Arts & Culture

Can Science Deliver the Benefits of Religion?

August 07, 2013

The claim that humans evolved from non-humans is among the best established in science. It is backed by overwhelming evidence from diverse sources and fits into a rich and elegant picture of the biological world, with modern humans appearing around 200,000 years ago, more than three billion years after the origins of life on earth. Yet, according to a Gallup survey, nearly half of Americans reject evolution, instead endorsing the view that “God created human beings pretty much in their present form at one time within the last 10,000 years or so.”

Why this resistance to human evolution? Religious commitments play a role, to be sure, but pointing to religion isn’t enough to explain why human evolution, in particular, engenders such a chilly reception in Americans’ hearts and minds. After all, a view of the solar system with humans at its center was eventually displaced (if ungracefully), and people aren’t nearly so troubled by the idea that plants evolve. There’s something special about human evolution—something that many find existentially upsetting, even untenable.

Research in experimental psychology offers a host of compelling explanations for why this could be. Perhaps humans are innately predisposed to creationism. Perhaps religious beliefs are “natural” and contemporary scientific commitments the psychological anomaly. There is something to be said for these claims, but if creationism—and the rejection of human evolution—is the belief toward which our species is naturally predisposed, we’re faced with an equally perplexing mystery: How is it that some people manage to embrace human evolution, and, indeed—to borrow Darwin’s phrase—to find “grandeur in this view of life”?

Can science, with its systematic approach to understanding nature, offer a satisfying portrait of the natural world and our place within it? Can science provide the same existential benefits typically thought to be the sole province of religion? Some recent psychological findings suggest that it can. But before turning to this new research, with its tantalizing promise of a psychologically fulfilling and scientifically grounded worldview, we need to understand the standard tale of why so many people reject human evolution in favor of creationist alternatives.


Is Creationism the “Natural” Human Belief?
High-profile debates concerning the role of evolution and creationism in public education (remember Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District back in 2005?) and widely cited research documenting Americans’ anomalously high rejection of evolution have left many members of the scientifically inclined public wondering what gives. One response has been to offer psychological, sociological, or historical explanations for people’s beliefs, and in particular for the strong pull of creationism. For example, the psychologist Paul Bloom argues that creationism and belief in God may be “bred in the bone,” byproducts of the very evolutionary forces that shaped the human mind.

On this view, certain features of human psychology leave us pining for a creator. For instance, some have claimed that humans are “promiscuously teleological,” saddled with a tendency to construe objects and their properties as designed for a purpose. Understanding the natural world in terms of design suggests some prolific operator behind the scenes, so theistic stories of creation fill a useful explanatory role for the teleologically minded. Relatedly, humans appear to be overzealous in our attributions of agency, inclined to posit some sort of person or beastie at the slightest provocation—the sound of a broken twig in a forest, the creak on an old staircase, or the face-like constellation of whorls in a cloud. With a hyperactive agency detector constantly acting up, it's not so hard to entertain a world populated by gods, ghosts, or gremlins.

Beyond these relatively cognitive biases are more emotional and existential benefits associated with religious beliefs. For example, a growing body of research suggests that reducing people’s sense of personal control—by, for example, having them think about randomness and unpredictability or write about an experience over which they had little influence—increases the extent to which they endorse belief in a controlling God. This effect is probably mediated by anxiety and arousal: the negative feelings generated by uncertainty or powerlessness lead to the boost in theistic belief, suggesting that such beliefs compensate for a certain kind of existential unease.

Another line of research has found that when religious people (Christians, in most studies) are reminded of their own mortality, endorsements of religious belief can increase. At least one finding suggests that those who identify most strongly as religious fear death least. Religious beliefs—and perhaps especially belief in an afterlife—seem to play a role in relieving anxiety associated with death. Even non-religious people who are primed to think of death are slower to classify religious supernatural entities as imaginary. While not all aspects of religious belief are comforting—think fire and brimstone—it appears that at least some of them are, making creationist commitments an appealing choice.


Why Human Evolution Is Hard to Swallow
In The Blind Watchmaker (1986), Richard Dawkins quips, “It is almost as if the human brain were specifically designed to misunderstand Darwinism, and to find it hard to believe.” Indeed, many psychologists have argued that, beyond the desire for comforting religious belief, additional tendencies conspire to make natural selection especially difficult to understand and accept, particularly when applied to the case of humans.

For starters, understanding evolution requires wrapping your head around some pretty abstract concepts, such as probability, geologic time, and what the biologist Ernst Mayr called “population thinking”: evolution isn’t a process that occurs at the level of individual organisms changing over time; it is better characterized as change over time in the proportion of individuals within a population who have particular characteristics. But this shift in perspective is difficult to achieve, and in fact mirrors the historical development of evolutionary ideas, with predecessors to Darwin often characterizing processes of change at the level of individuals. For example, Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, a naturalist who worked a generation before Darwin, believed that offspring acquired the characteristics of their parents, but that many of those characteristics were acquired within the lifetime of the parent, making individual organisms the site of evolutionary change.

Another cognitive bias that challenges population thinking is what psychologists call “psychological essentialism,” the idea that categories—in this case biological species—all share some common, underlying essence by virtue of which they have their characteristic properties and belong to the category they do. On an essentialist view, variation across individual members of a species is incidental. If a species changes over time, it must be because the common, underlying essence is changing in each individual. With natural selection, however, variation isn’t incidental but imperative: it’s a prerequisite to the differential survival and reproduction that fuels evolutionary change. Without variation there is no selection, so failing to appreciate the role of variation is a sure way to misunderstand Darwin’s theory.

People prefer control and order to feeling powerless in a disordered world, and natural selection is largely about luck and death.

Just as cognitive and existential concerns work in tandem to make creationism attractive, additional existential worries raise barriers to endorsing evolution, whether or not it is properly understood. People prefer control and order to feeling powerless in a disordered world, and natural selection is largely about luck and death. One study found that when primed to think about their own powerlessness, even relatively secular students found “random” evolution harder to swallow: they preferred intelligent design more often than when they were primed to feel powerful in a predictable world.

Additional concerns apply to the case of human evolution, in particular. People find it dehumanizing to conceptualize themselves as animals, and human evolution underscores the continuity between humans and our (distant) cockroach cousins. Research in social psychology and social cognition suggests that people endorse something like a great chain of being with moral and spiritual aspects. Humans are somewhere in the middle of the chain, with deities above and non-human animals below. Associating animal characteristics with humans has been used to justify inhumane treatment; it strips people of human uniqueness and certain aspects of agency and moral consideration. An evolutionary history shared with other animals—and even plants and bacteria—might threaten the separation between human and non-human that maintaining our “specialness” seems to require.

