CORRECTION - Science and Religion: What American Scientists Really Think.

Not such a surprise put that way is it?
posted by A189Nut at 4:35 AM on May 30, 2010 [5 favorites]


While this is a really interesting piece of research, I'm unclear as to why we needed research to point out that the head and the heart are not always aligned. One can have faith in both science and the divine; they needn't even ever intersect, let alone conflict, unless one subscribes to very particular dogmas.

Because (as you can see from this thread) there are just as many non-scientist atheists as scientist ones who truly believe that all religion is fundamentalist and will contradict science. Which, frankly, is a load of bollocks, since the vast majority of religious people in the Western World aside from America, much like American religious scientists, have a secularised, open-minded view of their religion and aren't the least bit fundamentalist.
posted by MaiaMadness at 4:51 AM on May 30, 2010 [6 favorites]


I was mostly taking issue with her counting half of agnostics as traditionally religious, while actually agnostics are usually atheists being overly polite.

I don't find that at all. I find that the majority of atheists, if they really think about it, find that they're really agnostics who just preferred to put a more easily defined label on themselves.
posted by MaiaMadness at 4:53 AM on May 30, 2010


There is no reason whatsoever why her colleagues should have an idea about her faith.

The "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" of the academic community? Bit sad, don't you think? A scientist who's a Christian shouldn't be allowed to wear a cross, I suppose. And if a Muslim woman who wore a hijab were to take a stab at joining the scientific community, we'd have a public out-cry. "Religious people in our ranks will lead to moral decay among the other scientists," they would say.
posted by MaiaMadness at 4:57 AM on May 30, 2010 [1 favorite]


So? Unless you know how their religious belief lines up with their field of study you don't really know what this means. If a chemical engineer thinks the universe was created as it is now 5000 years ago, while wacky, there isn't anything fundamentally in conflict between vapor pressure laws and a young earth. But if an astrophysicist thinks it was all created from nothing 5000 years ago we have a problem.

Quite apart from all that, the fact of the matter is that the fewest of religious people are fundamentalist Christians. Certainly, according to this study they're virtually nonexistent within the scientific community.
posted by MaiaMadness at 4:58 AM on May 30, 2010


Why should a religious scientist be surprised when colleagues question religious belief? They work in a field whose primary goal is to make claims about reality using scientific methods. When a person in science (publicly) believes things about reality that are not based on scientific methodology, and, indeed, have no evidence backing them, they should expect to be questioned.

What for? If they follow the same scientific methods as their colleagues, and they don't mix their religious beliefs in with their science, what's the problem? I mean, I can see how believing that the world is flat and balanced on the back of a turtle, or that it was created 6000 years ago by an invisible man in the sky would be problematic, but that's not what defines religion; belief in a form of god does, and since this can neither be proven nor disproved, why is it at all relevant?
posted by MaiaMadness at 5:01 AM on May 30, 2010


Lets try and avoid being naively positivist and assuming that scientists (poorly defined) believe that the scientific method delivers bedrock truth. Very many scientists do not need to take a stand on this to practice science in accord with all the norms of the community. Some of the remainder will be of the opinion that the very best science, as currently defined, still chooses to exclude areas of immediate concern to humans that are otherwise framed within a religious context (the meaning of mystical experiences, the ultimate reality of time, etc). When religion is mentioned in an American context, one's immediate frame of reference is the monotheistic Abrahamic religions. The very word 'religion' itself looks radically different from many other perspectives, where it is neither dogmatic nor prescriptive, but rather has to do with establishing a framework within which hard, perhaps unanswerable, questions can at least be posed and discussed. That activity might appeal to a certain kind of scientific mind, and is not clearly distinguishable from the venerable business of philosophy.
posted by fcummins at 5:02 AM on May 30, 2010


A job is a job. You can do it well without buying in to the whole deal. Someone who thinks refugees are a bunch of loafers and ingrates could still do a great job in the Red Cross accounting department. A Republican-voting envelope stuffer could stuff envelopes just as well as anyone else at a Democratic politician's headquarters. A guy who speeds in his private time could still be a good traffic cop when he's on duty.

Someone who loves animals and research could easily become a great biologist who happens to believe there's some invisible being at the top of the food chain making all creatures, great and small, do what they do according to rules that god made up.
posted by pracowity at 5:03 AM on May 30, 2010


I mean, I can see how believing that the world is flat and balanced on the back of a turtle, or that it was created 6000 years ago by an invisible man in the sky would be problematic, but that's not what defines religion; belief in a form of god does, and since this can neither be proven nor disproved, why is it at all relevant?

Actually, none of the statements here can technically be disproved, but they all lack evidence. That's the point. You think there is a distinction between these different claims, but there isn't, other than your bias that the former are "more problematic" than a belief in some god.
posted by Philosopher Dirtbike at 5:10 AM on May 30, 2010


CORRECTION - Science and Religion: What American Scientists Really Think.

So I take it you've never been to a science department at an American university?

I am in the camp thinking the results are seriously skewed, though. Mathematicians aren't scientists? Yeesh.
posted by kaibutsu at 5:16 AM on May 30, 2010



Actually, none of the statements here can technically be disproved


Er... Yes, they can. We've been in space, we have physical evidence that the world is indeed round and not balanced on the back of a turtle. And there are scientific methods to prove the age of the world, believe of them what you will, while the counterargument is words in a book (not even that, really; it's people's interpretations of words in a book). But as far as belief in a higher power goes, evidence is subjective, and there is no scientific theory to directly counter it. On the contrary, depending on your personal definition of "god", there may even be quantum theory to support it.
posted by MaiaMadness at 5:17 AM on May 30, 2010


You think there is a distinction between these different claims, but there isn't, other than your bias that the former are "more problematic" than a belief in some god.

And there is a definite distinction as a scientist between believing in things that directly contradicts the science you study (such as being a biologist and creationist at the same time) and believing in something that's separate from and in no way affects that science (such as belief in a higher power, which has no physical effect on the world around you).
posted by MaiaMadness at 5:20 AM on May 30, 2010


I am in the camp thinking the results are seriously skewed, though. Mathematicians aren't scientists? Yeesh.

