The Single Greatest Misconception About Religion

Steven Dutch, Natural and Applied Sciences, Universityof Wisconsin - Green Bay
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The Problem

There’s a famous Peanuts cartoon where Linus says “You believe inSanta Claus, I believe in the Great Pumpkin … It doesn’t matter what youbelieve as long as you’re sincere.” Many writers seem to hold a similarview, as typified by Young (2001). In place of God, he proposes that a “cosmicreligious feeling” can serve equally well, and that consciousness of our ownmoral responsibility can serve to replace “a god who dictates moral codes.”His clear assumption is that religion serves only to satisfy psychologicalneeds, that any belief will do as long as it satisfies a given need, and thatthe evidence advanced by believers is nothing more than rationalizations for apriori beliefs. The central premise is “it doesn’t matter what youbelieve,” because all religious constructs are imaginary anyway. Examples ofauthors with similar assumptions are legion. Cooper (2002) says:

It is essential that students understand that acceptance of beliefs in science, unlike in religion, is based upon reliable empirical evidence and sound arguments. The use of the word “believe” by scientists and Protestant ministers may convey vastly different messages…a scientist’s “belief” in evolution stems from the examination of, and the acceptance of, the empirical evidence and arguments supporting evolutionary theory.

There’s only one flaw in this distinction - Biblical (and Koranic andTalmudic) literalists reject itcompletely. Scientists may think they use the term “believe” differentlyfrom Biblical literalists, but Biblical literalists do not. They are convincedthey “believe” in the same sense as scientists, based upon “reliableempirical evidence and sound arguments.” They regard the Bible as an accuraterecord of real events that are as reliably documented as any historical eventsor one-time events in the scientific literature. For example, there are noliving scientists who observed the Krakatoa eruption of 1883, but we considerthe written records of this event reliable. Biblical literalists consider theaccounts in the Bible to be equally reliable records of actual observed events.The glib assumption that science is based on facts and data while religiousbelief is entirely a matter of subjective personal preference leads tostereotyping, leads to the perception of scientists as arrogant and uninformed, and leads to counterproductive strategies.

Science and Religion: Not so Different, Yet Very Different

Science and religion are human institutions and must have certain structuralfeatures in order to function. They have to have an accepted canon of ideas,means of evaluating and responding to new ideas (outright rejection of new ideasis not an option for very long because it leads rapidly to obsolescence andextinction), means of enforcing rules (otherwise membership becomesmeaningless), means of translating ideas into concrete action, and means ofdealing with the claims of rival institutions. 

For most phenomena the twosystems are not in conflict; nobody disagrees on how to make nylon or whyeclipses happen. Almost every difference between science and Biblical literalismis traceable directly to the issue of the Bible as valid data. Although outsideobservers find the attitudes and behavior of Biblical literalists alien andpuzzling, every distinctive feature of their belief and behavior flows in astraightforward way from the single premise that religious doctrines areobjectively and factually true. The apparent paradox that dogmatic believers canaccept miracles and at the same time be very sophisticated at picking outlogical flaws in their opponents is not really a paradox. Biblical literalistscan be just as literate and perceptive as anyone else; they differ only in onekey factual assumption.

Still, there’s something unsettling about this comparison. The wayscientists and Biblical literalists confront challenges seem to differ inkind. It is not so much the belief in a Deluge, or even in the factuality ofthe Bible that sets Biblical literalists apart from scientists. After all,reputable scientists have explored the hypothesis that the Deluge (Ryan andPitman, 1998) or the Plagues of Egypt (Galanopoulos and Bacon, 1969) wereaccounts of real natural events. What seems to set Biblical literalists apartfrom scientists most distinctly is the insistence that their entire corpus ofevidence be immune to challenge. Underlying  the issue of the Bible as validdata is the more fundamental issue (no pun intended) of whether absolutecertainty is ever possible in practice. It is not just the premise that religious doctrines areobjectively and factually true, but the idea that they can be known to be truein an absolute sense that is the heart of the conflict.

