Sacred Reason: Reconciling Science and Emotion

Experiencing the Scientific Worldview

Experiencing the Scientific Worldview

Disclaimer: This article deals with ambiguous sociological concepts. Many religious terms are used loosely, often in a different context from traditional beliefs in both the atheist community and in the religious community. Context is provided where needed. The word “religion” generally refers to supernatural religions.

The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and all science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead: his eyes are closed. – Albert Einstein, The Merging of Spirit and Science

In the above quote by Einstein, the condition of the “mysterious” that he refers to is neither a state of ignorance of reality, nor one of rational understanding (both of which together form the limits of the factual knowledge gradient). He seems to be alluding to an emotional purpose that transcends both these states.

Knowledge and Emotion:

Before I present the thesis of this article, I want to assert that human emotional purpose is on a different dimension to the one containing knowledge itself, both dimensions being facets of the human experience. Factual knowledge and emotion are separate and yet interdependant aspects of human beings.

Despite evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould’s infamous assertion about the separation between religion and science, the two magesteria really do overlap. The bubbling battle between religion and science for socio-political domination, is evidence for the existence of this mutually inclusive contentious territory between the two. The defense of science comes in the form of a philosophical line between itself and religion, drawn by those who study “the demarcation problem“. Those of us who follow the progress of scientific understanding are aware that this demarcation line has been pushed far into religion’s traditional territory over the decades. This is indeed because of the resilience of the scientific method in explaining reality.

Both religion and science are in a race to control the factual knowledge dimension, and science is making solid progress there.

However, the emotional dimension is not being addressed in the debate between the two. While religion has always exerted its control over the emotional dimension, science has been passive in this regard. Thus, while science may be winning on the knowledge front, society is still ruled by the primitive emotions of conditioned thought that religion breeds.

The Thesis:

Science has, for the most part, ignored that “mysterious” emotional quality that Einstein referred to, while religion has influenced the emotional dimension since cultures invented mystical explanations. Even the phrase “mystical explanation” is a religious construct to marry the emotional (mystical) dimension with a knowledge claim (explanation) manufactured by religion.(Note: Here “mystical” is used in a general sense to refer to the emotional sense of wonder).

My argument is that in the light of the new and superior system of knowledge called science, “mystical explanations” need not be false religious ones, but can be true scientific ones. They can be a way of looking into the window of objective reality that science opens to us, with the subjective eyes that open the internal window into our sense of emotional well-being.

As an example, consider Carl Sagan here:

Who are we? We find that we live on an insignificant planet of a humdrum star lost in a galaxy tucked away in some forgotten corner of a universe in which there are far more galaxies than people. –Carl Sagan

Sagan’s soulful (there’s another one of those words) agony at the insignificance of humanity in the vastness of the universe is as powerful an emotion as his ecstatic joy at being allowed by science this glimpse into a reality that is orders of magnitude more magnificent than anything written or imagined by the world’s great “prophets”.

You may notice that there is a semantic game being played here by adopting the words “mysticism” and “soul” to portray an emotional view of a scientific concept. I will soon explain why I believe that learning how to play this game of semantics is key to the survival of our values and ideas, but first let us question our assumptions about the need for a scientific sentimentalism.

Can Science Afford to Leave the Emotional Dimension to Religion?

The emotional purpose is that which gives us our humanity. It is what gives us our morality and our culture. So let us look at this emotional dimension a little closer.

Here are three areas where emotion is key to human culture:

  1. Human Interaction: This is by far the area of human emotional behavior that is the most contested between religion and reason. It consists of morality and social tradition. The rules of social organization that religion imposed on young cultures thousands of years ago have become archaic and obscure as civilizations learned and grew up into reason. But the myth that morals are derived from a divine source is still very persuasive in our culture. Science must influence the emotions controlling human social interactions by promoting knowledge and moral education in social contexts. We must push for alternatives to the religious morality being taught in Churches, Temples and Mosques. We must prepare for a future of ethical and compassionate young rationalists to carry the torch of human endeavor into the next social paradigm.
  2. Art, literature and music: No atheist will deny that religion has had a huge influence on the arts. From Michaelangelo’s paintings to the ancient sculptures devoted to Hindu gods and goddesses, from the architecture of the Islamic enlightenment to Bach’s ethereal compositions, from the great epics of Milton and Valmiki to the eight classical dance-forms in India, religion is pervasive in our culture. Art that is inspired by religion adds beauty to our cultural sphere. But this beauty will not diminish when we relegate those religious beliefs to the pages of mythology. Roman and Egyptian art still stand for powerful symbols of human capacity for beauty, although the supernatural beliefs that inspired the art are not in favor any more. Thus the value of Christian, Hindu, Islamic or Buddhist art will still contain emotional value long after those belief systems are mythologized and considered as the quaint fables believed by an ancient people. I am not incapable of appreciating great art inspired by religion, but there is no reason why we cannot create art from the grander inspirations of nature. Even today, Indian art is mostly religious, especially in the commercial art market. This must change.
  3. Pursuit of happiness: Without a subjective and emotional perspective, life cannot be. It is obvious that our most basic actions are controlled by emotion and not by reason. Furthermore, naturalistic philosophy implies that objective logic has limitations in this regard and that pursuing subjective wants such as happiness is left to the emotional aspects of our personalities. Our desires and dreams are subject to emotion. But we MUST remember to apply the emotional perspective only to non-naturalistic areas of our lives, and always use reason and science when dealing with factual claims. This is a complicated area and I will try to address it in future posts.

