What do “sophisticated” believers really believe?


Now I have my theory about this, which is mine. It’s that this person really truly believed in the Resurrection, but wouldn’t admit it in public because it would make him look credulous and superstitious. It didn’t comport with his evidence-based attitude towards his scientific beliefs. And in that sense I take religious scientists’ frequent refusal to specify their beliefs as prima facie evidence of the incompatibility between science and religion. In other words, their taking the Theological Fifth is a sign of cognitive dissonance. And this wasn’t the first religious scientist I’ve seen refuse to be specific about their beliefs.

This just shows Coyne’s prejudice against Christianity. All this supports is the perceived incompatibility of science and religion within certain elite scientific circles. That has more to do with the dominant intellectual prejudice and the political/religious environment rather than saying anything about internal cognitive dissonance on the part of the person. Now, some scientists find this hard to accept, but sometimes saying a statement in a certain context means more than the literal propositional truth of that statement. In some settings, to say “I am a Christian” or “I am an atheist” means more than disclosing one’s personal beliefs about religion. It could also mean allowing oneself to be associated with other beliefs, practices, or behaviors of people who identify in the same way. (Thus President Kennedy in 1963: Ich bin ein Berliner.) And there could be certain consequences to saying such a statement. Hence, perhaps for some reason this hypothetical scientist was afraid of admitting his belief in the resurrection because of the perceived social and professional consequences of doing so. I’m not saying his decision was right - only that I’m not convinced it necessarily has anything to do with having internal cognitive dissonance.

If a scientist professes to be Christian, for instance ask them what they believe about the following:

The Resurrection
The soul, and then ask where it is and what happens to it. Also, do animals have souls?
The Virgin Birth
An afterlife; e.g., Heaven and Hell. If they accept these, press for specifics on, say, what form one would assume in Heaven.
If they’re Catholic, ask them if they believe in the transubstantiation, and, if so, in what sense

  1. Yes, I absolutely believe in the Resurrection of Jesus Christ. I think there’s good historical evidence for it, even though I think to really believe it requires going beyond just looking at the evidence and taking a step of personal faith.
  2. Yes, I tend to favor an hylemorphic view of the soul where the soul is the form of the body. It is the “organizing principle” which makes the matter of the body move together as a unity. Note that this is different from the commonly thought of Cartesian view.
    2a. Animals and plants have souls too in this Aristotelian sense, although they are of a different kind compared to human souls, which possess the attribute of rationality.
  3. Yes, I affirm the miraculous virgin birth of Jesus Christ to Mary.
  4. Yes, I believe in heaven and hell. In heaven, we will have material bodies which are imperishable (1 Cor. 15:35-49). There, “He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away” (Rev. 21:4).
  5. Not Roman Catholic so I don’t believe in transubstantiation, but I do believe in the real spiritual presence of Christ in the Lord’s Supper. It is not clear to me what the spiritual presence of Christ means in observational terms, but I believe that it is a source of spiritual nourishment that Christ has graciously given His Church.

Agreed. I can easily see how someone might refuse an answer for those reasons, for example because they don’t want to be become a sort of prop for other people to use in cultural and political disputes, and/or forced to take sides in them. You could even intend to communicate, indirectly, that whatever someone else believes on that question is okay - that you don’t have to take a public(or any) stance on it and nobody has the right to demand of you to make such views public.


Rumraket, as someone who is an atheist, what do you think of Coyne’s commentary? To me, it seems incredibly tone-deaf. I don’t think one needs to be a Christian or atheist or anything really to understand that there can be many reasons (other than cognitive dissonance) to explain why someone is reluctant to openly affirm certain political or religious beliefs in certain environments. I think even most regular people understand this. In fact, many atheists also don’t openly identify as atheist in super-religious communities for fear of persecution, and we wouldn’t automatically label them as having “cognitive dissonance”. I just don’t understand if Coyne seriously means what he’s writing here.

It’s overly simplistic and self-serving, but when you’re in an echo chamber it’s easy to just say stuff like that when you have little reason to expect pushback on it. That’s the problem with echo chambers, they don’t force you to think before you speak.
While I don’t doubt that there are scientists who are Christians who go through instances of cognitive dissonance, I think it’s absurd to conclude this is the only or even most likely explanation for why any given religious scientist would refuse an answer on some particular question of theology.


I suspect that scientists who are believers believe in the spiritual parts of their religious faith, but push back against the tendency of religion to make empirical claims that are not supported by the evidence.

If religion claims that Jesus is the son of God, they have no problem with that, but if it claims that life on Earth was miraculously created in 6 days, about 6000 years ago, and that there was a worldwide flood that covered all mountains about 4000 years ago, they did not feel obliged to accept those claims. Or other claims, such as that intercessory prayer leads to enhanced outcomes for sick people.

Far from cognitive dissonance, this seems to me like a healthy understanding of the ‘non-overlapping magisteria’ (Stephen Jay Gould’s term) of science and faith.

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No doubt some religious scientists implicitly practice a sort of NOMA and tend to be prejudiced against any sort of supernaturalism, even things like the resurrection of Jesus. That being said, I think that many scientists nowadays, including some Christian ones who are not consciously choosing the NOMA path, tend to not have a broad philosophical and theological education, so they may not have a well-thought out way to explain how their faith integrates with their science. That may lead some of them to feel less equipped to explain and defend the finer points of theology to their non-religious colleagues.


I’m curious if anybody else has come across this kind of petulance when you ask science-friendly people—those willing to discuss their faith—what they really believe. I’m sure readers have some interesting stories to tell about this stuff.

In my experience, it depends on who’s asking. I have had a couple experiences on this forum where someone has asked me to explain my belief with the sole intent of attacking and crushing that belief. So, I tend to not respond to those that are obviously just stalking and waiting to pounce. It’s interesting that non-religious scientists claim that there is no possible middle ground for the two to coexist, but religious scientists obviously disagree and make room for both practices. It seems to me then that the disconnect is lack of faith, not lack of evidence.

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You did not elaborate on hell. Is it a place for the wicked, the unbeliever/atheist/Coyne, rebellious, deconverted to suffer forever? If yes, why is suffering forever?

me too:

Black Sabbath - Heaven and Hell

Controversial, but for me Dio >> Ozzy

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