Although scientists are likely to resist isolated challenges to acceptedideas, sooner or later enough anomalies will cause any idea to be reexamined.Given the relative weights of the evidence, accepted data, accepted findings, oreven logical principles themselves may be judged in need of correction. Sciencemay resist wholesale challenges to its authority, but individual findings aregenerally routinely open to question, and anything can be questioned if enoughdata warrant it. There is no imaginable test that could validate the scientificliterature in toto for all time. Biblical literalists believe the Bible canbe so validated. This, of course, vastly simplifies the matter of proof; once abeliever agrees the entire Bible is valid, issues like the Resurrection or theDeluge become simple questions of literal fact. On the other hand, evolution,indeed any scientific finding that contradicts a literal reading of the Bible,is a mortal threat to one of the most powerful weapons of Biblical literalists.

Data Sources for Biblical Literalists

Although it is common knowledge that Biblical literalists consider the Bibletheir principal source of evidence, it is less well known that they have others.First, they regard personal testimony as a central part of their evidence, andare frequently shocked and offended to find that scientists do not accept it.They consider their conversion experience to be as valid a form of evidence asany observational experience a scientist may have in the lab or the field.

It is simply not true that religious faith has no counterpart in science.Scientists routinely use their personal experience, subjective appraisal,hunches, and intuition as guides for selecting research directions. Indeed, whenthe outcome is unknown, as it must be in choosing a fundamentally new directionfor research, subjective thinking must dominate, sometimes even afaith-like insistence that there must be a pattern to phenomena. So thesubjective decision to interpret the Universe as containing a God is notfundamentally different from the subjective decision that it’s worth investinga career in, say, searching for extraterrestrial life.

In addition, Biblical literalists have a vast body of supporting literatureanalogous to the technical literature in science. Commentaries exist on justabout every aspect of scripture and religious doctrine, and there is a hugeliterature on apologetics, justifications for belief and answers toobjections by outsiders (McDowell, 1999). It is impossible to overstate thevolume of this literature, or its implications. Every imaginable religiousargument has been critiqued from every imaginable viewpoint andcounter-critiqued. Debaters with religious believers sometimes imagine they cancome up with some devastating, unexpected criticism that utterly deflates theopposition. It simply will not happen. Many debaters end up lookingsuperficial and uninformed because they rehash arguments whose rebuttals aretrivially obvious to believers.

For people continuously immersed in religious literature, the truth of theirdoctrine seems documented beyond any rational doubt. In addition, since fewoutsiders are well versed in this literature, they appear to Biblicalliteralists as technically uninformed and unread in even the most basicliterature. To these believers, the average evolutionist scientist looks like aflat-earth believer, someone wholly unacquainted with the technical literatureyet arrogantly demanding that everyone else discard well-established ideas toadopt a new theory.

Biblical literalists regard miracles as perfectly possible and thoroughlydocumented, though rare, events. McDowell (1999, p. 662) is typical:

It is important to note that we do not use the Bible to confirm the possibility of miracles [which is taken for granted] but only, as we will see later, to report the historicity of certain miraculous events.

Biblical literalist periodicals routinely publish accounts of miracles, andsince the possibility of miracles is taken for granted, accounts of miracles byotherwise reputable persons are accepted as simple matters of observation. SomeBiblical literalists understand why science excludes miracles as an explanationfor events, but many others do not. Many see the exclusion of miracles as apurely ad hoc rationalization for nonbelief, and regard the evidence formiracles as a real body of observational data that is excluded from science forvenal reasons completely divorced from any sound intellectual motive.


Many critics have attacked the concept of the “Scientific Method” for agood reason - there is no single Scientific Method. Rather, I believe wemust think of a battery of methods that have proven useful. Testing ofscientific ideas can include the classical experimental method, replication,attempted refutation, prediction, modeling, inference, deduction, induction andlogical analysis.