Finally, people often draw inappropriate conclusions from evolutionary claims—conclusions that they prefer to reject. One study asked undergraduates to identify whether the truth of evolution would have negative, positive, or neutral implications for a host of social and personal issues. The researchers found that the overwhelming majority of students queried believed that evolution made it harder to find purpose in life, threatened the existence of free will, and justified selfishness and racism, among other undesirable ends. These claims are examples of what philosophers call the “naturalistic fallacy,” the error of deriving “ought” from “is”—an error that readers often make in response to strictly descriptive scientific findings. For example, the idea that genes are selfish might offer a compelling description of some evolutionary dynamics (though even that is controversial), but it doesn’t follow that human selfishness is appropriate.

If the vast majority of people fail to understand evolution, find it dehumanizing, and think it justifies all sorts of perversity, is it any wonder they’re disinclined to accept it, especially when creationism offers a more heartening alternative? 

It may be that assorted mental dispositions and shortcomings—a preference for teleology, hyperactive agency detection, anxiety concerning death, psychological essentialism, a preference for order and control, an unhealthy fascination with human uniqueness, and the naturalistic fallacy, all wed to what psychologists call “motivated reasoning”—are enough to explain people’s rejection of human evolution in favor of some form of creationism.

But probably not. Explanations for people’s beliefs can’t be nearly so simple. That’s in part because there is no singular belief shared by all or even most people. There are as many beliefs as there are humans (probably more), and the range and diversity of religious and non-religious beliefs rival the range and diversity of our lives and experiences. 

A more straightforward empirical challenge is that variation across people in their levels of anxiety concerning death, their understanding of evolution, or their belief that evolution is bad news for social and personal issues doesn’t reliably predict variation in the presence or strength of religious beliefs. Most studies of evolutionary understanding find that a majority of students hold systematic misconceptions about natural selection and that those who accept evolution aren’t much more likely to have an accurate understanding. So even if some mixture of psychological forces can help explain why particular ideas about human origins are so widespread, they do a poor job explaining why some people believe them and others do not.

And then there’s the puzzle alluded to already: Given the overwhelming number and strength of the psychological forces posited to favor creationism over human evolution, how is it that some people not only accept human evolution, but also embrace it as a deeply elegant and inspiring feature of the biological world, capable of satisfying our existential needs?


Finding Meaning in Science
The writer and astrophysicist Carl Sagan famously offered science as a “candle in the dark” to help illuminate a “demon-haunted world.” Scientists and others, before and after Sagan, have turned to science not only as a useful tool for predicting and controlling the natural world, but also as a source of beauty, comfort, and inspiration. Until very recently, however, such claims about the psychologically transformative potential of scientific ideas and of a scientific worldview were, ironically, restricted to speculation and anecdote.

With a new body of research in experimental psychology, however, this is beginning to change. In fact, four recent papers confirm that science offers many of the same existential benefits as religion. The implications are powerful.

First, consider a forthcoming paper in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, which examines whether belief in science can mitigate stress and anxiety about death. In an initial study, rowers were asked to fill out a questionnaire either immediately before a competition (a high-stress situation) or before a routine practice (a low-stress situation). The questionnaire assessed the rowers’ belief in science by asking them to indicate how much they agreed with statements such as “science provides us with a better understanding of the universe than religion does” and “science is the most valuable part of human culture.” Sure enough, participants in the high-stress condition were significantly more likely than those in the low-stress condition to endorse these claims, suggesting that affirming the value of science was a strategy for mitigating high levels of stress.

The idea of a non-random, deterministic evolutionary process helped relieve the discomfort of feeling powerless.

In a second study, the researchers had participants write their thoughts about their own death, increasing the salience of their own mortality. In a control condition, participants wrote about experiencing dental pain. Those in the former condition expressed greater faith in science, mirroring documented effects of mortality salience on religious belief. Again, the finding suggests that science—like religion—can offer comfort in the face of existential anxiety.

Next consider a 2010 study that examined the psychological role of belief in scientific and technological progress. Participants were primed to feel powerful or powerless by writing about an unpleasant episode in which they did or did not have control, along with three reasons to believe the future is or is not controllable. Those in the latter condition were more likely to value funding for scientific research and to anticipate long-term technological progress, suggesting that belief in science and scientific progress helped to mitigate the negative effects of feeling powerless in an unpredictable world. Again, these findings mirror those with respect to religion, where belief in a controlling God appears to help people cope with feelings of low personal control.

Of course, not all religious ideas are equally comforting, and there is no reason to expect scientific ideas to be any more homogeneous in this respect. Another study investigated whether some kinds of scientific theories are regarded as more orderly and predictable and, if so, whether a threat to personal control would result in a preference for more orderly and predictable theories over alternatives. To test this hypothesis, the researchers contrasted “stage” theories—which posit that processes of change and development occur in fixed and discrete stages, such as Kohlberg’s stage theory of moral development—with “continuum” theories, according to which change is more variable and occurs along one or more continua. Although study participants judged stage theories less credible, they also judged such theories more orderly and predictable. And experiments confirmed that when subjects were primed to feel powerless or to consider randomness and uncertainty, their relative preference for the stage theories increased, suggesting that the more orderly and predictable the scientific theory, the better it compensated for a lack of personal control.


Finding Meaning in Evolution
Having seen that belief in science and scientific progress can have existential benefits that parallel those of religion, we can return to where we began and consider what this means for belief in evolution. Recall a study mentioned already, in which secular university students were primed to feel powerful or powerless and subsequently asked to choose between two accounts of life on earth. When the two options were the theory of evolution and intelligent design, the majority of students opted for the former. However, they were less likely to do so when they had been primed to feel powerless as opposed to powerful. This suggests that intelligent design—the idea of a supervised, goal-directed process of change—was comforting in a way that compensated for the unease induced by the prime to feel powerless.

However, the researchers also considered a third option: a version of evolution inspired by the paleontologist Simon Conway Morris, which downplays the role of “random processes” and instead describes evolution as highly deterministic. When researchers asked participants to choose between the theory of evolution and this modified variant, the results were similar to those involving intelligent design: participants preferred the theory of evolution overall, but they were more likely to choose the variant when they were primed to feel powerless than when they were primed to feel powerful. This suggests that, like intelligent design, the idea of a non-random, deterministic evolutionary process helped relieve the discomfort of feeling powerless. In fact the prime to feel powerless had no effect on the proportion of participants choosing intelligent design over the deterministic variant of evolution—the two appeared to be equivalent in their ability to compensate for low personal control.

So perhaps belief in a designer—be it the well-known Judeo-Christian version or the unspecified mover of intelligent design—isn’t unique in its ability to compensate for feelings of low personal control. When it comes to evolution, that leaves room for naturalistic accounts of human origins that offer at least some of the psychological benefits of religious belief.

Research on the existential and emotional aspects of particular scientific beliefs or of a scientific worldview is in its infancy, but the findings so far suggest we’ve been asking the wrong questions when it comes to understanding the widespread rejection of human evolution in favor of divine creation. The relevant contrast might not be between science and religion but between beliefs that promise an orderly universe—one in which individual humans or some external forces, be they natural or divine, impose structure and corral uncertainty—and those that do not.

