Wednesday, July 20, 2011

A Scientist Can't be an Atheist

After some recent conversations I have had with some fellow scientists I have come to the conclusion that a good scientist cannot be an atheist. Now before you go jumping down my throat about how this can't possibly be correct or start cheering me on as a religious fanatic, hear me out. 

The way I view science and the way that it was taught to me was that you can't prove anything. Even if something has happened 100% of times in the past does not mean it will happen again in the future. If I hold up an apple and then drop it, I am fairly certain it will fall to the ground. But science dictates that there is a small amount of uncertainty that it might not actually do that. In science, you can't prove, you can only disprove.

So how could a good scientist be a "true" atheist? By being a "true" atheist I mean a person who is 100% convinced there is no God or anything of the sort. That, in my opinion, goes against what science is really about, which is questioning things. To be 100% convinced of something insinuates more like faith than science. Science is about being a skeptic, to be unsure of things. Now this analogy also applies to religious fanatics, like those who believe that the Earth is 6,000 years old. They ignore tons of scientific data to the contrary just to fill their belief system.

As a qualifier to my post, here are the definitions I am using. Definitions differ, so yours may be different than mine:

atheism:  Disbelief in, or denial of, the existence of a god 
agnostic: One who holds that the existence of anything beyond and behind material phenomena is unknown and (so far as can be judged) unknowable, and especially that a First Cause and an unseen world are subjects of which we know nothing.
 Source - Oxford English Dictionary
Scientists should fit somewhere in the middle based on their way of thinking. I think that the majority of scientists if they are religious, view religion as a moral compass and not as a "this is the way things are" sort of thing and if they aren't religious then they are most likely agnostic. Although, agnostic usually gets lumped into the Atheist category on most questionnaires. Agnostic is not the same thing as atheist, contrary to what public media tends to make it out as.

I feel agnostic is the perfect "belief system" for scientists because it is basically what we study. It is uncertainty. You can't know one way or the other what is right. And that is how I feel a scientist should feel. Now I don't intend to inflame criticism with this post as to more incite conversation. This has also extended from a previous conversation with someone about whether it was even right to use the word believe as a scientist.


  1. This is exactly the position I've held for years. Yes, it seems awfully unlikely (to me) that the thing people refer to as "God" exists, but I can't know one way or the other with certainty. The shorthand way I put it is "I can't know with complete confidence anything meaningful about the nature or existence of God." Also, "I can't know" should be contrasted with "I don't know." I don't know what distinguishes each species of oak tree from the others, but I could if I wanted to make that effort.

  2. A thought-provoking post. But I'm a counterexample to your proposition.

    On this basis, a scientist can't reject anything? Homeopathy, fairies, green men from Mars,... deities.

    While you could extend or qualify the meanings of words (like 'deity', or 'uncertain'), I think this is splitting hairs. Personally I'm quite alright with rejecting some ideas as improbable enough. And the existence of supernatural immortals is one of them.

  3. @Kwinkunks- I think this becomes semantic: what precisely do we mean by "atheist?" I don't "believe" in God either. But I take "atheism" to be an active belief that there is no god, as opposed to a passive lack of belief. If I truly believed I could empirically, logically demonstrate God's non-existence, I would be morally and intellectually compelled to rail against all theistic people, and I'm not prepared to go that far. Homeopathy and LGM from Mars are testable, disprovable; fairies and God are not. But in both the latter cases, the lack of ways to know anything about them renders my interest in questions about them nearly zero.

    On the other hand, discussing the philosophical reasoning for my conclusions, and being exposed to different views? Fascinating stuff!

  4. @Lockwood: "the lack of ways to know anything about them renders my interest in questions about them nearly zero."

    I like that way of looking at it. I feel like the question is irrelevant to me, insofar as I can live without deities. As far as I can tell, the world does not change if deities exist or don't exist. Either way, there's still war, famine, love, and bacon. But this train of thought always leads me to apply Occam's razor, and I'm back to being an atheist again...

  5. I'm with kwinkunks on this one.

    I think your definition of atheist is a straw-man. A-theism is literally 'without a belief in a deity' not an active belief that a deity doesn't exist.

