A typical argument between an atheist and a theist goes along the following lines:

  • ATH: "Modern science and reason are incompatible with a religious world view."
  • TH: "That's not true, many scientists, mathematicians and philosophers are also people of faith."

However, with the exception of a few Western intellectuals who gravitated towards Buddhism, almost all scientifically minded/highly educated people who are also religious tend to subscribe to the faith corresponding to their family background: Gödel was Christian, Putnam was Jewish, scientists from Muslim communities tend to be Muslim, scientists from Hindu communities tend to be Hindu, etc....even Einstein, usually provided as the ultimate example of a renowned scientist who was also a theist, believed in Spinoza's God - and both of them came from Jewish backgrounds.

If people who combine a modern scientific and rationalist (in the colloquial sense of the word) mindset with a religious outlook were objectively arriving at this reconciliation, then there wouldn't be such a strong correlation between their faith and their cultural background. It seems that there were would be more diversity and more crossovers. The fact that most people seem to fall back on the faith of their culture of origin seems to speak more to a psychological question of how hard it is to break away from cultural biases than about any coherence between a modern scientific worldview and various religious traditions.

So to restate the question: Does the correlation between cultural background and religious views of those who are both scientifically minded and religious weaken the argument that modern science and a religious world view are compatible?

Have philosophers of religion touched upon this question and the more general issue of how cultural backgrounds seem to be the biggest factor in determining which faith a person subscribes to?

  • 1
    you asked two very different questions, the one in your title and the one at the end. which one do you want answered?
    – user20153
    Commented Mar 22, 2017 at 22:40
  • @mobileink how are they different? I realize it's dense question Commented Mar 22, 2017 at 23:18
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    I think what he means is "Does culture bias weaken the argument that modern science and a religious world view are compatible?" is different from "Have philosophers of religion looked into whether or not people are drawn to specific religions because of their background?" The title asks about the strength of an argument and most of the body of the question asks a slightly different question about the correlation of origins of philosophers' and scientists' religious views.
    – Not_Here
    Commented Mar 22, 2017 at 23:41
  • 1
    I wouldn't say that they're "very different questions" but they are different. The first wants to know whether or not the data regarding (lets just say) intellectual's specific religious leanings correlating with their backgrounds weakens the argument that science and religion are compatible and the second wants to know if philosophers of religion have commented on the data. Again, slightly different but not drastically.
    – Not_Here
    Commented Mar 22, 2017 at 23:46
  • 1
    @mobileink Not_Here expressed my own question better than I did. I edited to try to make it clearer. Commented Mar 23, 2017 at 5:39

5 Answers 5


What an excellent question. I see exactly what you're saying and why you're skeptical of this endorsement of religion that is biased by culture and upbringing.

The solution might be to see that these religions are often the same. For instance, you say that Einstein believed in Spinoza's God, yet he also said that Buddhism is the religion of the future. How so? Because Spinoza's God is very strange and his view is barely inconsistent with the atheistic world-view of Buddhism. Meanwhile a Jewish thinker might endorse the Kabalistic view, which is essentially the same as that of the Christian mystic, which is identical with that of the Sufi mystic, and so on and so forth.

Each person is likely to be drawn to the religion that suits their culture and upbringing, their methods of practice and aesthetic sense, but these are often no different once one digs beneath the window-dressing.

Also, there has always been a low level of support in the sciences for the doctrine of the Upanishads (Schrodinger being the most notable example), and this view may be seen as transcending religious differences.

You mention faith. For me the crucial difference between religions is their attitude to faith. If faith is the best one can do in ones religion then this is not going to be appealing to a scientist. Religions that do not settle for faith are more appealing. Thus the mystical side of religion is much more appealing than the dogmatic conjectural kind, and once we get into this the difference between major religions start to seem trivial and to emerge from upbringing, culture and misunderstandings.

Finally, don't forget that scientists rarely have a good understanding of religion. There are many exception to prove the rule, but normally the religious choice of scientists is no more safe than that of the layman.