You'd be surprised at how many scientists agree with that statement; there's a reason why there's no Nobel Prize in Mathematics. Yeah, I think it's wrong, too.
posted by MaiaMadness at 5:21 AM on May 30, 2010


"Janice" is a Christian who says she has not experienced discrimination, but only because most of her colleagues have no idea about her faith.

See...this smacks to me of the sort of self-imposed balkanization a lot of evangelical/conservative Christian groups inflict upon themselves. They assume they won't be accepted, so they erect walls around themselves, then complain about the wall they were being forced into by the terrible others.

There are believers of all stripes actively participating in the sciences every day. They don't feel a need to closet themselves or hide their beliefs. They are Catholic, Presbyterian, Baptist, Muslim, Hindu, Jewish, and on and on. As I said, there is this odd strain of Christian who believes they are an oppressed minority and that they will be punished for so much as wearing a cross around their necks.

The problem isn't with some sort of institutional hate of religion in the sciences. I think it's with a brand of christianity that sees itself as being eternally oppressed if they can't impose their dogma on everything around them.
posted by Thorzdad at 5:29 AM on May 30, 2010 [9 favorites]


Er... Yes, they can. We've been in space, we have physical evidence that the world is indeed round and not balanced on the back of a turtle.

Sure, perhaps the turtle is invisible, or there is some field which distorts the passage of light to make the Earth appear spherical, and hide the turtle. Or the turtle simply has the power to change the images we see from space, because he, being a cosmic turtle, doesn't want to be known. And regarding your invisible man creating the Earth 6,000 years ago, the Earth could have been created with the appearance of age. You can't DISPROVE any of these things. They're clearly ridiculous, and no one would believe them. Why? Because there are a zillion things we can't disprove, most of which lack any supporting evidence.

Again, science is not a litany of facts, like "The Earth is round," or "The universe is 12.5 billion years old." Science is, fundamentally, a particular answer to the question "How shall I decide what to believe?" Religion is another. The reason why religion is less common in the sciences is because it is populated by people who, for the most part, buy science's answer to that question. But, as we all know, humans are fundamentally irrational and inconsistent; even scientists. Thus, some scientists are religious.

But I didn't want to talk about whether science and religion are compatible; my original post was about whether religious scientists should be surprised when their religious beliefs are questioned. Scientists like to talk about science and philosophy. They are scientists BECAUSE they enjoy talking about what is "real", and what's not. One shouldn't be surprised if it comes up as a topic of discussion.
posted by Philosopher Dirtbike at 5:41 AM on May 30, 2010 [2 favorites]


The "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" of the academic community?

Way to overstate!

I've been in the natural sciences for about 25 years. I don't know the religious leanings of most of my colleagues for the same reason than I don't know their favourite colour, their children's names or if they do llama rescue on the weekends. Those are not topics that come up in the course of discussing energy dissipation rates or if we've got baseline drift.

I do, of course know much of that about my close co-workers (about 1/3 go to church regularly, most like blue, their kids come to young-scientists-at-work day and not a one cares about the plight of camelids), but there's no stigma attached.

The only reason I would get upset is if one of them was actively looking for converts. Bad behaviour does get the cold shoulder. Norms in science communities aren't so much DA-DT as regarding the philosophical and spiritual decisions as private matters, but certainly not shameful, as you imply. In other words, norms are not greatly different from general civil society.
posted by bonehead at 5:44 AM on May 30, 2010 [5 favorites]


No. You may NOT continue to pretend that you are persecuted minority, Christianity. You. May. Not.
posted by DU at 5:50 AM on May 30, 2010 [8 favorites]


Crikey, MaiaMadness, give someone else a change to say something!
posted by smoke at 5:51 AM on May 30, 2010 [3 favorites]


Those are not topics that come up in the course of discussing energy dissipation rates or if we've got baseline drift.
As a cognitive scientist, I find that these topics come up every once in a while, but always in more social settings. They don't tend to come up during work, of course...

It's funny, religion is normally a lively, fun topic to discuss with other scientists, even when we disagree. One issue I've learned to avoid, though, is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. You will lose friends talking about that.
posted by Philosopher Dirtbike at 5:52 AM on May 30, 2010 [1 favorite]


Crikey, MaiaMadness, give someone else a change to say something!

Sure, if you have any comments to add, feel free.
posted by MaiaMadness at 6:22 AM on May 30, 2010


But if an astrophysicist thinks it was all created from nothing 5000 years ago we have a problem.

What are the odds that someone that believes Creationism that firmly would be becoming an astrophysicist, though?
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 6:23 AM on May 30, 2010


Science is, fundamentally, a particular answer to the question "How shall I decide what to believe?" Religion is another.

This is where I disagree. Yes, science is one form of belief, but as opposed to religion, it is not necessarily incompatible with any other. While you can't really be both Christian and Hindu at the same time, you can certainly be one of them and also a scientist. It simply depends on whether you see religion as an answer to the how and what questions, such as how the Earth was created, how we came to be here, what makes the Earth turn, etc., or if you see it as the answer to the why questions: Why are we here? Why do we feel? The former are questions of science, but science can't truly explain imagination. The why questions are philosophical, not scientific, and that's where religion comes in for religious scientists.

So, again, as long as there's no conflict, why does it matter if someone believes in a higher power? Is it really relevant?

Because there are a zillion things we can't disprove, most of which lack any supporting evidence.

And yet you see no difference between something where we at least have some counter-evidence and something where we have none? I mean, can you at least acknowledge that we can present counter-evidence against most creation myths, but not against the existence of a higher power?
posted by MaiaMadness at 6:34 AM on May 30, 2010


What are the odds that someone that believes Creationism that firmly would be becoming an astrophysicist, though?

I dunno, I know a girl who's a creationist and doesn't believe in evolution who is studying marine biology; you'd think those would be pretty incompatible.
posted by MaiaMadness at 6:35 AM on May 30, 2010


MaiaMadness: "I dunno, I know a girl who's a creationist and doesn't believe in evolution who is studying marine biology; you'd think those would be pretty incompatible."

Talk to us when she's got a research position.
posted by barnacles at 6:42 AM on May 30, 2010 [1 favorite]


Science is, fundamentally, a particular answer to the question "How shall I decide what to believe?"

How can an empirical discipline answer a metaphysical question?
posted by fleetmouse at 6:46 AM on May 30, 2010 [1 favorite]


No. You may NOT continue to pretend that you are persecuted minority, Christianity. You. May. Not.

