Religious faith and interest in basic science

Then you don’t do it. You can say that about anything you cease to find interesting. The point is we need to articulate the general value of science that is independent of anyone’s particular religious beliefs.

A lot of people only become interested in certain fields for purely theological reasons (Jeanson is an example). That’s not a justification that to be builds much trust in their science (or what they are calling science).

Except science has societal value beyond immediate utility and beyond anyone’s religious agenda and we as a society must learn to value basic research in broad ways that are independent of our own personal agenda.

I would also like to question the idea of taking the idea of “science for science’s sake” to the extreme. Most people working even in basic science are interested in certain questions because they help to answer other, larger questions.

As an example from my field, the main reason why measurements of the electron EDM have become a major endeavor in the last 30 years is that

  1. New experimental methods from atomic and molecular physics have made it possible to improve the results from the 1960s.
  2. A non-zero electron EDM value has been predicted by many theories of new physics, such as supersymmetry.
  3. A non-zero electron EDM value would help solve larger questions such as baryon asymmetry.

Reason 1) is pragmatic. Reasons 2) and 3) are really utilitarian reasoning as well - electron EDMs may contribute to the larger framework of theoretical physics. Much less people would be interested to measure electron EDMs if they were just a curious property of the electron with no clear wider implication.


I mean really you see this a lot with these people with science backgrounds (usually in some engineering or biomedical background) who suddenly find an interest in say population genetics or biogeography but only seem able to articulate that interest in so much as they see these fields justifying say a literal Adam and Eve or Noah’s flood. Working scientists have got to call out these agenda driven entanglements of religion and science for what they are.

You’re just saying things that I already agree with. Ideally, I would like everyone to value science for science’s sake, independent of any other agendas.

However, I am not idealistic enough to think that this is a tenable proposition. I am always looking for any compromise to get people to value basic science, regardless if it comes from their religious conviction, or their love of money, or their wanting better technology.

Which is why I don’t understand your objection about a religious person ceasing to believe in God. There’s no empirical evidence I’m aware of that one’s religious convictions are more prone to change than one’s pure interest in particle physics, for example.

I agree that a widely shared common conviction would be nice, but the fact is that American society is pluralistic, with very different sets of values and priorities. And this is not just a question of religious vs. non-religious. Plenty of non-religious people would argue that reducing inequality, tackling discrimination, improving healthcare, are much more immediate and important priorities than basic science.

I agree that having a dogmatic agenda behind your motivations can be problematic. But as long as they “play by the rules”, meaning they don’t let their personal agenda affect their interpretations of the science, it’s difficult to complain about it. For example, would you say the same thing about a philosophy student who decides to specialize in the philosophy of race because they wanted to combat racial discrimination?

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Maybe being too idealistic about this is indeed my problem. I would be happy if people could simply learn to disentangle their personal beliefs from the broader more inclusive value of science in general.

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I think as a physicist you are perhaps unfamiliar with natural history. Measuring the natural world is what natural historians do. We catalog species distributions, the shape of birds nests, the timing of insect emergence, flowering seasons in plants, etc. Without this simple practice of going out and measuring nature there would be no evolutionary biology. It’s still an important part and under appreciated part of evolutionary biology today.

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No. They just need to find a different rationalization to “justify” their interest in science.

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Philosophy and science are entirely different animals, sometimes interdependent, sometimes not, but clearly distinct pursuits.

We are not going to fail at tackling discrimination or providing health care if I get a grant to delimit species in passerines in East Asia. It’s not a zero sum game. It’s possible for us to deal with inequity and discrimination, provide healthcare AND promote more basic research.

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I find your emphasis in this discussion to be peculiar. You seem to be suggesting that religious beliefs of scientists are a problem because they can lead to the corruption or perversion of science for the purposes of maintaining those religious beliefs. But is it only religious beliefs (as traditionally understood, i.e., beliefs based on the Bible or Quran etc.) that do this? Is it even primarily religious beliefs that do this? What about Lysenkoism in the Soviet Union, which hampered the development of biology? That came from Marxist ideology, which was certainly not Bible-based. And take the case of Doreen Kimura, the psychologist who has published on the subject of differences between human males and females in brain development in pre-adult life. She has tried to present hard empirical science showing that in fact there are real developmental differences that cause male and female brains to be “wired” differently as development proceeds. And guess who has criticized her work on ideological grounds? Not traditional Christians or Muslims or Hindus etc., but feminist theorists and so on, who fear that if even the slightest difference is admitted between males and females on the physiological level, someone will attempt to turn that difference into social discrimination against females, or use that difference to oppose affirmative action programs designed to produce a 50/50 split between male and female engineering graduates, or whatever. It’s a feminist, secular, and quite political orientation in this case that wants to block or ridicule objective scientific research – not Bible-Belt religious thinking.

Further, in response to a concern you or someone else here raised about possible connections between racism and religious beliefs, I would point out that on one very reasonable interpretation of Genesis 1-11, racism has no foundation, because all “races” are ultimately descended from Adam and Eve, and so human beings of all types are not different in essence, but only in trivial modifications. Thus, even a fundamentalist could be rabidly anti-racist and egalitarian. (Indeed, my experience of Bible-based Christian groups on university campuses is that they tend to be multi-ethnic, with students whose ethnic background is African, Latin American, Asian, etc. all praying and singing and studying the Bible together with students of Caucasian roots.)

