Religion v Science v Supernatural

Last night’s final episode of “The Genius of Charles Darwin,” dealt with the rise of fundamental Christian belief in the West and the clash between creationism and natural selection. Once again, Richard Dawkins championed the cause of reason and evidence in deciding truth about the origins of species against a sea of believers who persisted in various biblical versions or denials.

At one point, Dawkins was aghast that science teachers did not feel it their duty to dissuade pupils of their creationist beliefs and we had a cringe-worthy segment where he interviewed a science teacher who maintained that the world was less than 10,000 years old. Dawkins was exasperated. On the other hand, I sympathize with the teachers; especially those that have to face the threats from families and school governors. Also, just teaching and engaging kids is hard enough, let alone getting them to overcome their intuitive bias that natural selection must be wrong. These are the natural biases that form part of a supersense that there is purpose, order and design in the world. We need to abandon or suppress these  if we are to accept non-intuitive models of the world and I think that this intuitive thinking is one of the reasons why religious accounts are acceptable to so many.

I have also just been sent an on-line article featuring forthcoming studies of beliefs among US college students, which again highlights the prevalence of supernatural beliefs among highly educated individuals. I have asked for preprints of the studies cited and will report back when I have had a chance to read them but the emerging story seems to be the same point made by G.K. Chesterton, “When people stop believing in God, they don’t believe in nothing, they will believe in anything.”

There is a widespread assumption that education and science training in particular will eradicate the prevalence of supernatural belief in the modern era. Richard Dawkins is spear-heading the neo-atheist movement to make this change come about. Although Darwin himself wrote that he thought that humans would eventually change their mindset about the origins of species, I am much more pessimistic. The various polls and studies and the sheer opposition to scientific explanations simply reflects the deep-seated, almost intractable, nature of belief. Is indoctrination solely responsible for this state of affairs? I don’t think so. Culture and religions may simply resonate with human inclinations. And where did these inclinations come from? 

I am not advocating that we give up trying, but we have to be realistic about the nature of the opposition to scientific models of the world and how strong those convictions can be.



Filed under atheism, Research, Television

16 responses to “Religion v Science v Supernatural

  1. Katie

    A rejoinder in the pessimism here – I’m a Yank and don’t see any kind of future without superstition in America. It can be a desperately lonely place, and science doesn’t reach out nearly as much to the isolated as religion.

    I always have this slightly annoyed feeling when I watch Dawkins that he is losing a crucial percentage of viewers with his approach. I do not see how making humanity feel ashamed of it’s natural inclinations will induce anything but backlash. He’s just fighting fire with fire, imo.

    He’s got a cute smile though. (sorry, that was immature)

  2. Katie

    Oh, and “I hope you get run over by a church van”?? Where are these Evil Church Vans (ECV’s), running down atheists. Do they have them in Bristol, Bruce?

  3. brucehood

    Yes, I have to agree with you Katie and I don’t think I am being an apologist, just a realist. I wonder if there is actually a strengthening of religious resolve not to listen to his message.

    At least, Dawkins has given atheism a figurehead but I believe that a more subtle approach is required whereby religious beliefs are seen to be no different in core nature to other aspects of supernaturalism which are easier to dismiss without confrontation or insult to culture. I just think this strategy is more likely to induce individuals to recognize the commonality of supernatural belief… though I don’t think we will all end up with rational views of the world.

    Its a delight when Dawkins smiles and swears on camera… he just seems that more approachable which is what is really needed to convince the masses rather than steely logic which bypasses most minds.

    Last time I looked I did not see an evil church van… I know of RVs but not ECVs.

  4. gia

    Hiya! I was just sent a link to your blog. I’ve only read this post, but it seems like I’ll be coming back already!

    I am currently having a discussion on my blog about atheism. I seem to have people ‘arguing’ with me, defending religion (they claim not to be religious themselves, just ‘understanding’) saying, basically, as an atheist I should just accept the fact that people believe in all kinds of crazy stuff and shut up.

    As an American who lives in the UK, I think this attitude is extremely dangerous. So at the moment we’ve got science teachers who are afraid of offending students or their parents (my husband and I were SHOUTING at those teachers when we watched the programme!), how long until we have evolution taught in all state schools (other than, of course, some CofE and Vardy schools…)?!

