Can religion answer “The Big Existential Questions”?

Here we have another person blathering on about the limits of science, emitting the usual noises about how science, whatever its value in materially improving our species, can’t answer the Big Questions.

This time it’s Nathan Gardels, editor in chief of the WorldPost, a branch of the fluffy Huffington Post, and his piece is “How science is resurrecting the religious imagination.” Even the very title offends me. If science has stimulated the “religious imagination,” it’s only to confect new stories and metaphors to replace religious claims that science has falsified. See, for example, how the mind of the Discovery Institute has been “stimulated” to make up bogus stories about God’s intrusion into evolution.

I don’t understand how a rational person can believe that, without religion, democracy would crumble, underlain as it supposedly is with Judeo-Christian values. All you have to do is look at Europe—Scandinavia in particular—to see that Western nations that are largely atheistic are not not marinated in the “lethal concoction of nihilism and technical prowess” that Gardels decries in the passage below. Nor does the concept of treating humans with respect and dignity require that we believe we’re made in God’s image. Quoting a Nobel-prize-winning poet who is soft on religion does nothing to establish this thesis:

Science has no knowledge of being. It can only report that we are a collection of cells. A bundle of nerves. An immune system. “Being,” “the person” and “human dignity” are concepts arising instead from the religious imagination. In Islam, our body is God’s trust. In the Judeo-Christian heritage the person is inviolable because he or she is a reflection of God’s grace, made in God’s image.

If we no longer believe in this link between the person and the sacred, as the Nobel Prize-winning poet Czeslaw Milosz has reflected, the bottom falls out of the values that underlay liberal democracy, leaving a lethal concoction of nihilism and technological prowess.

And this, of course, is a blatant lie:

Increasingly, societies speeding toward the future are looking to traditional religion for moral and ethical guidance as they commit to their mutation in the new age of biology.

All societies, or at least Western ones, are becoming more secular, and their inhabitants increasingly looking to either nontraditional religion, “spirituality,” or simple humanism for this ethical guidance. It always amazes me how blatantly people ignore the data about religion’s wane, asserting just the opposite.

The whole tenor of Gardels’ post is that religion is the only source of moral guidance in the world, and he quotes many religion-friendly philosophers to that end. It’s as if the man never heard of Euthyphro.

Note the liberal use of quotations (rather than evidence) to support his thesis.

What is certain is that the faster the pace and the greater the scope of scientific discovery, the more the religious imagination will be stirred. As French philosopher Henri Bergson wrote of our technological society in “The Two Sources of Morality and Religion,” “in this disproportionately magnified body, the soul remains what it was, i.e., too small to fill it and too feeble to direct it. … this enlarged body awaits the supplement of soul, the mechanical demands the mystical.”

The Polish philosopher Leszek Kolakowski put it in more definitive terms. “As a whole, mankind can never get rid of the need for religious self-identification,” he told me in an interview at Oxford in 1991:

“Who am I, where did I come from, where do I fit in, why am I responsible, what does my life mean, how will I face death? Religion is a paramount aspect of human culture. Religious need cannot be excommunicated from culture by rationalist incantation.”

The more scientific discovery reveals, the more we realize it can’t answer the great existential questions. In the end we are compelled to agree with Kolakowski’s conclusion: “Man does not live by reason alone.”

It’s palpably false that mankind can’t rid itself of the need for religion. Of course there will always be some folks who need the succor of religion, but if the last century has taught us anything, it’s how easily society can rid itself of faith.

Further, I don’t know where people get the idea that religion can actually answer the “Big Questions.” It can address them, but every religion has a different answer. Take the question of “what does my life mean?” NO religion can answer that question.  Catholicism may assert that the “meaning of life” is to worship and obey God, but nonbelievers, Buddhists, and Unitarians would disagree. And what it means to “obey God’s will”, of course, differs drastically among faiths.  As I’ve written before, what people construe as “the meaning of their life” is simply a post facto characterization of having done what they like and pursued those things that give them satisfaction. Religion can’t answer the Big Questions any better than a combination of humanism and rational thought. In fact, I’d take humanistic over religious morality any day.

The questions “who am I?” and “where did I come from?” can, of course, be answered by science. Construing them in any other way produces nonsense. “Why am I responsible?” has philosophical and humanistic answers. As for “How will I face death?”, that depends on what you choose to believe, and even that differs even among members of a single faith. Some Catholics will face death with equanimity, others with fear and terror. By and large, Jews don’t believe in an afterlife, something that also conditions your attitude towards death.

Even the most obvious Big Question—”Is there a God?”—cannot be answered by religion. Most of them say “yes,” but of course Hindus accept more than one god, and for us nonbelievers that answer is a nonstarter.