The argument is an obvious appeal to authority, so its validity hinges on whether the authority is relevant. The relevance is established prima facie by examples of scientific and religious worldviews co-existing in multiple people. This argument is by nature defeasible since people holding together incompatible views is hardly unheard of. If the prima facie relevance is undermined then the argument is undermined. Pointing out cultural bias does have this effect because it increases the likelihood that non-rational factors, like conformism or stereotypes of upbringing, may motivate the holding together. Nichols and Draper did a number of studies on the topic:

But you might think that studies about how the plebs experience religion are fundamentally different than studies about how sophisticated academics experience religion. In a recent paper Paul Draper and I diagnose bias not just in religious persons but in philosophers of religion. If the guiding hypotheses of CERC about the psycho-social purposes of religion are accurate, extensive biases even amongst elite thinkers are what we would expect."

Psychological studies also show that many self-identified believers treat religion as mostly a symbol of cultural identity. Here is from Recognizing Secular Christians by Voas and Day:

"The disintegration of the sacred canopy and rising ethnic diversity has led to the opposite tendency, whereby people with secular outlooks lay claim to religious identities. In particular, secular Christianity is becoming more prevalent for reasons discussed below... Many people remain interested in church weddings and funerals, Christmas services and local festivals. They believe in something out there, pay at least lip service to so-called Christian values (mostly concerning duties to others rather than duties to God), and may be willing to identify with a denomination. By the law of the excluded middle, everyone would be either Christian or not Christian. The logic is reasonable, but this division does not really work. It is more useful to view the religious and not religious as extremes, between which one finds many kinds of fuzzy religiosity."

This said, secondary arguments, like appeal to authority, are ineffective to begin with. They are supposed to be stand-ins for examining the evidence directly, and are only called for when the evidence can not be so examined for some practical reasons (as in the climate change case, for example). In this case, however, assessing the compatibility does not seem to rely on specialized skills or knowledge. Moreover, the burden of proof is on the party making the claim, and in the OP description that seems to be the atheists. In other words, logically speaking, theists need not counter at all, but demand a positive argument for science and reason being incompatible with a religious worldview. If concrete reasons are offered they should be analyzed specifically. This will make even the discussion of cultural bias more relevant because then we can better judge its influence on concrete aspects and situations. Of course, rhetorically, arguments from actuality to possibility are far more effective, but they must rely on empirical surmise, and hence are subject to exactly the kind of empirical undermining described in the OP.

In the end, direct incompatibility arguments are unlikely to succeed, as they are bound to commit ad ignorantiam at some point. This renders secondary arguments moot, except for rhetorical purposes, so they are more a matter for psychologists than for philosophers. Here is Peirce's counter to incompatibility from fallibilism, CP 1.162:

"Those who fail to appreciate the importance of fallibilism reason: we see these laws of mechanics; we see how extremely closely they have been verified in some cases. We suppose that what we haven't examined is like what we have examined, and that these laws are absolute, and the whole universe is a boundless machine working by the blind laws of mechanics. This is a philosophy which leaves no room for a God! No, indeed! It leaves even human consciousness, which cannot well be denied to exist, as a perfectly idle and functionless flâneur in the world, with no possible influence upon anything -- not even upon itself. Now will you tell me that this fallibilism amounts to nothing?"

On the psychological side here is Scientific American's Losing Your Religion subtitled "a series of new experiments shows that analytic thinking can override intuitive assumptions, including those that underlie religious belief", see also Leben's When Psychology Undermines Beliefs published in Philosophical Psychology.

  • Who is the purported authority in this appeal to authority?
    – Dave
    Commented Mar 23, 2017 at 2:32
  • 1
    @Dave Religious scientists.
    – Conifold
    Commented Mar 23, 2017 at 2:36
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    "But you might think that studies about how the plebs experience religion are fundamentally different than studies about how sophisticated academics experience religion...extensive biases even amongst elite thinkers are what we would expect." --- What puzzles me most are people like Van Inwagen and Plantinga, who should at least recognize their own biases, and acknowledge them in their analyses. Commented Mar 23, 2017 at 6:36
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    @AlexanderSKing I think the reason is that philosophers do not see "some scientists are religious" as a serious argument for compatibility, it mostly features in public debates. As far as psychological compatibility, there is no claim to objectivity there anyway. The usual defense of compatibility is based on some form of fact/value guillotine (pure/practical reason in Kant, reason/sentiment in Peirce, etc.), and cultural bias does not seem to affect that. In fact, science explicitly self-limits away from the value side. So cultural bias is largely moot even if motivations are suspect.
    – Conifold
    Commented Mar 23, 2017 at 20:27

One point of sheer science weighs in here. The primary result of the theory of cognitive dissonance: If a fact is by design 'stubborn' and not easily modified, the harder you have to work in order to maintain belief in it, the more sure that belief becomes over time, especially if you put yourself at social risk by abandoning it.

