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Science, philosophy and religion: which best offers us the tools to understand the world around us?

November 5th, 2011 · 25 Comments

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This was the title of a meeting organised by the Bristol University Atheist Agnostic and Secular Society on 1st November. The meeting wasn’t recorded, but here is (more or less) what I said.

bristol poster


I’m not quite sure why I’m here, because the fantasies of religion seem to me much like the fantasies of quack medicine, not only morally offensive, but also simply boring. Fruitless speculations about the existence of gods is about as useful a way to spend time as fruitless speculations about whether there really are fairies at the bottom of your garden.

Of course people are free to believe in any daft thing they want, as long as it doesn’t harm anyone else.  The problem is that daft beliefs about religion, just like daft beliefs about medicine, do harm other people.  I suppose it’s my job to point out that neither religion nor philosophy are likely to allow you to understand the world, whereas science has, at least, got a chance of doing so.  It has made a small start already.

What I like about science is that it is undogmatic. When the facts change you are forced to change your mind. If the facts contradict your theory, then your theory is wrong.

Very often, you have simply to say “I don’t know”.  In contrast, religious people virtually never change their minds and very rarely say they “don’t know”.  They invent pseudo-explanations, like “god did it”, for just about anything, and justify it with quotations from holy books. The holy books are so inconsistent, often downright weird, that you can pick a citation that justifies whatever your opinion was in the first place.  You might as well cite a book of magic spells.

I’d maintain that philosophers of science have contributed very little of substance to the conduct of science, but I’ll miss that bit out because I wrote about it last week,. 

Dr Baggini, among others, has claimed that the “new atheists” are too strident, and that they only antagonise moderate atheists (see The New Atheist Movement is destructive, though there is something of a recantation two years later in Religion’s truce with science can’t hold). 

I disagree, for two reasons.

Firstly, people like Richard Dawkins are really not very strident.  Dawkin’s book, The God Delusion, is quiet and scholarly. It takes each of the arguments put forward by religious people, and dissects them one by one.  It’s true that, having done this, he sets forth his conclusions quite bluntly. That seems to me to be a good thing. If your conclusions are stifled by tortuous euphemisms, nobody takes much  notice. Just as in science, simple plain words are best.

The second, and more important, reason that I like Dawkin’s approach is that I suspect it’s the only approach that has much effect.  There is a direct analogy with my own efforts to stop universities giving BSc degrees in subjects that are not science. Worse, they are actively anti-science.  Take for example, homeopathy, the medicine that contains no medicine.  I started by writing polite letters to vice chancellors.  Usually they didn’t even have the courtesy to reply.  All efforts to tackle the problem through the “proper channels” failed.  The only thing that has worked was public derision.  A combination of internal moles and Freedom of Information Act requests unearthed what was being taught on these courses. Like Westminster’s assertion that “amethysts emit high Yin energy”.  Disclosure of such nonsense and headlines like

“Professor Geoffrey Petts of the University of Westminster says they “are not teaching pseudo-science”. The facts show this is not true

are certainly somewhat strident. But they have worked.  Forget the proper channels if you want results. Mock what deserves to be mocked.

Religion is often immoral

When a pair of besuited Mormons knock on the front door, there are two reactions.  Most people hide under the kitchen table.  I don’t. I invite them in. It usually goes something like this. “why don’t you believe in god?”.  To which I respond, “I don’t believe in god on moral grounds.  All religions that I have encountered teach immorality”

This response is greeted with incredulity and indignation.  You may think, is a bit strong, so let’s have some examples. The bible says (amongst many contradictory things)

Deuteronomy , chapters 7 & 20. and Joshua, chapters 6, 8, 10, 11, 14, etc.: After wandering in the desert for four decades, God ordered the Hebrews to invade the "promised land" and totally exterminate "the Hittites, and the Amorites, the Canaanites, and the Perizzites, the Hivites and the Jebusites"leaving "alive nothing that breathes." They were to fight and kill the soldiers of these groups, and then murder the defenseless elderly, women, youths, children, infants, and newborns. The book of Joshua records the progress of the genocide, city by city:

