The authors of Genesis proclaim that God made the heavens and earth in less than a week. This feat must have amazed these Bronze Age authors, even though they thought the heavens extended only so far as the sky above them. For them, the heavens included only five of our solar system’s eight planets visible in the night sky. At most, they could see only a couple thousand of the more than 200 billion stars in our galaxy. Of course, they did not know what stars, planets, or galaxies were. Nor did they know of the trillions of microscopic bacteria living in their guts or the eighty billion nerve cells in their brains.
We now know that the universe is so much bigger and so much more complex. From the deep field images of our space telescopes, scientists estimate that the ever-expanding universe contains perhaps two trillion galaxies, with many containing 100 to 200 billion stars. Modern brain scanning devices help show the brain processing as it creates mental experience in response to physical events in the world. Increasingly powerful scientific instruments and new ways of thinking have revealed a yawning gap between the ever-increasing facts of science and the static claims of religious texts.
Religious beliefs are quite diverse; Christianity, with its estimated 2.2 billion adherents, is only one of the approximately 10,000 religions on our little planet.1
Other believers, such as Hindus, believe in multiple gods, while Buddhists believe in none. Rather than debate the existence of God or gods, let us focus on the differences between the scientific and religious approaches to knowledge and belief, which have produced this gap. We begin with the first book of the Hebrew Bible.
In the Beginning …
The Bible says that God made the heavens and earth and created man in his own image. Psychological and ethical questions immediately arise. How are we like God? Did the divinely intelligent creator just “dumb us down” from his lofty intelligence? Genesis says that God forbade the first two people to eat the fruit from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. When they do, God exiles them from Eden. Before eating the forbidden fruit, were Adam and Eve just blissfully unaware of their wrongdoings? Was Adam unaware that he was hurting Eve and could not stop because he did not know that he was? Did God let this go on? How could we reconcile this with the Christian view of God as all-powerful, all-knowing, and perfectly good? More fundamental to our discussion: Is God, as described in the Bible, on the side of human knowledge and reason?
The Bible’s anthropomorphic yet supernatural view of God is hard to square. We are told that the ways of God are beyond our understanding. God got angry with the Hebrews for worshiping the golden calf in the Exodus story; “The Lord, thy God, is a jealous god.” God’s reaction makes him seem all too human. We would expect that an all-powerful god would be above the fray and an all-knowing god would have anticipated this lapse in the behavior of the humans he created.
When responding to questions about such inconsistencies, some believers say that the “mind of God” is an unfathomable mystery. Nevertheless, since well before the time of the Hebrew Bible, people have been quite willing to interpret the desires, intentions, and pronouncements of the divine. In the fifth century CE, the Christian theologian St. Augustine, seeking to explain inconsistencies in the Bible, asserted that the divinely inspired authors of Genesis used metaphors and allegorical elements that could capture the timeless nature of God’s creation and angelic knowledge. Granted that truth about the nature of ethical behavior may be extracted from an allegory, the Bible is notorious for its loose metaphors that allow multiple interpretations. Which one correctly interprets the revealed word of God? Or is the entire Bible literally true and subject to the singular interpretation of fundamentalist believers? Perhaps the inconsistencies in the Bible reflect inconsistencies in the thinking and experiences of the prophets or the people who recorded them.
Changes in Religious Stories and Texts
Archaeological and textual analysis suggests that believers update their views of God in relation to their social environments. For instance, the authors of Genesis incorporated an older Mesopotamian myth about a great flood into their scripture from when the Judaeans were exiled and became forced laborers in Babylon in the sixth century BCE. When they were allowed to return to their homeland, they brought with them the flood myth, which they incorporated into the Hebrew Bible with a new monotheistic, moral twist. In the Genesis version of the story, God advised Noah to build a boat to allow the faithful to escape the flood that would destroy the unfaithful. However, in Gilgamesh, the earlier Mesopotamian story, the god Enlil created the flood to get rid of the annoying noise produced by the growing population of humans, while the god Ea advised the man Utnapishtim to build a boat to escape.
Science tells us that there were indeed large floods in Mesopotamia at that time, and early texts may provide a factual basis for some of this early belief. Yet biblical authors and many believers encourage accepting the Bible’s version of events as historically true. Further complicating problems of interpretation, religious stories and scripture often originate from prophets said to relay messages from God. But what little we know about these human sources comes from religious writings sometimes recorded much later.