It’s a sign of the toxic effects of religion that it turns people into Rationalizing Machines forced to perpetuate the meme of faith because it’s supposedly good for society. All reason, all evidence, shows us that societies can do just fine without religion, and that nonbelief does not entail immorality. Gardels is clearly a smart guy, but when he writes about religion and society, it’s as if his brain has been commandeered by the faith meme, just as the brain of some ants are commandeered by a fungus to help spread fungal spores.

And really, is there any big question that religion can answer? I’m asking seriously; post your thoughts below.


UPDATE: Re the penultimate paragraph above, Reader Pliny the In Between had the same idea back in 2014. Click to enlarge:

Toon Background.004




  1. Kevin
    Posted June 6, 2016 at 9:44 am | Permalink

    Without methods of logic or reason religion has a difficult task to approach the subject of the metaphysical in a philosophical manner. On the other hand, like fantasy or science fiction, religion can have the capacity for story telling and creative, though arbitrary, myth making.

    One major problem with religion is that it is biased towards humans. Why should existential questions only be related to humanity? That is provincial. Life is just as amazing as conscious apes, who are themselves, no better than a world where maybe the dolphins took over the planet. And robots….

    • darrelle
      Posted June 6, 2016 at 11:22 am | Permalink

      Religious people do employ logic and reason in support of their religious beliefs. Quite rigorously in some cases. I think the more important problems are that, 1) they start with a commitment to (a) certain truth(s), and 2) they eschew testing their ideas and claims against reality.

      • rickflick
        Posted June 6, 2016 at 7:22 pm | Permalink

        They always get the premise wrong in their syllogisms.

    • amyt
      Posted June 6, 2016 at 12:40 pm | Permalink

      “Dolphins took over the planet”
      Indeed. “So long, and thanks for all the fish”
      D. Adams HGTTG

  2. Ullrich Fischer
    Posted June 6, 2016 at 9:45 am | Permalink

    Religion, as well as any semi-literate idiot can answer the big questions, just not with useful or meaningful answers. Only science can come up with answers that stand the test of time and the test of being presented to others who have never heard of them before but are convinced by the logic of the ideas themselves rather than by a desire to be part of the in-group of believers in a particular set of lies.

    • Ben Murray
      Posted June 6, 2016 at 11:18 am | Permalink

      I can call spirits from the vasty deep.
      Why, so can I, or so can any man;
      But will they come when you do call for them?
      (Henry IV Part 1 Act 3 Scene 1)

  3. Posted June 6, 2016 at 9:47 am | Permalink

    Seriously? No.

  4. somer
    Posted June 6, 2016 at 9:51 am | Permalink

    How deep and meaningful

    “Who am I, where did I come from, where do I fit in, why am I responsible, what does my life mean, how will I face death? Religion is a paramount aspect of human culture. Religious need cannot be excommunicated from culture by rationalist incantation.”

    Looking at the facts of survival, evidence and prospects for human improvement is a *hell* of a lot better than philosophy and religion – traditionalist type religion that keeps too many people back in the stone age and stone age behaviours as do simplistic righteous versions of secular ideology that de facto worship left or right economic theory and refuse to look at evolutionary, geographical, social historical evidence in a framework of assessment of likelihood consistent with established scientific facts. The more traditionalist and arrogant of the religious (some do embrace human difference) insist life is meaningless without religion. Its pure self importance and virtue signalling.

  5. Mike
    Posted June 6, 2016 at 9:51 am | Permalink

    To Gardel’s theological fantasizing I make 2 points:

    1. the history of Islam and Christianity is drenched in blood.

    2. religion is fundamentally totalitarian.

  6. steve oberski
    Posted June 6, 2016 at 9:55 am | Permalink

    The more scientific discovery reveals, the more we realize that the great existential questions, to quote Stephen Hawking, are part and parcel of a religiously concocted “fairy story for people afraid of the dark”.

  7. gravelinspector-Aidan
    Posted June 6, 2016 at 10:02 am | Permalink

    democracy would crumble, underlain as it supposedly is with Judeo-Christian values.

    “Democracy” … whatm do you mean the method of government that was invented by the Greek polytheists t about the time that the proto-Jews were being given a free trip to Babylon by Darius or Nebuchadnezzer or whoever it was, and the Xtians didn’t even have a foundation myth yet.
    Come on guys, cart, horse, rearrange!

    In the Judeo-Christian heritage the person is inviolable because he or she is a reflection of God’s grace, made in God’s image.

    Hang on – did someone actually say that with a straight face. “In the J-C heritage the person is inviolable” ??? Seriously? Has the boy never read the BuyBull?

    Now go and smite Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have, and spare them not; but slay both man and woman, infant and suckling, ox and sheep, camel and ass.” (I Samuel 15:2-3)

    “And he [KING DAVID] brought out the people that were in it, and cut them with saws, and with harrows of iron, and with axes…” (I Chronicles 20:3)

    “So the LORD sent pestilence upon Israel: and there fell of Israel seventy thousand men.” (I Chronicles 21:14)

    And you know that I could go on and on and on and on and on and on and on without once quoting an Abba song and on and on and on …

    • Posted June 6, 2016 at 11:07 am | Permalink

      Keep on rockin’, baby.