Deuteronomy 21
 20. And they shall say unto the elders of his city, This our son is stubborn and rebellious, he will not obey our voice; he is a glutton, and a drunkard.
 21. And all the men of his city shall stone him with stones, that he die: so shalt thou put evil away from among you; and all Israel shall hear, and fear.

and the Koran says

“The woman and the man guilty of adultery or fornication—flog each of them with hundred stripes: Let no compassion move you in their case, in a matter prescribed by God, if ye believe in God and the last day.”[Quran 24:2] “

If these aren’t deeply immoral, I don’t know what is. This gratuitous cruelty isn’t just Old Testament either. This is what persuaded me that religion is bad.

When I was about 15 I went to a summer camp which turned out to be run by christian evangelists (my parents swore they didn’t realise that it was a brain-washing camp).  I was converted and became rather earnest.  Then, at 18, I met a nurse.   Being on Merseyside, she was Irish. And being 18, I was rather interested in sex.  The price of sex was to go with her to mass, so of course I went.  It was Easter and they were doing the Twelve Stations of the Cross.  I still recall watching this, with mounting horror.  The priests were just enjoying it too much.  It was almost like a sado-masochistic orgy.  The priests seemed to be almost masturbating.   It was simply sick. Quite revolting.

Once, after walking in the Dolomites, I wrote to the Italian Tourist Authority to complain that my holiday was spoiled because every time I got to the top of a mountain, I was greeted with a scene of graphic torture (a crucifix). It is very offensive to any normal human.
Of course, since then, it’s turned out that a large number of priests were not just enjoying the torture in their heads, but had been acting out their nasty fantasies through rape of real children.  And that the Church (including the present pope) had gone to great lengths to conceal their activities from m the public and from the police.

The constant emphasis on guilt is horrible for adults. But telling happy young children that they are guilty sinners is obnoxious. It is a form of child abuse. And catholic schools that decorate classrooms with scenes of torture corrupt young minds.  Indoctrinating children in one particular sect of one religion are not part of a civilized society.  It promotes misunderstanding and prejudice between one child and another. This sort of divisive brainwashing is ghastly.

Ludicrously, when you pass 18, the law reverses itself.  Up to the age of 18 you are encouraged by moral politicians (you know, like Blair and Gove) to promote religious segregation but once you pass 18, that sort of behaviour would, very properly, be illegal. The Universities Tests Act (1871) made it illegal for a university discriminate on grounds of religion, as governments actively encourage schools to do. (The Act was passed, of course, to bring Oxford and Cambridge up to the standards set by UCL in 1826.)

Then, of course, there is the church’s contribution to the spread of AIDS, by telling direct lies about condoms. The list goes on and on.

And these people want to tell us about morals? You must be joking.

When Napoleon mentioned to the great mathematician, Laplace, that God is not mentioned in the Me’chanique ce’leste, Laplace replied, " Sire, I did not need that hypothesis." When Napoleon later reported this reply to Lagrange, the latter remarked, "Ah, but that is a fine hypothesis. It explains so many things."

History doesn’t relate whether Lagrange’s comment was deeply ironical, but I like to think it was. It hits the nub of the problem.  Religion explains nothing whatsoever, just muddles the ideas, and replaces one unknown with another.

At the time of the Reformation, Sir Thomas More was fond of burning heretics at the stake (merely possessing a bible in English was enough to get you tortured to death). .The protestants were no better, of course: they eventually decapitated More. But it won’t do to say that these things happened in the 16th century. In the 20th Century the pope declared the heretic-burner to be saint (one of the curious bits of make-believe that catholics seem to enjoy). Worse still, in 2000, Pope John Paul II declared Thomas More to be the “heavenly patron of statesmen and politicians” (whatever that means).

And of course it still goes on. Catholics and protestants kill each other. Sunnis and Shias kill each other. It’s characteristic of organisations whose beliefs are based on myths to be deeply aggrieved by people whose myths differ in some trivial detail. It happens in alternative medicine too. It’s all summed up in the "religious joke of the year".

I was walking across a bridge one day, and I saw a man standing on the edge, about to jump. I ran over and said: "Stop. Don’t do it."