  6. Except of course, Occam's razor is no guide to the "correct" answer, just a method to choose the "best" among competing answers when information is limited. When forced to make a tentative choice among competing hypotheses, the simplest is defined as best. So I agree that Occam's razor leads to atheism as "best" answer, but not that it's necessarily the "correct" answer. Hence, agnosticism.

  7. Great points everyone. I still go with Lockwood (I love your comment about can't and don't, I adjusted it a little in my post to fix it). o far in my scientific educaton I have been under the assumption that in science it is even possible that the universe could spontaneously cease to exist at any moment, but the odds of that happening are so slight that it is essentially non-existent. But that is not the same as non-existent. And that is the way I feel about atheisism and agnostism. One believes in a 0% chance of god and the other says you can't know the percentage.

  8. Hypocentre: First, a defense: that definition is simply verbalizing what I had gathered from context over the years; it's been a long time since I actually looked up the word, and I did qualify my statement to indicate that it was "my take."

    Second, that's an interesting definition, because that would indeed make me an atheist.

    Third, I guess I better look it up. Here's Merriam Webster:
    a : a disbelief in the existence of deity b : the doctrine that there is no deity
    So it accepts both meanings.

    The transcription of the OED definition here again supports both perspectives:
    And the link at the end of the OED definitions to Huxley's discussion of atheism and agnosticism has some very interesting reading, which, after finishing and considering, I feel puts me back comfortably in the agnostic camp again. This is simply a topic on which it is impossible for me to feel I have any gnosticism.

    So in closing, my definition is not just a "straw man," but one of several accepted across a spectrum that is broader than I had realized.

  9. Given that your definition of an atheist rules out Richard Dawkins (who has said before he's not 100% certain there was not a deistic agent that caused the universe) your argument is based on a giant strawman.

    Atheism doesn't mean I believe or disbelieve in gods. It means nobody has produced any evidence that would merit me entertaining that belief (or rejecting it). It's impossible for a rational being to believe in if no evidence is provided to sustain that belief.

    Science is a rational, evidence-based endeavor. There is nothing scientific about entertaining the God-hypothesis for which the evidence is either lacking or contradictory.

    The confusion of atheism and agnosticism is common. The point is that agnosticism pertains to knowledge and atheism pertains to belief. Most Western atheists I've met are agnostic atheists. Belief can't be conjured out of incomplete knowledge of the world.

  10. The existence or nonexistence of mythical beings (fairies, leprechauns, God, etc.) obviously cannot be dealt with using the scientific method.

    We can put a man on the Moon or describe sediment transport in a river or measure the age of the Earth based on what we understand about universal physical law, but we cannot say for certain that gravity or fluid dynamics or radio decay work exactly the way we understand them to in every case, because we can't observe every case. I am not an agnostic about physical laws.

    Defining an atheist as one who is 100% certain that there is no God is defining is creating a box that few human beings fit in, and certainly no scientists. As with gravity, I would define an atheist as one who is certain enough that there is no God that they feel free to deal with the world as if there is no God.

    (As far as I am concerned, the belief in a supreme intelligence who does not interact with the physical world is functionally the same as non-belief.)

  11. "Defining an atheist as one who is 100% certain that there is no God is defining is creating a box that few human beings fit in, and certainly no scientists."

    That is why I prefaced the article with a "true" atheist. I feel a "true" atheist is one who is absolutely certain no God (or god) exists. I know these people exist. I was just stating that no scientist could be one (of which you have just agreed to that point).

    "It means nobody has produced any evidence that would merit me entertaining that belief (or rejecting it)."

    This sounds a lot like the definition of agnostic to me:

    "One who holds that the existence of anything beyond and behind material phenomena is unknown and (so far as can be judged) unknowable, and especially that a First Cause and an unseen world are subjects of which we know nothing."

  12. As a fellow scientist, I am sure you are aware that how you feel about Atheism is irrelevant to the definition- only the data matters. As has been said before, your definition of Atheism is not congruent with the standard definition: failure to be convinced of the existence of deities (, so yes, you are creating a strawman. Atheism and Agnosticism ( are compatible and complementary world views, so it is quite possible to be an agnostic atheist like Dawkins- in fact, intellectual honesty demands it if you also subscribe to Rationalism.

    Regarding the additional qualifier, "good" scientist, I would say that based on scientific merit exemplified by membership in the American Association for the Advancement of Science, most "good" scientists are in fact atheists.