Perhaps it is no surprise that religious beliefs have tended to fit the more psychologically attractive profile. Religion isn’t tethered to empirical facts the way scientific theories are; it is free to shift, to fit the contours of the human mind. When it comes to science, however, the empirical world offers hard constraints. We can hope for scientific theories that offer an orderly and predictable view of the natural world, but we can’t enforce them.

What we can do is rethink the way evolutionary ideas are presented, and work to improve people’s understanding of the ways in which natural selection is—and is not—a random and unpredictable process. While humanity may be an evolutionary accident in some sense, our place in the tree of life can be characterized in highly systematic ways that highlight the exquisite dynamics of evolutionary change. There are patterns in the natural world, and grasping them can be revelatory.

These new strands of research can’t promise a scientifically grounded account of human origins that rivals creationism in its psychological appeal, but they can help to explain how some people find beauty and fulfillment in a naturalistic worldview. There is something deeply satisfying in broadening the scope of what we understand. And that is part of the seductive grandeur of science.

Photograph: Paolo Barzman/flickr


Seems more closely a belief in some sort of positivism to me!

I kept waiting for an acknowledgement of what I had always been taught as a Catholic--God created the world using evolution as His tool.  Why, if He didn't have to? We don't know.  Here, I see an either/or presentation-- "So perhaps belief in a designer—be it the well-known Judeo-Christian version or the unspecified mover of intelligent design—isn’t unique in its ability to compensate for feelings of low personal control. When it comes to evolution, that leaves room for naturalistic accounts of human origins that offer at least some of the psychological benefits of religious belief."
Why can't the "unspecified mover," with all that omnipotence, be God?  How is a deterministic universe not determined *by* someone, or "intelligent degign" designed by an agent with intelligence?  Refusing to call that God is just stubborn.   Either way, it is reassuring because it tells us, "Everything is under control."

Simple. I.D is trying to avoid the law about not having religion in schools by not making it explicit that the designer is God. The designer, for example, could have been a superior alien race. Thus ID is not committed to the view that the designer was God. In so doing, ID hopes to be accepted as an 'alternative' to evolution. For more on this, search for information on Erich von Daniken. He proposed the alien creator idea, AFAIK

None of the included research seems to incorporate what might be thought of as the elephant in the room: if our ancestors were inferior to us as human — more primitive, less articulate, etc. — then what and how will our descendants be? Will they, from a superior viewpoint, see us as primitive life forms?
Plant that scenario in an experiment if you want to study the effect of evolutionary thought on psychological conditioning.

Normally evolution takes hundreds of thousands of years to affect, but already the next generation sees me as inferior.   :)

It is obvious to me that my children (and their friends and colleagues) are superior to me. One bit of evidence is that they are way too respectful and graceful and confident and socially competent to let on.

Evolutionarily, nothing significant has changed in humans in thousands of years (assuming you only count genetics, I suppose), yet we feel superior to our own ancestors due to learning, opportunity, technology...
Our mastery of electricity and air conditioning alone makes us superior in so many ways to the folks right here in this same region during the American Civil War. We no longer average an 8th grade education. We have more idle time to think and philosophize.

Do you suggest that some view people of the future, with the flying cars, ray guns and meals in pill form (to pull from classic science fiction) as a threat to us, and that psychologically we might strive to maintain a status quo or something similar?

Actually, there have been some evolutionary changes in the human population over the past few thousand years.  These changes involve things like ability to tolerate alcohol, ability to tolerate lactose, and resistance to various diseases, most notably the Black Death but also influenza, smallpox, and various other familiar diseases.  (In all of these cases, we didn't necessarily develop total resistance, but most often just partial resistance.)  These relatively recent changes in the human genome are currently being validated by work on the genetics of different populations.  Sometimes, it can even be discerned where the innovation started and how it spread out among populations.  The flip side of this, the tragic side, is that populations such as Native Americans and the Koisan of southern Africa who lacked any resistance were often nearly annihiliated by diseases, sometimes with alcoholism contributing.  These developments have resulted in continual reshuffling of human populations, bringing genomic changes with them.

First of all, macroevolution of the human race won't be occuring for hundreds of thousands of years (IF it even does) so it's hardly an elephant in the room as there are more pressing issues at hand.

Regardless you need to realize that natural selection does not operate on human beings like it did pre-civilization. With ethics and morals, combined with things like modern medicine, online dating, sperm/egg donation. The whole mechanism of evolution doesn't really work on humans anymore.

Think about it: things that would be selected against in nature (harmful allergies, disease, mental and physical dissability) aren't being selected against. That is to say, you are going to live a long (possibly fertile) life as long as theres something modern society can do about it. Without people dying or not reproducing from these "negative" genetic problems, evolution doesn't affect them anymore. Even things like unattractiveness or obesity have no selection pressure in a world that supports every human's right to live and reproduce.

Thats not to say there aren't some selective pressures, but most of these simply have to do with disease resistance.
Any idea that were going to have extra fingers or some weird other evolutionary perks because of what we do is based in the Jean-Jacques Rousseau's perception of evolution. NOT natural selection. Your query suggests that you are in fact the very type of person who has an incorrect perception of evolution like what is discussed in this article...

tl;dr Evolution is done in terms of anatomical changes in humans the moment we decided to start civilization. We're likely going to be anatomically the same forever. Natural Selection doesn't apply when there's medicine; democracy.

Taylor is right but mostly wrong.
There is huge selective pressure on humans at the moment and there are some fundamental changes happening that will in the longer term cause profound evolutionary changes in humans.
Taylor states that people live to a rip old age and that selective pressure due to disease is gone - mostly right. But Taylor is wrong in that it does not matter how old someone lives in evolutionary terms - it is whether they have children, and whether those children will have children.
There are many pressures that influence whether someone will have children - and it is not now that they have died due to some disease. The pressures are largely social, and as humans are supremely social animals it is unsurprising that has become the overriding factor in human evolution.
Think about it - how many children does your cohort have? What age were they when they became parents? How many opted for only one or two children. How many have none.
From personal experience around 50% of my male friends have no children at the age of 45. Of my wife's friends around 75% have no children at the age of 40. Hong Kong may be a little extreme (lowest birth rate in the world) but many many countries are experiencing population decline.
This population decline is selective - those people who want to have children, have the social skills and monetary earning ability (a proxy for intelligence) to support them will have more children. Those that do not have those traits will not have descendants and the countries where these selective pressures exist will have a different character some generations down the line.
How will this play out in the future? Possibly we will experience a population drop - and then a rapid rise as those who like to have a lot of children have them and leave descendants who do as well.
So Taylor is very wrong - evolution in humans in on-going and rapid. Possibly the evolutionary pressures are greater now that at any time since the great plagues that swept across Europe and later North America. 
As to whether this is a good thing - think about it. Those who like children and want children will have more children - this means we're selecting for good parents. The future is bright and better and I think that is a cause for hope.

