Beyond belief

A strong field of tension exists between science and religion. Many religious people say science is just another belief and thus another religion. And whereas science is supposed to be based on facts, some scientists are extremely religious. Are religion and science compatible?

Religion is an important feature in human life. It is found in all cultures. It is estimated worldwide around ten thousand religions exist. Over eighty percent of the world’s population is affiliated with one of the five largest religions, being christianity, islam, hinduism, Chinese folk religion, and buddhism.Religion_distribution

But the origin of religion is uncertain. Discussions about where and why religion began have been going on for centuries. Generally, it seems to help people deal with problems of life. People resort to religion especially in situations of anxiety or misfortune. Of course, non-religious people have just as many problems as religious people, but apparently they find different ways to deal with them.

Researchers from the University of Rochester in the US found a reliable negative relation between intelligence and religiosity. To say it plainly: they found religious people to be less intelligent than non-believers. Gender or education made no difference in the equation.

Intelligence and religion don't go hand in hand. (© dimdimich –

Intelligence and religion don’t go hand in hand. (© dimdimich –

The researchers came up with three possible explanations for this phenomenon. Intelligent people are less likely to conform and are thus more likely to resist religious dogma. They don’t like to accept any beliefs that are not subject to empirical testing or logical reasoning. And intelligence may provide whatever functions religion does for believers, such as a sense of control, self-regulation, self-enhancement, and attachments. Intelligent people are more likely to be married and successful in life and therefore need religion less, concluded the researchers.

One of the arguments for the necessity of religion is that the world would be an immoral place without religion. Several studies have already demonstrated morality and helping others without personal gain don’t arise from religious beliefs only. It exists throughout the animal world.

In many European countries, religion is in sharp decline. Manchester University in Great Britain conducted a study in 48 European countries and concluded this religious decline does not equal moral decline. Moral values in the countries concerned have not become more self-interested or anti-social. Morality is not rooted in religion, according to the researchers.

It may even be the opposite, judging by research from the University of Chicago in the US. They concluded children from religious families are less likely to share with others than children from non-religious families. Besides, they were more prone to punish others for bad behaviour.

Children from religious families are not as sympathetic as their parents believe them to be. (© Ilike –

Children from religious families are not always as sympathetic as their parents believe them to be. (© Ilike –

Almost 1200 children between the ages of 5 and 12 living in Canada, China, Jordan, South Africa, Turkey, and the United States took part in the investigation. Although the religious parents believed their children to have more empathy and sensitivity to the plight of others, the research showed the contrary. It came up with a negative relation between religiosity and altruism and this tendency grew stronger with age. Children with a longer experience of religion in a household were least likely to share. Children from atheist and non-religious families turned out to be more generous.

This might be an eye-opener for American voters. According to research from the University of Houston in the US, American voters view religious candidates favourably. They trust in those who believe in god. Atheists are not likely to win votes. The only openly atheist congressman lost his seat in 2012.

It is understandably if you take a look at the figures. An overwhelming majority of Americans (up to 85 percent) not only believe in god, but think that the bible is the word of god; that jesus christ will physically return to the earth; that satan exists and leads people to sin; and that prayers get answered.

Our brains detect patterns in the world and sometimes see patterns that are not really there. (© pathdoc –

Our brains detect patterns in the world and sometimes are tricked into seeing patterns that are not really there. (© pathdoc –

Why are we so easily fooled? Maybe because our brains have evolved to detect patterns in the world. We also see patterns that are really not there, like a face in the clouds. This feature may make the human mind predisposed to harbouring religious beliefs.

This is a cultural thing, though, not a genetical one, according to research from the University of California in the US. Whatever type of belief or disbelief you feed into the human brain, whether it be about santa claus or about jesus christ, it reacts in the same way. In both religious and non-religious people, the process of believing or disbelieving a statement, whether religious or not, activated the same brain areas.

With all these facts and many, many more resulting from a huge amount of scientific studies, one wonders whether pious scientists still exist. Researchers of Rice University in the US thought the same and conducted a worldwide survey of religion and science. They gathered answers from almost ten thousand scientists working in biology and physics in eight world regions (France, Hong Kong, India, Italy, Taiwan, Turkey, UK, and US). Their conclusion: scientists generally are just as religious as a given general population. Only a minority of participating scientists believe science and religion are in conflict.

evil scientist making chemical experimentThis seems highly unlikely, but becomes more logical if you consider the countries involved in the study. They are still rather religious. Countries predominantly non-religious have been left out although they also have a strong scientific community.

And that is exactly where science may go wrong. Research results are sometimes manipulated and thus become less reliable. Or new knowledge may prove old facts to be wrong.

But still, good science is based on facts. It is about reason, empiricism, evidence. Religion is solely based on belief. It is about revelation, faith, sacredness.

How can you be good scientist if the basic facts from which you work and which determine your world view are wrong? If you believe, contrary to all the scientific evidence, the world to be 6000 years old for instance.

“There is a fundamental difference between religion, which is based on authority, and science, which is based on observation and reason. Science will win because it works.”
Stephen Hawking, theoretical physicist and cosmologist


Magician © Syda Productions –
Scientist © –

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