A human being is a part of a whole, called by us ‘universe’, a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings as something separated from the rest… a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty. – Albert Einstein, 1954

To answer the question posed by the sub-heading, no, I don’t think science can afford to leave the emotional dimension to religion.

The Semantics: New-age Mysticism Vs Scientific Mysticism:

We all draw lines to mark our understanding of ideas. For example, many of us like to think of the line between science and religion as a clear boundary. One set of beliefs is evidence-based and the other is faith-based. (Some folk would disagree, saying that there could be evidence-based religions, but I’m only concerned with supernatural religions here.)

I’d like to direct your attention to a few other such boundaries, some not so clearly defined.

New Age Mysticism- Utter Nonsense

New Age Mysticism- Utter Nonsense

Consider the idea of “mysticism” that I alluded to above. Let’s say that mysticism usually refers to emotional concepts, but occasionally makes factual claims about reality. Now, it is quite clear that those factual claims contained in any mystical statement can be analyzed for scientific validity. This draws a line through the idea of “mysticism”. There can be mystical claims that are true (scientifically) and those that are not. If the emotional perspective is indeed as indispensable to humans as I propose above, then it is imperative that scientific mysticism replace religious mysticism in all aspects of culture.

The problem is complicated by the popularity of parasitic ideas such as new-age mysticism. Let me explain.

New-age beliefs run the entire gamut, from factual claims to supernatural claims. The one thing they have in common is a supernaturalistic appeal to concepts that were discovered/popularized through the successes of science. Very often scientific ideas are stolen from their contexts and built into supernatural ideas, claiming the latter as scientific fact. For example, there is quantum mysticism, magnetic therapy, electronic ghost hunting, space-traveling aliens, homeopathy, phrenology and so on- all ideas that borrow their credibility from the legitimacy of scientific language. This is a semantic game. Religions have been very successful at appealing to popular memes in society, usurping them in order to gain a presence. This is very similar to the way in which mainstream religions such as Christianity take on some distinguishing characteristics of the local traditional beliefs when they spread to new areas. There are plenty of examples of this, notably in South America and Africa. In a similar fashion, new-age mysticism adopts the power of scientific language into its deceptive arsenal.

In general scientists don’t want to talk about mysticism because of the fear of being misunderstood as promoting new-age concepts. I think that they are right to fear the new-age movement, because the new-age folk are very well tuned into the mind-set of the masses. In the liberal community new-age beliefs have become the dominant religious force, just as fundamentalist beliefs dominate the religious right. However, I believe that scientists must not ignore mysticism altogether simply because they feel that the price of being accused of new-age mysticism is too high. Instead, science educators must attempt to clarify the misunderstandings, clearly drawing the line between new-age mysticism and scientific mysticism in order to protect society from the former.

There is a war of linguistic annexation going on. Religion wants the words that science has because these ideas in their scientific contexts have proved themselves time and again and have a newly found legitimacy in political thought. Science, however, has become reticent to borrow terminology from religion. I am arguing that science must turn around and annex mystical language, allowing scientific mysticism to claim a prominent role in humanity’s emotional understanding of our natural world.

Wittgenstein’s Nightmare:

The early 20th century philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein is known for his thoughts on language and on the meaning of words used in understanding complex concepts. When the meaning of these words are ambiguous, they must be well-defined before we form our understanding of the concepts they describe. This is particularly important in today’s information age where we have neither the time nor the patience to sort through the exponentially increasing quantities of descriptive data available.

There is a feeling in the popular culture that as large qualtities of information becomes more accessible to everyone, through the global spread of ideas and cultures, people will be better-off in general. This is not supported by the evidence. To the contrary, it appears more and more likely that information overload can actually have the opposite effect. The clinical psychologist Steve Beller writes,

I’m defining information overload as a state of having more information available than one can readily assimilate, that is, people have difficulty absorbing the information into their base of knowledge. This hinders decision-making and judgment by causing stress and cognitive impediments such as confusion, uncertainty and distraction.

Pseudoscience Arising out of Information Overload

Beller is specifically talking about the quantity of information vs the quality of knowledge paradox in the health-care field, when he describes “a viscous cycle of information input –> information overload –> information rejection–> inhibited knowledge growth.” It can be argued that this state of perpetual information overload occurs across the board in the age of the internet. Couple this over-abundance of information with a) shorter attention spans, b) less awareness of philosophical concepts because of more focus on skill-training in schools rather than on critical thought and c) the booming pop-culture with its fascination for fleeting & transitional pleasures, and it is clear that developing a culture of scientifically aware individuals is becoming increasingly challenging. This is what I call Wittgenstein’s Nightmare.

