The Single Greatest Misconception About Religion

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

There’s a famous Peanuts cartoon where Linus says “You believe in Santa Claus, I believe in the Great Pumpkin … It doesn’t matter what you believe as long as you’re sincere.” Many writers seem to hold a similar view, as typified by Young (2001). In place of God, he proposes that a “cosmic religious feeling” can serve equally well, and that consciousness of our own moral responsibility can serve to replace “a god who dictates moral codes.” His clear assumption is that religion serves only to satisfy psychological needs, that any belief will do as long as it satisfies a given need, and that the evidence advanced by believers is nothing more than rationalizations for a priori beliefs. The central premise is “it doesn’t matter what you believe,” because all religious constructs are imaginary anyway. Examples of authors 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 and Talmudic) literalists reject it completely. Scientists may think they use the term “believe” differently from Biblical literalists, but Biblical literalists do not. They are convinced they “believe” in the same sense as scientists, based upon “reliable empirical evidence and sound arguments.” They regard the Bible as an accurate record of real events that are as reliably documented as any historical events or one-time events in the scientific literature. For example, there are no living scientists who observed the Krakatoa eruption of 1883, but we consider the written records of this event reliable. Biblical literalists consider the accounts in the Bible to be equally reliable records of actual observed events. The glib assumption that science is based on facts and data while religious belief is entirely a matter of subjective personal preference leads to stereotyping, 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 structural features 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 ideas is not an option for very long because it leads rapidly to obsolescence and extinction), means of enforcing rules (otherwise membership becomes meaningless), means of translating ideas into concrete action, and means of dealing with the claims of rival institutions. 

For most phenomena the two systems are not in conflict; nobody disagrees on how to make nylon or why eclipses happen. Almost every difference between science and Biblical literalism is traceable directly to the issue of the Bible as valid data. Although outside observers find the attitudes and behavior of Biblical literalists alien and puzzling, every distinctive feature of their belief and behavior flows in a straightforward way from the single premise that religious doctrines are objectively and factually true. The apparent paradox that dogmatic believers can accept miracles and at the same time be very sophisticated at picking out logical flaws in their opponents is not really a paradox. Biblical literalists can be just as literate and perceptive as anyone else; they differ only in one key factual assumption.

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

Although scientists are likely to resist isolated challenges to accepted ideas, sooner or later enough anomalies will cause any idea to be reexamined. Given the relative weights of the evidence, accepted data, accepted findings, or even logical principles themselves may be judged in need of correction. Science may resist wholesale challenges to its authority, but individual findings are generally routinely open to question, and anything can be questioned if enough data warrant it. There is no imaginable test that could validate the scientific literature in toto for all time. Biblical literalists believe the Bible can be so validated. This, of course, vastly simplifies the matter of proof; once a believer agrees the entire Bible is valid, issues like the Resurrection or the Deluge 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 Bible their 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, and are 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 as any 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, when the outcome is unknown, as it must be in choosing a fundamentally new direction for research, subjective thinking must dominate, sometimes even a faith-like insistence that there must be a pattern to phenomena. So the subjective decision to interpret the Universe as containing a God is not fundamentally different from the subjective decision that it’s worth investing a career in, say, searching for extraterrestrial life.

In addition, Biblical literalists have a vast body of supporting literature analogous to the technical literature in science. Commentaries exist on just about every aspect of scripture and religious doctrine, and there is a huge literature on apologetics, justifications for belief and answers to objections by outsiders (McDowell, 1999). It is impossible to overstate the volume of this literature, or its implications. Every imaginable religious argument has been critiqued from every imaginable viewpoint and counter-critiqued. Debaters with religious believers sometimes imagine they can come up with some devastating, unexpected criticism that utterly deflates the opposition. It simply will not happen. Many debaters end up looking superficial and uninformed because they rehash arguments whose rebuttals are trivially obvious to believers.

For people continuously immersed in religious literature, the truth of their doctrine seems documented beyond any rational doubt. In addition, since few outsiders are well versed in this literature, they appear to Biblical literalists as technically uninformed and unread in even the most basic literature. To these believers, the average evolutionist scientist looks like a flat-earth believer, someone wholly unacquainted with the technical literature yet arrogantly demanding that everyone else discard well-established ideas to adopt a new theory.

Biblical literalists regard miracles as perfectly possible and thoroughly documented, 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, and since the possibility of miracles is taken for granted, accounts of miracles by otherwise reputable persons are accepted as simple matters of observation. Some Biblical literalists understand why science excludes miracles as an explanation for events, but many others do not. Many see the exclusion of miracles as a purely ad hoc rationalization for nonbelief, and regard the evidence for miracles as a real body of observational data that is excluded from science for venal reasons completely divorced from any sound intellectual motive.


Many critics have attacked the concept of the “Scientific Method” for a good reason - there is no single Scientific Method. Rather, I believe we must think of a battery of methods that have proven useful. Testing of scientific ideas can include the classical experimental method, replication, attempted refutation, prediction, modeling, inference, deduction, induction and logical 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 nuclear winter. Thus, being untestable does not make an idea false, nor does it mitigate the consequences of making a wrong choice or even of deferring judgment. Even in non-religious areas we may be forced to make a decision in the face of conflicting, incomplete, or even no data. The criticism that religious beliefs are untestable is therefore profoundly irrelevant. Something will happen when 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 the fact that some outcome will happen and others will not.