I agree on many of these points except for one glaring one. We are not selecting for "good parents." A large number of births in the world come from an inability to access adequate birthcontrol or a lack of education about birth control. The more educated a person is, the less likely they are to have children. A huge number of births are to parents who didn't want children and who are going to neglect any child they bring into the world. We are selecting for less educated parents... Not better parents.

It's important to understand that from an evolutionary standpoint, we are not really superior in any sense to our anscestors.  We are better fit to our current environment, but to claim we are superior doesn't make much sense.  On early earth, we couldn't have survived, yet bacteria flourished.  How would one characterize superiority?  It's very human to concern ourselves with characterization of species, winners, losers, etc (and it's only natural.  It's very difficult to carry on conversations or convey ideas without doing so).  It's important to remember that nature doesn't conform to our limitations and try to understand it on it's own terms. 

Hmmm.... inferior? As we live in a changing world our strength is our ability to adapt and in my view, evolution is not linear.  our ancestors adapted to survive and thrive in the envronments they encountered. I hope we can evolve to take on the challenges of our curren environment.

Many believe evolution is the true explanation for human development (i.e., evolution is factual). Scientific investigations certainly support the evolutionary standpoint.
However, scientists (and I consider myself a scientist) should not forget that science is based on assumptions. The meaning of science is often lost and misinterpreted as fact. But in order for scientific theories to work we have to make grand assumptions (e.g., there are natural causes for things that happen in the world around us). We do not know that there are natural causes for things that happen in the world around us. We assume this to be true.
Not to say that the author is saying creationism is far-fetched, but there are many scientists that believe creationism is far-fetched. However, creationism is simply the inverse of evolution (i.e., creationism depends on the assumption that there are not natural causes for things that happen in the world around us). To say that one of those two sides of the same coin is false is foolish. Both make equally extreme assumptions (equal but opposite, so to speak).
To conclude this logic game, I'll say that science is a religion. Science is a belief system. A difference is we study this religion in universities rather than churches.
Finally, creationism and evolution do not have to be mutually exclusive. Darwin (whose name often appears in mock Christian fish symbols with legs) believed the universe was created by God (hopefully readers with those horrible decals will go remove them from their cars now). There can be a combination of these two belief systems. As a Christian and a scientist, I believe God created the universe, created the predecessors of the human race, and designed evolution.
I accept the science that shows how humans have evolved over the centuries. But I believe the first First Cause was God. The alternative hypothesis is that humans (Earth, the universe, etc.) were not created by God. Neither side can prove how the universe came into existence, so it is all speculation, assumptions, and opinions (equally for scientists and theists alike).

There is no reason to believe that a god created anything. Or, better, even if the universe were created what makes you think that a god created it. Or that such a god is a Christian god with all the mumbo jumbo of sin, salvation, resurrection and all the rest of it. We can't imagine that we are the products of random events determined by physical causes. But so what? A godly creations makes us feel good and important. Wow! A god made me! It's like being created by a great artist, or, better, a movie star. How do you know that god was created by a super god, and he or she or it or them, but other super-duper gods. Finally, who cares. The article is about feeling bad about being a matter of "luck and death", we want to be special. We're not. We are one species among many. Once we realize that (we won't because we want to hang on to our fantasms) we'll pay more attention to what we are doing to the other species on earth (namely, global climate change, pollution and the sheer waste of resources just to fuel our bizarre life style -- perhaps, god created capitalism. After all, doesn't god need the poor, the indigent and the marginalized to worship his Ego? Creationism is like smoking, once you realize that it's poisoning you, you can start the road to recovery. On the other hand, you might be right and everything (including Auschwitz) was made by a god who worries and frets and gets angry at the weaknesses she put in us.

Please try to uphold a mature, intellectual, and unoffensive conversation. Equating Christian, Jewish, and Islamic beliefs to smoking and calling certain beliefs "mumbo jumbo" is not quite culturally sensitive.
1. If God truly created the universe (which I believe) then religion is not just something that makes us feel better; it is just history.
2. Why disregard people's cultural beliefs, especially if it makes them feel better? Who cares if you disagree? Don't rain on their parade.
3. You can imagine that we are the products of random events determined by physical causes. And indeed, you do. This is why I mentioned assumptions. The scientific method is just a theory that humans began believing. Can science ever truly prove something? Nope. It's just our best attempt at systematically understanding our world. As a scientist, I understand my limits. But a lot of scientists forget that at the core of it all we are making very grand assumptions.
4a. I never said God created Auschwitz. Creationism is simply the belief that a supernatural being (God) created the universe. It doesn't imply anything that happened afterwards. Diests believe God created the universe then stepped away and watched things happen. I think most Christians believe that God gave humans free will.
4b. And even if God did design what? It doesn't make the event any more or less horrendous. So what is the relevance of that to this conversation? It seems you are trying to associate something horrible with religion. When in fact, Hitler cited (bogus) scientific reasons for alleged (false) racial inferiority. But does that mean science started the Holocaust?
The whole point is...nobody knows anything for sure. Both science and religion are attempts humans make to understand the world around them. They both make an equal amount of assumptions, and they both could be wrong (although I believe in both). And they are not mutually exclusive. So who really cares?
I follow Darwin who believed God created the universe and evolution led to homo sapiens. I follow Einstein who believed science is the attempt to understand God's thoughts. And of course, I follow God. Those are three heavy-hitters on my side if you ask me. :)

1. If your god truly created the universe, show your evidence. Give me your proof. You have none, and nobody in the history of all the gods ever created ever had one. There is not the slightest shred of evidence that the supernatural exists. Quite the contrary, the track record of the supernatural is bad, to say the least. Every supernatural explanation for natural events has been replaced by natural explanations. Also, why your god? What about the Greek, Egyptian, Babylonian, Aztec...gods?
2. If a belief runs contrary to evidence and is therefore wrong, even if it makes people feel good, it should be disregarded, ridiculed and mocked, because more often than not, these beliefs cause serious harm. Look at all the nonsense people believe in, nonsense they want recognized as fact and followed by everyone. They want their beliefs, for which they have no evidence, turned into other people's laws. And if you don't follow, you could be killed. These beliefs stifle progress, and prevent us from seeing reality as it is, so that we can act with the best knowledge of our time.
3. The scientific method is precisely not a theory people began to believe. This statement just shows that you are not a scientist, despite your permanent claims to the contrary. The scientific method is the best tool we have to determine how things are. It is based on assumptions, sure, but contrary to religion these assumptions are based on the real world. And thanks to this method, you can sit at a computer and claim that these assumptions are equal to the assumptions of the various religions, past and present. You can enjoy a prolonged life, vaccines, cell phones, electricity, real knowledge you can actually study for yourself undreamed of in ages past. Yet you have the audacity to claim that religion and science are on equal footing. Religion is based on ancient myths people came up with to explain a world they could not understand because they did not have the technology and the methodology (the scientific method) we have today. Science is based on observation, experiment and reproducible evidence. Religion and science are inherently incompatible: science is an open-minded, open-ended endeavour that seeks to learn objective truths, religion is a close-minded system that claims to already know the truth, without ever giving any evidence.