The popular rationalist strategy in combating Wittgenstein’s Nightmare is to promote scientific temper, thereby providing the masses with the means of thinking for themselves and evaluating the truth-value of specific claims. It is definitely the most effective strategy, especially for those masses in rural areas who are fooled by simple tricks because they are unaware of science altogether. The brilliant rationalists who write at Nirmukta- Narendra Nayak, Meera Nanda and Prabir Ghosh- are all very accomplished proponents of this effective way of spreading reason. Their work towards this end is priceless. This strategy of spreading awareness of the scientific way of thinking is also a common theme in popular skeptical programs like The Skeptics Guide to the Universe podcast. However, this strategy can only be a partial solution. I am committing rationalist heresy, in a manner of speaking, when I say that not all people are interested in learning the scientific method, and some are even incapable of meaningfully internalizing scientific ways of looking at reality! The vast majority of human beings are more interested in appealing to our emotional judgments when it comes to many of the practical issues that are increasingly better understood through science. Also, the scientific method can itself become a victim of Wittgenstein’s Nightmare, causing people to deny science’s naturalistic supremacy because they are confused by false information and propaganda against science.

For these folk, religion provides simpler and more emotionally satisfying answers. Popular culture is now the most influential way to generate consensus on the meaning of terms. This popular culture is driven by the social desires that propel the mass media. Therefore, the solution to Wittgenstein’s Nightmare is to embrace popular emotional aspects of culture, but using scientific reality as the inspiration for the emotion.

I believe that as information grows and the nightmare intensifies, only an emotional rescue of the interests of science will continue the propagation of the scientific way of thought in society. Without developing a scientific mysticism, scientific rationalism will be increasingly hard to preach, while religious mysticism will continue to rise above the muddled chasm of contradictory beliefs regarding reality.

Religion and Naturalism:

The Religion of the future will be a cosmic religion. It will transcend a personal God and avoid dogma and theology. Covering both the natural and spiritual, it will based on a religious sense arising from the experience of all things natural and spiritual as a meaningful unity. – Albert Einstein

There is no shortage of debate on this subject of reconciling science, emotion and culture in our society. The most poignant of these debates is in the philosophical arena. The philosophy behind science is naturalism. In its most general form, naturalism is the understanding that all observed phenomena have natural causes. The religious view, on the contrary, posits supernatural causes.

A few philosophical approaches are trying to bring religion and naturalism together. Prominent among these is religious naturalism, a concept that came out of religious thinkers in America in the mid 19th century. Despite its monastical beginnings, the term is used today not by the religious but by a few brilliant scientific minds. There are different approaches to this idea. There are those trying to save religion by naturalizing it, and those trying to save scientific culture by mysticizing it. I am against the former and vehemently for the latter. As in all cultural endeavors, the boundaries are less clear in practice. Let me demonstrate three different sides to this issue.

Religious Naturalism: If one revels in the beauty and wonder of the natural world that science opens to us, if one marvels at the unknown and quivers at the prospect of finding out what’s out there waiting just beyond reach, if one can find meaning, purpose and a spiritual reason to love life in the scientific reality that we know and understand, then that is religious naturalism.

Carl Sagan can be described as a fervent “religious” naturalist. But he never distorted scientific naturalism in order to incorporate factually unsupported ideas into his emotional worldview.

For small creatures such as we the vastness is bearable only through love. – Carl Sagan

This is a classic example of religious naturalism. The above mystical statement can be translated factually as: We are small. The universe is vast. Love is a fulfilling emotion that we can experience in relation to a natural universe.

Naturalizing Religion: Taking religion and infusing it with science is attempting to naturalize religion. According to Michael Dowd who wrote the book “Thank God for Evolution“, “Evolution can deepen one’s faith”. In essence, Dowd is preaching the gospel of cognitive dissonance, by incorporating fables into a scientific worldview. This is a corruption of science.

(Update: Michael Dowd has responded to the above criticism in the comments section (highlighted). I may have been harsh in saying that his position in his book is a corruption of science. Also, the quote I presented that refers to “faith” does not show the context in Mr. Dowd uses the word. He has written to me explaining that his use of the word is in a strict naturalistic sense to imply “trust”. His strategy is aimed at religious believers, and although I believe that truly turning the lens of scientific scrutiny onto one’s religious beliefs must lead one to reject the essence of religion itself, I must agree that his approach is primed for the religious mind. Please check out our exchange below.)

The Middle Ground: Ursula Goodenough is one of the leaders in the new revival of the religious naturalism movement. She is a true naturalist as far as her personal beliefs are concerned, not subscribing to any supernatural beliefs. Her book “The Sacred Depths of Nature” beautifully weaves a mystical narrative of the natural world, borrowing heavily from religious language and popular ideas to fill the emotional gaps. Her metaphors are breathtaking.

Patterns of gene expression are to organisms as melodies and harmonies are to sonatas. It’s all about which sets of proteins appear in a cell at the same time (the chords) and which sets come before or after other sets (the themes) and at what rate they appear (the tempos) and how they modulate one another (the developments and transitions). – Ursula Goodenough, The Sacred Depths of Nature.

