Reflections on Science & Religion from a Catholic Atheistic Scientist

When I was eight years old I could see angels. Or so I was convinced. I didn’t realize that the “auras” that hovered around people in the shrine during mass and which floated off as I gazed towards the ceiling were a trick of the retina known as afterimage. No, to me they were angels. Or the souls of the humans from which they arose, traveling about in some metaphysical plane of being. Ah, the interconnectedness of the world was blaringly obvious to me, even if most adults failed to see it. Even if they continued with their mass, their traditions, their religious routines, forever forgetting to stop and just look around. I was a child and could see things plainly, clearly, unencumbered.

By the time I was fifteen, the world still seemed exquisitely interconnected, but by then I had discovered that the concepts of a deity or spirituality no longer fit into my growing understanding of the world around me. Concepts like Hell, human superiority over animal kin, and even sin all seemed simplistic and blatantly anthropocentric. By then, I knew well enough that what I once saw as auras were actually optical illusions.


An example of an afterimage optical illusion, related to the halo effect I experienced as a child. Stare at the black dot in the middle of the red circle for about half a minute and then switch your focus to the black dot to the right. You should see a cyan-colored circle with a yellow halo surrounding it.

Even though I lost a god, I gained a more intimate understanding of how life works. The idea that the retina could play such a joke, a reflection of compensatory firing, was fascinating to me. At age fifteen, I didn’t know I would one day become a scientist. In fact, at that age I wanted to be a poet and gave it a good long run through four years of college. But the human mind intrigued me too much, and I slipped into Psychology (and a much extended undergraduate career). And then from Psychology I wandered into research, and finally I settled down into the study of Biology. And here I am today.

I didn’t turn away from spirituality out of anger, in contrast to many people today. I left it behind because it no longer made sense for me. And rather than uplifting and coloring my world, it only provided inconsolate confusion and inconsistencies. So I let it go.

But perhaps because I didn’t leave it behind in anger but instead in mourning, I don’t demonize spirituality as so many scientists and science-minded laymen may be apt to do. Richard Dawkins, the well-known evolutionary biologist and writer, for instance, has a hatred for organized religion which I find psychologically fascinating– particularly as I don’t share his fervor. It’s a characteristic which makes me curious about his own personal history with religion, not knowing much about him beyond his popular books.

Why is there so much talk about Science VERSUS Religion?

That’s the real question. I know there are people out there who have fashioned their beliefs (religion) and their rational understanding (science) to complement one another. But there is certain dogma that, should one subscribe to, lies in direct contradiction to well accepted scientific theory, e.g., Evolution. And I’m not so foolish as to attempt to answer what a person should do when confronted with that problem. To each his own, live and let live.

What’s interesting is that I had a revelation the other day (–or rather I should say “an awakening” because this idea, though new to me, is by no means new) whilst reading Kuhn’s, The Structure of Scientific Revolution, and realized that while we scientists are so fervently supportive and easily accepting of the “flawlessness” of theories, we rarely stop to look at the history of science to see how frequently paradigms are overturned and forgotten. We may look our noses down at The Religious, muttering elite intellectual words akin to “Those poor sheep, following the herd…” and yet we, ourselves, are not immune to bias, assumption, and scientific herd mentality. I shouldn’t even use the word “immune” to suggest that it’s the occasional bout with a presumptive virus, no. It’s a state of being. The ways in which we interpret our data, the ways even in which we elect to gather data, are presumptuous. We have an idea and then figure out a way to find what we’re looking for. Every time. Unless it’s an accidental stumble into an unexpected finding. And even then, the interpretation of that finding is guided by previous experience. As Kuhn puts it,

Perhaps science does not develop by the accumulation of individual discoveries and inventions. Simultaneously, [historians] confront growing difficulties in distinguishing the ‘scientific’ component of past observation and belief from what their predecessors had readily labeled ‘error’ and ‘superstition.’ The more carefully they study, say, Aristotelian dynamics, phlogistic chemistry, or caloric thermodynamics, the more certain they feel that those once current views of nature were, as a whole, neither less scientific nor more the product of human idiosyncrasy than those current today. If these out-of-date beliefs are to be called myths, then myths can be produced by the same sorts of methods and held for the same sorts of reasons that now lead to scientific knowledge. If, on the other hand, they are to be called science, then science has included bodies of belief quite incompatible with the ones we hold today. (Kuhn, 2012, 4th ed., pp. 2-3).

This is how the human mind works: it gathers information, fills in the blanks, and finally builds a story out of what it’s learned. No man or woman is immune to this process. It’s the cognitive contagion and is present in every social and theoretical construct. Religion, Science, Politics, Economics, everything! Why do we not willingly acknowledge it?

Kuhn suggests that science has been characterized not by the accretion of bodies of knowledge, a slow incremental growth, but by sudden shifts in perspective. Paradigm shifts. (I would agree in part, but I suspect it’s moreso a combination of the two.) He goes on to state that any novel data which arises which is in direct contrast to the current paradigm is generally quashed, albeit impermanently. But,

when . . . the profession can no longer evade anomalies that subvert the existing tradition of scientific practice– then begin the extraordinary investigations that lead the profession at last to a new set of commitments, a new basis for the practice of science (p. 6).