Since when were those articles about Christianity?
posted by MaiaMadness at 6:50 AM on May 30, 2010


There is no reason whatsoever why her colleagues should have an idea about her faith.

The "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" of the academic community? Bit sad, don't you think?


That's not my point at all. Faith, properly defined is different than belief. It is entirely personal.
posted by StickyCarpet at 6:51 AM on May 30, 2010


Talk to us when she's got a research position.

What does that have to do with the question?

EmpressCallipygos: What are the odds that someone that believes Creationism that firmly would be becoming an astrophysicist, though?

MaiaMadness: I dunno, I know a girl who's a creationist and doesn't believe in evolution who is studying marine biology; you'd think those would be pretty incompatible.

Nowhere was research position mentioned in the original question.
posted by MaiaMadness at 6:54 AM on May 30, 2010


Science is not a unified process anywhere outside of a fifth-grade classroom, and even there it's a stretch.

The many practices of science is founded on a) the belief that we can believe what we observe, and b) that our observations today are still relevant tomorrow. The litany of facts of science is the collection of observations; from these inferences are drawn which may be revised or thrown out completely as the power of observation improves. The magic invisible turtle on which the world rests is in violation of basic premise (a), above, because no turtle has ever been observed and there are plenty of observations of the world in which no such turtle has been noted. Does this disprove the turtle in a narrow, pedantic sense? No. But it does put the discussion of the turtle well outside the realm of science.

Science is not an answer to the question of how to decide what to believe, because there are many, many things beyond humanity's ability to observe. This includes all kinds of spooky phenomena that are notoriously hard to recreate in a controlled setting. But it also includes phenomena that can be but have not yet been observed. The working scientist - in order to increase scientific knowledge - is forced to move beyond what is understood about the world to dream up experiments that will increase what is known. So the scientist deals in faith in the nature of phenomena quite regularly, making bets that a particular experiment will yield results, and - often - revising their faith when things don't work out as expected. This might go towards explaining why scientists are more likely to not believe in God, and to explain why older scientists are less likely to believe. By the time they're old, the average scientist is (hopefully) quite used to finding their beliefs about the world were wrong and revising their convictions accordingly.

That said, some scientists are self-obsessed assholes.

But the point here is that religion deals with the question of how to decide what to believe about stuff we can't observe. For Christianity, they used to be in business of talking about stuff we can observe, but eventually got out of that business after being one-upped by the scientists one too many times. At least for Christianity, you get this whole array of problems: there's the claim that the main book is infallible and doesn't require revision, and yet contains stuff like 'pi equals three.' Furthermore, the church has been way wrong a bunch of times and been unwilling to admit it; all indications are that if the church were wrong about God, they wouldn't admit it in a million years. How do we decide who's the authority on the unobservable? Until someone actually does an experiment, we're all on about the same footing when it comes to, say, the existence of the Higgs boson... Why should God be any different? Why should some asshole with a pointy hat and decidedly backwards ideas about birth control be more of an authority on a notoriously reclusive master of the universe than myself? Or you?
posted by kaibutsu at 6:54 AM on May 30, 2010 [4 favorites]


That's not my point at all. Faith, properly defined is different than belief. It is entirely personal.

This I can agree with. But it's still a bit sad if people feel like they can't talk about their beliefs with their colleagues for fear of losing academic credibility. There should be a clear distinction between a person's religious beliefs and their scientific ones; they need have nothing to do with one another.
posted by MaiaMadness at 6:57 AM on May 30, 2010


Science is a method, not a litany of facts. If a scientist decides that a scientific epistemological stance is only compelling enough to apply to their own field of research, and not other categories of claims, I think there's something wrong.
Wrong in what sense? It obviously wouldn't impact their own research, in fact most scientists aren't dealing with anything that requires them to even think about the epistemological basis for science on a day to day basis.

There is a really weird undercurrent in some discussions about science and religion where it's assumed that scientists spend all day thinking about the metaphysical implications of what they do, when in fact they are mostly worried about getting good data, making sure their experiments are setup properly, lab technique, office politics and so on. Really these kinds of questions are totally removed from the everyday practice of science.

And secondly, all that matters is that you publish good papers and that your specific results are correct. It doesn't matter what you think about the rest of the world/universe/metaphysics/etc. In fact, what actually matters is that people follow the scientific method not what they actually believe. If you're results are repeatable, they're repeatable. If not, they're not.
posted by delmoi at 7:00 AM on May 30, 2010 [4 favorites]


How can an empirical discipline answer a metaphysical question?

It doesn't. Read what you quoted. Science is AN answer to the question. HOW that answer was arrived at is, indeed, a metaphysical question.
posted by Philosopher Dirtbike at 7:03 AM on May 30, 2010


By the time they're old, the average scientist is (hopefully) quite used to finding their beliefs about the world were wrong and revising their convictions accordingly.

As a person who believes in a higher power but does not really agree with any particular religion, I've revised my idea of God any number of times based on new "data" (experiences) and "research" (conversations with others).

Why should some asshole with a pointy hat and decidedly backwards ideas about birth control be more of an authority on a notoriously reclusive master of the universe than myself? Or you?

Good question, and I completely agree. Still, if you're the type of person who feels the need to believe in something greater, it probably doesn't hurt to have a starting point. Maybe the asshole in the pointy hat had some good basic ideas that you could expound upon in your own head?

I don't believe there are two people in this world who believe exactly the same thing. So, we lie a little and gather together under what beliefs we have in common, and then we figure the rest out for ourselves. Unfortunately, what started out as people gathering under the umbrella of common ideals has turned into a mob who refuses to accept anyone who won't join with them.
posted by MaiaMadness at 7:05 AM on May 30, 2010


CORRECTION - Science and Religion: What American Scientists Really Think.

So I take it you've never been to a science department at an American university?

You take that wrong as a matter of fact. But American religiosity is without doubt un-typical of the developed world (take a look at some comparative statistics on church going in the US compared to Europe for instance.) So do these results surprise me? No. I can't imagine why they'd surprise anyone.
posted by A189Nut at 7:16 AM on May 30, 2010


Wrong in what sense? It obviously wouldn't impact their own research, in fact most scientists aren't dealing with anything that requires them to even think about the epistemological basis for science on a day to day basis.

