Huffpost Science
The Blog

Featuring fresh takes and real-time analysis from HuffPost's signature lineup of contributors

Victor Stenger Headshot

Science and Spirituality

Posted: Updated:

On April 20 I gave the keynote speech the Humboldt State University Philosophy Forum "Science & Spirituality: Falling Awake to Diversity." The next day four other presentations were made on Confucianism, Sufism, Christianity, and Atheism. Before these talks, I was asked to summarize my presentation of the previous evening and respond to some of the issues raised in the Q&A. The following is based on that summary:

The basic point I was trying to make is that science has found no need to include non-material elements, such as "soul" or "spirit," in the models it uses to describe observations of the world.

So, what exactly is matter? Matter is what kicks back when you kick it. It has inertia.

One clarification: The word energy is often used in ways that suggest something separate from matter, such as with the term "spiritual energy." Energy is one of the quantities used in physics to describe the inertial properties of matter. These properties are momentum, energy and mass. Mass is equivalent to the rest energy of a body by E = mc^2. In short, energy is a purely material concept. When you talk about energy, you are still talking about matter.

I tried to make it clear that we put our trust, not faith but trust, in science because it works. If it didn't work, we wouldn't do it. Sure, if we didn't have science we wouldn't have a lot of the problems we have today: global climate change, pollution, overpopulation, the threat of nuclear war, and so on. But imagine a world without science. I mentioned electricity. Think about what the world was like before we had electricity. Reading by candlelight. No TV, radio, cell phones, laptops, iPads, cars, planes, dental drills, and so on. Imagine all those teenagers texting with smoke signals.

Think abut what life was like before modern medicine. A large fraction of women died in childbirth and many children died before reaching maturity. While this still happens today, it's very rare. I'm old enough to have lived before penicillin and the polio vaccine. I had two cousins die in childhood of bacterial infections who would not have died today. A playmate died of polio.

But what is science anyway? And here's a point few people realize. It really isn't anything different from what we do in everyday life. We all learn about the world by observing it and we all make up models to describe what we experience. The only difference is that science carries out that program more systematically by following certain rules we call the scientific method.

Thousands of years of human experience have proved beyond a reasonable doubt that observation, with our senses or instruments, is our most reliable source of knowledge about the world. Come up with a better source and scientists will be happy to use it. Divine revelation, however, is for sure a total failure.

Now, another issue on the science-religion front is the position of individual scientists themselves. Most scientists don't believe in God or the supernatural. Only 7 percent of the members of the NAS, the elite of American scientists, believe in a personal god. Among all scientists, perhaps may 30-40 percent are believers, but still a minority.

Now it's true that the great founders of modern science--Copernicus, Galileo, Newton, and Kepler--were devout if unconventional believers. And actually, only Galileo tried to separate his science from his religion, to make a distinction between the two. Newton and the others tried to incorporate God into their theories.

But gradually science separated from religion, and from philosophy for that matter, to the point where today the three are clearly distinct. Those scientists who are believers have compartmentalized their brains into separate science and religion modules. They leave their critical thinking skills at the door when they go to church in Sunday, and leave their religion at home when they go back to work Monday morning. God never enters their equations.

Finally let me elaborate further on the New Atheist position of confronting religion rather than trying to get along and accommodate religious belief. The new atheists think religion is unnecessarily being given a free ride, with people avoiding criticizing it. Why should people of faith be treated with such deference? Why are clergypersons consulted on moral issues? How can believing in something without evidence provide any insight into anything?

This position is severely criticized not only by theists but by many atheists as well. After all, opponents of New Atheism say, religion provides people with comfort, does good works, and, besides, it is not going to go away. Furthermore, what right do you have to tell people what to believe?

Well, of course we have no right to tell people what to believe. But we do have a right to speak out against religion when it tries to tell other people what they can do or think, as with the recent attempts to suppress birth control and the ongoing battle against abortion, same-sex marriage, and stem-cell research.

Religion has always been a negative force in society, with its inquisitions and holy wars. The ancient Greeks and Romans were well on their way to science when Christianity took over the Roman Empire at set back progress of a thousand years. Think of where we would be today without Christianity.

Critics of the New Atheism also fail to understand why we do not try to work with moderate Christians, who after all say they accept science and, in particular, have no problem with evolution.

But when surveys ask moderate Christians what they really believe, they all say that evolution is God-guided. Well that's not Darwinian evolution. That's intelligent design. There's no guidance in Darwinian evolution. It's all accident and natural selection. In particular, and this is what is unacceptable to all Christians and just about every other religion: humanity is an accident. Start up life on Earth all over again and humans would not evolve.

And this is why science and religion are forever incompatible. They have totally opposing views of the world and the role that humans play in that world.