There is, however, another side to her philosophy. Although her book has spawned a new generation of religious naturalists, Goodenough favors sometimes bending the rules of naturalism for the purpose of unifying science and culture. She has no qualms about distorting the naturalistic agenda of science by including those who have supernatural beliefs into the fold of religious naturalists. I should mention, however, that the few times that I have heard her support this position it was in the context of attempting to bring people of different extremes together to accept science.

I think that Goodenough may subscribe to the “practical reality” that David Sloan Wilson preaches. I must disagree with their strategy for three reasons. (1) The first is that this is a deceptive strategy, neither honest to itself nor to its opposition. Science is concerned with objective truth. We cannot condone perpetuating falsehoods while integrating naturalistic reality with emotion. We must ask ourselves if such a misguided society would really be worth striving for, even if we accept the assumption that science will become more mainstream if we allowed religious explanations for naturalistic processes like evolution to go uncriticized. (2) My second opposition is to the assumption that such a deceptive strategy that compromises the integrity of the scientific understanding of reality would really be effective in making science more popular/mainstream. I am yet to see any evidence for this popular claim by those appealing for this deception. (3) Finally, I also have a semantic disagreement with some of these religious naturalists. I feel that they are taking the word game to the other extreme, where naturalism loses its significance because the terms being co-opted into scientific mysticism are too loaded. Words like “Spiritual”, “Love”, “Mystical”, “Beauty” are all fine because they are easily understood as metaphysical metaphors for specific emotional states. However, terms like “Religion” and “God” are going over the line, in my view, because they strongly suggest supernatural forces in action. It would be hard to infuse those words into a scientific culture without compromising science itself.

Misplaced Mysticism

Misplaced Mysticism

It is possible that in a few decades humanity would be willing to accept a purely naturalistic “God” and “Religion”. If this happens, let’s remind ourselves that our goal is to remove the influence of supernaturalism as an explanatory concept, not to stubbornly target the words “religion” and “God” even after they have become purely neutral and emotional ideas. If the supernatural connotations of these words can be removed over time (in the not-so-distant future), then the words can become benign and even useful for scientific mysticism of a more honest type than the one that Ursula Goodenough endorses.


To summarize the arguments, science must enter the emotional dimension and influence society, but

must not itself become corrupted by religion and supernatural beliefs. This can only happen if the distinction between naturalism and supernaturalism is preserved in the cultural sphere, as it is in the scientific. New-age mysticism and some false forms of religious naturalism attempt to distort science and incorporate supernatural or false factual claims, but that must only strengthen our resolve in working towards incorporating science in popular culture.

For most science-minded folks, scientific mysticism is already part of their lives even if they don’t see it that way. Millions of people congregate every day to celebrate their love for a rational and science-based understanding of reality. Libraries, museums, planetariums, conventions, art-houses, college dorms and online forums come alive daily with wide-eyed science-lovers expressing their passion for the scientific worldview. In many ways we have already begun to cross over into the mainstream.

The road ahead is long and religion will make it hard for science to influence the emotional dimension. Given the success of science in the knowledge dimension, the emotional dimension is the only avenue that religion has left open to monopolize, and we can be sure that religion will not give up its emotional hold over society without a fight. However, we MUST fight back knowing that society will truly be free only when the human condition is informed by science and guided by compassion.

Underground Orchids


Sarah Lindsay

Life on this planet persists in knitting its minerals
into animal and vegetable variations, behaving
at all times like the central point of the cosmos,
and because it is water it seeks the paths of least resistance
and pauses sometimes to admire itself,
because it is earth it may subside in camouflage
or darkness or cease to move for its own good reasons,
because it is air it might seem like nothing
yet be the invisible sustenance of oceans or forests or a shade of blue,
and because it is fire it leaps and is uncertain
and leaves smelly waste and goes everywhere it can uninvited.
It presses its lips where boiling sulfur cracks the ocean floor,
swims in acid cavities below the roots of mountains,
burrows and flits and infects and strangles and hatches,
constructs mats, reefs, trunks, tunnels, stained-glass windows
and ad campaigns for raspberry-scented chinchilla dust.
Mammalian bipeds especially intrude where they are unfit to go,
chewing coca leaves to walk on ridges where oxygen falls away,
training beasts to carry weight in the desert and drinking their blood,
beating sea water back with little hands.
On the southern ice cap, one turns his frozen socks inside out
and shakes his blackened toes into his lap.
In the country he comes from, earth is parched,
air warped with the heat he longs for.
Thirsty flies glue themselves to plants that begin to digest them;
modest orchids bloom underground. In his country
glinting saucers are filling with penicillin
while soldiers don uniforms. There is singing.
A shimmer over cannon mouths. Fire consumes. Mud consumes.
Many stars since they were born
have been sending their light to shine upon us,
but some are rushing away as fast as they can.


About the author

Ajita Kamal


  • “They [mystical explanations] can be a way of looking into the window of objective reality that science opens to us, with the subjective eyes that open the internal window into our sense of emotional well-being”

    Could you clarify the 2nd part of this a bit more ? The 1st part is clear to me and it is interesting.
    Are mystical explanations a way to look at objective reality with subjective eyes ? But, once we introduce first person subjective observations into the picture, how can we come up with repeatable experiments compatible with scientific method ?