Whose talking about thinking about epistemology on a day to day basis? How about, ever?

There is a really weird undercurrent in some discussions about science and religion where it's assumed that scientists spend all day thinking about the metaphysical implications of what they do, when in fact they are mostly worried about getting good data, making sure their experiments are setup properly, lab technique, office politics and so on. Really these kinds of questions are totally removed from the everyday practice of science.

I'm a methodologist, so these issues are important to me. I encounter epistemological issues often, because I am interested in issues like Bayesian vs. frequentist modes of scientific inference. In everyday scientific practice, failure to deeply understand the scientific methods they use for inference causes all sorts of problems, and these problems are all, at some level, connected to epistemology.
posted by Philosopher Dirtbike at 7:17 AM on May 30, 2010 [1 favorite]


MaiaMadness : I've found that most people who told me they were agnostics however simply don't believe in god, which is the definition of an atheist. I've also known many people who asserted that determining if god exists was impossible, which makes these people agnostic yes, although they might also be atheist or theists.

Alex Huxley who coined the term agnostic was specifically objecting to the gnostic philosophy inside Christianity that claimed kinda ridiculously detailed knowledge of god, but today almost all our highly educated people are agnostic in this broad sense. Huxley himself considered it very important that the gnostics were simply wrong. Anyone like that is entitled to answer the question "Do you believe in god?" by "I'm agnostic", but people who don't care about gnosticism should probably just answer the question asked by saying atheist, theist, don't know, or don't care.

Isn't Protestantism's term for gnōsis simply "Born Again Christian" btw?
posted by jeffburdges at 7:20 AM on May 30, 2010 [1 favorite]


Btw, I don't mean to detract from people who feel the need to give more detailed answers like “I believe in a higher power but it is not a god”, obviously they would not want to say just "theist".
posted by jeffburdges at 7:30 AM on May 30, 2010


A sociologist has a poor understanding of scientific methodology. Film at eleven.
posted by inoculatedcities at 8:21 AM on May 30, 2010 [3 favorites]


People believe all kinds of things - the question is to what degree does it impact how they affect others and the world at large?

Science is a process- you can believe whatever you want as long as it doesn't impact the process and the results - consider the number of theist cultures that have produced solid, accurate mathematics, for example.

Of course, these kinds of pieces are usually "Hey look, this number of people believe this OR even the scientists believe this!" which is mostly about reassuring people of herd-behavior tendencies - a poor place from which to build science OR faith.
posted by yeloson at 8:23 AM on May 30, 2010


My experience as a scientist has been that a small minority of scientists are traditionally religious (and that fraction decreases as you go from undergraduate students, to graduate students, to professors). Nevertheless, I haven't observed any real stigma attached to it. We had a Jewish postdoc in our lab who kept the sabbath, so we scheduled lab meetings, etc to make sure she could get home on time. I don't think anyone ever hassled her about it. The only thing I've ever seen anyone get harangued about was really stupid shit like creationism ---which is incredibly rare. I know the religious beliefs of most of the people I work with on a close basis, and don't really give a crap about them. I have no idea what the religious beliefs of the rest of the department are. And I'm about as hostile as you can get towards religion, so I ought to be oppressor-in-chief. Delmoi is exactly right, scientists don't worry about this kind of crap on a day to day basis, we're too busy trying to get experiments working, or write some code to analyze our data. I think keeping kosher is silly, but if you can get me good electrophysiology data, WTF do I care what you eat? Just don't bother me about what I eat, and we'll be cool.
posted by Humanzee at 8:24 AM on May 30, 2010 [1 favorite]


Oh, and my experience with mathematicians is that they really aren't<> scientists. They don't think like scientists, they don't think of themselves as scientists. The most common attitude I've heard expressed is, "it's amazing that scientists get anything right, since everything they do is full of crap." This stems from the fact that mathematicians prove everything rigorously, whereas scientists can't really prove anything. Furthermore, scientists often make intuitive leaps in their math (e.g. applying theorems without showing that they're applicable), which horrifies mathematicians. Of course, there are exceptions, and applied mathematicians may work with scientists enough to grok the process fully. Still, the basic process of mathematics is not the scientific method.
posted by Humanzee at 8:31 AM on May 30, 2010


jeffburdges: Unfortunately, just about every time I admit to uncertainty as an atheist, I inevitably get flamed--usually by a self-proclaimed agnostic, sometimes by a theist, rarely by another atheist--that I just can't claim atheism along with uncertainty and that I can't claim atheism without molding myself into a clone of Dawkins.

Meanwhile, I've been doing a lot of thinking lately in regards to death and dying, redemption, "spirituality," etc. that are more questions than answers. Expressing these questions have has been met with, "why do you care, you're an atheist!"

I've largely concluded in recent weeks that these are issues that probably just can't be discussed on the Internet and I should probably stick to my extended family or check out a local UU church.

My experience isn't that agnostics are polite atheists, but they are argumentative in asserting that they alone have the only reasonable position.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 8:39 AM on May 30, 2010 [2 favorites]


Why should some asshole with a pointy hat and decidedly backwards ideas about birth control be more of an authority on a notoriously reclusive master of the universe than myself?

....Uh, there are plenty of people with whom I disagree about one thing but agree about other things. I think P.J. O'Rourke is entirely wrong about his politics, but dammit, the guy's a hugely funny writer. I think Mrs. Fields' views on certain items are all wrong, but she does have a good recipe for cookies. Richard Gere was nutso in trying to get us all to "beam mental energy" to Tibet once, but hell, he was good in CHICAGO.

When you find someone with whom you disagree about one thing but agree on other things, you make a point to go to them about some things but not other things. That's why I go to Richard Gere for his acting, not his geopolitical advice.

So it's possible that the "asshole with the pointy hat" may have some good things to say about emotional well-being, so it makes perfect sense that you could go to him when you need advice about emotional well-being, but just look elsewhere for answers about the nature of the universe.