"Why shouldn’t I?" he asked.

"Well, there’s so much to live for!"

"Like what?"

"Are you religious?"

He said, "Yes."

I said, "Me too. Are you Christian or Buddhist?"


"Me too. Are you Catholic or Protestant?"


"Me too. Are you Episcopalian or Baptist?"


"Wow. Me too. Are you Baptist Church of God or Baptist Church of the Lord?"

"Baptist Church of God."
"Me too. Are you original Baptist Church of God, or are you Reformed Baptist Church of God?"

"Reformed Baptist Church of God."

"Me too. Are you Reformed Baptist Church of God, Reformation of 1879, or Reformed Baptist Church of God, Reformation of 1915?"

He said: "Reformed Baptist Church of God, Reformation of 1915."

I said: "Die, heretic scum," and pushed him off.

In a nutshell, my objection to religion is that, with occasional honourable exceptions, it spreads immorality and violence. 

Of course non-religious people can be just as immoral and violent, but, in the words of Stephen Weinberg:

"for good people to do evil things, it takes religion."

Is there hope for something better?

It’s pretty clear that as education spreads, religion dies.  The process is well-advanced in the west, in every country apart from the USA, but in the USA religion is just another business, devoted to extracting money, mostly from the poor, and supporting the extreme right wing parties and military adventurism.

We shouldn’t be too smug about Islam either. Admittedly I was slightly taken aback when a second year undergraduate, on duty at an Islamic exhibition at UCL, told me that "when Islam came to power in the UK I would be executed" (and then asked for my name). But it’s little more than 100 years since we stopped whipping people and people were still being hanged in my lifetime.  My guess is that in another few hundred years, Islam will catch up. It will become gradually less cruel and women will, bit by bit, come to be treated as human beings. But once that happens, Islam will start to die out altogether, just as Christianity has (almost) done in the West.

So, in the words of the atheist bus campaign.

 "There is probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life."


In the questions after the talk, I was spurred into saying

Religion is what we had before the enlightenment

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Tags: atheism · christianity · Education · Freedom of Information Act · Freedom of speech · fundamentalism · religion

25 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Samuel Furse // Nov 5, 2011 at 11:17

    Pleased this has been posted.
    Not only do I feel sure that what was said is right–though I will state my conflict of interest: I am a post doc–but more than that is a great confidence-giver. I find myself cripplingly constrained by politeness to not say to quacks, fairy-talers etc that I think they are talking rubbish.
    The closest I get is to ‘viva’ them on what they are saying. For example the girlfriend of a friend of a friend is an astrologer (a proper one, not one of the newspaper ones, she told me) but the most damning I could say in a conversation about it was to ask her why the position of Saturn (a good thousand million miles away as far as I know) at a child’s birth was more important to his/her life than whether or not they had a parent who was a violent alcoholic.
    She didn’t have a coherent answer, but I am not sure whether in the context of the conversation I got my point across clearly enough.
    Is my approach weak and disingenuous or gentle and unflinching? Or is it better not to diuscuss it personally, and just identify with science rather than silliness?

  • 2 aggressivePerfector // Nov 5, 2011 at 12:31

    Delighted you remembered that exchange between Laplace and Lagrange – following my comments about Laplace last week, this was one of the first things that popped into my head as I started reading this post.

    In fact, if my sources are correct, there is more to the story. After Lagrange said ‘explains everything,’ Laplace agreed, ‘yes, explains everything, but predicts nothing.’

    In my mind this a perfect example of just how well Laplace understood probability and inference – the model has too many (infinite) degrees of freedom to be of any possible use, and to have any non-vanishing probability of representing the truth.

  • 3 Religion, Philosophy, and Science « Mm172001's Blog // Nov 5, 2011 at 18:21

    [...] was going through my Zite app this morning and came across this article I would like to share: article the article talks about how religion can not prove anything, neither can philosophy; but sometimes [...]

  • 4 socratella // Nov 6, 2011 at 21:47

    There will always be people who want religion as long as people are 1. scared of
    dying and 2. are afraid of taking responsibility for their choices in life. It’s a lot easier to say “it’s god’s will.”