Science's content is not stubborn, so belief in it does not become truly sure, pretty much ever, if it did, science itself would be impeded. But as a direct application of Festinger's results, which are reproduced in basically every generation of Social or Clinical Psychology graduate students, religions survive to the extent they make you work hard to stay a believer, without making it too hard to manage.

So disagreements with science help maintain religious belief right up until a given breaking point. As long as there is some cognitive manipulation that permits the fitting back together, however tortuous, there is a direct and immediate reward for finding it -- control over cognitive dissonance. In fact, the more tortuous, the better-off the religion is.

You can see this in 'big system' theologies like the Scholastic version of Roman Catholicism, when it meets an equally insistent huge network of complex inferences and images. The two often marry into something that people can just barely manage to not to get vertigo out of attempting to make sense of, and become another very active religion. The more strained the triple interpretation of a Roman Catholic Afro-American Syncretic cult like Vodoun or Condomble, the more dedicated its believers, right up to the point where obvious fictions (or an even more strained big-system faith like Mormonism) exist that are more imaginative and the cord just snaps because it would be more fun to believe the more obvious nonsense. The versions of Catholicism that do not demand a constant stream of offerings, elaborate immersive rituals, or the gore of ritual sacrifice are not doing nearly as well as Santeria, in terms of the sheer strength of adherence.

At the same time, cognitive dissonance is an avoidable discomfort, which motivates people not to analyze the conflict if they do not feel it can be resolved. So conflict with science works against science which does not involve the same kind of social risk, because science not only permits questioning, it encourages it. Turning science into the kind of thing that demands obeisance, just distorts science, and although it happens repeatedly in history (high Caliphate culture, the Enlightenment, the Victorian period, to some degree Scholasticism, ... for the Left, now.)

To the extent this is true, no, incompatibility between science and religion both predicts leaving and staying with one's childhood faith, in different ways, and it predicts caring more about religion and less about science. Religions are chosen both to make sense and not to make sense. This weird balance is not about logic, it is about identity and social cohesion, which has a wholly different character.


Everyone has a name. And every one of those names is, obviously, correlated with the family from which the individual comes. Does that mean that science and names are incompatible?

The argument here makes as much sense. Yes, if we have a religion it will be our religion. The fact that becoming scientific does not change that implies that the two are not related in a basic way.

If religion and science were strongly related, to the degree that they were not generally compatible, then science would be more compatible with some religions than with others. So if there were a basic incompatibility between science and religion, most scientists would in fact be moving from the less compatible religions to the more compatible religions across history as science arose and cultures made contact with new religions. Europeans would have started becoming Buddhists or Sufis quite some time back, and would be moving in that direction faster and faster over time.

We do not generally see this movement to be greater among scientists than others. So we can deduce from this that these incompatibilities are either not real, or mysteriously automatically distributed themselves in a remarkably even pattern that is highly unlikely statistically. To accept the latter is unscientific.

So the incompatibilities between science and religions must not be real.

  • Interesting perspective, but I have to disagree with your non-overlapping majesteria approach: Many (most?) religions make clear cosmological claims that are not compatible with modern cosmology - and those who espouse both religion and science need to reconcile the conflicts. Commented Aug 25, 2017 at 22:23
  • The argument that cosmological mythology does not match cosmological theory is akin to the notion that one cannot put a cup of cotton into a cup of water. It ignores the obvious.
    – user9166
    Commented Aug 26, 2017 at 1:29
  • There is no concept here of not overlapping. There is a concept that thinking is fragmented, an we do not expect it to have a cohesive completion. I don't need a logical reason to like daisies. And I do not need my mystical experiences validated by science. That does not preclude botanical analysis of daisies, or evolutionary theories as to why certain rituals and experiences have deeper significance than any clear logic would suggest.
    – user9166
    Commented Aug 29, 2017 at 16:44

As I explain in The Atheistic approach to God… or how to bridge the gap between Atheists and Theists, the distinction between Theists & Atheists is a false dichotomy.