...Or are you one of those people who once someone does something you disagree with, you write off everything they've ever done, even if you formerly liked it?
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 8:53 AM on May 30, 2010 [1 favorite]


EmpressCallipygos, I think you raise a good point, but sometimes you should right off what they've done. The key is to try to compartmentalize their "work". If you want to analyze their truth claims in particular, I think it's valid to ask where they get their information from, and how they verify it. If someone says, "All my knowledge was given to me by god, and it is all perfectly true" then discovering that some of it is false should cast terrible doubt on the rest, even if it seems like stuff you'd generally agree with. In the least, if you want to really support those beliefs, you have to go find a better source to justify them. On the other hand, if some of their ideas are justified with, "I'm an expert on the peer-reviewed literature pertaining to pre-cambrian rock strata, and I've published extensively on that topic", you can probably ignore their god-given knowledge while listening to their knowledge of geology.
posted by Humanzee at 9:17 AM on May 30, 2010 [1 favorite]


I haven't read the book. I did read the links I included in this FPP which review and discuss it. I haven't watched the webcast or listened to the podcast yet. Am hoping to do so this evening.

To address a point that was raised earlier, from my limited understanding of the study's findings:

I'm doubtful this is a Christian "we're a persecuted minority!" problem. Many if not most of the scientists who were surveyed that self-identified as believing in G-d did not also self-identify as being faithful/observant to a traditional, structured religion. If they did, they often said they were Jewish, not Christian. (We Jews do have their own persecution issues, but whatever.) They apparently spoke about ways in which their beliefs guided their work and led them to consider its potential moral and ethical ramifications. Some seem to be interested in finding ways their personal beliefs might fit into their research. And some state concerns that a public airing of their status as people who have an "unproveable" faith something (in quotes because those surveyed apparently range a wide gamut and I'm loathe to pigeonhole anyone,) and the beliefs themselves might cause some sort of backlash.

Considering the contemptuous attitudes that some religious proponents and atheists express towards each other, concerns about a backlash from members of either group do not seem unreasonable to me. As delmoi said, it seems unlikely that faith would overtly guide anyone's day-to-day thinking regarding research they may be conducting. However, if they're chucking the scientific method out the window, then any backlash they experience from that wouldn't be persecution, but rather an attack on their unprofessionalism.
posted by zarq at 9:19 AM on May 30, 2010


Scientist inspired by Dalai Lama studies happiness
posted by homunculus at 9:25 AM on May 30, 2010


Meanwhile, I've been doing a lot of thinking lately in regards to death and dying, redemption, "spirituality," etc. that are more questions than answers. Expressing these questions have has been met with, "why do you care, you're an atheist!"

I think conversations with you have approached this topic before. I think part of the weirdness of your reaction comes from the all-too-common tendency of self-proclaimed atheists to say, in no uncertain terms, that they reject the entirety of religious experience. Let's call them atheist fundamentalists (AFs).

For many if not most religious people, despite the rantings of a few of the more vocal AFs, religious experience consists exactly of "doing a lot of thinking lately in regards to death and dying, redemption, 'spirituality,' etc. that are more questions than answers." As a recent and famous example, Mother Theresa's diary revealed after her death that for decades she seriously doubted the existence of God in any sense. For a good deal many more religious people, part of the religious experience is the idea that God is ultimately unknowable in this world, and the very powerful humility that comes from that realization. For these people, God is not a man in the sky that Dawkins et al. like to strawman about. For some of them, God is more closely like the Platonic Form of everything good, an abstract but salient apexal ideal.

So I guess this is all by way of saying the following: Some people who react by saying "why do you care? you're an atheist!" may in fact be fundamentalists rejecting the idea that non-Christians have a right to contemplate such things, but I'd suggest that a good number of them are simply surprised because mainstream atheism has been effectively saying that it rejects the legitimacy of those questions for years. When people make the logical leap from "We reject the idea of a supernatural entity that interacts daily with the physical world" to "We reject religion" they are (perhaps unwittingly) saying that they reject the very questions you're talking about, because those questions are, for many people of faith, the soul and substance of religion.
posted by thesmophoron at 9:26 AM on May 30, 2010


Jeffburdges, *thank you* for that evolutionblog link. I was a bit frustrated last night that I couldn't come up with a decent analysis from a non-Discovery Magazine source prior to posting. Beliefnet's article isn't bad, per se. But I wanted.an additional source that wasn't connected to Templeton
posted by zarq at 9:38 AM on May 30, 2010


Mainstream atheism has been effectively saying that it rejects the legitimacy of those questions for years.

To an atheist it looks more like this: a whole bunch of people in this world are, as children, are told they need unicycles. This country was built on unicycles. The world revolves around unicycles. Unicycles are magical, magic beyond magic, like magic to the infinity power. Unicycles know what you're thinking.

This is mainstream thought.

However, on the scale of day to day personal relations, the vast majority of normal people are casual, or lapsed unicyclists. They're average Joes and Jennies. They don't ride is as much as they used to. They hang it up in their garage. They think about it sometimes, but really the supermagic of unicycles seems distant and unrelated to everyday things. The unicycle doesn't come down off the garage wall so much anymore. Maybe they move, and forget to bring their unicycle, and years go by before they realize there was something missing in their life, and maybe they come back to the ways of unicycle ownership, they come to appreciate its deeper meaning.

They probably think that everyone has some kind of unicycle in their garage in some metaphorical sense. People nod. Yes, if you look at it, it's really just about the supreme abstract unicycle.

So anyway the atheist sometimes will say, "I've noticed I feel something is missing in my life." And the person next to them says, "I know what you mean. You should probably get a unicycle." And the atheist says, "WOULD YOU FUCKING SHUT UP ABOUT THE FUCKING UNICYCLES ALREADY?"
posted by fleacircus at 9:43 AM on May 30, 2010 [8 favorites]


~36% of those surveyed not only believe in God…

Exactly which God(s)?


…but also practice a form of closeted, often non-traditional faith.

But, is this because religious scientists have concerns about how their fellow colleagues would judge them, or because religious scientists reject the practices and worldviews espoused by mainstream religions? Maybe both?

