Separation between Scientific Truth & Belief

Posted By Pamela on Jun 25, 2010 | 154 comments

UPDATE: People have been making a lot of assumptions about things that didn’t actually happen. I’m adding asterisk (*) places people have made assumptions and clarifying at the end.

I’d like to start this blog post by saying just one simple thing I know to be true: I am a scientist. I may spend my days writing software, teaching, and too often doing astronomy communications research, but at the end of the day I’m a PhD Astronomer trained to do research in variable stars and galaxy evolution.

That said, I’d like to say one more thing that isn’t contradictory to me: As much as I’m a scientist, I’m also a Christian.

Being both puts me in a rather horrible position in our currently divided culture. Right now, there are Christians out there eager to condemn me for knowing, based on mulitple-lines of evidence, that we live in a 13.7 billion year old universe (give or take 0.2 billion years). There are also skeptics out there actively condemning me for believing, without evidence that would hold up in any lab, that there is a God.

As a human, I don’t really like knowing that there are people out there actively hating on me because of what I know to be true and what I believe to be true don’t match what they choose to adhere to.

I wish I could put blinders on and focus on educating people about science without needing to address my philosophical detractors, but I can’t do that for one simple reason: The modern culture wars between the New Athiests and Young Earth Creationists are getting in the way of teaching science.

Here’s the problem, summarized quite nicely on Whiskey Before Breakfast (in a post that triggered what I’m writing now because he wrote something that recognized what it’s like for me at times.): There is currently a philosophy that “skepticism is a proper subset of atheism: that is, not all atheists are skeptics but all skeptics are atheists.” Since scientists, if they are good scientists (and I’d like to think I’m a good scientist) have to be scientific-method-employing skeptical thinkers, this philosophy than would profess that since all scientists are skeptical thinkers, and all skeptics are atheists, then (using set theory), all scientists must be atheists, and just as a non-skeptical scientist is a bad scientists, than a non-atheist scientist must also be a bad scientist.

This is false logic. Being a skeptic does not preclude a belief in a God. Being a skeptic simply means I have to admit that there are things I know are scientifically true and based on evidence (such as the age of the universe), and there are things that in the absence of sufficient data I may choose to believe in or not believe in (such as God).

In our classrooms, this distinction between what we scientifically know to be true (vaccines work), and what individuals choose to believe in without sufficient data (that life must exist somewhere else in the universe), has been lost in too many cases. This is harmful because it sours people to learning science.

Several years ago I had some students come to me with an exam written by another professor. This was an Astonomy 101 class for humanities majors. They had been studying the cosmology chapter of the book, and the final question on the exam – a throw away question with no right answer meant to get easy points – was, “How do you believe the universe will end?” (In similar situations I’ll ask, “Explain why you do or don’t think life on other planets might or might not exist?” *1 ) The word believe was the word on the exam. There were no further details to the question. It didn’t constrain the students to discuss only the theories taught in class. It actually asked, “How do you believe the universe will end?” This was back in the days before dark energy, before the 1998 discovery that the universe is accelerating apart. Back then we taught that the universe could be open — expanding apart forever — or that maybe it is closed and will someday collapse in on itself. I think we all hoped for a flat universe (that would certainly have made the math a lot easier). This professor had read the students’ answers and given 0/20 points when they described instead of one of these three scenarios the second coming of Christ. With that badly worded question, and those 0/20 grades, a professor placed a wall between himself and his students, preventing them from being willing to listen to the scientific facts that describe how a universe without interference will continue to evolve. To him there was no debate, they weren’t allowed to believe in the second coming of Christ, at least not if they wanted to get a good grade. (Had I been grading, I’d have realized I had written a stupid question and tossed it out)

This is an impossible situation for a student, and not even a rational one for a scientist. Sitting here as an astronomer, I have to acknowledge we could live in a universe that hasn’t yet collapsed to the lowest energy level, and it might tear itself apart doing so someday. I have to admit, we could live in a multi-verse where our universe and another will someday merge, destroying the reality we know. Or, as a person not wearing a teacher hat, I can admit there could be a God that decides to hit the cosmic endgame button (but I won’t teach that in a science classroom). While all these things could be possible, with people believing in the possibility of each, I know based on evidence that, if left alone to continue doing what it’s doing, our universe will expand forever and suffer a rather horrific energy death. Do you see the distinction? Given evidence, and a scientific scenario, I can know a true outcome. But there is still room to believe in non-contradictory possibilities.