Changes in human views of God, as revealed in new prophecies and religious texts, have even led to new religions. The arrival of Jesus was said to bring a new covenant (relationship or contract with God), which required a new understanding of God, which was hotly debated by early Christians. More than three hundred years after Jesus’s death, ecumenical councils began meeting over the next sixty years to decide which of the many available books about Jesus should be included in the New Testament.
Likewise, the Qur’an, the holy book of Islam, took its present form over a span of more than fifty years. It began in 620 CE when the prophet Muhammad was said to receive messages expressing the will of God from the angel Gabriel in verse-like form. Muhammad recited these messages from the memory of his visions, and some were written down by various scribes, but many were preserved in the memories of followers who memorized and recited them as part of their oral tradition. Between 644 and 656 CE, Uthman ibn Affan, the third caliph, authorized the various materials to be recompiled in written form to ensure that followers would recite them uniformly.
Mohammed probably accessed some traditional sources for the Qur’an, which includes accounts of some of the same prophets as found in the Hebrew Bible, including accounts of Jesus, whom Muslims view as a prophet preparing the way for Muhammad. The accounts of Jesus in the New Testament and Qur’an have several similarities, such as his virgin birth from Mary and his performance of miracles. Importantly, however, in the Qur’an’s version of the crucifixion, Jesus does not die. Not much is known about the nature of Muhammad’s visions, except that Muhammad described the experience as like the ringing of a loud bell and reported being exhausted after having them. This has led to speculation associating them with epileptic seizures, but of course no formal diagnosis is now possible.
Joseph Smith. Painting by an unknown painter, circa 1842
More has been written about the life and visions of the Mormon prophet Joseph Smith, a young farmer and treasure hunter from Western New York. His principal Mormon biographer, R. J. Bushman, described Smith’s visions, partly based on the original biographical material written by Joseph’s mother, Lucy Smith.2 Smith’s first vision in 1820 was said to be of God and Jesus, occurring in the woods by his family’s farm when he was only fifteen years old. However, Smith did not recount his first experience until 1832, adding more to his account in 1834 and again in 1838, long after the Mormons had recognized him as a prophet. More elaborate visions occurred one night in 1823 after a family discussion of the wide diversity of religious belief. After family members had gone to bed in their tiny house, Smith reportedly saw a glowing figure, as a marvelous light appeared and intensified. No one else saw it. In three visions occurring during the night, an angel called Moroni appeared to him and repeated the same message. Moroni told Smith that his sins were forgiven and that he was called to a special mission to retrieve golden plates buried on a hillside near his family’s home.
Joseph Smith went the next morning and found the golden plates, but it was not until 1827 that the angel allowed him to access and translate the sacred pronouncements written on the golden tablets. Moroni had warned Smith that he would not be allowed to read the messages on the golden tablets unless he stopped coveting the wealth they promised. Smith’s father-in-law pressured him to forsake treasure hunting, but he continued to be peripherally involved in the activity. Finally, in September 1827, Smith had another vision in which Moroni, satisfied that his motives were pure, granted Smith access to the golden tablets and gave him diamond seer stones so he could decipher the messages on them.
Smith reportedly looked through the seer stones to translate the messages on the tablets. The tablets were said to have originated from the Israelites from the fifth century BCE who had traveled to the new world, although no convincing archaeological evidence has ever shown that a group of Israelites came to the new world before Christopher Columbus. After three years of translation, Smith had the messages published in the Book of Mormon, which became Mormon scripture. With the help of his family and others, the charismatic Smith began to spread the word.
In the following years, Smith used less visionary and more frequent revelations that served as pronouncements for how God said the Mormons should live. For example, Smith said his revelations instructed him to relay the commandment that Mormon men should take multiple wives. This included a special message for his wife, Emma, that she should not object to this commandment. He even claimed that an angel threatened to slay him with a sword if he did not comply with the commandment. At any rate, the revelations conveniently justified Smith’s extramarital affairs and his “marrying” as many as forty of these women over the years in a special ceremony he devised. Yet when other Mormons claimed to have their own revelations, Smith made it clear that only his revelations were authentic communications from God to be part of Mormon canon.