I found the author's overview essay (OP's link) much more well-balanced than the hard-to-interpret survey numbers/book-jacket excerpts being quoted by the blogs. (Although midway through it, she starts to blurb on this thing called "spirituality"; I think she gets it wrong—spirituality is the wrong word to describe what's going on there.)
posted by polymodus at 9:45 AM on May 30, 2010


thesmophoron: A problem with that is that "religious experience" is often described in a way that's so vague and expansive, that it includes everything from divine revelation to a bowel movement. So you end up with a lot of wank like arguing that we must hate fantasy with a spiritual twist like LOST if we are to be true to our irreligious values. A part of me sees this as a consequence of the TAG which has become popular in recent years. If love, value, beauty, ecstasy, and ethics are evidence for the existence of God, then those of us who doubt the existence of God are put into the position of doubting love, value, beauty, ecstasy, and ethics.

I certainly agree that it's the case that many atheistic arguments are too glib in dismissing the values of doubt and inquiry within religious thought, but it's also the case that theistic arguments are just as glib in dismissing the values of aesthetics, relationships, and ethics to secular humanists. And if you actually pick up and leaf through issues of The Humanist or Secular Humanist, you'll find a lot of discussion regarding issues like the education and the death penalty that don't directly center on anti-apologetic arguments.

I don't read the reaction so much as surprise as frustration because I think that most atheist vs. theist arguments are something of a rhetorical game.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 10:07 AM on May 30, 2010


Every time religion comes up on Metafilter, someone comes in with the claim that a personal god is a strawman cooked up by atheists. That's just not true. Go look up any poll on religious belief in America. Here's one.
How important are the following reasons for practicing your religion today?
3. To forge a personal relationship with God
Very important	 75%
Somewhat important	 16%
Not too important	 4%
Not at all important	 4%
Don't know	 1%

Do you believe the universe was created by God, or not created by God?
Created by God	 80%
Not created by God	 10%
Don't believe in God	 1%
Don't know	 9%

Which best describes your views about what happens when someone dies?
(among traditional and non-traditional practitioners)
                                              Trad.   Non-Trad. Total
It'a all over, there is no soul          	 3%	 6%	 6%
The soul goes to heaven or hell          	 79%	 59%	 67%
There is no heaven or hell, but the soul
          lives on in a spiritual realm  	 9%	 17%	 13%
The soul is reincarnated into another being	 2%	 8%	 5%
Don't know                              	 7%	 10%	 9%
So most religious people in America believe in a personal god who created the universe and will judge people and send them to heaven or hell. By referring to their beliefs as "strawmen" you are in fact being at least as disrespectful towards their beliefs as so-called "atheist fundamentalists". The reason that activist atheists don't engage with "God as a kind of nice feeling" is two-fold: there isn't much to engage with, and believe it or not, that belief is a small minority. I'm sure that if all religious people were basically Unitarians, Dawkins would consider the battle to be no longer worth fighting.

KirkJobSluder: This particular atheist views thinking about death and spirituality as an essential aspect of living a moral life --however I believe it should be done honestly. I like the writings of many of the greek stoics, even though many of them were religious, and I think their ideals are difficult to live up to. They're very similar to Buddhism (what little I know of it, anyway) but a little more analytical and a little less mystical.
posted by Humanzee at 10:19 AM on May 30, 2010 [8 favorites]


I haven't read the book, and this is simply conjecture, but something stinks here.

I see that some journal articles have been published by her on the research, but why does she go further and write a book about it? Is anyone familiar with her journal articles vs the book?

I suppose I'll have to go read the journal articles myself, but I won't be surprised if they don't make the conclusions that the book does.
posted by autobahn at 10:24 AM on May 30, 2010


someone comes in with the claim that a personal god is a strawman cooked up by atheists

Really? I don't remember reading that. Who said that?
posted by Monday, stony Monday at 11:10 AM on May 30, 2010


Really? I don't remember reading that. Who said that?

For a good deal many more religious people, part of the religious experience is the idea that God is ultimately unknowable in this world, and the very powerful humility that comes from that realization. For these people, God is not a man in the sky that Dawkins et al. like to strawman about. For some of them, God is more closely like the Platonic Form of everything good, an abstract but salient apexal ideal.

I can't conceive of how someone could have a personal relationship with an unknowable abstract concept, but if I'm mistaken, then I retract my summary. Even so, God as an unknowable abstract ideal is in stark contrast to the majority of American religious belief. That doesn't mean it's wrong, but you can't very well accuse people of attacking strawmen when they address the majority of believers.
posted by Humanzee at 11:38 AM on May 30, 2010 [1 favorite]


One needn't be hostile about it, but it is perfectly acceptable for scientists to expect other scientists to care about how they justify their beliefs.

We're unlikely to have productive conversations that start with the premise that someone should justify their personal religious beliefs to a professional colleague.

It must vary from person to person, so I'm not going to make guesses about it. We're not allowed to talk politics or religion where I work, and that's because it works better that way. I think personal religious beliefs can be a separate conversation from science. Theology has internal logic, but it doesn't tend to lend itself to scientific inquiry, and nobody is required to justify what they believe to anyone. Anyway, religion has a long history of being hostile and oppressive to science, and at the moment the conversation can be contentious because of politics. I think it's possible to have productive conversations about it, but for the most part I prefer surveys to look at the issue as a whole. Talking with people is great, even about religion, but here's the thing - when you get up close and personal, you discover people are crazy.
posted by krinklyfig at 11:55 AM on May 30, 2010


Humanzee: as I understand it, in most denominations where they have trinity, God is pretty much unknowable and fairly abstract. That would be Catholicism and, I believe, most mailine churches. So about 55% of American christians, at least if their theology is in line with that of their church.
posted by Monday, stony Monday at 12:01 PM on May 30, 2010


We're unlikely to have productive conversations that start with the premise that someone should justify their personal religious beliefs to a professional colleague...We're not allowed to talk politics or religion where I work, and that's because it works better that way.

I socialize with the other scientists I work with. At conferences, we go out and have drinks and meals, and we talk. We talk about religion and politics. This topic has come up, and "why do you believe in a god?" is perfectly reasonable question to ask a professional empiricist.
posted by Philosopher Dirtbike at 12:12 PM on May 30, 2010


Yes KirkJobSluder, one must always remember the ancient proverb :

Arguing on the internet is like the special olympics, you might win, but you're still retarded.

Yes, I've also known agnostics who argued that everyone who wasn't an agnostic was crazy because obviously nobody has proven that god does or does not exist. Try these three argument :

(1) The word atheist must have some useful meaning that actually distinguishes some people. Dawkins asserts merely that he's pretty confident god doesn't exist, afaik no atheist big shots profess absolute certainty.