    • darrelle
      Posted June 6, 2016 at 11:52 am | Permalink

      “Hang on – did someone actually say that with a straight face.”

      Actually, I think it makes sense. In the context of “Judeo-Christian heritage” at least. In combination with life after death, heaven and the rest of the mythos it offers a perfect explanation for why it was (is) just fine for the religious leaders, and leaders who base their legitimacy on religion (by grace of god), to treat the dirty masses like shit throughout history. Their souls are inviolable so all that misery and pain couldn’t hurt their souls. As long as they suck it up and bear it like good Christians should they will go to heaven and live the good life.

      Unless ole Beelzebub gets to them and convinces them to, figuratively speaking, give them the finger. Then their inviolable souls can go straight to hell. But it was their choice, their souls are still inviolable, just bad. Otherwise the big G could have violated their souls and changed them from bad to good.

      • Posted June 6, 2016 at 9:04 pm | Permalink

        Ah, but the prog-lib theists mean “inviolable” in the regular humanitarian sense. They want to say we need to be nice to each other because god. They’re so busy saying “namaste” that they successfully distract themselves from the horrible things god condones in the bible. These people are very different from the Wlliam Lane Craig type theists who simply admit that killing babies to save souls is hunky-dory.

        • darrelle
          Posted June 7, 2016 at 7:11 am | Permalink


          What I find somewhat perplexing is why people who believe that Christianity is all about love and sunshine, like a typical prog-lib interpretation of Christianity, are still so determined to hold onto Christianity at all. If they have to discard the majority of the bible because it is contrary to their interpretation of Christianity, and the only parts that they like are about love and sunshine, why accept any of it? They can have all the love and sunshine they want without any taint of Christianity.

          Of course I am not opposed to the moderation of Christianity. I just think it is ridiculous that people can ignore, even reject, so much of Christianity that all of the sources of their religion should thereby be, by any reasonable assessment, thoroughly discredited and yet they hold on to a few last bits.

    • somer
      Posted June 6, 2016 at 3:27 pm | Permalink


    • Posted June 6, 2016 at 4:36 pm | Permalink

      “Democracy” … whatm do you mean the method of government that was invented by the Greek polytheists t about the time that the proto-Jews were being given a free trip to Babylon by Darius or Nebuchadnezzer or whoever it was, and the Xtians didn’t even have a foundation myth yet.”

      Sorry. I just happen to be reading “Persian Fire” by Tom Holland which is subtitled “The First World Empire and the Battle for the West”.

      In 586BC Nebuchadnezzar sacked Jerusalem and hauled the Jews off to Babylon in what became called”The Diaspora”. Under Cyrus, (king of Persia from 559BC to 529BC, the Jews were sent back to Jerusalem and the temple was rebuilt with financing by Cyrus. In 522BC, Darius is king of Persia. In 508BC, Athens is introduced to Democracy by Cleisthenes. In 486BC Darius dies and Xerxes becomes king of Persia. From about 491BC when ambassadors from Persia require earth and water from Athens and Sparta to reflect their submission to Persia, until 449BC when a peace accord was signed between Athens and Persia, there was essentially worldwide conflict and warfare.

  8. Posted June 6, 2016 at 10:05 am | Permalink

    I believe the best retort would be to paraphrase Life of Brian:

    ”That’s just what Jesus said!’

    Or better still …

    “He’s making it up as he goes along.”

  9. Stephen Zeoli
    Posted June 6, 2016 at 10:14 am | Permalink

    Christianity has been around over 2000 years and I’d say has made scant progress answering any big questions other than how much money one needs to donate to the church. (Answer: More!)

    Serious science has been around, what, a quarter of that time, and it has answered huge questions. Not only that, it has helped define many new big questions, questions we didn’t even know we had until science revealed them.

    There may be questions that science can’t answer, but I would trust philosophers before I trust religion to help us with those.

    • Mark Sturtevant
      Posted June 6, 2016 at 11:35 am | Permalink

      To borrow a quote, if science were to disappear before very long we would be again living in squalor and filth. But if religion were to disappear, then not much would change in our lives.

      • Ken Elliott
        Posted June 6, 2016 at 1:58 pm | Permalink

        I disagree. I think lives would improve overall, worldwide. And possibly in an exponential fashion. Without the threat of hell or the promises of heaven perhaps people would be unlocked to pursue endeavors based on logic and reason. Perhaps bigotry of all types would become microscopic in terms of percentages of those who discriminate. This would free up women and citizens of fascist countries like north Korea and Saudi Arabia and Singapore, and other suppressed folks, to pursue lives directed by logic and reason. Huge populations of minds would be free to unlock the secrets of the universe. Can you imagine where will go in such a global culture?