Short of allowing the events in question to happen, there is no way to test,with complete rigor, many theories of global warming, ozone depletion or nuclearwinter. Thus, being untestable does not make an idea false, nor does it mitigatethe consequences of making a wrong choice or even of deferring judgment. Even innon-religious areas we may be forced to make a decision in the face ofconflicting, incomplete, or even no data. The criticism that religious beliefsare untestable is therefore profoundly irrelevant. Something will happenwhen we die. We may cease to exist, enter into an afterlife, or be reincarnated,but the inability to communicate across the event horizon does not affect thefact that some outcome will happen and others will not.

Biblical literalists regard their beliefs as susceptible to testing in manyof the same senses that scientific ideas are testable. Miracles andcommunications from God are not repeatable on demand, but then neither areearthquakes, volcanic eruptions and meteor impacts. To Biblical literalists,miracles and communications from God are replicable in the sense of showingconsistent patterns, the content of the communications is verified (in theireyes) by experience, and the Biblical accounts have survived innumerable failedattempts at refutation (in the view of literalists if not their critics). Inshort, Biblical literalists consider the Bible to have been as rigorously testedas any scientific literature.

To anyone poised to dismiss the above as mere rationalization andpseudo-testing, let me ask this: are you really ready to propose atotally blind test (outcome not predictable beforehand) of Biblical moralclaims? Remember, if Biblical literalists pass the test, their ideas on issueslike abortion, homosexuality, family hierarchy, sex roles, crime and punishmentand the nature of God are right and yours are wrong, and you will have torestructure your world-view and values to fit. Are you really prepared to put itall on the line?

We often say that science is not democratic because it deals with objectivedata. Since Biblical literalists also regard their beliefs as based on objectivedata, they see no requirement to be democratic either. They regard rival beliefsystems roughly as we regard pseudoscience: sincere erroneous reasoning at best,deliberate fraud at worst. They do not see it as closed-minded or intolerant toclaim theirs is the only true religion any more than a geologist sees it asintolerant to claim that one value for the age of the earth is correct and allothers are wrong.

They do not see themselves as “imposing their beliefs” on others but as opposing fraudulent or socially harmful practices, on about the same plane as the medical community taking on medical quacks, or gun control advocates pushing for a ban on handguns. They see the harm done by, say, abortion, homosexuality, or evolution as just as objectively real and demonstrable as that caused by medical quacks or handguns. They regard the fact that others may not share their beliefs as irrelevant, much the way astronomers consider the widespread belief in astrology irrelevant to its validity (Dutch, 2002).

Things That Don’t Work

Biblical literalists differ from scientists principally in their acceptanceof the Bible as valid data, but in all other respects they can reason quiterationally. They are perfectly capable of spotting specious logic by theiropponents. Unfortunately, the scientific community has provided them withabundant examples. Tactics like the following will not only fail, butwill reinforce the idea that scientists reject Biblical literalism because ofsloppy, superficial thinking, ignorance, or deliberate malice.


Biblical literalists are commonly stereotyped as dour, inflexible,mean-spirited, unhappy and sexually repressed. In my dealings with them,Biblical literalists don’t seem any more or less happy, kind, or sexuallyhealthy than the general population. People who would rise up in fury atstereotypes of blacks or gays seem perfectly willing to accept and repeatequally malicious and blatant stereotypes of Biblical literalists.

Other stereotypes are issues of historical misconception if not deliberatedeception. Christianity never taught at any time that the earth is flat(Russell, 1997) or that the universe is small. Ptolemy’s Almagest (BookI, Chapter 6) explicitly states that in comparison to the sphere of the stars,the earth is a point (Taliaferro, 1952). The famous “medieval” woodcutshowing a man looking beyond the edge of the world to see the machinery of theheavens is a 19th century forgery (Ashbrook, 1977).