(2) The word atheist was originally used by Catholics to denote all non-Christians, maybe even all non-Catholics, while the alternative heretic was used to describe non-approved Catholics. Atheist was later restricted to exclude and avoid offending people who believe in other deities, like Wicca and Hindus, but nobody sane ever restricted the definition further.

(3) Thomas Huxley originally defined the term agnostic as specifically objecting to the gnostic methodology for knowing god in Christianity, i.e. all the Church's detailed assertions were unproven.

You might also observe that strong agnosticism is the assertion that nobody will ever answer the question of whether god exists, and therefore people could be agnostic about agnosticism.
posted by jeffburdges at 12:43 PM on May 30, 2010


I haven't read the book, and this is simply conjecture, but something stinks here.I see that some journal articles have been published by her on the research, but why does she go further and write a book about it? Is anyone familiar with her journal articles vs the book?I suppose I'll have to go read the journal articles myself, but I won't be surprised if they don't make the conclusions that the book does.

Why does anyone publish their research results to.a wider audience? She no doubt believes they merits one, and/or they are fascinating / controversial enough to sell books.

How does the fact that she's analyzing and expanding upon study result make her work suspect?
posted by zarq at 12:44 PM on May 30, 2010


religion deals with the question of how to decide what to believe about stuff we can't observe.

This is only one facet of what religion is, and has changed many times throughout the various historical contexts in which "religion" has taken hold in a given time, place, culture, etc.

We might call this the metaphysical or cosmological side of religion, and distinguish it from the ethical, aesthetic, social and ritualistic aspects of religion.

Often atheists (full disclosure: I'm agnostic) assume what matters about religion is belief in the supernatural (a deity, for instance), or concern with the unobservable.

But just as important (perhaps more so) to what constitutes religion is the non-metaphysical aspects: the way in which a given religion serves as social fabric for a given community, for instance.
posted by HP LaserJet P10006 at 1:52 PM on May 30, 2010


religion deals with the question of how to decide what to believe about stuff we can't observe.

Also, come to think of it, a great deal of science also deals with the unobservable, so this statement is misleading on a number of levels.
posted by HP LaserJet P10006 at 1:55 PM on May 30, 2010


EmpressCallipygos, I think you raise a good point, but sometimes you should right off what they've done.

Okay -- but let's be very clear about who we're talking about when it comes to "what they've done." Because first off, I'm not certain why you started talking about the Pope, because the Pope isn't making strict scientific claims that all Catholics have to march in lockstep with. So it's not a matter of whether you and I should write off (it's not "right" off, by the way) what the scientists have done.

The key is to try to compartmentalize their "work". If you want to analyze their truth claims in particular, I think it's valid to ask where they get their information from, and how they verify it. If someone says, "All my knowledge was given to me by god, and it is all perfectly true" then discovering that some of it is false should cast terrible doubt on the rest, even if it seems like stuff you'd generally agree with.

And I agree. But can you tell me about any accredited scientists that actually makes these claims? There are Creation "scientists" who makes these claims, sure, but most accredited scientists do not. Instead, they themselves compartmentalize religion itself when it comes to questions about the nature of the universe vs. questions about the nature of spiritual succor.

...And that's because they understand that religion is different from science. So they don't even consult religious leaders when it comes to the "how does it work" of the universe in the first place.

And I'm honestly at a loss to understand why you think they do. Are you familiar with the scientific method that most working scientists actually use?
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 3:39 PM on May 30, 2010


Oh, and my experience with mathematicians is that they really aren't scientists.

You've doubtlessly seen this xkcd strip before, but I think it's appropriate to link to it anyway.
posted by MaiaMadness at 4:11 PM on May 30, 2010


So in the West, our conversations and poll data concerning religion comes pretty head-on with mainstream Christianity, which refers to either a) Catholicism, or b) one of many historical attempts to fix the gaping problems of Catholicism. I mentioned the Pope because the papacy is a symbol of many of the reasons that a person with a head for trial-and-the-subsequent-admission-of-error might stray away from the religious mainstream, not because any scientists go to the church for help with their homework. Humanzee sums up the argument pretty well. If someone tells me they're the world's greatest surgeon and then demonstrates that they don't know a big toe from an elbow, I'm probably not going to trust their opinions on stock fluctuations without some good evidence to back up their claims.

Sure, some people like participating in an organization that does a lot of good charity work. The Catholic Workers have done some great work, for example. And other people really like looking at stained glass on Sundays. Cool, whatever makes you happy, but I can't buy into the basic premises, and can't help but notice the amount of pure human misery that these basic premises have fueled and continue to fuel.

I don't have _anything_ against exploration of spirituality, or the contemplation of what death might be about. I think it's an excellent exercise for a pile of reasons. But because of the particular and spectacular failings of Christianity, it's not a medium I can work with on such issues.
posted by kaibutsu at 4:21 PM on May 30, 2010


As it was said:
"All science is either physics or stamp collecting."
- Ernest Rutherford, in J. B. Birks "Rutherford at Manchester" (1962)

But I always took 'physics' here to mean 'mathematics.'
posted by kaibutsu at 4:25 PM on May 30, 2010


Monday, stony Monday: Catholics believe in the trinity, they believe that god knows their sins, wants them to confess their sins, that with proper atonement they are then forgiven. They believe in judgement, heaven, hell, transubstantiation, and all sorts of other things about what god does or wants. Some of those things are confusing or strange, but that's very different from "unknowable". I say catholics, but obviously individuals may differ in any number of details. The survey I quoted covered american religious beliefs, of which a large fraction were catholics.

EmpressCallipygos: Sorry, didn't mean to sound so much like I was disagreeing with you. You noted several people you disagreed with in one domain, but payed attention to in others (P.J. O'Rourke etc). I was trying to say that the difference with religious leaders is that they really only have one domain of expertise, since generally their advice on morality conforms to church dogma (admittedly with a few exceptions) which I consider suspect due to the fact that previous ideas that were considered to be revealed truth have now been discarded. Anyway, I guess I'm saying that I think it's possible to reject moral/philosophical teachings from religious leaders without applying a "one strike and you're out" policy to everyone.