  • 5 ***The Skeptiko Random Stuff Thread*** - Page 267 - Parapsychology and alternative medicine forums of mind-energy.net // Nov 7, 2011 at 04:26

    [...] David Colquhoun speaks his mind about religion Science, philosophy and religion: which best offers us the tools to understand the world around us? [...]

  • 6 Majikthyse // Nov 7, 2011 at 09:24

    I agree that Dawkins broke the mould by making criticism of religion no longer off limits. `The God Delusion’ is not without the odd error, but that doesn’t of course invalidate the whole book. My Christian friends gave me McGrath’s `The Dawkins Delusion’, which I found shallow and evasive. They had not of course read Dawkins – too dangerous to do that!

  • 7 Anton_bradley // Nov 7, 2011 at 11:44

    Very nice. With Summer on the way here in Australia there is a definite increase in door-door evangelism – I may have to be more welcoming

  • 8 I do like a good invigorating speech | Pharyngula // Nov 7, 2011 at 13:34

    [...] this one: David Colquhoun speaks his mind about religion. Share this: Posted in Atheism « Why I am an atheist – Pris Why I am an atheist [...]

  • 9 Ian Wardell // Nov 7, 2011 at 15:08

    What I like about science is that it is undogmatic. When the facts change you are forced to change your mind. If the facts contradict your theory, then your theory is wrong.

    Very often, you have simply to say “I don’t know”.

    But not — it seems — all the time. You seem to think some things we can be absolutely certain of. No, not just mathematical truths, deductive logic and tautologies. Later you say:

    Take for example, homeopathy, the medicine that contains no medicine. I started by writing polite letters to vice chancellors. Usually they didn’t even have the courtesy to reply. All efforts to tackle the problem through the “proper channels” failed. The only thing that has worked was public derision.

    So it seems we can be absolutely sure that homeopathy doesn’t work! I wonder how you know?

    Maybe it doesn’t work, maybe it does, I really haven’t a clue not having ever read anything about it. And I suspect you don’t have a clue either.

    Regardless, it seems to clash with the spirit of science as not being dogmatic that you mentioned.

    I often think that although science isn’t dogmatic, scientists most certainly are!

    Re Dawkin’s book. He merely contents himself with attacking the most simple and naive concepts of god imaginable. I reviewed his god delusion on Amazon uk and gave it a one star rating.

    As for the question of whether science, philosophy or religion offers us the best tools to understand the world . .well clearly not religion.

    It depends what you mean by “understand the world”. It’s ultimate nature? Or how it operates? The former requires philosophy, the latter science.

  • 10 David Colquhoun // Nov 7, 2011 at 16:24

    @Ian Wardell
    It is unwise of you to assume that, because you are willing to express an opinion without have read anything, that others will do the same. It would not have taken you long to discover, for example about homeopathy. It was all summed up in 1842 by Oliver Wendell Holmes.

    “‘a mingled mass of perverse ingenuity, of tinsel erudition, of imbecile credulity, and of artful misrepresentation, too often mingled in practice, if we may trust the authority of its founder, with heartless and shameful imposition’ “

    I’d also like to point out that the converse of “I don’t know” is not “I’m absolutely certain”.

    And if you think you can learn the ultimate nature of the world, I think you are sadly overoptimistic.

  • 11 michaelgrayer // Nov 7, 2011 at 17:32

    How ironic it is that, as the discussant on the panel arguing in favour of science having the best tools for understanding the world, that you chose to use the unscientific methods of rhetorical anecdote (the joke at the end), cherry-picked history (let’s add the Soviet Union and North Korea as counterexamples to your narrative of religion’s misdeeds), personal testimony (you have rightly pointed out the fallacy of anti-vaccination campaigners using their personal bad experiences with doctors to promote their cause), appeals to emotion (references to torture and indoctrination, for example) and factoids that have very little – if any – basis in fact (“religious people virtually never change their minds and very rarely say they “don’t know””? wait, what?!) to do so.