    • Hi Krishna,

      Thats a great question and in my desire to make the metaphor come alive I may not have been clear enough. I am not saying that that which constitutes objective reality must be looked at subjectively. What I was rather clumsily implying is that when such objective realities are given emotional (subjective) meaning, they can be internalized by us to create the kind of happiness and well-being that religions have traditionally provided. The truth value comes from the objective view alone.

      As I say in the article: “..we MUST remember to apply the emotional perspective only to non-naturalistic areas of our lives, and always use reason and science when dealing with factual claims.”

      In general there is no evidence for my claims in this article about proposed emotional alternatives to supernatural religions. These alternatives must also be subject to the same level of scrutiny as all socio-political theories. I do hope that they will be criticized and ripped apart by rational analysis. But I do believe that they will survive, albeit in some evolved form 😉 .

      • On reading my “explanation” I see that it may still be confusing. So let me try again.

        Consider some factual claim, A. Now we can test for the truth value of A using the scientific method, as you say. Then we have an objective claim. Now, what Im saying is that the objective view as tested by science can be given an emotional perspective. Here the “subjective” is constrained by science. This form of subjectivity is relative only in the emotional feelings they produce within us, and not relative in their absolute truth value.

        In practice, such emotional reactions to objective truths will still elicit different responses from different people. But at least each subjective/emotional reaction will be based on “true” objective facts about the external world.

      • I have a random question to UR readers, is there a country in the world where: (1) progressives don’t have major influence? (2) This same place has a reasonable standard of living? E.g. Somalia lacks presrogsives, but it is not the type of place I’d want to live.

  • I agree with you right down the line, Ajita. I am an evolutionary humanist, a religious naturalist, a scientific mystic. I hold no supernatural or otherworldly beliefs whatsoever. There is nothing New Age, woo-woo, mystical, or mythic/supernatural about my book, Thank God for Evolution, or my live programs. I see science alone as authoritative, not ancient myth-filled scriptures. I am, however, reaching traditional religious people and bringing them into a science-based worldview. Do you know anyone else effectively doing this?


    I am a pentecostal, evangelical naturalist. If you care to know how I publicly define this, see here:


    Religions evolve, and so do religionists. Theologians have always reinterpreted religious language and concepts in light of the best understandings of the nature of reality available to them. What I and other Evolution Theology leaders are doing today is really no different than what Augustine or Aquinas or Calvin or Tillich did in their day.

    I wrote Thank God for Evolution mostly to help religious believers from different traditions move toward an evidential worldview without having to abandon their tradition to do so. The book itself emerged out of field-testing the ideas contained within TGFE with religious and non-religious audiences across the theological and philosophical spectrum. Since April 2002, my beloved, Connie Barlow, an atheist science writer, and I have delivered Sunday sermons, evening programs, and multi-day workshops in more than 600 churches, convents, monasteries, and spiritual centers across the continent, including liberal and conservative Roman Catholic, Protestant, Evangelical, Unitarian Universalist, Unity, Religious Science, Quaker, Mennonite, and Buddhist groups. We have also presented audience-appropriate versions of this message in nearly a hundred secular settings, including colleges, high schools, grade schools, nature centers, and public libraries.

    Few things are more important, it seems to me, at least here in America, than for millions (and eventually hundreds of millions) of religious folk, over the next few decades, to come to embrace a science-based understanding of the world. Why? Because it matters what we think about evolution–and not just theologically. It matters politically; it matters personally. Indeed, I would argue that nothing matters more! Trying to understand reality without an evolutionary worldview is like trying to understand infection without microscopes or the structure of the universe without telescopes. It’s not merely difficult; it’s impossible. Without realistic answers to life’s biggest questions, religious and non-religious people alike will think poorly and vote short-sightedly and self-destructively on issues as diverse as the economy, health care, global warming, and terrorism. (TGFE, chapters 9-10, 14-17)

    Here’s something that I think many humanists and atheists have yet to fully realize…

    Until churches in America teach and preach the evolutionary history of the universe enthusiastically, in ways that expand and enrich faith (TRUST, not beliefs), the battle over teaching evolutionary science in public schools will never end. One of the goals of my book is to assist the devoutly religious in letting go of attachment to literal interpretations of their otherworldly, supernatural myths in order to wholeheartedly embrace an evidential, empirical worldview. Surely, this turn needs to happen in order for radically diverse religious people to cooperate in service of a just and sustainable future. Surely, you would agree, yes?

    Those who believe that we can achieve a healthy future for planet Earth and its diverse species without billions of religious people being committed to it are seriously out of touch with reality.

    Those who might initially be put off by the religious language in my book and presentations (including some radio and TV interviews) should know that my wife, Connie Barlow, also an evolutionary humanist, worked with me very closely throughout the writing and editing process. She ghost-wrote the science sections of chapters 2, 5, 9 and 10, as I mention in my Acknowledgments. I challenge those who claim that I am offering questionable science, or distorting science, to cite where exactly. Which page(s)? Which paragraph(s)? I can afford to sound so arrogant on this point because know from experience that they will not be able to do so.