        • gravelinspector-Aidan
          Posted June 7, 2016 at 6:49 pm | Permalink

          As Mark said,

          if religion were to disappear

          OF course, in the examples you suggest, “Without the threat of hell or the promises of heaven perhaps people would be unlocked to pursue endeavors based on logic and reason.” then you’d find that the people “on the top” would ensure that they stayed on the top, and therefore that the current oppressed masses would remain oppressed. After all, that is what power is for.

  10. Mark P
    Posted June 6, 2016 at 10:14 am | Permalink

    I think religion can answer questions exclusively for those unwilling or even unable to have an independent thought. In reality, however, it is evident that so-ca!!ed religious answers are transient and expedient. As science answers more and more questions, religious imagination must grow greater in order to attempt to remain relevant and to retain power over the sheep.

  11. rebscar
    Posted June 6, 2016 at 10:31 am | Permalink

    I’m not a big commenter, but Jerry I am very grateful for your relentless pursuit of those who keep asserting against all evidence that we need religion. It gives me great comfort to know that I can rely on your response to the bogus claims of religious promoters.

  12. Hempenstein
    Posted June 6, 2016 at 10:32 am | Permalink

    A reverse question that I think might have been asked, but I’ve never run across any account that says it was:

    Before we had aeroplanes, deities were imagined to be up in the sky. Artwork reflected that – and still does. But did anyone ask those first aviators (or, hell, even astronauts) if they saw any deities while they were up there? Or was the question left un-asked since the answer was assumed.

    • Mark Sturtevant
      Posted June 6, 2016 at 11:38 am | Permalink

      I was very young during the early years of the Apollo space program, and I do remember listening to a radio preacher railing against it as an intrusion into heavens’ space. Being impressionable about what adults said, I recall being alarmed by his fear.

      • Runcible Spooner
        Posted June 7, 2016 at 6:37 am | Permalink

        One of the early cosmonauts, I think it was Yuri Gagarin, announced that when he was in orbit, he saw no sign of god. No doubt this sentiment was approved by his superiors, but it did prompt a lot of bombast from pulpits in the US at the time.

      • gravelinspector-Aidan
        Posted June 7, 2016 at 6:59 pm | Permalink

        Similar sentiments were expressed at various points in the 1600s as people failed to “get” Newtonian mechanics and Keplerian orbits, and worried about the planets smashing through the “crystal spheres.”

  13. Ken Kukec
    Posted June 6, 2016 at 10:35 am | Permalink

    Would that your headline were to become the locus classicus of Betteridge’s Law.

  14. Posted June 6, 2016 at 10:46 am | Permalink

    Human dignity is a concept that arises from religion? Give me a fucking break. Hasn’t this doofus heard of the Westboro Baptists? Justification for bigotry and xenophobia is what arises from the religious imagination.

    Also, the whole “big questions” thing is a bad joke. “Why am I here” is a big, important, super-relevant question, the answer to which will greatly, greatly improve the human condition, but the answer to “how can we cure cancer” is just a parochial scientific puzzle that we shouldn’t worry about too much. Jeebus.

    • Heather Hastie
      Posted June 6, 2016 at 2:55 pm | Permalink

      I just want to know why he kept having to put the word “religious” before the word “imagination”?

      Perhaps he acknowledges deep down that that’s all religion is – imagination.

  15. jeremyp
    Posted June 6, 2016 at 10:52 am | Permalink

    Further, I don’t know where people get the idea that religion can actually answer the “Big Questions.” It can address them, but every religion has a different answer.


    Religionists like to claim that religion can answer the big questions and science can’t, often by saying “science answers the how questions and religion answers the why questions”, but it is just not true.

    No answer is worth anything more than a guess if there is no means of finding out if the given answer is correct or likely to be correct. This point seems so obvious to me that I am amazed we ever let religionists get away with it.

    Having said that, I would argue that there are some Big Questions that religions do answer. For example: “is there a god?”. Although, as you say, they all answer yes (except Buddhism), the fact that each one comes up with a different incompatible version of what God actually is, tells us that there is probably no objective reality behind the concept. If Gods was objectively real, surely at least two human societies would have come up with the same one. Religions say there is a God but they tell us collectively that there isn’t.

    • Doris Walker
      Posted June 6, 2016 at 11:53 am | Permalink

      Exactly. It has always struck me as strange that theists argue that religion is the only way to Truth (capital T). If this were the case, then shouldn’t ALL religions converge on the same beliefs?

      The fact that they do not suggests to me that there is nothing there for them to converge on.