In one of these later revelations, Smith said he was told to establish the new Zion in Missouri. But after the Mormons moved there, the locals drove them out. When Smith moved the Mormons to Navoo, Illinois, they met greater resistance, especially in response to Smith’s promotion of polygamy. Many local citizens worried that Smith, who was Navoo’s mayor, commander of a Mormon militia, and running for the U.S. presidency, was becoming too powerful. After Smith authorized the destruction of a local newspaper that criticized him, anger at him and the Mormons grew to dangerous levels, with increasing calls to expel or even attack them. In June 1844, Smith was indicted for bigamy and perjury. As Smith and his brother Hiram awaited trial in the nearby Carthage jail, an angry mob stormed the jail. After seeing the attackers kill his brother, Smith fired six shots at them using a gun that had been smuggled in for him. Then he was fatally shot. Following the death of the prophet, the Mormons left Navoo, and most moved westward.
The visions of prophets, like those of Joseph Smith, raise questions about the characteristics of those receiving communications from God. Do their mystical visions reveal a higher reality? Or could natural explanations better account for these unusual experiences? And are scientific predictions more accurate than religious prophecies?
Primed for Prophecy
Natural and social scientific investigations have provided plausible alternative explanations for religious visions. As an example, expectation from biblical prophecies and social pressures in the first century BCE may have induced some Jews to view Jesus as the Messiah who would free them from the cruel Roman occupation. Earlier Bible stories told of Jewish heroes who had delivered the faithful from oppression and servitude. Expectation and social pressures are known to strongly influence perception and the interpretation of events, sometimes leading to error in what people think they are experiencing.
More problematic for accepting prophetic visions of messages from God and angels as real communications is the possibility that they are based on illusion, hallucination, imagination, dreams, or epileptic seizures. Psychological research has shown that each of these can be a source of error when people claim that their personal experiences accurately correspond to objective events.3 Moreover, people are often unaware of the actual reasons for their behaviors and are overconfident about what they know from personal experience. No direct observation of Joseph Smith’s visions from two centuries ago is possible. Nevertheless, a retrospective psychological analysis of his early visions based on accounts from biographical sources can offer plausible alternative accounts of his experiences.
Specifically, Joseph Smith’s early visions may have been due, in part, to seizures occurring with temporal lobe epilepsy (TLE). Case studies of people with TLE show that they tend to be more religious and have religious experiences associated with their seizures.4 Smith’s interpretations of his visions were likely influenced by Christian and magical and paranormal information pervading his social environment. The many religious revivals in Western New York at this time provided numerous opportunities for conversion experiences, as religious fervor swept through the population. For instance, in 1843, the year that farmer-turned-prophet William Miller predicted the world would end, thousands of his followers attended his revival meetings under the biggest tent ever erected up to that time.5 Although Joseph Smith’s father, Joseph Smith Sr., was more reluctant than his wife to affiliate with a specific church, he had his own religious visions, and the entire Smith family regularly practiced religion in their home. The Bible likely provided a central frame of reference for young Joseph Smith to interpret his experience, given that his early education was in the family’s home where he learned how to read with the Bible. By the time he was a teenager, Smith was said to be so worried about his own sinfulness and salvation that he decided to seek direct contact with God.
Magical thinking also pervaded Smith’s world. The Smith family was hardworking but poor. To supplement their income, Smith and his father engaged in treasure hunting, using magical practices common in the area at the time, such as special “seer” stones that he and others believed would help locate buried treasure. Even before his religious visions, Smith was sought out by some for his supposed gift for “seeing” unseen things.
Analysis of Smith’s early visions shows some similarities between features of his visions and those of people with TLE who interpret their experiences in religious terms.6 His first vision involved seeing God in a pillar of light. Experiencing God, Jesus, and angels in bright light sometimes occurs in religious people with TLE. Similar to well-documented cases of religious conversions related to TLE, Smith felt relieved and basked in the joy he felt in the days following his vision. As found in some cases, Smith sought contact with God and then heard his voice. In later visions, he felt called to testify. Like others with TLE whose seizures start in late adolescence and young adulthood, Smith’s first vision occurred when he was only fifteen. Also, after his first vision, he found himself on his back; epileptics often fall during seizures. A less likely explanation is that he had an intense dream experience. After the three 1823 visions of Moroni during the night, Smith went to work in the field the next morning, but his father sent the weakened boy back to their house. On the way, Smith fell again and had another vision of the angel.