    Richard Dawkins graciously allowed me to include a letter he wrote to his daughter Juliet as an appendix in my book.

    That letter was previously published as the last chapter in his A Devil’s Chaplain. There, Richard highlights the difference between believing something based on measurable evidence versus believing something based on private revelation, scripture, authority, or tradition. That religious people might, likewise, come to value this distinction is a central theme of my book. If you were to actually read my book or attend one of my public presentations, not only am I certain you’ll love virtually all of it, but I’m also fairly certain that you will wish me well in my evolutionary evangelistic ministry.

    We’re on the same side. You just don’t realize it yet. See Shermer’s comment at the beginning of this post:

    • Michael,

      Thank you for your comment. I have been putting off replying to it because I agree almost entirely with what you are doing, in the context that you are doing it. Before I go into explaining my brief put-down of your work in TGFE, let me make it clear that we are talking to two vastly different audiences, and therefore we are talking in different contexts.

      Your audience we both know. I, like you, see why bringing religious people around to accepting the basic tenets of science is a good thing. My audience, on the other hand, already believes in evolution. What we lack, often, is a sense of community. So, while you are bringing science to an established community, I’m building a community out of a group of people with little emotional commonalities. Let me try to express why I think this distinction makes it important that our differing approaches are appropriate for each group, but will not work across the groups. It may seem like I’m digressing but I assure you that I have a point.

      I believe that you will be able to get through to some believers with your out-reach, but my work in building a secular community using emotional community-binding factors is just as important, and not necessarily for different reasons. The best way to attract someone to a naturalistic worldview is to demonstrate social cohesion in the non-religious community. Study after study has demonstrated the value of community in establishing a religion. The majority of believers are attracted to religion not because it offers them a logical explanation of reality but because it offers them community.

      In my teenage years, my abandonment of religion was the equivalent of losing all connection to society. Having lived through those years as a lonely non-believer, let me assure you that the only sort of reason that would have made sense to me would have been the anti-supernaturalist kind. I would have loved to have the kind of social community that today’s free-thinker community has access to. A naturalistic community that explained to me why naturalistic beliefs were meaningful. I already believed in evolution. I didn’t need to be given an emotional reason to believe in evolution. I needed an emotional reason to have community. The people I am speaking to don’t need an emotional reason to believe in evolution. They are already science-minded for the most part. I am just arguing for an emotional purpose in building a stronger secular community- a different purpose than what your book is about. Here is an article talking about a new study that shows how unaffiliated Americans are becoming affiliated in large numbers. The often noted increase in the numbers of secular people in America is basically because of the numbers of Catholics and Protestants leaving religion. Over half of the children of non-believers adopt some religious denomination or the other. I have little doubt that this is for the sense of community that religion provides, together with the perceived emptiness in not belonging to such community. If we non-believers cannot create strong community DEVIOD OF RELIGIOUS METAPHORS, this trend will continue.

      I feel that you are wrong in thinking that institutionalized religions can become naturalized. The trend has always been in the other direction for religions that initially started off as quite less superstitious or institutionalized, eg Buddhism. There are traits of religion, such as its in-group identity and its propensity for attracting a certain mindset, that will ensure anti-naturalistic tendencies. This is a position I hold in view of the intrinsic propensity for certain mind-types towards supernaturalistic beliefs. The research is more and more clear that the supernaturalism-inclined religious mindset is uniquely different from the naturalistic mindset. Plenty of research shows how the genetic propensity for religious belief can be acquired from recessive phenotypic traits in both parents. Some believers will find the contradictions between the scripture and the poetry of your metaphors irreconcilable. Some will, hopefully leave the religion, while others will stay on. Religion itself will, I’m afraid, remain non-naturalistic at its core. That core is what creates the emotional meaning that binds its adherents. The rational strategy to deal with religion then is to adopt multi-pronged approaches that vary depending on the problem being addressed. One avenue is what you are doing, in making people in the religious community change their minds about some of the false beliefs. The other is what I’m doing, which is to provide alternative belief systems that replace religion completely for those who have no need for supernaturalist metaphors but crave purely naturalistic meaning. As I stated in the article (point three just above the Epilogue), the semantic game must have boundaries clearly presenting the distinctions between naturalism and religions.

      In other words, those people whom you chip off the institutionalized block of Christianity will need a community of naturalist supporters unburdened by Biblical metaphors. There is no need to drink bottled water when there is a water fountain with cleaner and better tasting water available nearby. But there will always be those who avoid the water fountains. For some people, the moral, emotional and social answers will always come from their brand of water bottle. Christianity may change its flavor, but that will only reflect the changing world we will live in, with its new bioethical issues and its new inter-religious conflicts. It will still be that same water bottle, so well-branded and sold and polluting the environment, while secular community will be that water fountain for the rest of us who don’t need the plastic anymore..