  16. yiamcross
    Posted June 6, 2016 at 10:59 am | Permalink

    Religion definitively answers lots of questions which some might consider to be big. Should we stone gays and adulterers? Should women submit without question to the will of men? Should we kill apostates and unbelievers? Should we act on the command of a god even when s/he demands we do something which is clearly immoral (see above)? Sadly the answers religion provides are horribly wrong so why would any sane person expect it to be able to proide worthwhile and reliable answers to any other question. Religion can’t even answer a simple question like which religion is right, consequently only the deranged could believe it can answer a big question.

    • Heather Hastie
      Posted June 6, 2016 at 3:01 pm | Permalink

      Now there’s an idea. Get all the religions to get together and decide which one is right, and only when they have reached a consensus can they re-join the discussion. What could possibly go wrong?! 🙂

      • gravelinspector-Aidan
        Posted June 7, 2016 at 7:12 pm | Permalink

        Now you’re opening a Diet-sized can of Worms.
        Or, to spoof a terrible UK entertainer (even more skin-crawling than Jimmy Saville, IMHO), “Nicaea to see you ; to see you, Nicaea!”

        • Heather Hastie
          Posted June 7, 2016 at 7:26 pm | Permalink

          Not sure anybody is more skin-crawling than Saville, but Brucie certainly gives him a run for his money!

          They could have a diet (German for parliament) at Worms (German town).

          • gravelinspector-Aidan
            Posted June 7, 2016 at 10:37 pm | Permalink

            Ja, genau! (Ich lerne Deutsch.)

            • Heather Hastie
              Posted June 7, 2016 at 10:42 pm | Permalink

              I don’t know German, just a couple of words, so I had to do a google translation for genau! (I guessed the rest.)

              • gravelinspector-Aidan
                Posted June 7, 2016 at 11:10 pm | Permalink

                Almost the first thing I downloaded when I got a telephone line and n internet connection was a file containing several hundred translations of “Eins bier, bite!” “Один пиво, пожалйста””Una cerveza por favor” …

              • Heather Hastie
                Posted June 8, 2016 at 12:47 pm | Permalink

                Ha ha! 🙂

  17. Torbjörn Larsson
    Posted June 6, 2016 at 11:04 am | Permalink

    That religion could answer any questions at all fall on its absurdity.

    Religion is devised so your parent’s religion can lend some emotional safety. Quoting Marx as you did the other day: “Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people”.

    In so doing the entirety of religious expression, which by necessity must split and branch, evolve, for the same reason languages do, fails to speak with one voice.

    It is especially galling when one human invention is explicitly failing as the other succeeds. It is in large part due to science that societies becomes safer and poverty has dramatically decreased from 80/20 to approaching zero. Reasons are support and invention of technology such as chemistry of soaps, biology of vaccines, gene development of agrarian species, et cetera

    And in so doing religion is impoverished.

    As an example, this is not even wrong, from the world ignorant poet, paraphrased: “If we no longer believe in this link between the person and the sacred, the bottom falls out of the values that underlay liberal democracy, leaving a lethal concoction of nihilism and technological prowess.”

    It is Enlightenment that underlies liberal democracy. And it is its mighty child Science that has abolished the vampire of religious nihilism – “feel safe in keeping starving” – and swung the mighty hammer of technological prowess to abolish its feeding ground.

    • Torbjörn Larsson
      Posted June 6, 2016 at 11:08 am | Permalink


    • Torbjörn Larsson
      Posted June 6, 2016 at 11:10 am | Permalink

      I can’t nail this, before coffee.

      • gravelinspector-Aidan
        Posted June 7, 2016 at 7:17 pm | Permalink

        You’ll pound it into submission.
        Why do Volvo and Saab give their engine power in horsepower not goatpower?

    • Posted June 6, 2016 at 11:28 am | Permalink

      Theists have a double standard when it comes to answering questions. They will accept that a question like “what is the speed of light” needs to be tested and demonstrated in order to arrive at an answer, but do religiously inspired answers to “big questions” need to be confirmed at all? Of course not!

      • gravelinspector-Aidan
        Posted June 7, 2016 at 7:33 pm | Permalink

        Actually, the question of “Does light have a speed?” was a genuine and real question before “what is the speed of light?” became a topic of investigation. IIRC, someone tried addressing the first question in the 1600s with men on hilltops, with lanterns. [Wikis – thought so – Galileo, 1638 ; and millennia of philosophical to-ing and fro-ing before that], with the first astronomical techniques (Ole Romer, 1676 ; Bradley, 1729) giving the first on then 2 significant digits for the value. The final 9th digit came in the 1970s, with redefinition of distance into time and locking of the 9th digit in 1983.
        One significant digit every 30 years – now there is a standard for religion to strive for.