  • 12 imc // Nov 7, 2011 at 21:06

    The above comment by michaelgrayer illustrates DC’s point. I am sure the post could have done more than “cherry-pick” examples relating to the poisonous influence of religion, but maybe he didn’t want to bore us with almost the entire history of human civilisation up to the present day. Open a history book… Religious people cannot, by definition, change their minds without becoming steadily more non-religious, since religion deals in received truths from a supernatural authority that are infallible.

    But what really gets my goat is the hoary old, “Just look at Communism/Soviet Union/N. Korea/Third Reich to see what happens” trope. Atheism is not ideology! These regimes are as anti-rational and anti-science as any religion, primarily because they seek to replace religion with fanatical ideology, rather than simply removing the problem altogether. Atheism rejects religion, it does not seek to replace it with some other irrational belief or cult.

  • 13 pvandck // Nov 7, 2011 at 22:26

    @Samuel Furse Made me laugh a bit. You must have modelled yourself on Mr Barrowclough, in Porridge. :)

  • 14 ***The Skeptiko Random Stuff Thread*** - Page 268 - Parapsychology and alternative medicine forums of mind-energy.net // Nov 8, 2011 at 00:55

    [...] we will investigate it. If it turns out to be whatever magic is, then so be it. ~~ Paul In the link that Sniffy provided the guy states: [...]

  • 15 Cody // Nov 8, 2011 at 02:04

    Good post, I couldn’t agree more.

    Over on Jeffrey Shallit’s blog Recursivity, as a response to a post he wrote with the same Emo Philips joke you posted above (pushed him off the bridge), I posted this:

    Isaac Asimov wrote something like a longer version of that Emo Philips joke here: The Reagan Doctrine.

  • 16 michaelgrayer // Nov 8, 2011 at 11:35

    “Religious people cannot, by definition, change their minds without becoming steadily more non-religious, since religion deals in received truths from a supernatural authority that are infallible.”

    Wait, what?

  • 17 ***The Skeptiko Random Stuff Thread*** - Page 269 - Parapsychology and alternative medicine forums of mind-energy.net // Nov 8, 2011 at 14:32

    [...] won't be. Hmph well my comment still hasn't appeared. We're talking about my response to this. No idea why. I wasn't rude or anything. This is what I said in blue. [...]

  • 18 CrewsControl // Nov 8, 2011 at 17:45

    Prof Colquhoun doesn’t enlighten us on the intellectual force of the musings of Sheikh Ramzi, although we can guess, but if you want to hear how vague, vacuous, moth eaten and threadbare the whole religious brocade really is listen to Rabbi Sacks …saying …well not much at all on Start the Week (17 Oct 2011; available as a podcast http://www.bbc.co.uk/podcasts/series/stw). Richard Dawkins, also appeared and as ever, was in fine form and had the Rabbi on the back foot throughout. Professor Lisa Randall had some pertinent things to say as well

    At one point Sacks accused Dawkins of being “Tone deaf to religion”. To which Dawkins replied that he wasn’t sure there was anything to hear
    Sacks managed to get in the last word with “Without God we are without hope” which had Dawkins and Randall spluttering in the background. Marr rather unfairly brought proceedings to a close before Dawkins could effortlessly knock that one for six.
    And as for DC’s comment that

    ‘The problem is that daft beliefs about religion, just like daft beliefs about medicine, do harm other people.’

    It now seems to be the case that if one tries to ridicule some of the bonkers ideas that spring from some of the ‘great’ religions one is likely to find, at best one’s workplace isn’t there in the morning or at worst one’s head is only loosely attached to one’s body.

  • 19 David Colquhoun // Nov 9, 2011 at 02:56

    Most of what you said has been answered very adequately by @imc

    I thought I had dealt with you problem at the end. when I said

    Of course non-religious people can be just as immoral and violent, but, in the words of Stephen Weinberg:

    “for good people to do evil things, it takes religion.”

    The point about changing minds seem to me to be illustrated very well. It has changed its mind, though usually 50 or 100 years after everyone else. And it has therefore appeared slow and indecisive (think of the tent city at St Paul’s cathedral). In the process it has gradually lost its followers and closed its churches.