    Keep fighting. Dawkins has done a brilliant job getting the topic into the public eye, though, yes, I agree that the discussion needs to move on from him now.

    Nice to find your blog!

  5. brucehood

    Welcome Gia!
    You are my first celebrity visitor (guess you must hate that!) or at least one that has left a comment.

    Anyway, I just had a look at your blog on atheism and I have to say that you have a better class of blogger than most…..articulate and generally courteous which is increasingly unusual since gloves have come off in the atheism/religion bout.

    I am less worried by the rise of creationism in this country as compared to your native US but agree that we have to keep our wits about us. There are a whole set of different factors that operate in the US that are less relevant here. No doubt I will have to face some of this religious zeal in the spring when I start calling it just another form of supernaturalism on my book tour.

    However, I am more concerned about the falling standards at the other end of the educational sector; especially in UK universities as this government tries to unrealistically force 50% of the population into higher education with little additional resources to enable this to happen. That is scandalous and many of us (ask Brian) are getting pretty fed up with the increased bureaucracy that this brings…. anyway that will probably be another blog at some point.


  6. Arno

    “No doubt I will have to face some of this religious zeal in the spring when I start calling it just another form of supernaturalism on my book tour.”
    Not just that, Bruce: you point out that most of the supernatural beliefs of people are products of the biases they had as children.
    Where Darwin had to cope with people protesting that they “were not an ape”, you’ll have to deal with people protesting that their sacred thoughts are not “childish”

    P.S. I do hope there is nowhere in my contract something about taking the bullet for you, is there?

  7. gia

    You think religion is “childish”, eh? You and Einstein… 🙂

    Yes, people who are commenting on my blog at the moment are very intelligent, normal and respectful. It makes a change from before the last American presidential election when all the Bush-loving Pro-War Apocalypse-lusting Fundie-Christians were around…

  8. brucehood

    Nice to know that I follow in big foot steps. Actually, I am sure lots of people have said this but I mean it in a literal sense. If you study children’s reasoning you see all sorts of misconception that form the roots of belief. They are naturally inclined to a creationist view, have difficulty conceiving of death, believe that living things have a life energy and unique individuals have something inside them akin to an essence. No one teaches them this. It’s what comes naturally to them and science tells them that they have to ignore these beliefs (or at least get them scientifically accurate). That’s why the supernatural comes so easily to so many.

    One other thing that is natural to the human mind is detecting patterns and seeing significance everywhere. This condition known as “apophenia” is both a marker for creativity and precursor for psychotic illness….Hmmmm.. I was just realizing how well we are connected.


  9. gia

    Wow. I was *sure* I’d written about apophenia in my post or in the comments under my post… but I hadn’t. Weird. In the last couple days I wrote about desire, coincidence and apophenia being what religious belief is based on, but clearly just *forgot* to post it up!

    I’m *totally* apophenic (is that a word?) and find connections EVERYWHERE. I’m kind of constantly playing this ‘connection’ game in my head with everything and everyone. I take pleasure in finding similarities between people and things or tracing direct routes between them (well, I see them as direct routes…)

    One day sitting in a traffic jam on the way home from work one night, I told my friend Damien *part* of my apophenic connection of LOADS of very, very important things in my life which stretch from the age of 3 or so sitting on my great-grandfather’s lap through to, well, the film I was working on at the time (Sunshine) which all focuses around Jane Fonda. (seriously)

    Luckily, I understand it’s just all a ‘game’ in my head and don’t attach some kind of cosmic significance to any of it… otherwise I’d probably be stalking her right now. 😉

  10. brucehood

    Don’t worry Gia… you are suffering from “creativity” but I am sorry…… the prognosis is bad….. you are doomed to see connections everywhere…. thank God… or whatever deity you do or not subscribe to. Is is only human.

  11. Arno

    As it fits so beautifully in this context: a letter from Matthew Cobb and Jerry Coyne in response to an editorial in Nature about Templeton (the founder of the Templeton foundation that finances scientific research about religion, usually in a way that makes it look better: “Does prayer work?” and studies like that), which was rather positive about the millionaire and his ideals
    (linky here: and for those who lack the subscription, see below):


    We were perplexed by your Editorial on the work of the Templeton Foundation (‘Templeton’s legacy’ Nature 454, 253–254; 2008). Surely science is about finding material explanations of the world — explanations that can inspire those spooky feelings of awe, wonder and reverence in the hyper-evolved human brain.