  18. frednotfaith2
    Posted June 6, 2016 at 11:20 am | Permalink

    Back in the late ’80s I started reading Stephen Gould’s collection of essays beginning with Ever Since Darwin and found them very informative and enlightening. The one topic on which I thoroughly disagreed with him was on his idea of “non-overlapping magisteria”, or, more specifically, that religion rather than science should deal with values and ethics and the like, which is absurd because religion has thoroughly failed in promoting a rational set of values and ethics and continues to fail. A truly good person will be good regardless or even in spite of religious beliefs while religion has caused many otherwise good people to engage in or otherwise support or remain silent in the face of atrocious behavior.

  19. Posted June 6, 2016 at 11:39 am | Permalink

    Of course it can answer them, just not necessarily correctly.

    Also, Henri Bergson? Try a more recent philosopher, preferably one who is not antiscience. (No Heidegger!)

  20. Damien McLeod
    Posted June 6, 2016 at 11:43 am | Permalink

    Religion can’t answer any questions. Religious people believe in sky-fairies.
    Religious people are therefore insane.
    Religious psychotics are an unreliable, untrustworthy source of information about anything.

    No question answered by someone who’s insane can ever be accepted at face value in my opinion. Rant, Rant, Rant. I rant because I to believed in sky-fairies “Once Upon A Time” and was insane.

    • Damien McLeod
      Posted June 6, 2016 at 11:58 am | Permalink

      Reply to self—-I “hate” it that there’s no edit button on this comment section, I need to edit my comment! I’m old, demented, and senile, and I need— “need I say”—an edit button.
      Dear Dr. Coyne, please switch to Disqus for comments. They have the good sense to have an edit button so wacky old farts such as myself can edit our comments.
      Thank you Self, Thank you Dr. Coyne.

      • Posted June 7, 2016 at 8:26 pm | Permalink

        Unfortunately, Jerry doesn’t control that. None of the themes hosted at WordPress include a comment edit function. He’d have to start blogging at a new site.

  21. James Walker
    Posted June 6, 2016 at 11:57 am | Permalink

    Well of course religion can provide answers – usually answers that are comforting or flattering or satisfy the human desire for justice or social control. Unfortunately the answers tend to be wrong or unverifiable and don’t bear close scrutiny. Hence the frequent appeal to abandon reason and trust in faith.

  22. JonLynnHarvey
    Posted June 6, 2016 at 12:03 pm | Permalink

    It’s interesting/odd that he quotes the philosopher Henri Bergson.

    Bergson definitely regarded some religion as obstructing human progress and well-being and other religion as a positive force and was somewhat specific. The relevant book is “The Two Sources of Morality and Religion” in which he contrasts ‘static’ religion and ‘dynamic’ religion, both of which he regards as having some positives, but he makes clear that without the forward looking perspective of the latter, religion is not especially helpful.

    (It’s similar in some ways to Erich Fromm’s distinction between ‘humanistic’ religion and ‘authoritarian’ religion. There is also William James’ distinction between “morbid” and “healthy-minded” religion but he saw pros and cons of both.)


    The question is not just can religion answer Big Questions but can it answer them well and definitively. No religion has proof beyond reasonable doubt of its contentions, and many religions have a great deal of counter-evidence against them, and many approaches to big questions are either glib all-too-easy copouts, or ego-gratifying exercises.

    Democracy pretty much started in pagan ancient Greece, and had great apologists in Aristotle and Cleisthenes.
    (“But one factor of liberty is to govern and be governed in turn; for the popular principle of justice is to have equality according to number, not worth”- Aristotle-“Politics”)
    It is certainly possible that in later eras Christian concepts of grace and dignity helped to build the rationale of democracy in later times.
    (“There is neither Jew nor Greek, male nor female, since all are one in Christ Jesus”- Paul in Galatians 3:28)

    Granted Aristotle believed in a teleological purpose-driven universe, but purposes in life which we find and alter “on the fly,” as it were, work for many, without a pre-given purpose that is already out there.

    (As Eugenie Scott once said, she wasn’t sure that the universe had a purpose but she still felt her life had a purpose.)

    Unlike Richard Dawkins I am quite comfortable with Albert Einstein’s usage of the term “religion”. Einstein liked some traditional religion but deplored any religion bases on servile fear.
    I offer the following quotations from the founder of general relativity.

    “The religion of the future will be a cosmic religion. It should transcend personal God and avoid dogma and theology. Covering both the natural and the spiritual, it should be based on a religious sense arising from the experience of all things natural and spiritual as a meaningful unity.”
    “It is very difficult to elucidate this [cosmic religious] feeling to anyone who is entirely without it. . . The religious geniuses of all ages have been distinguished by this kind of religious feeling, which knows no dogma and no God conceived in man’s image; so that there can be no church whose central teachings are based on it … In my view, it is the most important function of art and science to awaken this feeling and keep it alive in those who are receptive to it”

  23. chris moffatt
    Posted June 6, 2016 at 12:24 pm | Permalink

    ““Being,” “the person” and “human dignity” are concepts arising instead from the religious imagination.”