On some level, a very human level, scientific theories and religious dogma are little different from one another. As both a scientist and atheist, I’ll be frank: it’s intimidating to admit this. As a scientist, I’ve been indoctrinated to believe in the infallibility of my profession. Granted, we all know on some level that science is a constant work-in-progress and many (fallible) theories have come and gone. But on some level, we are bred to wholeheartedly believe that those paradigms which are currently en vogue are absolutely true; those which have fallen out of fashion are simply the examples of the process of science at work, ever correcting, ever updating; and future paradigms will expand what we already accept, not turn those theories we know to be true on their heads.

But that is what a paradigm shift is. It doesn’t change the data or the nature of the scientific method; it changes our perspective. It changes how we envision the natural world. And such shifts in science are as inevitable and erratic as the moods of earth’s climate over the millenia. We haven’t reached a pinnacle of scientific complacency in which we know life’s basic structure and now we’re just filling in the details. Such a plateau has never happened before in human history, why should it occur now? Do we think so much of ourselves that we assume we know so much?

We know a lot,– at least I think we do. And this is indeed an ever-building body of knowledge. But it is far from complete.

If scientific theory is so potentially fallible, what makes it different from religion? Why shouldn’t we be teaching Intelligent Design in science class?

The Scientific Method. It’s not perfect, it won’t prevent you from jumping to the wrong conclusions or biasing your results. But it’s the best fail-safe we have to reduce bias and guide scientific theory in (hopefully) the right directions. The foundation of science lies not in the conclusions we draw from our data but how we collected the data in the first place, the steps we took which lead to a hypothesis, the methods we chose to test that hypothesis.

I should also mention that one of the primary tenets of science is that every effect has a natural cause– something which is in stark contrast to spiritual belief systems. In science, that which is unknown is not explained by the supernatural but the preternatural and is therefore still potentially testable should we find a means to do so.

In short, Intelligent Design and other spiritual belief systems utilize neither the Scientific Method nor do they presume natural causation. Therefore, such teachings have no place in a science class but are better suited to Religion or Philosophy. Sadly, I suspect the credibility given to science is a primary reason I.D. proponents are so fervently pushing its addition to the scientific curriculum– wishing to have their belief system validated. The word “scientific” in our society is inappropriately equated with “proven” and “fact” when in fact this is a blind assumption. Science class teaches current paradigms which ten, twenty years from now may be overturned and go the way of the do-do. Therefore, I.D. proponents seek validation where, in reality, there is none to offer.

Scientific theory is not infallible. And, yes, perhaps we scientists do occasionally need to get off our high horse and grasp this reality with a humbler decorum. This is a decidedly human discipline, filled with human flaws.

Nevertheless, I am a scientist and I love it. It’s the best method we have for understanding the natural world around us. And, if you think about it, the human condition is truly what makes science great: all the assumptions, the hunches, the biases, the arguing and bickering over theories… Computers can collect and organize data, but we’re the ones to attempt to figure out what it all means. Sometimes we’re blatantly wrong and maybe it takes us a couple hundred years to realize it. But sometimes, we can mold concepts of absolute breathtaking beauty, we can save countless lives, and every once in awhile we foster insights into the universe which give us a sense of something much greater than ourselves.


4 responses to “Reflections on Science & Religion from a Catholic Atheistic Scientist

  1. For me, this is one of the best essays I’ve seen from you and one on a topic which is currently one of my central interests of study and reading.

    As I’m just about to finish reading Lee Smolin’s The Trouble With Physics: The Rise of String Theory, the Fall of a Science, and What Comes Next, the parallels in your essay and in so many of Smolin’s arguments and analyses are very, very strong. In the course of his science education, Smolin, beginning graduate studies at Harvard in 1976, found himself outside the mainstream of his field’s leading opinion; hoping to find himself among Scientist-philosophers such as he considered his own heroes–Albert Einstein, Neils Bohr, Werner Heisenberg and Ernst Schrödinger– to have been, and from whose writings he gained his foundations in physics, he found instead that none of his professors resembled them nor were many of his fellow students much interested in science and philosophy of science, with its interest in fundamental questions. At the point of considering abandoning his studies, a sympathetic friend recommended he read Paul Feyerabend’s Against Method. The book was both a challenge and a source of awakening for him.

    Smolin offers wonderful insights on what has been happening to the science professions and to theoretical research over the past thirty years. He also offers a keen picture of how and why things tended to go as they did and what corrections may help to re-center and to recover some key working principles which formerly did much to promote progress in research and in theory formulation but which got lost in too many areas of science in the past thirty years. His chapters 16 through 20 are a proseminar on principles of the theory and practice of science and research: Ch. 16 : “How Do You Fight Sociology?” ; Ch. 17: “What Is Science?” ; Ch. 18: “Seers and Craftspeople”; Ch. 19 : “How Science Really Works” ; Ch. 20 : “What We Can Do For Science”.

    Smolin and others like him have recognized the key importance of the most fundamental questions which science asks and how it often happens over long periods of paradigmatic thought that the most basic assumptions can come to be overlooked as being assumptions at all and how they must be re-examined for their validity from time to time.

  2. Admittedly, I’m a novice the are of Philosophy of Science. But thank you for the book mentions; I’ve purchased both of them just now through Amazon.

    I’m glad you found the piece poignant. Being an atypical “science blog” post I assumed it’d get less traffic and attention. But nice to know it’s struck a chord. (I thought I just might with you.)

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