Sleep deprivation may also have contributed to Smith’s visions, and it is known that sleep-deprived people are more prone to hallucination. More than a decade later, when Smith first wrote about his visions, he noted how he sensed that someone was there who was not (a sensed presence, a form of hallucination). After one of his visions, Smith’s mother noticed that he seemed weak. Seizures can be physically exhausting; and of course, so can lack of sleep.
His delay in formally recording the details of his first vision raises other questions about the accuracy of his memory of the experience. It is well known that memory accounts of experiences tend to change over time to be consistent with a person’s later outlook. According to Bushman, his principal biographer, Smith’s later 1835 and 1838 accounts were more elaborate than his initial 1832 recounting of his vision. It may be that new material consistent with his later, more developed religious ideas intruded into the more accurate but shorter original account. Also, Smith’s first biographer, his mother, Lucy, had a different recollection of parts of his visions, which she resolved by simply quoting Smith’s version in her writing.
This analysis is consistent with the idea that religious texts based on such experiences and the associated interpretations of God are constructed by people who are influenced by cognitive, neuropsychological, and social factors. Because visions and revelatory experiences may be based on perceptual errors, hallucinations, memory errors, imaginings, and epilepsy, this further suggests that such experiences may be inaccurate and should be viewed skeptically. Nevertheless, these mystical experiences can exert a profound influence on the lives of people who believe them. At another level, regardless of why Smith or other prophets believe they have received communications from God, the changes in the messages they bring suggest a changing God, or at least a changing conception of the “word of God.”
Rise of Science in Relation to Religion
Smith said he received golden plates from the angel Moroni at the Hill Cumorah. Painting by C.C.A. Christensen.
Despite the periodic changes in religion resulting from the new revelations of prophets, once the messages are accepted by religious institutions and authorities, those entities are very resistant to new knowledge. This conservative approach to knowledge results in religious believers persisting in the defense of implausible, supernatural claims, putting scientifically minded people at odds with such claims. For example, when Galileo wrote how his new telescope revealed that Jupiter had moons orbiting it and his observations supported that Earth orbited the Sun, the Catholic Church took drastic action against him. In 1632, threatening him with torture if he did not recant the heliocentric view, church leaders convicted him of suspicion of heresy, jailed him for a day, and put him under house arrest for the rest of his life. This, of course, did not change the objective fact that Earth orbits the Sun. The modern Catholic Church now accepts this as true and tolerates Darwin’s idea that life has evolved through natural selection. However, it still maintains the unnecessary assumption that humans were given a soul in a special creation, and many fundamentalist Christians reject the fact of evolution.
Another example of this resistance is the Catholic Church’s continued endorsement of transubstantiation (transformation of sacramental wine into the literal blood of Christ in the Holy Communion ceremony). This belief is paranormal, magical, and scientifically implausible. Although Protestant churches continue with the communion ceremony, some maintain that the ritual only symbolically transforms the bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ. Groups objecting to religious doctrine, such as the sixteenth century Protestants, splintered off into their own sects rather than accept objectionable church doctrine. The willingness of new sects and reformers to reinterpret religious doctrine shows at least that some religious ideas can be changed.
The Scientific Conscience
In 1648, English philosopher David Hume challenged the veracity of miracles, promoting a skeptical attitude toward such religious claims that persists to this day. By the 1700s, natural philosophers increasingly rejected the paranormal claims of religious authorities about the supernatural powers of witches, usually women who they said caused diseases, storms, and other natural disasters. Ironically, when Isaac Newton provided scientific support for action at a distance, many clergymen then argued that witchcraft was not real but that Newton’s findings could support religious claims.7
Recognizing the impact of science on religious belief, in 1882 the German philosopher Fredrich Nietzsche published an allegorical piece in which a madman announced in the town’s marketplace that God was dead. Nietzsche explained that science and reason had killed God, meaning that the culture had developed a “scientific conscience” focusing on the pursuit of absolute truth and objectivity, which was undermining and supplanting religious belief.8 Indeed, these days, for many scientific-minded people, God is an unnecessary hypothesis. Since Nietzsche’s time, skeptical scientists have increasingly rejected paranormal claims. As noted by psychologist James Alcock in his book Belief: What It Means to Believe and Why Our Convictions Are So Compelling, paranormal claims about psychic powers have not been reliably demonstrated after more than a century of research and are implausible, given what is known in physics.