1. I have faith the God created the universe. I don't need to prove to anyone what I believe. I never said others have to accept my personal beliefs. Prove God didn't create the universe. You can't. We don't know. I have faith God did, others have faith God didn't. It's a personal choice.
2. We are not in disagreement about most of this statement. I don't believe people's religion should be force on others. Atheism is a belief as well. And that should not be forced on anyone. I think science and religion are two topics that don't really need to involve each other. My whole point is they don't need to contradict each other. As an Episcopalian, I don't know of a circumstance where an Episcopalian has killed anyone over not being Episcopalian. We're pretty peaceful ;)
3. The scientific method was largely accepted in recent history. And there were people who did not believe in the scientific method. So, precisely, it was something people began to believe (at some point). I don't think you read everything I wrote. I believe in science and appreciate a prolonged life, vaccines, cell phones, and electricity. I don't doubt science. You're correct that science is based on evidence, but how we apply that evidence to our understanding of the world is based on assumptions.
I don't know how many ways I have to say it for it to be clear.
Science is our attempt at using evidence to make claims, upheld by our assumptions, about the processes of our universe (which may or may not have been created by God).
We may disagree about how the universe came into existence (and neither of us have proof), but we both agree in using the scientific method to understand the world around us.
Do you have any answer for how the universe came into existence? Other than simply saying it wasn't God?
The Big Bang theory is an explanation for the early development of the universe (and I don't contest that and it doesn't contradict my religious/spiritual beliefs) but it doesn't explain what happened before the expansion of the universe. It's just the universe's early devlopment.

You bring up some good points and you have laid out some of the key problems in the Philosophy of Science pretty well. A lot of what  you say I agree with in spirit. The problem is one of scope and context. I don't think your argument actually works because I think you are allowing two opposing arguments to each support your overall argument by using them at different "levels". I'll try to explain what I mean.
One of your arguments is about the nature of "proving" and "knowing" and the role assumptions play. What you say about these things are right in one sense; your argument is one of many forms of what some philosophers call "Radical Skepticism".  The problem with using that argument is that if one insists on the Radical Skeptic's definition of "Knowing" then the is no further argument, debate, or even subject, to discuss. This is so because the Radical Skeptic's requirments for true knowledge cannot be met. Their demand is that - essentially - that for us to KNOW anything (or prove it, or understand it, etc.) then we must have "sufficient grounds" to make such knowledge claims. In other words, if you can't say your reasons for "Knowing" something are ironclad, decuctive-type guaranteed to be accurate, that NOTHING one thinks based on these imperfect reasons can be KNOWN. I think your use of 'Assumptions' fits in here, if I may. I think you would say something like, scientists can say they know all sorts of things, and its perfectly fine and usually useful; but when it comes to REALLY knowing anything, we have to figure out if all those assumptions we made about the world when we started doing science were true. Causality, and the other things you mentioned. It's true that science rests on several assumptions about the world that we assume are true; and so all our scientific knowledge _could_ be naught but unsupported claims since we can't KNOW that the assumptions are correct.
But this means we can NEVER satisify the skeptics conditions. Partially this is becuase no matter what the scientist thinks he's found as incontrovertible proof, the skeptic can always find some assumption beyond that and require its proof. There is a VAST literature on this subject and I'm not doing it justice. But my point is that one of your main arguments about knowing whether God did or did not create the universe is, to me, merely another example of radical skepticism. Allowing radicasl skepticism into a debate basically means you have to stop talking. If one allows it as reasonable to doubt everything no matter what proof is available, then you can't do anything but make guessing noise at one another. Most don't find this appealing. The catch is, if you don't allow it, I don't think your argument holds up. You can't have it both ways: either everything anybody thinks about anything is equally baseless (like, we actually know absolutely zero about anything; anything we do think is virtually guaranteed to be false), or you accept some standard for evidence so the debate can even occur. If you do that, it's absolutely clear that there is enormous evidence collected over a long time and which has successfully been tested as a coherent body of beliefs (ala Quine) demonstrating the accuracy of the scientific worldview; while nothing comparable has emerged to support the idea of a supreme being with any paritcular qualities us humans have come up with. It's simply not true that the alternatives: God did it, God didn't - have equal weight and probabilty of being correct. Again, I am wrong in what I say if we are going to allow radical skepticism. But then there is no point in you asserting anything or me replying. Obviously none of what I'm saying affects your right and ability to believe what you wish for whatever reasons you want too. My point was that the particular argument you are using here to justify your choice sets up a false scenario: two options, God or Not; and both equally likely and unprovable. Disallowing Radical Skepticism allows the evidentially-supported scientific "version" of events to be well-supported. Allowing Radical Skepticism is the only way - I think - that you can make some of the claims you make about Science essentially being a religion and the the equivalence of assumptions in different bodies of belief, etc. But if you do that, you also lose the ability to say ANYTHING is plausible or that you know anything at all; that includes whether or not there are two choice (God or Not) or a billion or an infinite. You can't know that you aren't the sole inhabitant of something you call a universe. You can't know what assumptions exist independent of other facts and claims since EVERYTHING you thiink is simply an assumption (an assumption if you decide to believe it and guess if not, I suppose would be one way of looking at it). And I don't think that this outcome is what you were going for either.
Interestingly, I think even most scientifically-minded folks would have said we will have to live with not knowing how the universe came to be something rather than nothing (i.e., where did the stuff the big bang started with come from? How did something come from nothing?). Seems reasonable we might not be able to figure that out. Amazingly, this might be a bad assumption ;-). Recently, several plausible theories have emerged which demonstrate pretty convincingly how SOMETHING can EMERGE from nothing. Indeed, if these theories are correct  (or mostly correct) it's inevitable that there will be something rather than nothing. Some of these theories even work out how our particular universe may have evolved. I'm really butchering a fascinating story, but essentially our universe may be one of countless other universes that are "bubbling" off and expanding, growing, evolving, BEING -  but seperated from all the other universes. It may be that what there IS Is simply every set of THINGS that COULD BE and our universe is one of those configurations. Anyway, I know that's a lame way to relate these exciting new ideas, but I thought it was an interesting and timely advance; since only a few short years ago I would have agreed with you that we can't know how the universe began with any more certainly scientifically than in any other way. But as usual, I have underestimated the power and ingenuity of science - and humans (unspecial though we may be :-)).