If we look at Pantheism, Shamanism, Animism and their many variations, the line between Atheism & Theism becomes blurry. The deeper you get into these perspectives, the more the distinction between Atheism & Theism seems arbitrary and mostly semantic.

It my experience, you'll find that many - if not most - scientists are somewhere in the grey zone between Theism & Atheism, believing in "something" but not calling it "God" because they can't relate their - often Jewish or Christian - notion of "God" with that "something" they do believe in.

Even Christopher Hitchens, known for his explicitly anti-Theist views, expressed a belief in what he referred to as "the Numinous" and an appreciation of religion in how it cultivates "the Numinous" :

I’m a materialist…yet there is something beyond the material, or not entirely consistent with it, what you could call the Numinous, the Transcendent, or at its best the Ecstatic. […] It’s in certain music, landscape, certain creative work, without this we really would merely be primates. It’s important to appreciate the finesse of that, and religion has done a very good job of enshrining it in music and architecture.

— Christopher Hitchens

So, the main difference between an Atheist and a Theist is not that an Atheist doesn't believe in "the Numinous", but rather the Atheist's reluctance to call it "God", because the word "God" is too laden with Jewish, Christian and Islamic notions the Atheist doesn't relate to.

Yet, "the Numinous" is the very core of what Theists refer to as "God", in pretty much any religion that uses the term "God" :

How shall we define a god? Expressed in psychological terms (which are primary-there is no getting behind them) a god is something that gives us the peculiar kind of feeling which Professor Otto has called “numinous”. Numinous feelings are the original god-stuff from which the theory-making mind extracts the individualised gods of the pantheon.

— Aldous Huxley

So, here we see that cultural biases clearly play a role in whether we consider ourselves or others Atheistic, as whichever definition people use for "God" is typically dependent on cultural biases. In the case of Hitchens, it's his Judeo-Christian background.

Whether we consider someone Atheistic or not in turn plays a role in whether we characterize that person as religious. And this, in turn, determines our perspective on the compatibility between science and religion.

  • 1
    This seems more like a comment than an answer. The question, "Does the correlation between cultural background and religious views of those who are both scientifically minded and religious weaken the argument that modern science and a religious world view are compatible?" is placed in the context of the premise that you attack, but does not depend on it (the question is still relevant if the premise would be false, as a what-if).
    – user2953
    Commented Aug 25, 2017 at 11:35
  • @Keelan : I'm trying to explain that whether people consider themselves Atheists or Theists depends on their personal definition for "God". I'm using Hitchens (a famous Atheist) as an example. Using a definition of "God" that is equivalent to the "Numinous" (as in many non-Abrahamic religions) would make Hitchens a Theist rather than an Atheist. So yes, the cultural background and religious views of an individual impact whether we consider ourselves and/or others to be Atheistic or Theistic... and in turn who we characterize as religious! I just added 2 paragraphs to my answer to clarify this. Commented Aug 25, 2017 at 11:52
  • I don't think that Aldous Huxley is a great exemplar to cite as giving what theists consider to be God -- the way I read that section is that you are trying to say "theists see god as the numinous too", but then better support for that position would be provided by citing someone who is more obviously a more traditional/conventional theist.
    – Dave
    Commented Aug 25, 2017 at 14:01
  • @Dave : Actually, Huxley was a polymath who studied religion & mysticism in great depth and published his findings in The Perennial Philosophy back in 1946. That probably makes him better equipped than every single person on philosophy.SE to address "the Numinous", "the Divine" & their correlation. As Wikipedia tells us, "Mr. Huxley quotes from the Chinese Taoist philosophers, from followers of Buddha and Mohammed, from the Brahmin scriptures and from Christian mystics ranging from St John of the Cross to William Law". Commented Aug 25, 2017 at 14:05
  • It's exactly that eclecticism that makes him a poor representative (IMHO) of what conventional orthodox religious theists would believe or how they would express themselves.
    – Dave
    Commented Aug 25, 2017 at 14:10

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