In short, I don’t see that traditional religious belief, any more or less than any philosophical or ideological commitment, has the potential to damage or corrupt good science. If your point is that science should be conducted in a religion-free, ideology-free, philosophy-free manner, it may make some sense, but in that case, why not simply argue that all scientific questions should be settled on the basis of evidence and theoretical coherence, regardless of the personal motivations of those doing the science? If someone provided genetic evidence that all human beings ultimately have a common origin, why get sidetracked into the question whether the person’s fundamentalist or socialist beliefs may be influencing the person’s science? Why not simple evaluate and assess the genetic arguments, and keep the inquiry into scientists’ personal beliefs out of it? Why single out religious belief, especially as particularly problematic, if the important thing is simply to objectively assess the soundness of the scientific conclusions?

This is an interesting real-world example:

A Mormon lawyer recruits professional archaeologists to excavate in Central America because of Mormon claims about past civilizations. The results only caused him to doubt and lose his faith. However, the institute he started is still doing research:

In the years after Ferguson drifted away from the church and the foundation, NWAF continued to lead excavations, fund graduate students, publish an impressive amount of raw data, and store archaeological collections. Thanks to its work, a region that once seemed an archaeological backwater compared with the nearby Classic Mayan heartland in the Yucatán, Guatemala, and Belize has been revealed as the birthplace of Mesoamerican civilization and an economic and cultural hot spot, where people from all over the region crossed paths. “We wouldn’t know anything about [central and coastal] Chiapas if it wasn’t for [NWAF],” García-Des Lauriers says.

“Their work set the stage for everything I’ve done,” says SUNY Albany’s Rosenswig, who led recent excavations at Izapa to study the origins of urban life in Mesoamerica. When his graduate student Rebecca Mendelsohn, now a postdoc at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama City, excavated in Izapa in 2014, NWAF’s original map of its mounds and monuments served as a vital field reference. “I’ve been surprised at how sound the work from the 1960s still is,” she says.

NWAF is still run by BYU, which means its funding comes from the Mormon church and all its directors have been Mormons. But aside from a ban on coffee at headquarters, the archaeologists who work here barely notice its religious roots. “There aren’t conversations about religion,” Gasco says. “The archaeological community has a lot of respect for the work done here.”

Here we have a case where religious motivations resulted in private investment in an area of research that was normally not as well-funded. But the research was still done by professional archaeologists, with no regard as to whether the conclusions supported Mormon beliefs or not. In an ideal world, these archaeologists wouldn’t need to depend on private religious funding at all, but I’m sure Rosenswig, Des Lauriers, and other professional archaeologists interviewed don’t regret what Ferguson gave to the field.


All scientific questions should be adjudicated on the basis of the evidence. When people however incorporate these religious agendas into the science however they tend to have baked in conclusions and the science becomes window dressing to lend credibility to some beliefs over others. I have no problem with anyone’s personal beliefs but we shouldn’t go around using science to justify someone’s religious convictions. I think people are way too quick to entangle their religion with the science.

I didn’t raise that concern.

No. It’s not. But that is the topic of this thread. Encouraging an interest in science to further some narrow agenda is the problem, whether it’s political, ideological, or religious. The topic of the thread however is in reference to religious agendas.

I’m more worried about the instances where people think the science says exactly what they wanted it to say in the first place and they believe it’s affirming their beliefs.

This is true of athiests too.

This kind of thng happens when people have strong beliefs (and all people do).

We seem to agree on this. I add, though, that from my point of view (most of my experience has been around secular universities), secular forms of political correctness much more often have a deleterious effect on science (and not just science, but university research and scholarship in all fields) than Bible-based religious beliefs. Maybe in religious institutions (e.g., evangelical colleges where Christian faith is required of faculty) the case is the reverse, but in secular institutions one is not very likely to find, say, biology or geology professors holding out for a literal six-day creation; one is far more likely to find feminists trying to stop (or if they can’t stop, at least denounce) research that could lead to the conclusion that there are verifiable, biology-based differences between men and women. Similarly, in secular universities, you don’t find the fundamentalist students petitioning the university to withdraw invitations to speak to, say, a Richard Dawkins or a Lawrence Krauss, whereas in such universities you do find various special interest groups asking the university to withdraw invitations to speak to, say, Jordan Peterson or other people considered politically incorrect.

There is an unhealthy ethos in the modern secular university which encourages research and teaching to fall into a politically correct party line. I consider this just as great an evil, academically, as the habit of Christian institutions to try to push research into a theologically correct party line; and it’s a worse evil, socially, since Christian universities have very little influence on society as a whole, whereas the secular universities have a huge influence.

The kind of person who would subvert science in order to promote a mechanical Biblical literalism may be an intellectual irritant, but that person has no power over me or anyone I care about. However, political correctness in the modern secular university has cost many people that I love and respect – none of them fundamentalists, by the way, and many of them not even Christian, but merely socially or culturally conservative – academic careers, entailing untold personal grief and a staggering amount of money in lost salary. From where I sit, political correctness is a much greater danger to intellectual freedom in the modern world than conservative Biblical religion.

It can be true of anyone. But I’m specifically talking about mingling religion and science.

Take Nathaniel Jeanson for example. He’s written a book that covers a lot of subjects, biogeography, population genetics, systematics, etc. Was he genuinely interested in these fields? No. He wanted to write a book about his biblical beliefs and make those beliefs seem scientific so that’s why he delved into those subjects. When you have a religious agenda you are only going to be interested in the science as long as it serves that agenda. That’s the problem.

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