Had that Professor simply acknowledged that it was a poorly worded question with no right answer, those two girls could have gone on to continue enjoying astronomy. Instead, I ended up with them upset and angry in my office*2,3 telling me that they couldn’t even look at their astronomy book without getting mad.

Negative emotions don’t exactly aid learning, and what could have been a positive learning environment was completely destroyed by equating scientifically testable hypotheses with beliefs.

Reality is complicated, and not all questions have answers provided by science. Life would be a whole lot easier if we could run an experiment to prove what is right and what is wrong; to do a chemical assay to assess good and evil. Science can’t do those things. Right now, it can’t even tell me if string theory is true. And in the absence of data, there is room for belief. I don’t have laboratory evidence of a God, but I choose to believe in one, and I will let others hold onto their beliefs as well. We also don’t know if aliens exist on other planets (although that one has a lot more hope of being solved with a telescope), and I choose to believe at least one other world in our great cosmos contains a technology loving society. What is key is I know what are beliefs, and I know what are scientifically based facts. In the realm of data, I am a skeptical thinker. But I am a human whose mind goes beyond the constraints of science to question, and to sometimes, without laboratory data, dare to believe.

I am a scientist: Give me evidence and hear me teach. Give me observations and watch me do research. But I am a human who can have beliefs, and having them doesn’t harm my ability to do science, to teach science, or to communicate science to you.

*(1) The actual wording of the question from last time I used it was “Part 1) Write out the Drake Equation and explain who values for each of the variables can be determined, Part 2) Considering the above, explain why you do or don’t think life on other planets might or might not exist?”
(2) I ended up with them in my office because I was their observational astronomy prof. This was the standard, Prof A didn’t boost my grade, so I’m going to see if Prof B raises my grade. I don’t remember if they knew before hand that I was a Christian. This is a common phenomena. I’m known as a prof who will listen, and at least once a semester someone comes in an tries to get me to go to some other prof to change a grade – this includes being ranted at about an English prof and an Engineering class.
(3) It has been assumed that I took the students’ side, and condemned my colleague to them. No, that would be unprofessional (there was no ethics violation and we all have academic freedom), and since it was a tenured professor, it could also have gotten me in a lot of trouble. I told them they should have asked for clarification during the exam, because while it was unreasonable for them to lie about what they actually believed when being asked what they believe, the fact that they didn’t demonstrate any content knowledge wasn’t useful. I start each semester now by telling my students I will ask at least one dumbly worded question each semester, because historically I know this is true. He or she who points out my dumbly worded questions earns my respect, and probably the adoration of their classmates.


  1. *Thud thud thud*

    I want to make it absolutely clear that I am for the compulsory sequestration of children to basements. Damp, spidery ones, if at all possible.

    Now, if Pamela had said at any point, “And being able detect atmospheres on extrasolar planets…is just really, really cool, because that is how Jesus rolls,” then we might have a conversation that was moving the ball down the court a little.

    I would apply the Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup standard. I think that people have a duty to object when a scientist gets her religion in the people’s science or when someone uses science (or more frequently, science words) in a dubious manner to support a religious claim. My favorite example of this will forever be from the Answers Research Journal: “An Apology and Unification Theory for the Reconciliation of Physical Matter and Metaphysical Cognizance.” It has the funniest abstract ever:

    “[A] theory is set forth that reconciles inorganic, organic, and animated matter with the metaphysical realities of both the creator and the created. By coupling the metaphysical implications of quantum physics with the biblical understanding of God’s attributes, the thesis is set forth that our immediate physical reality—consisting of empty space, electromagnetic energy, and information—is basically a hologram depiction of God’s intent. God spoke and it was so. Since creation, God’s Spirit has continued to energize and interact with the universe in an entangled nature at the quantum level. Similarly, the individual metaphysical reality (the spirit) of each animated being interacts with its individual corporal body via this same entangled nature at the subatomic level.”

    That does not seem to the case here. When Pamela says that a star periodically dims because angels are transiting across the disk, then we can scold.