Biblical literalists regard their beliefs as susceptible to testing in many of the same senses that scientific ideas are testable. Miracles and communications from God are not repeatable on demand, but then neither are earthquakes, volcanic eruptions and meteor impacts. To Biblical literalists, miracles and communications from God are replicable in the sense of showing consistent patterns, the content of the communications is verified (in their eyes) by experience, and the Biblical accounts have survived innumerable failed attempts at refutation (in the view of literalists if not their critics). In short, Biblical literalists consider the Bible to have been as rigorously tested as any scientific literature.

To anyone poised to dismiss the above as mere rationalization and pseudo-testing, let me ask this: are you really ready to propose a totally blind test (outcome not predictable beforehand) of Biblical moral claims? Remember, if Biblical literalists pass the test, their ideas on issues like abortion, homosexuality, family hierarchy, sex roles, crime and punishment and the nature of God are right and yours are wrong, and you will have to restructure your world-view and values to fit. Are you really prepared to put it all on the line?

We often say that science is not democratic because it deals with objective data. Since Biblical literalists also regard their beliefs as based on objective data, they see no requirement to be democratic either. They regard rival belief systems roughly as we regard pseudoscience: sincere erroneous reasoning at best, deliberate fraud at worst. They do not see it as closed-minded or intolerant to claim theirs is the only true religion any more than a geologist sees it as intolerant to claim that one value for the age of the earth is correct and all others 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 acceptance of the Bible as valid data, but in all other respects they can reason quite rationally. They are perfectly capable of spotting specious logic by their opponents. Unfortunately, the scientific community has provided them with abundant examples. Tactics like the following will not only fail, but will reinforce the idea that scientists reject Biblical literalism because of sloppy, 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 sexually healthy than the general population. People who would rise up in fury at stereotypes of blacks or gays seem perfectly willing to accept and repeat equally malicious and blatant stereotypes of Biblical literalists.

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

Treating their beliefs as subjective

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

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

My litmus test for literacy. This issue has been discussed so often in fundamentalist literature that merely asking it reveals complete ignorance of the pertinent literature. The real issue to Biblical literalists is preserving Biblical inerrancy.

Theological illiteracy

How can God know everything if the speed of light is 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 “Thou shalt not kill?” These issues have been discussed for centuries. Bringing them up to believers as if they were novel questions is like submitting a paper to a journal without bothering to read a single relevant reference first. They don’t reveal perception or sophistication on the part of the questioner, but cluelessness.

Frontal Assaults

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

“I prefer to believe…” 

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

Statements like “I choose to believe in a God of love” are strong candidates 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 any case, what possible difference can it make what someone chooses to believe?

Bad Models of Science

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

Some might object that presenting science as a search for truth and a body of facts is inaccurate. However, if a description of science that satisfies us simultaneously creates a misleading impression in others, in what sense is our description "accurate?" And if a model of science fails to distinguish science from pseudoscience, by what criterion can we regard it as useful or valid?

Scientific responses to Biblical literalists are rife with inaccurate statements about science and miracles. Claims that miracles are inherently unscientific are not only arrogant, they're wrong. No amount of observing patterns can rule out the existence of occasional singularities, and any alleged miracle could be a rare but real natural event. I personally like the example of meteorites, which were long dismissed as rank superstition until unequivocal evidence in the form of a large and widely witnessed fall occurred. There are two cogent reasons for science not accepting miracles. First, miracles can be used to explain away any anomaly. Second, premature acceptance of a phenomenon as a miracle forecloses any likelihood of understanding it in natural terms. There is a third reason as well: miracle claims have proven to be notoriously unreliable and prone to wishful thinking and fakery. Although perfectly true, that argument is likely to produce more heat than light.

Logical Fallacies

Argument from ignorance: Asking why a Biblical literalist accepts the Bible as infallible but not the Koran is a valid discussion point. It just doesn’t prove anything. The fact that something is unproven (or can’t be proven) shows only that it is unproven, not that it’s false or some other idea is true. If we don’t let UFO enthusiasts or paranormalists 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 belief psychologically satisfying is evidence for the belief. Many arguments used 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 necessarily make the person afflicted with them wrong.

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

Suggested Strategies

Understand the central issues

Biblical literalists see their beliefs as facts. The fact that scientists don’t is utterly irrelevant. As far as Biblical 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 factually true, but that it can be assumed true in toto. To a scientist, the only way to prove “the Bible is true” is to prove every single statement in it independently. But saying the Bible might be testable in principle is a far cry from dismissing it out of hand. (Of course, then there’s the issue of what happens if the Bible fails a test.)

Get informed

To be as blunt as possible, if you’re not willing to treat it as a major research project, you have nothing to contribute. Know how Biblical literalists define terms, their theology, and their scientific arguments.

Be Analytical

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

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

So if the concept of Intelligent Design is so far removed from proving the Biblical literalist position, why are so many scientists reacting to it with something akin to panic? Because unfortunately, a lot of scientists have not bothered to pick the logical chain apart. By reacting to Intelligent Design as if it were tantamount to validating Biblical literalism, they have in fact made it 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 Biblical literalists are first, can any phenomenon be definitively known to be outside the laws of nature (i.e., a miracle) and second, can any documentary source be known to be absolutely free of error for all time? Even if miracles and infallible sources actually exist, we can never be sure whether some alleged example really is one. We could be mistaken in our evaluation or new evidence could appear that changes our interpretation. Rather than assert the nonexistence of miracles or infallible sources, which is a losing proposition both because many listeners will reject it and because such a disproof is impossible, it seems a far more robust approach to explain why science cannot accept either as ultimate explanations.


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Created 7 March, 2002, Last Update 02 June 2010

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