    Oh dear; another manifestation of horse-cart syndrome. These are in fact concepts arising from consciousness as is, sadly, the “religious imagination”.

    As an aside if philosophy has failed to answer the “big questions” after 2500 years there’s no chance that religion could.

  24. peepuk
    Posted June 6, 2016 at 1:11 pm | Permalink

    Science has already answered all existential questions; Alex Rosenberg has made a nice summary:

    Is there a God? No.

    What is the nature of reality? What physics says it is.

    What is the purpose of the universe? There is none.

    What is the meaning of life? Ditto.

    Why am I here? Just dumb luck.

    Does prayer work? Of course not.

    Is there a soul? Is it immortal? Are you kidding?

    Is there free will? Not a chance!

    What happens when we die? Everything pretty much goes on as before, except us.

    What is the difference between right and wrong, good and bad? There is no moral difference between them.

    Why should I be moral? Because it makes you feel better than being immoral.

    Is abortion, euthanasia, suicide, paying taxes, foreign aid, or anything else you don’t like forbidden permissible or sometimes obligatory? Anything Goes.

    What is love and how can I find it? Don’t look for it; it will find you when you need it.

    Does history have any meaning or purpose? It’s full of sound and fury but signifies nothing.

    Does the human past have any lessons for our future? Fewer and fewer, if it ever had any to begin with .


    I don’t think most humans can do without some kind of ideology or religion; because they don’t like above answers.

  25. Posted June 6, 2016 at 1:11 pm | Permalink

    3000 years and counting, and still nothing.

    Religion won’t find any Big Answers unless it learns how to formulate Big Questions properly.

  26. EvolvedDutchie
    Posted June 6, 2016 at 1:38 pm | Permalink

    “The more scientific discovery reveals, the more we realize it can’t answer the great existential questions.”

    Utter nonsense. Science has answered where humans come from (Africa) and also where this planet is heading (being swallowed up by the sun).

    • gravelinspector-Aidan
      Posted June 7, 2016 at 7:45 pm | Permalink

      where this planet is heading (being swallowed up by the sun).

      Cooked, certainly – and in the next billion or so years. “Swallowed by the sun” is rather more dubious. There’s about a 1% chance of one of the inner planets, Earth included, bring ejected from the solar system before the Sun is likely to become a red giant, and considerable (10-20%) uncertainty on the diameter of the Sun when it does go red giant.
      Liars for Jesus love to grab hold of excessively confident statements, and take their winding back or modification as evidence that “it’s all just guesswork.”

  27. Zado
    Posted June 6, 2016 at 2:01 pm | Permalink

    From the article: “…the West’s Judeo-Christian heritage is the ultimate foundation of liberty, conscience, human rights and democracy — the benchmarks of Western civilization.”

    Strange how Christianity dominated the West for a thousand years before those ideas became ascendant.

    Is there any piece of moral wisdom that Christians won’t take post hoc credit for?

  28. Posted June 6, 2016 at 2:03 pm | Permalink

    “And really, is there any big question that religion can answer?”

    As someone who sifted through the sands of religion for decades, looking for the gold I was conditioned to believe was there, I can safely say: religion can answer no big questions, or little ones for that matter.

  29. GBJames
    Posted June 6, 2016 at 2:13 pm | Permalink


  30. Vaal
    Posted June 6, 2016 at 2:59 pm | Permalink

    “If science has stimulated the “religious imagination,” it’s only to confect new stories and metaphors to replace religious claims that science has falsified. “

    That is perfect 🙂

  31. DiscoveredJoys
    Posted June 6, 2016 at 3:42 pm | Permalink

    If religion is supposed to answer the big ‘why’ questions then ‘Why are there so many different religions?’

    • gravelinspector-Aidan
      Posted June 7, 2016 at 8:01 pm | Permalink

      then ‘Why are there so many different religions?’

      “Because EVERYONE ELSE is WRONG!”
      Cite: Moses citing pers.comm from JHWH, reported ca. 550 BCE.
      Similar sentiments were expressed a millennium before in various Babylonian works, implying protohistorical plagiarism.

  32. Posted June 6, 2016 at 4:52 pm | Permalink

    None of the world’s religions has managed to
    answer any of these questions to the satisfaction of all humanity. Wherever cultures blended, new concepts were added to whatever religion existed. Judaism picked up a lot of ideas from Paganism and Philosophy that hadn’t been there earlier on. In addition, they edited and reinterpretted all the time. That offshoot of Judaism that became Christianity was never stabilized with a uniform set of beliefs and “knowledges” until it became “Catholic”. Even then, theso-called heresies did not disappear and multiple forms of Catholicism sprouted up. Protestants continued the disagreements with Catholic Christian beliefs and answers. There are no religious belief-systems that can be believed in by everyone or that answer any important questions.