  13. I think for the most part I am saying and thinking the same thing as most of the commenter’s but our definitions differ. There does not seem to be a definitive definition as opposed to what Anonymous states. My definitional views seem to be more in line with Lockwood, but that doesn't mean I am the be all and end all. I guess I should add to the blog post the definitions I am using.

    Also in terms of definitions; definitions change. Even though the strict definition of atheism means without religion, times have changed and so has the definition with it. Gay no longer means happy, Symposium used to mean a gathering to drink together, definitions must evolve with the times. And just so you know my definitions are from the Oxford English Dictionary, not Wikipedia.

  14. Scientists deal with uncertainty, but aren't most scientific studies arranged to minimize the statistical margin of error? Doesn't that imply that uncertainty is treated as something to be eliminated as much as possible (although it can never be fully eliminated) so that scientific theories can have predictive value?

    On another note, atheism need not be seen as one religious faith among others. It is possible to paint atheism as a religious faith, like so:

    A Christian does not believe in Allah;
    A Muslim does not believe in Krishna;
    An atheist does not believe in Allah or Krishna

    But I don't think this is the best understanding of atheism. Most atheists don't spend their time in theological study, writing up lists of gods and reasons not to believe in each one, the way a religious person might come up with reasons not to believe in a rival god.

    Rather, atheists tend to reject the entire "discipline" of theology altogether, which is indeed compatible with science.

    A scientist might say, "There might be some god(s), but if so, they are unknowable, and therefore attempts at studying them are futile," which would be agnosticism.

    A scientist might also coherently say, "There is no reason even to hypothesize something that can't be at least indirectly studied and that doesn't have any predictive value," which would be closer to atheism since this attitude finds no use for the agnostic's question about the possibility of a god.

  15. First, a point well made is the evolving character of definitions. However, there is no freedom to just define anything as anything without rendering the point moot. Jazinator's "definition" is a misconception that is very widespread, in fact, one that I held myself until fairly recently. I argue, however, that upon closer inspection this misconception can no longer be held. Also and exploiting this misconception, painting Atheism as irrational, as "just another religion" is, its irony nonwithstanding, a strategy that is often pursued by religious apologists.

    The Oxford English Dictionary states:

    atheism noun
    disbelief in the existence of God or gods.

    belief noun
    an acceptance that something exists or is true, especially one without proof [...] a firmly held opinion

    agnostic noun
    a person who believes that nothing is known or can be known of the existence or nature of God.

    knowledge noun
    facts, information, and skills acquired through experience or education; the theoretical or practical understanding of a subject [...]

    Therefore, an Atheist can refuse or fail to accept the existence of deities without proof while being convinced that it may ultimately be impossible to prove or disprove the existence of such deities (due to the nature of the evidence required). This position is known as agnostic atheism, as opposed to atheistic religions, such as certain Buddhist sects.

    Stone Dead makes some excellent points, bringing attention to the fact that everybody is in the strictest sense an atheist with respect to most gods. "Atheists" taking the title just go one god further. Interestingly, whether or not a god exists is ultimately irrelevant to the public debate- what matters is what claims are made about said god's characteristics and properties (theology). Such specific claims can and often have been addressed and effectively disproved by science, for example in the case of the lack of effectiveness of intercessory prayer, or the impossibility of the personhood of Adam and Eve (see Stenger, "God: The Failed Hypothesis").

  16. You write atheism is without religion. My Websters definition of religion is 1. the service and worship of God or the supernatural. 2.a commitment or devotion to religious faith or observance.
    I know of a lot of people who don't believe in religion but do believe in God, yet they don't consider themselves to be atheist. To many people get turned off by the different religious sects and for very good reasons because they are run by men.
    I was raised a catholic, did the Presbyterian thing for 20+ years and now am going to a Methodist church, but I've looked at numerous other sects. I have yet to find a religion I can truly accept,ie worship in and serve in with my whole heart, yet I still believe in God. I am without religion but don't consider myself an atheist. For years I though that by being a scientist I should be an atheist but couldn't go that route and settled on being an agnostic. Now I realize you can be a scientist and still believe in God. But there are times when I'm full of doubt, because it is hard to believe there is a God that lets there be wars, and famine and terrible earth disasters.

    I do like the way you are going about trying to figure this all out. Everyone has to go through their own personal journey to figure out whats right for them to believe in.


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