  2. John M: “Interesting how all the die-hard uber skeptics here continue to trot out the same tire old slogans that all boil down to nothing more than “God is invisible! I won’t think about stuff that’s invisible!” When the fact of God’s invisibility is clearly laid out and dealt with in nothing less than the Bible itself. Yes, it requires faith. So what, so does believing in Hannibal or Alexander . We have no physical evidence they existed either, just secondhand accounts.”

    We have titanic pony-loads of evidence that Alexander existed. The dispersal of Greek culture across the ancient world and the massive amount of archaeological, linguistic, cultural evidence attesting to that. We have multiple converging lines of evidence for his existence and chronic capacity to kick butt. The methodology for delineating history is nothing like that for proposing deities.


  3. I’m an atheist who got really sick of the religion-bashing and stopped participating in “skeptical” events.

    I know so many people who think skeptically about 99% of life but are believers…and therefore are ridiculed and mocked by most “skeptics” to the point that they feel utterly unwelcome at skeptic gatherings. Skeptics need to realize that people are hard-wired to believe and that religion IS a “special case”…it’s typically the very last thing that people give up. (I’m talking here of non-psycho-fundie beliefs, people who are liberal Christians or Buddhists or Jews). I would never ridicule your beliefs, even if it’s for an admittedly condescending reason.

    But in pursuit of purity, most skeptical groups quite intentionally make themselves unwelcome to 90% of their potential membership: people who defend vaccines and attack homeopathy and want science funding to increase….but who believe God exists. It’s more important to them to be “true to their beliefs” than to advance science and save lives.

    I currently work with a pretty liberal denomination of Christians to supply health care (mostly vaccines, as it happens) and sanitation education to people in very poor countries…they are less interested in my beliefs than in my willingness to help the people they want to help.

    So if you want to make a difference and actually bring science to the masses, keep doing what you’re doing and to hell with people like PZ. He’s a great researcher and a very smart guy, but he’s also an asshole who helps maintain “skepticism” as a small elitist club who spend their days congratulating themselves on how “rational” they are.

    While I didn’t see the SGU incident as anything major (you knew they were atheist when you showed up), this whole kerfluffle does highlight the utter strategic idiocy of the “skeptical” community. SGU actually takes heat because they aren’t nasty enough to the faithful.

    Love the ‘cast and love you and Frasier. Please don’t let this incident affect your astronomy education…but consider cutting ties with the “skeptical” community. It made my life much happier and I get much more REAL good work done than when I wasted time drinking with the atheists club talking about how bad religion was.

  4. @ Dan

    I think that skepticism would be much better off as defining (I typed “defiling”) itself as being FOR something. The promotion of science and critical thinking is a laudable goal, and [THUD!—that’s the sound of a name dropping] Eugenie Scott once pointed out to me that critical thinking is a crucial in all areas of life and disciplines, including theology.

    Do we want competent, practicing scientists informing public debate of science? Hell, yes. This is why we want Pamela on our side. Heck, skeptics want people like Dan and Tom (with whom I sparred above) on our side.

    For political and interpersonal reasons, atheist skeptics and skeptics who practice religion need to be aware that they are in the same room together and make a point to not antagonize each other. At least not to one another’s face. 🙂


  5. Science and Religious belief are by no means mutually exclusive. Skepticism and Religious belief are also not mutually exclusive. The danger is precisely the point Dr. Gay makes in her post: Blurring the lines between science/skepticism and theism. Pamela makes the point time and again, do not introduce belief into the classroom.

    I would extend this to do not bring unsupported (especially unsupportable) belief into one’s science or skepticism. This is often a difficult distinction because often scientific theory and hypotheses are considered beliefs by those without and (unfortunately), sometimes, within the scientific community. This is not the place to clarify this distinction, though. It is important to note there is no indication that Pamela Gay allows the supernatural to cross over into her natural science.

    I agree with some of the commentators that some of the reasoning and the anecdote she offers in this post are less developed and thought out than they could have been. This is evidenced by her need to clarify her blog with footnotes. I think it is important to clean up these weaker arguments prior to posting. Who, though, has not written or said things with less forethought than he/she might have preferred?

    Some of the criticism Dr. Pamela Gay has received has been overly harsh and in some cases poorly thought out and written. Ad hominem arguments have no place in science or skepticism. When we label Dr. Gay, we reduce her and her arguments to something we can unsystematically dismiss.