  33. Leigh Jackson
    Posted June 6, 2016 at 6:36 pm | Permalink

    It’s true that the bottom can fall out for some non-believers – but it ain’t necessarily so. It’s equally true that religion can give rise to equivalent evils – the top can blow off, by way of balancing metaphors. It’s the human way; not the religious way or non-religious way.

  34. keith cook±
    Posted June 6, 2016 at 6:58 pm | Permalink

    I think religion answered this question, how to perpetuate a myth that then, with the friendly help of science, became a lie and still hold the minds of millions 2000 years plus later, whilst all the while loading the coffers tax free, pedophilia, raping, tossing gays out of windows, spreading hate, … we know the score. And incredibly, proclaiming the opposite with little but a promise of an afterlife, THAT takes a lot of self deceiption and gaul.
    I put it to you, religion exists today to save itself from it’s own bad behaviour and whose rules are described and written by it’s own silly hand.

  35. Lurker111
    Posted June 6, 2016 at 9:26 pm | Permalink

    Can religion even answer the _small_ existential questions?

    Like, “Should I draw to this inside straight or not?”

    • gravelinspector-Aidan
      Posted June 7, 2016 at 8:05 pm | Permalink

      Those godless gamblers answered that one …. about 1600? (I’m not really up to speed on the history of maths. +/- a century.) Probably before the invention of poker as a recognisable family of games (If that’s a poker term.)

  36. Posted June 7, 2016 at 2:10 am | Permalink

    Yes, religion can answer lots of big questions. What it can’t do is provide objective evidence demonstrating its answers are true.

  37. Lucas
    Posted June 7, 2016 at 1:12 pm | Permalink

    Everyone has religion. You, for example, put your faith in science to answer the meaning of life. You want to spread your beliefs just like followers of any other religion do.

    You use the word religion to imply that it is to be unaware of or to willfully disregard science. However, there have been plenty of scientists who are Christian, Muslim, Hindu, etc. Likewise, there are plenty of atheists who do not know science.

    Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not trying to say that just because we all have different beliefs means that we can’t determine which religion, if any, is true. Logically, two contradictory beliefs cannot both be true at the same time. If there is evidence to disprove something, then it should be discarded. Why would you want to put faith in something that is not true?

    So anyway, you speak of religion like it’s something to be avoided. But in reality you cannot exist without having faith in something. The goal should be to make sure that your religion is based on truth so that you don’t live your life following a lie.

    • Posted June 7, 2016 at 3:15 pm | Permalink

      Before you go accusing scientists of having “faith” in science the same way believers have faith in religion, you should read my Slate piece, “No faith in science”, which is here:

      Scientific “faith” and religious “faith” are not at all the same thing, as you imply. The article spells it out.
      And, of course, how does one know whether one’s religion is based on truth? Which is truer: Islam or Catholicism. When you find out please enlighten us all.

      • Lucas
        Posted June 7, 2016 at 6:49 pm | Permalink

        Ok, I don’t think of “faith” as “belief despite evidence to the contrary”. I think faith should be backed by evidence. If evidence proves your religion wrong, why would you go on believing it?

        If you mean “belief despite lack of evidence”, then there’s no way to tell if it is true or false. That is what science is all about: making observations and coming up with theories to explain what we see. A lot of people believed in the Higgs boson, for example, before it was proven to exist. But there were other theories out there to explain our observations, and only when the discovery was made were those theories proven wrong.

        For questions like “Is there an afterlife”, we may not ever see concrete evidence either way. And there are many theories out there, but again, no more than one can be true.

        Another thing I should clarify is that I don’t see science as a religion in itself. It is more a tool to understand the observable universe. Where I think it turns into religion is when you believe that it is the only source of truth — when you only accept things that can be observed and tested, and discard anything that is not physically tangible.

        • gravelinspector-Aidan
          Posted June 7, 2016 at 8:12 pm | Permalink

          Ok, I don’t think of “faith” as “belief despite evidence to the contrary”.

          There’s a good reason that Prof Coyne uses definitions from the OED : they’re ones written by other people, acknowledged eperts in the English language, and not susceptable to allegations of having biased their definitions for some particular slant on this debate.

          I think faith should be backed by evidence.

          Provide some to start your dissertation.

        • Posted June 7, 2016 at 8:36 pm | Permalink


          Evidence does prove very many religions wrong, yet millions still believe. That’s the very problem we atheists would most like to see go away: that people do not try to rely on objective evidence when accepting or rejecting claims.

        • Posted June 8, 2016 at 2:53 am | Permalink

          “Where I think it turns into religion is when you believe that it is the only source of truth — when you only accept things that can be observed and tested, and discard anything that is not physically tangible.”

          Why shouldn’t we discard anything that isn’t physically tangible? Physically intangible things might well exist, but if they don’t interact with the physical — including us — they can have no impact on our lives. So what’s the problem?


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