What Nietzsche did not anticipate, however, was that although God might be “dead” for many scientifically minded people, the word of God would remain very much alive as a chief explainer of events for many religious people in the twenty-first century. More than 80 percent of the world’s population identifies with some religion, and most of these believe in some version of God and accept supernatural claims.9 Among these are many Christians who do not accept evolution, other scientific facts, and even the scientific approach itself.
Reservations about the Scientific Approach
The scientific approach is a way to ask and answer questions that uses logical reasoning about the meaning of carefully and systematically made observations to draw conclusions about the nature of the universe. Although scientific methods vary considerably, the basic assumption is that scientific observations can provide higher quality evidence than the informal observations of religious experience. As such, the scientific approach can better support conclusions that are more credible.
Nevertheless, some philosophers have objected that the scientific approach cannot inform us of the real nature of the universe because all observations are mediated by consciousness. Because consciousness, or our current subjective state of awareness, does not provide direct access to what is observed, the reality of things observed cannot be known with certainty. Defenders of religion say that this limitation to the scientific approach calls into question scientific objections to religious claims. However, this limitation of consciousness also applies to religious experience and to any knowledge acquired through human experience. But unlike religious people, scientists have tried to continuously improve the quality of their observations.
Scientists have been able to improve their observations and the scientific approach in three interrelated ways: 1) by improving the scientific tools, methods, and techniques they use, 2) philosophically, by improving how they reason with observational data, and 3) psychologically, by scientifically studying conscious experience and how people think.
Tools, Methods, and Practice
Working scientists have long recognized that what they are aware of and can know from observation depends on the quality of their scientific instruments and tools that can extend their limited perceptual abilities. The development of more powerful microscopes enabled von Leuwenhoek’s discovery of microorganisms and a whole new world of the small. Eventually, the invention of the electron microscope enabled observers to “see” individual atoms. The development of ever more powerful telescopes enabled Galileo to see the moons of Jupiter, Edmond Hubble to see galaxies of stars, and astronomers using the Hubble Space Telescope to see 10,000 galaxies in a tiny region of space. Improved psychological tests and brain scanning devices have enabled more precise predictions of behavior and greater understanding of the “inner world” of mental processes.
The world’s religions have shown no comparable development of tools that enable the improvement of the quality of information from religious experience. Instead, they rely on revelations of prophets made hundreds, even thousands of years ago. Related to this, the religious believer’s trust in a prophet’s personal experience of revelation relies on the statements of one individual, often about a single conscious episode that is impossible to repeat exactly.
In contrast to religion’s reliance on the subjective experience of an individual who may be biased, possess limited knowledge, or otherwise be in error, science takes an objective approach to experience. To correct for the subjectivity of an individual observer, science is objective in that it relies on the observations of multiple observers who make observations of the same thing under similar conditions. Recently, on a clear Maryland night, my wife and I observed three moons near Jupiter, replicating Galileo’s observation, using a telescope no doubt much better than his. Jupiter has moons, and I predict if you looked through a good telescope, you’d see them, too.
Philosophical Contributions to Science
Philosophers and methodologists have helped scientists develop better ways to draw reasonable inferences from new observational data, designed to deal with the limitations of consciousness. An important contribution has been the development of standards of evidence to guide evaluation of the quality of evidence from different types of observations. One basic rule asserts that true hypotheses and theories must be consistent with observational data used to test them. Moreover, the parts of a theory must be internally consistent. Another rule is that some types of observation, such as the careful, systematic observations made under experimental conditions, provide better evidence than do nonscientific observations reported from an individual’s personal experience, such as revelatory experiences. Consistency between observations and theory allows for scientific predictions to be confirmed. Importantly, high-quality observational data that are inconsistent with a prediction allow a theory to eventually be disconfirmed. This helps make the scientific approach, but not the religious approach, self-correcting.