Treating their beliefs as subjective

Whatever the epistemological natureof religious belief, Biblical literalists regard their doctrines as facts, so it’sa total waste of time to argue that science deals in “facts” whereasreligions merely have “belief.” Launching a discussion that assumes thenatural superiority of science will be seen as both arrogant and uninformed.Discussing the tentativeness of science will only persuade Biblical literaliststhat science is based on inferior methodology, since they are convincedtheir own data is true in an absolute sense.

“Why can’t evolution just be God’s way of creating life?” 

Mylitmus test for literacy. This issue has been discussed so often infundamentalist literature that merely asking it reveals complete ignorance ofthe pertinent literature. The real issue to Biblical literalists is preservingBiblical inerrancy.

Theological illiteracy

How can God know everything if the speed of lightis an ultimate limit? How can God’s omniscience be reconciled with free will?How can Christians condone capital punishment or war if the Bible says “Thoushalt not kill?” These issues have been discussed for centuries. Bringing themup to believers as if they were novel questions is like submitting a paper to ajournal without bothering to read a single relevant reference first. They don’treveal perception or sophistication on the part of the questioner, butcluelessness.

Frontal Assaults

Religion is here to stay. Deal with it. Since thecontroversy over evolution is inherently religious, it’s natural for somedebaters to try to attack the root of the problem by attacking religion ingeneral, or at least belief in the Bible. While we’re at it, I’d like anunlimited research budget. Both are about equally likely to get results.

“I prefer to believe…” 

Countering Biblical literalist beliefs witha statement of personal preference is not just ineffective, from the Biblicalliteralist perspective it amounts to answering documented evidence with baldunsupported assertions. Reference to documents like the Humanist Manifesto is inthe same category; Biblical literalists view the Humanist Manifesto as merely agroup exercise in bald unsupported assertions.

Statements like “I choose to believe in a God of love” are strongcandidates for silliest remark ever made on any subject. Either there is a God,or there is not. If there is, God has certain attributes and not others. In anycase, what possible difference can it make what someone chooses tobelieve?

Bad Models of Science

Since we're up against people who consider their own ideas true in ametaphysically absolute sense, the first rule is not to surrender at the outset.Any description of science as a thought construct or group consensus effectivelyyields the struggle to Biblical literalists by admitting that science cannotachieve a level of certainty that Biblical literalists are convinced theyroutinely attain.

Some might object that presenting science as a search for truth and a body offacts is inaccurate. However, if a description of science that satisfies ussimultaneously creates a misleading impression in others, in what sense is ourdescription "accurate?" And if a model of science fails to distinguishscience from pseudoscience, by what criterion can we regard it as useful orvalid?

Scientific responses to Biblical literalists are rife with inaccuratestatements about science and miracles. Claims that miracles are inherentlyunscientific are not only arrogant, they're wrong. No amount of observingpatterns can rule out the existence of occasional singularities, and any allegedmiracle could be a rare but real natural event. Ipersonally like the example of meteorites, which were long dismissed as ranksuperstition until unequivocal evidence in the form of a large and widelywitnessed fall occurred. There are two cogent reasons for science notaccepting miracles. First, miracles can be used to explain away any anomaly.Second, premature acceptance of a phenomenon as a miracle forecloses anylikelihood of understanding it in natural terms. There is a third reason aswell: miracle claims have proven to be notoriously unreliable and prone towishful thinking and fakery. Although perfectly true, that argument is likely toproduce more heat than light.

Logical Fallacies

Argument from ignorance: Asking why aBiblical literalist accepts the Bible as infallible but not the Koran is a validdiscussion point. It just doesn’t prove anything. The fact that something isunproven (or can’t be proven) shows only that it is unproven, not that it’sfalse or some other idea is true. If we don’t let UFO enthusiasts orparanormalists use this kind of reasoning when they appeal to the unexplained,why should we expect Biblical literalists to let us?