It never ceases to amaze me, the blind arrogance of athists. They pontificate about their blind faith in science as if it was the beginning and end of all mysteries. YOU DON'T KNOW, FOOL! You-Do-Not-Know. You do not know if God exists or if God does not exist. You have some nonsense in your puny mind which you feel comfortable to dismiss. Rest assured, the question is bigger than you know. You cannot explain the big bang, you cannot explain black holes, you cannot explain dark matter or dark energy, the origin of life, the origin or nature of consciousness nor complexity and chaos. Nor the future. You guess, like some fire and brimstone preacher about what you know and about what proof you demand. You need to go back to science and dig deeper, son. You got ALOT of work to do before you come back and ask a man about his god. Dunce!

Not sure quite how replying works on this particular site, so my apologies if you were not replying to me specifically. If you were, then I have to ask: any particular reason you responded to a polite, civil post - one where I also highlight points of common interest - with nothing but accusations, assumptions about who I am and what I think and feel, and of course, name-calling? It's particularly interesting how often this happens: how much anger there is in people who claim to be so sure they are so clear on the really important things in life. If you did reply to me, you did not try very hard to read my post. Let me guess, you started reading it, anger and a sense that you've read all this "crap" before boils up. And then you immediately slotted what I wrote into some predefined bucket you have of "people like this guy" who "think they know so much BUT THEY DON'T KNOW!!!"
I feel pretty confident it went something like that - because of my BLIND FAITH in science? No, because human beings are fairly predictable. A gorgeous women who only wants to get something from me - say ... hard-to-get tickets to an awesome concert; if she cozies up to me and starts paying me attention, I know immediately what is going on because I am not the sort of guy that gorgeous women do that to because they are attracted to me at first site. I KNOW that; I can TELL myself that; and it IS true - but I will still respond and act like she means it and enjoy the attention and some part of me is perfectly happy to believe I'm wrong about her motives. I also can't reisist peanut butter pie and probably couldn't if the doctor was standing right there with a frown and a SCIENTIFIC report that said that pie would kill me. I don't know that I could resist.
It doesn't take science to understand that's how people act, and I"m pretty sure I didn't need science to know how your thought processes went. They were driven mostly by emotion which is the thinking human beings bane ... and salvation. We shouldn't give up what makes us human, but we should understand our own limitations. NOT being willing to do that is what makes so many people into hippocrits about science. Anyone who is alive today over the age of about 35 can  be about 90% certain that they would be dead without the scientific worldview. Every device you use, probably your job, but DEFINITELY your life expectancy is completely due to 4 centuries of thinking about the world in the scientific way. I will say again, since you probably didn't really process it in the first post I wrote:  the scientific world view DOES NOT PROVE GOD DOES NOT EXIST. Further, THE SCIENTIFIC WORLDVIEW DOES NOT CLAIM TO KNOW EVERYTHING WITH CERTAINTY. That's the most ironic part of it: the MOST fundametnal difference between a religious and a rationalistic/scientific worldview is that once some "truth" is "discovered" by a religion - it is SACRILIGIOUS to deny or question it. That's the point of religious truth: that you have really found the real thing. So if it could be wrong, why would make it the truth of God? So people who question it must be against God and against the received view.
The scientific worldview DEPENDS on questioning of things any scientist says is probably true. To continue questioning until you can't think of any more questions and you have to assume it's true ... until someone more creative or better position thinks up another question. Those people got burned at the stake by the religious. Scientists are supposed to be comfortable with uncertainty - not all are of cousre - those who stake their soul on their God are not so good with uncertainty and ... surprise surprise ... tend to get angry when that certtainty is threatened with annoying things like questions, and requests for moderation, and alternative viewpoints. If a scientists gets angry when his/her theory is questioned, that's a sign that he/she is NOT being scientific anymore. But they are being human, so it's not a terrible crime to believe in your heart of hearts that e=mc^2 and that is really really really the truth. And it's not a crime to believe in your heart of hearts that God (whatever kind you believe in) really created the universe and is looking out for you in particular because you believe in him.

I'll make you a deal. You,using science, prove to me that God does not exist, and I mean definitely, not that theory stuff, and I'll buy into your - what do you call your lack of faith anyway ?

It seems that the term "God" is not well-defined. People say, "God created the Universe" -- this seems to be the only defining feature of God that is universal.  Conside the God of the Hebrews, the Trinity, Allah, Vishnu, Chaos, Nyx, Kaang, Odin ...  Knock knock.  Who's there?  God.  God who?  Or "whose God"?  So ultimately, the definition of the Creator is circular.  God (def):  The entity that created the Universe.   Universe (def): The entity created by God.  

At least 2 of your heavy hitterscan be verified to have existed.   Re Einstein: ""I have never talked to a Jesuit priest in my life and I am astonished by the audacity to tell such lies about me. From the viewpoint of a Jesuit priest I am, of course, and have always been an atheist. ... It is always misleading to use anthropomorphical concepts in dealing with things outside the human sphere—childish analogies. We have to admire in humility and beautiful harmony of the structure of this world—as far as we can grasp it. And that is all."[
You argument (as a scientist) fails when you basically say, we don't know, therefore god. 

If God truly created the universe (which I believe) then religion is not just something that makes us feel better; it is just history.

And your evidence that God created the universe?  measureable reproducible evidence?  And once there is measurable evidence, it becomes the purview of science, and no longer faith.  That is why god has been reduced to the gaps, and those gaps are shrinking.

The scientific method is just a theory that humans began believing. Can science ever truly prove something? Nope.

So I fall back on faith?  again, begs the question as a scientist, where's your evidence.  Science is really good at determining the limtis of our knowledge in a systemaic way, and yet once you hit a limit, you just say, "must be god" without evidence.  (Hope you don't try that with any peer reviewed papers you submit.)  And "the scientific method is just a theory", like gravity, evolution, entropy, etc.   Sorry, misapplication of theory, you lose.

Why disregard people's cultural beliefs, especially if it makes them feel better? Who cares if you disagree? Don't rain on their parade.

Until they stop making policy that affect the lives of others detrimentally, those of us who understand the limitations of science, and place no faith in "faith" will fight for sound rational policy, not something based on the "belief" of others.    See Global warming, pollution, medicine, etc.  as another example, You're basically begging scientist to leave the faith healers alone, what's the harm, it makes them feel better, even though their kids died.  Nope not gonna do it.. 
And finally:

"The whole point is...nobody knows anything for sure. Both science and religion are attempts humans make to understand the world around them. They both make an equal amount of assumptions, and they both could be wrong (although I believe in both). And they are not mutually exclusive. So who really cares?" 

Those of us in the reality based community, where assumptions are tested and retested and proven with high certainty or discarded, care.  They do not make equal amounts of assumptions, science does not rely on "revealed" wisdom.  They are not equal in determining the nature of the universe, and the fact that you would even suggest they are tells me you really aren't a scientist, or if you are, you have a very poor understanding of science and proof.