    You are right, I didn’t talk about what Ramzey said (preferring not to be decapitated just yet).

    He was rather charming, though the conversation was liberally interspersed with blessings which, though no doubt well meant, were not really to my taste. It must be said that he was something of a name-dropper. I was told several times that he was an advisor to the British Government. and a friend of (wait for it) Richard Dawkins.

    His speech rather like a sermon to the faithful. That didn’t seem to me to be quite appropriate for the occasion. All the difficult questions were evaded in the talk, and in the discussion, when I asked directly about the treatment of women, I was assured blandly that Islam had been in the forefront of the advancement of women. I noticed on the way out that he was driving a very large Mercedes. How predictable.

  • 20 A good short piece on science, philosophy, and religion « Why Evolution Is True // Nov 9, 2011 at 12:49

    [...] talk wasn’t recorded, but he’s transcribed it over at his website, DC’s Improbable Science.  After the mish-mash of theobabble we’re used to, this piece is short, straight, and to the [...]

  • 21 socratella // Nov 9, 2011 at 13:10

    “Good” and “bad” are moral judgements. As such they are not things in themselves, they are relative to the underlying value system. Hence, what may be judged “good” in Islam might be judged “bad” in Christianity.

  • 22 Grab-bag for a Wednesday Morning « Choice in Dying // Nov 9, 2011 at 15:34

    [...] science, philosophy and religion. Jerry Coyne has a post on DC (as he calls himself on his blog: DC’s Improbable Science) this morning which is worth reading. DC is a pharmacologist at the University of London whose [...]

  • 23 David Colquhoun // Nov 9, 2011 at 16:30

    Thanks to P.Z. Myers. The link on his Pharyngula blog generated 10,000 extra hits in a single day,

  • 24 michaelgrayer // Nov 10, 2011 at 13:04

    The point about changing minds seem to me to be illustrated very well.

    By what? I don’t share your opinion.

    It has changed its mind, though usually 50 or 100 years after everyone else.

    Er… what? Now you’ve really lost me. Who else? Why is religion the specific causal factor?

    And it has therefore appeared slow and indecisive (think of the tent city at St Paul’s cathedral). In the process it has gradually lost its followers and closed its churches.

    I think that that’s grossly unfair on St. Paul’s. It took about a week’s consideration for them to arrive at their position, in the face of intense pressure from several factions: the City, the protesters, and (probably most of all) everybody’s favourite sh*t-stirrers, the media. You are already familiar with (and have written in depth with great eloquence about) the media’s curious desire to generate wild speculations and indulge in “false balance” debates on scientific issues (particularly health and climate stories). Appearing indecisive is, in my opinion, more down to media frenzy than anything else.

    That they took a week to arrive at a considered decision in spite of the knee-jerk furore and wild speculation rather goes against your argument the “religious people virtually never change their minds”.

    Also @imc:
    I am disappointed that you have turned my offering of the Soviet Union and North Korea as counter-examples to the “religion causes war” thesis into “Just look at Communism/Soviet Union/N. Korea/Third Reich to see what happens [when a society is atheist]”. The semantic distinction is subtle, but crucial, and I’m sure it’s not beyond you.

  • 25 DMcILROY // Nov 18, 2011 at 22:58

    FWIW I also think it is a little too easy to dismiss clear counterexamples (to the religion causes war or overt cruelty to others hypothesis) as being some kind of old chestnut not worth bothering about. While one might contend that revolutionary France did try to replace chrisitianity with another religious ideology (the cult of the supreme being), the same was not true of Nazi Germany. Although Hitler was of course portrayed as a supremely clairvoyant, intelligent, courageous – add any superlatives you like – leader by the Nazi propaganda machine, he was never made out to be some kind of god. In a similar vein, as far as I understand, the motivation of the many, many people involved in the Nazi war crimes was not religious in any way. Rather, they felt that the awful crimes they committed were justified in some way by the greater good that would result for the German people.

    Therefore, I do think that this counterexample does show that religion is not the root of all humanity’s ills – the most dreadful crimes can be committed by large groups of people without religion.

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