      I’d like to see you succeed at what you’re doing, for the good of all of us, but I would rather see religion become weak and taper off into powerless socio-political status than be legitimized by their usurpation of some aspect of reality that scientific thought had already established, only to pounce on the next bioethical issue with their morally primitive supernaturalist claws flashing. Issues with complex philosophical ramifications, like abortion (cells, pain, interests and sentience) or retributive punishment (abandoning free-will) will remain inaccessible to many people who have the biological tendency for supernatural belief. These are the ones who will form that central core of religion, keeping it non-naturalistic and institutionalized. The only way forward is for the rest of us to reject religion altogether. The kind of mysticism I suggest in the article has no ties to any religious institution. That is key. Considering that the (at least for the near future) genetic fitness of the tendency for superstition as well as the altruistic tendency for group-centric violence and competition that religious demarkation plays into are undeniable facts about the human species, a complete rejection of established religion is my best hope for creating a new common future. It will be a future that we will have to share with competing supernatural ideologies, some more institutionalized than others, but at least we will be strong, emotionally satiated and standing together as a community.

  • Thanks for your detailed response, Ajita. I agree with virtually everything you said except that I’m betting my life that you are wrong when you say, “Religion itself will, I’m afraid, remain non-naturalistic at its core.”

    I highly recommend Joel R. Primack and Nancy Ellen Abrams book, The View from the Center of the Universe.

    It’s one of the best book I’ve read in my entire life. I think you will enjoy it enormously.

    May you succeed wildly in your endeavor!


    ~ Michael

  • Michael,
    I like what I see in the review of The View from the Center of the Universe. I’m getting a very Carl Sagan vibe from it, and that kind of religion I can embrace, although I would avoid calling it religion for reasons I’ve made clear.

    I hope that I’m wrong about how unlikely it is for religions to become naturalized. Completely accepting a naturalistic worldview, in my understanding, should lead one to reject those characteristics of a religion that make it a religion. There are those like Francis Collins who are naturalistic in everything they believe about the natural world, but maintain a dissonant belief in Christian notions of God, because of what comes down to a neurological condition. There are bound to be some who will see things this way by splitting their logical selves into two, while others remain more consistent by rejecting either naturalism or religion. I do hope, for all our sakes, that you are right and that naturalism will indeed unify us all in a common understanding of reality. That was, in fact, Sagan’s dream!

    I sincerely wish you the best in your efforts as a messenger of evolution in the religious community.



  • The way Connie and I understand and use the word “religion” is simply to mean “to link back” or “to reconnect” with the Whole”.

    Prior to the last few hundred years it was not just difficult to have a natural, factual understanding of life’s big questions, it was impossible. Yet our narrative brains demanded explanations. So we inevitably created so-called supernatural stories and explanations that were NOT, in fact, supernatural, they were prenatural. They were before we could have possibly had a natural understanding.

    So from a purely pragmatic point of view, I think reframing “religion” away from “supernaturalism/unnaturalism” and toward “aligning with Reality” is more likely to work – that is, it is more likely to serve our species in the next fifty years – than is giving up on “religion” as hopelessly tied with unnaturalism.

    In any event, you are doing utterly important work and I wish you the best. If you read “The View from the Center of the Universe”, please do contact me and let me know what you think.


    ~ Michael

    • I disagree when you say “They were before we could have possibly had a natural understanding.” Many materialists have existed well before we had scientific explanations of reality, from Thales and Carvaka through the centuries. Some of the oldest philosophers we have on record were materialists. Having naturalistic explanations is not a pre-condition for a naturalistic mindset, nor is it sufficient reason for the supernaturalists to discard their beliefs. We still don’t have natural understanding about a vast many of the things in the universe. The naturalistic mind asserts that we will, at least in principle. The religious mind will always find God in the gaps.

      Furthermore, research shows that reasoned explanations alone don’t get rid of the need in some people to seek supernatural explanations. For example, check out V.S Ramachandran’s work on brain states. Many people experience god; they see, hear and talk to god. And they are not making it up. They really do experience god, because that’s how their brains are built. In your analysis you forget that humanity has actually evolved a tendency towards supernatural explanations. It is not just a result of not finding natural explanations that leads people to be superstitious. Over hundreds of thousands of years the people who lacked the genetics that code for the reassuring placebo of supernatural instinct may have been eliminated (or close to it) by social pressures. This resulted in a people with the sort of selective pattern-recognition combined with instinctive memory that was useful for our survival in primitive times. It’s like when the shape of a snake is enough to cause panic in a primate, or the fear of the dark prevented our ancestors from being eaten by predators that had much better night vision. Today we dont need the fear of the dark, just as we don’t need (in general) the belief in an all powerful and benevolent personal god, but some of us still have these built into us. I for one was terrified of the dark as a kid, and still recognize that tendency in me. Rationally knowing that there was nothing under my bed did not prevent me from leaving the light on and mumbling prayers till I fell asleep. I just happen to not have a hard-wired tendency for supernatural belief like I did for a fear of the dark. There is a lot of recent literature on this subject, like this excellent New Scientist article.

      A clue can also be got from observing how in countries where organized religion is weak, like Iceland and Japan, the belief in other forms of superstition like elves and spirits is ridiculously high. This would not be such a problem if it wasn’t for the cultural encroachment of other religious flavors, in modern times, increasing extremism and in-group behavior. But that’s another topic altogether.