I didn't say we don't know therefore God. I said we don't know. Period. I believe we use science as a tool to provide evidence for understanding the world around us. But my personal belief, which I enforce on nobody, is that God designed the world to work this way. Essentially, I believe God created science. There's no proving or disproving that. It's my belief.
You're mistaken in your interpretation of what I wrote or you didn't read carefully. I didn't say science can't prove everything so God must be the answer. I don't believe that and it doesn't make sense. Your whole argument seems to be based on this mistruth.
We need to make assumptions in order to use the scientific method. Cause and effect? That's an assumption.
I'm not begging scientists to leave theists alone. I'm not saying scientists are wrong. I'm not saying anyone is wrong. Read what I wrote before you write complete rubbish and completely misinterpret everything.
Apparently, you're a poor reader. And indeed if you don't realize that science is based on assumptions, then I question your understanding of the scientific method. My whole point is that science and religion do not have to contradict each other. So why is anyone arguing about it? When I'm at school I apply the scientific method. I believe God created the universe in which we study the scientific method. Neither contradict the other. End of story.

Einstein and Darwin referred to 'God' in a universal manner and shunned the idea of a personal God. It is unfortunate their semantics are so misconstrued but I can assure you especially Einstein would strongly disagree with your assertions about his religious belief.

I said Einstein believed science was an attempt to understand God's thoughts. He said this numerous times. Beyond that, I did not assert anything about Einstein's religious beliefs.

I was surprised how simple the question is... Will we destroy our race if we do not recognize that all living things on this planet share some DNA... I.e. the animals are related to us. This documentary highlights a old native believe that to take more than we need is in fact a mental illness.

Watch I Am on Netflix.

This point of view begs the question: Why don't we read about experimenting with the hyotheses and precepts of religion? Why is there no Large Hadron Collider or Hubble telescope or any kind of laboratory experiment to test religion the way we test science? Science calls for questioning. Religion... not so much. Contrary to religion, science does not claim to hold the Truth. We talk about Darwin's "theory of evolution" but I never heard any proponent of creationism talk about "the Biblical theory of creation." Sorry - but this is not the same.

I could have written your comment, perhaps without as much elegance.  All I would add is what a well-educated friend said to me on the golf course recently: "much as we would like to believe otherwise, God is, first and foremost, a mystery".  Not totally discounting the idea that a creator could intervene in the world, we have little evidence of that.  Consequently, I choose to honor whatever created all this and live by the golden rule, recognizing that each individual had no choice about "becoming" and as much right as I to live in peace and harmony with creation to the extent possible.

Americans have trouble with evolution and religion; I don't think non-Americans do. So talking about "human beings" having this problem is mis-stating the problem.
I went to a Roman Catholic high school in Atlanta, Georgia, in the late fifties. In biology, we were taught about evolution and natural selection. So were my friends in public schools. I think the current debate has more to do with with politics than religion or science. Prior to Reagan, the Republican Party was fiscally conservative, often socially liberal. That strand disappeared: instead, you had a coalition based on appealing to fundamentalist Christians, intolerance and racism. 

"However, scientists (and I consider myself a scientist) should not forget that science is based on assumptions." 

If you considered yourself a scientist you would realize the sillyness of this statement: Science is based on EVIDENCE. Not assumptions. The theory of evolution (don't make me go into the whole discussion of what a scientific theory is) is based off of TANGIBLE EVIDENCE: fossil records, genetics and epigenetic replicable studies, observations. This doesn't mean that it is 100% correct. But the amount of evidence is so staggeringly high, that we can now make your "assumption."

Should more tangible evidence - more is collected every day - arise that strongly challenges our "assumption" of evolution, it's no longer a theory. The thing is the more we research it, the more it supports the idea.

This fundamental difference in objective collecting of evidence before an assumption is made is what seperates science from religion. Let us not forget Darwin (as well as Mendel...) was a creationist, he had no interest proposing his idea of natural selection and thus evolution (and in fact experienced years of apprehension before actually doing it) but his years of studies on the Beagle pointed to the most parsimonious explaination: that genetic makeups of populations change over time; some genes are better than others; over millions of years this selection will change anatomic makeups of species as a whole (i.e. evolution.)

Everyone knows science is based on assumptons.
I believe in evolution.
Read what I wrote before commenting on it.

Alex, if you approach science as "a belief system" but "studied in Universities instead of churchs", then you must be a pretty mediocre scientist, or perhaps simply out of touch with the process you are doing intellectually.  Science is the OPPOSITE of a belief system.  It is a set of rules and practices that do not require or involve "belief" in anything.  Somthing is proposed, observed, tested, and either found to be logically consistent or disproved and abandoned.  Scientists who get caught up in BELIEVING their own pet theories are the ones who get into trouble.  
Also, science and creationism are only incompatible if we want them to be.  Some religions use creationism as a way to promote loyalty by contrasting their beliefs to Godless athiesm.  While in truth, there is nothing in the Biblical account of creation that is inconsistent with evolution unless you want it to be.  Some people make themselves feel better about themselves by imagining a god who isn't really much mroe sophisticated then themselves, and who made them in "his own image" (how vain is that?) as if molding with modeling clay.  I have always felt that a truly powerful god could make a small ripple in time space and create our universe knowing that billions of years later conditions would develop that were just right to allow for the evolution of us.  That is powerful. 

I'm tired of explaining this, but some forget that science is based on assumptions (which is very scary for the state of our national education system if a "professor" doesn't realize this).
The scientific method is based on hypotheses that we test. We find evidence that supports our ideas. But in order to support these claims, we have to rely on assumptions (usually that there are natural causes for events in our world).
We assume there is a natural cause for events in our world. It's really quite simple.
To be a "scientist" one must believe in the fundamental assumptions of science.
If we both agree about the fundamentals of, say, gravity - who cares if I believe God designed gravity? My whole point is that science and religion do not have to contradict each other.
I'm not a mediocre scientist. I understand the fundamental assumptions of science. But thanks for that, "professor."

Just to touch on assumptions, though, it's important to remember that certain assumptions are more justifiable than others.  For example, a foundational assumption of science is that everything that occurs in this world has a natural cause.  Can I say that, with 100% certainty, this is a true statement?  No, but we accept it as true because all evidence at this point in time overwhelming suggests that it is so.  Every piece of technology, every fundamental piece of knowledge we have about the natural is a testament to this, and we know this because it all consistently functions in the expected ways, and when there is deviations, a little more experimentation and research leads us to a more robust eplanation and a deeper understanding.  Is it possible that the world acts in "unnatural" ways?  Sure, but there is no reason to believe it is so, and therefor I cannot claim it to be true and certainly should not present it as such.
Taking the same approach to god now (note, I'm not saying religion, because practicing religion and believing in god are not the same thing.  Also, I'm speaking particular about the gods of religions, and not the sort of amorphous, loosely defined being that people often use not considering that the exisistence of such a being wouldn't justify any particular religion - it might make a weighty argument for A god, but not necessarily any god in particular), while I can't rule god out as a possibility, it is simply untrue to state that because god is a possibility it has to be granted that this assumption has merit.  There is nothing that is better explained by the god hypothesis than by the natural workings of the universe, as difficult to comprehend as they may be.
Lastly, it is a pretty weak argument to say that because we don't know what happened at the point of origin of the universe, leaving it open to any number of explanations, that a god/creator hypothesis (I know even that is a conflation, but cut me a little slack) must be respected.  I don't disparage you for suggesting that as your preferred explanation, but understand that it holds the same zero weight in this argument as a belief in the multiverse.  Of course the multiverse is at least derived from theoretical physics as opposed iron age lore, so I tend to weigh that slightly higher on the scale of miniscule possibilities at this point, but I'll submit that either is far fetched given the evidence base at the time of this writing.