Labels are not proof: Religious belief serves many psychological needs.That doesn’t make it false. If anything, the fact that someone finds a beliefpsychologically satisfying is evidence for the belief. Many argumentsused by Biblical literalists are patent rationalizations.That doesn’t make the arguments false, either. Dogmatism, closed-mindedness,and intolerance are not nice qualities. Unfortunately, they don’t necessarilymake the person afflicted with them wrong.

Threats to ideology are not proof: Biblicalliteralists often argue that, if evolution is true, it vitiates Christianity.That is a clearly fallacious argument. So, however, is any appeal to the ideathat Biblical literalism must be false because of the threats it poses to sexualor academic freedom, gay rights, abortion, and so on. For scientists, facts mustalways trump ideology.

Suggested Strategies

Understand the central issues

Biblical literalists see their beliefs asfacts. The fact that scientists don’t is utterly irrelevant. As far asBiblical literalists are concerned, if science doesn’t accept their evidence,that’s science’s problem, not theirs.

Probably the central dividing issue is not that the Bible may be factuallytrue, but that it can be assumed true in toto. To a scientist, the onlyway to prove “the Bible is true” is to prove every single statement in itindependently. But saying the Bible might be testable in principle is afar cry from dismissing it out of hand. (Of course, then there’s the issue ofwhat happens if the Bible fails a test.)

Get informed

To be as blunt as possible, if you’re not willing totreat it as a major research project, you have nothing to contribute. Know howBiblical literalists define terms, their theology, and their scientificarguments.

Be Analytical

“Analytical” comes from two Greek roots meaning “breakapart” and that is exactly what the creation-evolution conflict needs. Fromthe outset, partisans on both sides have tended to take the opposition’sarguments at face value without subjecting them to ana-lysis. When evolution wasfirst proposed, atheist debaters were quick to pounce on evolution as supportingtheir cause, which in turn convinced Biblical literalists that evolution deniedthe existence of God, instead of merely disproving one interpretation of oneportion of the Bible. Extremists in general tend to take the opposition’sarguments at face value without rigorously analyzing them. (Of course, if theywere capable of rational, dispassionate analysis, they wouldn’t be extremists,would they?)

Case in point: Intelligent Design. Advocates of Intelligent Design among thegeneral public seem to think that if Intelligent Design triumphs, the wholeBiblical literalist canon will follow. But even if we can demonstrate theexistence of an Intelligent Designer, that does not prove:

So if the concept of Intelligent Design is so far removed from proving theBiblical literalist position, why are so many scientists reacting to it withsomething akin to panic? Because unfortunately, a lot of scientists have notbothered to pick the logical chain apart. By reacting to Intelligent Design asif it were tantamount to validating Biblical literalism, they have in fact madeit so in the eyes of Biblical literalists.

Poor analysis muddies the creation-evolution waters in many ways, one of the most important being poorly-phrased survey questions. When people are asked whether they believe the universe was created or whether it evolved naturally, most people naturally opt for creation. The question as phrased is a false dichotomy and effectively excludes the possibility of a creator who works through natural laws. But when the questions are phrased in strictly scientific terms (earth billions of years old versus a few thousand) the results are much more favorable to science. Creationists, of course, gleefully pounce on the results of poorly designed surveys as proof of the widespread support for their ideas.

The Two Core Issues

The two issues that appear to divide scientists most sharply from Biblicalliteralists are first, can any phenomenon be definitively known to be outsidethe laws of nature (i.e., a miracle) and second, can any documentary source beknown to be absolutely free of error for all time? Even if miracles andinfallible sources actually exist, we can never be sure whether some allegedexample really is one. We could be mistaken in our evaluation or new evidencecould appear that changes our interpretation. Rather than assert thenonexistence of miracles or infallible sources, which is a losing propositionboth because many listeners will reject it and because such a disproof isimpossible, it seems a far more robust approach to explain why science cannotaccept either as ultimate explanations.


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Created 7 March, 2002, Last Update 15 January 2020

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