      Reframing religion away from supernaturalism will only legitimize religion by giving apologists a counter argument, but not naturalize religion itself. This is a form of Sam Harris’ argument against religious moderation. For example, there are atheists and naturalists in Hinduism, but the wide-spread and varied supernatural beliefs and practices (often very harmful) are protected by those elements in Hinduism who offer their naturalistic credentials as a deflecting shield to the arguments of the Indian rationalists. There are thousands of gods, thousands of sects and thousands of rituals, all defended by those who call themselves atheists. Such is the nature of religion that it breeds a sense of in-group allegiance.

      Religions have always taken natural explanations and incorporated them into their fables, only believing these explanations have strengthened their faith. There is always the non-physical world to fall back on, and reason has limits when it meets a mind that values confidence in its inner experience over the objective crunching of numbers.

      Like I said before, I think what you are doing is tremendously important, but I see the end result as strengthening the secular community by adding to its numbers rather than as naturalizing the religious community itself. The value of your work is mush more important for our entire civilization than any of what I do. This is because you are bringing religious people to science, the only system of knowledge that can help us survive as a civilization in the coming decades. The work you do is essential to create a science-friendly majority in matters of public policy on issues such as global warming, environment preservation, stem-cell research and individual rights, and so I heartily applaud your efforts.

  • Thanks for your generous assessment of my work, Ajita. However “the religious mind will always find a God in the gaps” is patently false. I consider myself deeply religious yet I am a thoroughgoing naturalist, and countless others feel the same. The ranks of those who consider themselves “religious naturalists” is growing rapidly, and there is every reason to expect that this will continue.

    I’m betting my life that 50 years from now there will be tens, if not hundreds, of millions of Evolutionary Christians, Evolutionary Hindus, Evolutionary Buddhists, etc – nearly all of them naturalists.

    In any event, I have nothing but the deepest respect and admiration for the work that you are doing. We clearly are on the same “team” even if we have different roles in the body of life.

    Co-evolutionary blessings!

    ~ Michael

    • Thanks to you too Michael, for your kind words about my mission. As I said before, I hope you are right about your views on the future of religion!

      There already are millions of “Evolutionary Hindus”, and I’m sure all religions will absorb the truths of science as they evolve and compete with each other. I just wish that I can say the same for their naturalistic beliefs.

      I hope to follow your work over the years to come.


    • P.S. What you say is true that many more religious people will become naturalists in the future. But those are not the people I am talking about when I say they have a supernaturalistic instinct. You are not one of those. Many religious people (like I was as a kid) are religious because that’s all they have truly known. These people can lose their supernaturalistic beliefs. I am talking about those people who will see all the evidence for evolution and still believe in the supernatural. Those people will forever remain at the core of institutionalized religions. We will have to see how that goes 🙂

    • Why not title it, &#0o28;D2ctors have a role in reducing the number of individuals who use guns to terrorize and kill”? Well because then it would be clear from the title that that role belongs to police officers not physicians. It is just empty rhetoric to point to the object as the problem and not the individual and then assume that physicians have some role. The only role I see is for the physician to be armed to protect themselves and their patients.

  • One final important note: (and why the paragraph in your essay above that mentions me bothers me so): When I say, as I do all the time “Evolution can deepen one’s faith” what I ALWAYS mean by this is simply the following: “Understanding the history of the universe can deepen one’s trust” I am VERY careful in my book and in my public programs to distinguish the following: faith and beliefs are opposites. Faith and trust are synonyms.

  • Ajitha, It will be great if you can get an interview with Dr. V S Ramachandran on Nirmukta. I thought I saw your comment on one his Ted Talks. The man is awesome!

    • Hey Ajit, that’s a splendid idea. I am in awe of the man as well! He may be a bit hard to get my hands on, but he would definitely make a great interviewee. Thanks!

  • Ajita,
    This blogpost and discussion is a little bit over my head for now :-), but I will revisit this later in time.

    Couple this over-abundance of information with a) shorter attention spans, b) less awareness of philosophical concepts because of more focus on skill-training in schools rather than on critical thought and c) the booming pop-culture with its fascination for fleeting & transitional pleasures, and it is clear that developing a culture of scientifically aware individuals is becoming increasingly challenging

    But thanks for explaining the Wittgenstein’s Nightmare.. it makes so much sense. That explains to me why many of my colleagues, who are much smarter than me, are not willing to take the plunge into freethought. It is a very complex and overwhelming world, and understanding more than the here-and-now and foreseeable-future, and developing a comprehensive worldview requires a time consuming study of primers on a variety of fields (evolution, history, geology, philosophy, etc), and that can be an information overload. Its easier to escape by staying in status-quo, and more rewarding in the short-term.

    • Hey Astrokid.nj, I’m glad you liked this post. It was written over a year ago and my ideas have matured a bit on this subject. Nevertheless, the core issue that you have described well and succinctly in your comment is an undeniable problem, and understanding it is vitally important if we are to seek long term solutions to the problems of religion and superstition.

      To be honest with you, I actually think that this coming together of scientific ideas and emotional “meaning” is something that we are already starting to adopt, but I fear that its not happening fast enough.

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