It should not surprise us when scientific-minded people are troubled by logical inconsistencies in religious claims, especially when such claims are inconsistent with scientific facts. One troubling example is the New Testament story of the virgin birth of Jesus. The prediction of the prophet Isaiah that the Messiah would be descended from the house of the Jewish patriarch, David, was said to be fulfilled because Joseph, the father of Jesus, was descended from David. However, according to the New Testament, Joseph was not his biological father because Jesus was said to have been born of the union between God and the virgin, Mary. Being descended from the ancestor of someone called your “father” but who is not your biological father is logically inconsistent with our knowledge of inheritance. Moreover, a person being born from the coupling of a virgin human and a nonphysical entity is biologically implausible.
Using biology, scientists could resolve this inconsistency by arguing that Jesus was born from a woman impregnated by Joseph; and therefore, could have been descended from David. It is more plausible that the authors of the virgin birth story added it to their account to compete with those of other religions, which asserted the virgin birth of their revered religious figures.
Religious prophets are notorious for failing to accurately predict the coming of messiahs and the end of the world. Jews still wait for the arrival of their messiah, and Christians for the second coming of Christ. Joseph Smith and other Mormons expected the second coming of Christ, but like most other Christians, they made no specific prediction of when. Because such predictions have no expiration dates, they are difficult to disconfirm. In contrast, during Smith’s time, another farmer-turned-evangelist, William Miller, predicted the specific date of the second coming and the end of the world as March 21, 1844. After the predicted end did not occur, Miller apologized that he must have miscalculated, but he continued to believe. His followers, the Adventists, continued to throng to his revivals until more predictions failed. Miller rationalized the failed prophecy, stating that God, in his mercy, had delayed the end to give people more time to prepare themselves and to test the faithful.8 In contrast, good scientists make specific predictions and do not ignore inconsistencies or explain away failed predictions.
Scientific skepticism is another useful contribution from philosophy that helps scientists think realistically about the information that observation and the scientific approach can provide. Scientific skeptics take a mitigated skeptical approach to what science can tell us about the nature of the universe.9 While recognizing human susceptibility to perceptual and reasoning errors, scientific skeptics trust that reasoning well about carefully and systematically made observations using good scientific tools can provide useful information about the nature of the universe. In so doing, they reject the extreme skepticism of those who deny that we can know anything through scientific inquiry. Yet they are more skeptical than those who endorse scientism and believe that science can lead to a complete understanding of the reality of the universe. The mitigated skepticism of the scientific skeptic allows that science can provide a useful, albeit incomplete, understanding of the universe, which reasonably models its nature. Therefore, scientific skeptics view their knowledge as tentatively true, accepting that what is known will be replaced by improved observational data and theories.
Psychological Contributions to Science
Psychology has added to our understanding of the divergence of the scientific approach from the religious approach, not only by studying the limitations of conscious experience but also through the study of thinking styles or dispositions. Examples include critical thinking dispositions, which are traits or attitudes that make it more likely a person will think critically about scientific questions. For instance, scientific skeptics possess a skeptical attitude that disposes them to delay acceptance of a claim until sufficient, high-quality evidence supports that claim. In contrast, a dogmatic religious believer will tend to accept supernatural claims based on low-quality evidence and maintain they are true in the face of higher-quality evidence contradicting them. A scientific skeptic must also be open to new ideas and claims. For instance, a scientific skeptic who is justifiably skeptical of paranormal and supernatural religious claims should still be willing to examine new evidence regarding such claims.
Recently, my colleagues and I have conducted research showing that a scientifically skeptical disposition is related to rejection of paranormal, supernatural, and other unsubstantiated beliefs.10 After developing a new measure based on assumptions of scientific skepticism, we administered it to a sample of American college students. Those scoring higher on scientific skepticism tended to endorse paranormal and supernatural claims less. They also reported relying more on a rational-analytic approach that values objective evidence. In a more recent, unpublished study of a large and diverse Spanish sample, we replicated and extended these results. We found that the more participants reported being scientifically skeptical, the less religious, gullible, and reliant on intuition they were, while instead being more reliant on rational-analytic and critical thinking. Again, the more scientifically skeptical participants were, the less they tended to endorse paranormal and supernatural claims, whereas the more religious they reported being, the more strongly they endorsed paranormal and superstitious claims.11
These results suggest that scientifically skeptical and religiously minded people differ in their thinking styles and in their tendencies to accept paranormal, supernatural, and other unsubstantiated claims, but other individual difference factors likely contribute to these differences in belief too. For instance, individuals with a more porous boundary between inner experience and the outer world, who can become more absorbed in their experience, and who engage in practices such as prayer and meditation that break down such boundaries, are more likely to accept imagined contact with spirits and gods.12
The answer to the rhetorical question “Is God big enough for the universe?” is that the description of God in religious texts has not kept pace with a scientifically informed worldview. The archaic writings of monotheistic religions describe a god with much less grandeur, scope, and understanding than would be reasonably expected of an omniscient, all-powerful creator who manages a universe that is an estimated ninety-three billion light years across and still expanding. Moreover, the claims in religious texts are often inconsistent with current knowledge and a scientific and critical analysis of historical events. The supernatural tenets of religion have changed little and are not likely to change much because they are essential to revelatory religion. Specifically, the religious approach and beliefs are based on revelatory experiences that believers view as special communications to special persons from unseen spirits.