Believe it or not, it's not so hard to find creationists in fields outside of biology. I even know of at least one astrophysicist who is an old-earth creationist. And of course there are plenty of religious scientists who believe they have divinely revealed truth about morality. I generally don't judge their professional capabilities on those religious issues I disagree with.

Also: I actually didn't make the original pope comment. And I know it's "write off". Just a typo. On a Sunday with gorgeous weather, metafilter commenting is something that happens intermittently whilst rushing through chores.
posted by Humanzee at 5:50 PM on May 30, 2010 [1 favorite]


Trinity, at least for Catholics, is a Mystery. They also hold strong anthropomorphism as an error (we can compare God to ourselves to try to understand him, but this is just a metaphor). A catholic that is careful to avoid adoring the Saints (they should only be venerated), that catholic is very far from a "man-in-the-sky" christian.
posted by Monday, stony Monday at 10:30 PM on May 30, 2010


Great to know these info notes.
Thanks
posted by sophielamm at 4:31 AM on May 31, 2010


With reference to the polls referred to in the FPP and Humanzee's post earlier, do you think that Catholics are the ones answering that it's *not* important to have a personal relationship with God? It's not a minority religion, I think at least some of them must be fitting into that 75%.

I don't see how believing the Trinity is a mystery precludes wanting a personal relationship with that Trinity, or with the Father or Son aspects of that Trinity. And as an ex-Catholic myself, I know that my local priest (a lovely, thoughtful chap) had to quite frequently remind people not to anthropomorphise God. I don't think the majority of Catholics are as far away from that man-in-the-sky characterisation as you might be.
posted by harriet vane at 5:57 AM on May 31, 2010


What I'm not understanding, though, is why we're all talking about what certain religions do and don't advocate. How did we get from "some scientists also believe in religion" to this?

Is it because everyone thinks that "hey, obviously because these people are religious, they must obviously march in total 100% lockstep with what their religion teaches about absolutely everything"? If that's the case, then I can only say -- for the nth time -- that no, religious people do not march in total 100% lockstep with what their religion teaches about absolutely everything.

Which was ultimately my point by discussing that people sometimes pick and choose what to listen to people about. I wasn't speaking of us -- I was speaking of the scientists themselves, and how it was perfectly logical to accept that "wait, maybe they don't march in total lockstep about this kind of thing". It makes perfect sense that a given scientist would be thinking that "well, the church was clearly wrong about Genesis being the story of creation and other scientific matters, but the rest of it still works for me."

So since that's the case, why are we talking about what this or that religion believes, since the majority of scientists aren't letting their religious beliefs affect their science anyway? There are those who do, and I'm not denying that, but why is everyone leaping to the conclusion that ALL of them do? Have you all talked to all of them?
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 6:16 AM on May 31, 2010 [1 favorite]


Humanzee: I think you're conflate the idea of having a "personal relationship" with there being a "man in the sky." There are a number of things I have a personal relationship with - meaning that my relationship, stance, or position relative to such things is that they affect me personally and intimately - that are not anthropomorphic. It's a significant leap of logic to believe that the latter necessitates the former. If a person said that they had a personal relationship to Mother Nature, would it follow logically to conclude that the person viewed nature as a literal woman somewhere?
posted by thesmophoron at 9:35 AM on May 31, 2010


Trinity, at least for Catholics, is a Mystery. They also hold strong anthropomorphism as an error...that catholic is very far from a "man-in-the-sky" christian.

I think that most Christians who embrace the doctrine of the Trinity would say that it is a mystery, but that a central component of that mystery is that Jesus is both fully God and a genuine human being. They definitely would say that God, in Jesus, is a "man-in-the-sky" if you use the word "sky" to mean "heaven" rather than Earth's upper atmosphere.

The traditional formulation of the doctrine of the Trinity is God in three Persons. So the idea that God is personal, that there is a Father-Son-Spirit relationship within the being of God, is a central component of the idea of the Trinity. And almost all Trinitarians would say that, because Jesus is a human being, we can have a relationship with God that is in many ways the same as we would have with another human being.
posted by straight at 11:02 AM on May 31, 2010


Part of the problem is that it's difficult to tell where people are being literal or not. "man in the sky" obviously isn't literal since spacecraft don't encounter angels with harps. But "personal relationship" implies some sort of personhood. For A and B to have a personal relationship, they both must have a mind of some sort, and they must know each other. To have a personal relationship with something unknowable, you are either saying a) This thing is unknowable yet I know it, or b) I have a personal relationship with something I don't know. This is such a violent affront to the way people generally use the term "personal relationship" that I'm not really sympathetic to it. I met cortex at a meetup once, but if I said I had a personal relationship with him, he'd say, no I don't even know him.

This is a somewhat pointless aside, since as I quoted upthread, 67% of religious americans believe they'll go to heaven or hell, which means that they think they know something quite concrete about god. They're not talking about some platonic ideal, they're talking about the chief judge of a cosmic justice system, with specific laws and prescribed outcomes. Belief in a god that is unknowable is agnostic theism. The majority of american religious believers are not agnostic theists. That doesn't mean that agnostic theists should change their views, but they should stop claiming majority status. Furthermore, the claim that mainstream religious views are so foolish that they don't merit consideration (i.e. they are a strawman) is incompatible with the claim that Dawkins et al are jerks for belittling mainstream religious views.
posted by Humanzee at 12:33 PM on May 31, 2010


b) I have a personal relationship with something I don't know

Why can't you? If cortex was omniscient, he'd know you.
posted by Monday, stony Monday at 1:08 PM on May 31, 2010


This is a somewhat pointless aside, since as I quoted upthread, 67% of religious americans believe they'll go to heaven or hell, which means that they think they know something quite concrete about god. They're not talking about some platonic ideal, they're talking about the chief judge of a cosmic justice system, with specific laws and prescribed outcomes.

I ask again, though -- what does the fact that 67% of religious Americans believe in heaven or hell have to do with whether or not any of those Americans are scientists? What is your point in pointing to the fact that some believe in "a chief judge of a cosmic justice system with specific laws and prescribed outcomes," seeing as the "specific laws" such people believe in all have to do with morality and not science?

You seem to be conflating morality and science. Why is that? Most scientists actually don't do that, because....well, morality is one thing, and the physical laws of the universe are another thing.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 2:35 PM on May 31, 2010 [1 favorite]


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