Science requires falsifiable predictions that must be tested against observable evidence. Religions are non-falsifiable claims about beings whose existence cannot be observed. Evidence can prove that a scientific theory is false or incomplete. Evidence can never prove that a religious belief is false or incomplete. Most learning includes unlearning a previously-held belief that has been proved false. That cannot happen with religion ...
... and that's why most scientists are skeptical of religion.

It always amazes me when people rush to accept science as gospel and the gospel as junk science when virtually EVERY piece of scientific material we read is loaded with terms like might,possability.could be, have been thought to have, theory, and my favorite Hypothesis which comes from the Greek word hupothesis which means "to put together" or "to suppose". Yes the idea that two rocks, hurdling through space somewhere, smashed into each other ( either 100,000 or maybe 2,000,000,000) years ago caused pollywogs to turn into monkeys and apes. And then the monkeys and apes turned into humans. But a creator doing the creating is WAY to far fetched to buy into. Here is a poser for you, why are there still monkeys and apes?  Were they the obnoxious uncles that were not invited to Thanksgiving?

Whether people believe in evolution or "creationsism", there is one fact about human beings.  We are highly social animals.  I say animals because that is what we are.  As a social creature we have a very high desire to belong.  Religion is a way of belonging and many will believe whatever they have to inorder to belong.  
Can evolution be turned into religion?  YES, absolutely.  So many only look at their own "religion" when you mention that word.  There are different religions and some religions do believe they are part of evolution, a part of the process.  
There are some very weird, but highly specialized animals on the face of this Earth.  We are no exception.  We can't speak to a dolphin, a chimp, or an elephant.  We like to think we understand their language, but that is just the human way.  We always think we are superior.  Our minds are the only thing in nature that is superior.  With that said, we tend to over think the simplest things.  We are social creatures and most people NEED to socialize.  Religion offers that.  If you don't believe you can't be a part of their social setting.  That science is a pretty easy concept.

I can well imagine competitors (rowers) under stress agreeing with statements confirming the value and meaning of science.
The quickest and slickest response would tend to be the shallower, simpler, 'harder' and clearer choice--an 'escape to surface under stress' dynamic.
Add to this the likely circumstance the questionnaire was answered under conditions more resembling a worldly as opposed to a spiritual atmosphere (in a church, e.g.) and one can see the kind of bias that might favor science.

At least one finding suggests that those who identify most strongly as religious fear death least.

There are other studies which strongly suggest this isn't true. They have found that the more religious the terminally ill are the more likely they are to demand every life extending medical procedure in the medical toolbox. Actions do often tell us much more than words.

See: Carmel S, 1997; Cicirelli VG, 2000; Balboni TA, 2007; Religion's Impact on End-of-Life Care.

Of course, that doesn't necessarily entail that those people are more afraid of death.  As a former Christian, I recognize that there is a belief in the sanctity for life which can manifest in situations of prolonging life beyond what is necessary or perhaps humane.  It could also be a fear of death that causes these results, but the belief in the sanctity of life is also compelling for these actions.

I'm surprised the author didn't reference the ideas of EO Wilson on group selection and altruism and similar ideas described by Nicholas Wade in "The Faith Instinct". A vastly oversimplified version is that human beings were selected to believe in a greater power in order to risk their lives for the good of the clan/group. While group selection has long been controverial, with powerful selective pressure like survival of the clan, it is thought to spread despite the advantage of "cheaters" who indulge in self preservation at a cost to the group. 
Personally, I think a great case can be made that this explains the similar tendencies for religous faith and patriotism that go hand-in-hand. It may also explain our clanishness in everything from professional sports to a preferred smart phone operating system (not to mention racisim and jingoist nationalism).

The author seems to take for granted that we all agree on what the benefits of religion are. How can we possibly understand what aspects of religion can be replaced by science if there is no understanding of what religion does for people? In my mind, the author has not even begun to approach this question, and because of this huge lack, I find this article really unsatisfying.

It was interesting to read. But you're right, I felt that the author tried to put into scientific terms something by which he doesn't seem to be able to relate. Though I did feel his desire to reach out and give us his view of this thing we busy monsters call religion. Perhaps there is another question he can try to answer.
Why is it, that people of all walks of life, including those that reject religion in one way or another, feel the need to shout from the mountain tops that they, uniquely, have discovered the answer to it all? Seems like we also have this need to get others to agree with us about the answers to life, the universe and everything.

Tania Lombrozo starts with making some observations about the low acceptance of human evolution by Americans.  Then with only a passing reference to a study comparing those views to those of others around the world (this after some paragraphs)  jumps to speculating about the human species as a whole.  Where does this kind of Amero-centrism come from?  What kind of worldview makes an author feel they have license to speak in terms of the human psyche based on data from just one country?  This is especially confusing because, as the very study to which the author gives passing reference shows, acceptance of human evolution is much, much higher in other developed countries.  This suggests cultural factors, not a natural predisposition in the human psyche, are to blame for Americans' rejection of humanity's descent from non-human ancestors.  The question is not why is human evolution hard for humans to accept, but why is it hard for Americans?

My thoughts exactly. There is no way you can honestly investigate the origin of anti-evolution beliefs without comparing cultures that have vastly different rates of anti-evolution beliefs. This article instead relies on a couple cherry-picked psychological studies that have probably not been repeated, so we have no idea about the robustness of their conclusions. This could have been an interesting article instead of yet another piece of pop psychology that draws conclusions about all of humanity based on a couple studies. 

Excellent point, JoshW.

I like the statement above that suggests that our "science" today might be considered "primitive" ten thousand years from now. 
I teach to my parishoners the importance of evolutionary theory and why the Bible is a poor explanation for the creation of the world.  I have more people in my church who agree than disagree.
Our best guesses, based on existing evidence, is that religion as an organized / organizing structure likely appeared among homo sapiens roughly 70,000 years ago.  Something in our evolution made religious belief and organization an important evolutionary advantage:  all known cultures have some sort of belief in the supernatural.  Homo sapiens seems to have done quite well with religion in the evolutionary process of things.  In my estimation, it is something about the production of ethics that gives religion its evolutionary advantage over scientific proofs. 

Religion doesn't produce ethics, it is merely a tool to impose ones morality on others.


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