    Religion, on the other hand, is about humans thinking that awe, wonder and reverence are the clue to understanding a God-built Universe. (The same is true of religion’s poor cousin, ‘spirituality’, which you slip into your Editorial rather as a creationist uses ‘intelligent design’.) There is a fundamental conflict here, one that can never be reconciled until all religions cease making claims about the nature of reality.

    The scientific study of religion is indeed full of big questions that need to be addressed, such as why belief in religion is negatively correlated with an acceptance of evolution. One could consider psychological studies of why humans are superstitious and believe impossible things, and comparative sociological studies of religion using materialist explanations of the rise and fall of the world’s belief systems.

    Perhaps the Templeton Foundation is thinking of funding such research. The outcome of such work, we predict, will not bring science and religion (or ‘spirituality’) any closer to one another. You suggest that science may bring about “advances in theological thinking”. In reality, the only contribution that science can make to the ideas of religion is atheism.”

    Aside from the powerful message (with which I personally find myself agreeing) I have to wonder how cool it would be if the Templeton Foundation would finance research like that! Hurray for funding!

  12. Bruce,
    I have followed you down the rabbit hole from a comment you left on my blog, and I have to say I am glad to have found you!

    There is so much I would like to say about the nature of belief and the nature of science, but I think I will hold it in a little longer, and spend some more time reading your thoughts, before I share mine. After all, this is far more your field, I am merely a dabbler.

  13. A bit after this post went up, but I wanted to add something that sort of relates to the issue raised about religion resonating with human inclinations.

    I’m reading the Gayan (Sufi writings) and came across a couple of lines that – while they represent a very common and basic defense for religion – I find particularly ‘evocative’, I guess.

    “In the belief of every person there is some good for him. And to break that belief if like breaking his god.” (lowercase as appears in the book – I’m not being all controversial-like!)

    I can’t really express myself well enough, so I was kinda hoping you would give a little feedback on that, Bruce? 🙂 The desire to be ‘good’ relates pretty well to the childishness of belief you and Gia mentioned.

  14. brucehood

    Hmmm.. I am not sure that I can enlighten you about breaking gods.

    But I do know a little about the development of altruism.
    Human infants are pretty much hard-wired to form social attachment to adults from birth. They become increasingly focused on the mother over the next 12 months and then begin to open their social horizons to others. But before 3-4 years of age, most children are fairly egocentric and not particularly altruistic to others. That comes with socialization.

    So there is a biological programme to become social and care about others but it really needs the appropriate environment. In other situations, social development can be compromised as we all have the tendency towards egocentricism (selfishness) which needs to be inhibited.

    That’s why the demented, brain-damaged and elderly become so selfish again as they lose the capacity to inhibit thoughts and behaviours.

    Probably irrelevant to your quote and question but hopefully of some interest about the development of socialization.


  15. I have always (well, since I was 11) considered religion to be the adult version of Santa. “Be good or you get a lump of coal”. Hardly an original viewpoint as I’ve discovered.

    I maintain that view and see that society, in general, fears life without some sort of superior authority. I think people wonder what would happen if no one “believed in anything”. I’ve wondered the same myself.

    Some people seem to need religion in order to behave in socially acceptable ways. Others, I suspect, just see a bandwagon passing by and figure they ought be on it.

    Some, I suspect, preach religion without believing it themselves. They are either in it because they seriously believe others need it or to make a dollar, maybe both.

    Go here to read my own summary of fear-based faith

  16. brucehood

    Hi AndyD

    Yes, I agree with your blog that fear can be a motivating factor in religion and so is guilt. Jesse Bering has a nice angle on religion as an evolved mechanism for social cohesion by virtue of complying to the group consensus. Both fear and guilt are emotions that can support such mechanisms.

    However, I am interested in why specific beliefs and not others emerge and for that I have been proposing an explanation based on the natural reasoning that can be observed in normal development. Its a bit much to cover here (and of course I want people to buy the book) but it does make a lot of sense for a whole variety of supernatural beliefs including both religious and otherwise.

    Thanks for dropping by and sharing your ideas.

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