In contrast, skeptical scientists acquire their knowledge using an approach that relies on critical reflection and cogent reasoning about the meaning of high-quality, public observations using methods that are continuously improved upon. The resultant scientific knowledge challenges the paranormal and supernatural claims of religion. Yet religious believers continue to uncritically accept these claims based on lower quality evidence from descriptions of the subjective experiences of prophets, religious authorities, and individual believers. Psychologists have found that the contents of subjective experience are influenced by social, cognitive, and neurological factors. Subjective experiences sometimes show errors from visual illusions, hallucinations, false memories, and the interpretation of dreams and imagined events as veridical. Unfortunately, religious believers often confidently accept old, even ancient, descriptions of an individual’s revelatory experience as objectively real. Moreover, the texts that describe these experiences are filled with miracles (scientifically implausible events) dating from before the development of modern science and have not been updated.
Fortunately, the scientific approach and scientific skepticism provide effective ways to think about these limitations. They can produce an increasingly accurate understanding of our incredibly complex and fascinating universe, not bound by supernatural assumptions. Also, psychological science helps us better understand the thinking of religious believers versus more scientific-minded people. But as scientific-minded people often say, “More research is needed.”
1. James Alcock, Belief: What It Means to Believe and Why Our Convictions Are So Compelling. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2018.
2. Richard L. Bushman, Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling. New York, NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 2005.
3. D. Alan Bensley, Critical Thinking in Psychology and Everyday Life: A Guide to Effective Thinking. New York, NY: Worth Publishers, 2018.
4. Kenneth Dewhurst and A. W. Beard, “Sudden Religious Conversions in Temporal Lobe Epilepsy.” Epilepsy & Behavior, vol. 4 (2003), 78–87.
5. Jack Kelly, Heaven’s Ditch: God, Gold, and Murder on the Erie Canal. New York, NY: St. Martins Griffin, 2016.
6. Kenneth Dewhurst and A. W. Beard, “Sudden Religious Conversions in Temporal Lobe Epilepsy.”
7. David Wootton, The Invention of Science: A New History of the Scientific Revolution. New York, NY: Harper-Perennial, 2016.
8. Raymond A. Belliotti, “Nietzsche and the Meaning of Life.” In Stephen Leach and James Tartaglia eds., The Meaning of Life and the Great Philosophers. London, UK: Routledge, 2018, 182–190.
9. D. Alan Bensley, et al. “Skepticism, Cynicism, and Cognitive Style Predictors of the Generality of Unsubstantiated Belief.” Applied Cognitive Psychology (2022).
10. Jack Kelly, Heaven’s Ditch: God, Gold, and Murder on the Erie Canal.
11. Paul Kurtz, The New Skepticism. Buffalo, NY: Prometheus Books, 1992.
12. D. Alan Bensley, et al. “Skepticism, Cynicism, and Cognitive Style Predictors of the Generality of Unsubstantiated Belief.”
13. D. Alan Bensley, et al. “Cognitive Style Differences in the Tendency for Individuals to Generally Accept Unsubstantiated Claims,” (2023, unpublished manuscript).
14. Tanya M. Luhrman and Kara Weisman, “Porosity Is the Heart of Religion.” Current Directions in Psychology, vol. 31 (2022), 247–253.
The authors of Genesis proclaim that God made the heavens and earth in less than a week. This feat must have amazed these Bronze Age authors, even though they thought the heavens extended only so far as the sky above them. For them, the heavens included only five of our solar system’s eight planets visible …