    While it seems clear Pamela is able to keep her beliefs out of her science and her classroom, I do not accept that she holds a completely skeptical attitude. One cannot hold one’s self to be a skeptic absolutely without treating every aspect of one’s life with the same skeptical attitude. This may be a radical view of skepticism. I will not go into the details of the argument here; however, if you are interested, please see “Is It Reasonable to be Both a Skeptic and a Theist?” ( Nevertheless, being a skeptic universally is not required to be good scientist and science educator. Being a Christian and a scientist is okay. Being a Christian Scientist…well that’s a different story. 🙂

  6. As much as people on both side are being critical of you Dr Gay It’s pretty obvious that both side want to win you over for their side because you’re very good on what you do and very firm on what you believe, you’re their rope in this tug of war. Why else would they bother to read your blog, listen to you and then be critical.

    Ever thought of writing a book regarding this very subject matter? -_^ You would be a good beacon or proponent for such personal preference. As much as you say that it’s hard for you to hear and know what people say about what you do and believe, you have been very good in opening up by “writing”.
    The pen is powerful you know, and you have a gift on reaching out to people by your means of expression. You are not alone on what you stand for, there are others like me out there that share your beliefs, ideas, studies, skepticism or whatever anyone might call it.

  7. I have been a fan for awhile and this just makes me more of one. I am religious myself and often get tired of the insults from those whose ally I would be. Thank you.

  8. I am a high school physical science, geology and astronomy teacher who first and foremost, thanks you for doing the “Astronomy Cast” podcasts…they are awesome! Secondly, I am a teacher that thoroughly believe in scientific truth as well as having my own faith. I find that it is VERY difficult, especially within my family. In my work I am very scientific and teaching in a public school I cannot even speak of God. Then, within my family there are many relatives who cringe at the word “evolution” and “Big Bang” thinking that they mean there isn’t a God and I am a raging liberal! lol….it is difficult and I applaud you having the courage to demonstrate your faith and belief in a God while still keeping your scientific direction. I’ve found a great read is called “The Science of God”, by Gerald Schroeder….check it out! Science and God can and do both exist!

  9. Bless you!

  10. Two things. 1, Some skeptics believe they are skeptics but are cynics. 2, How to know what Dr. Gays understanding or interpretation of God is.

  11. I am glad that Pamela is blogging about this issue. As a biologist finishing my M.S. in human population genetics, planning to pursue a Ph.D. in phylogenetics and molecular evolution, and also a Christian, this stuff is very pertinent to my life. I take issue with those who compare belief in God with belief in fairies and alien abductions and spooks. In the latter cases, there is certainly good evidence that they do not exist (of course, I cannot say for certain that I KNOW such a thing). But the definition of fairies, unicorns, etc., are generally agreed upon. But what does one mean by “God”? Even among Christians, there is no one universal understanding of what/who God is. Certain definitions of God are (to me) obviously untenable, and in fact can be shown to be in the same category as fairies or unicorns. But others are…well, more along the lines of metaphysical assertions, regarding the ultimate nature of reality. Some folks metaphysics is very austere…they would even say they don’t believe in anything that could be called such. I freely admit to being brought up to believe in God…and that has had great effect on me. But my faith sticks not just because God is “untestable” or even “undefinable”–that is not sufficient. It sticks around in my head and heart because of the “spirit of God” that I see alive in some churches…transformed lives, and a love that touches ones inner being. Sure, someone might explain our behavior with evolutionary psychology…but I look for an even deeper, even more ultimate “explanation”. And anyway, my faith isn’t really about “explaining” the behavior of my fellow Christians…but about interacting with them…as fellow “thous” and not “its”…to borrow a phrase from Buber.

  12. This is interesting. I have heard on and off for sometime that Pamela is a Christian. Each time I think to myself, how is it that we know this.. why is this in the public or skeptic square? Pamela (who is great) writes “As a human, I don’t really like knowing that there are people out there actively hating on me because of what I know to be true and what I believe to be true don’t match what they choose to adhere to.”. I agree that people should not “be hating on” people who subscribe to different belief systems. That said, Pamela willfully puts herself in this position by stating… “I am a Christian”. Is this a science blog, or a comparative studies dissertation? By stating irrelevant facts it seems that she is inviting the fight. That’s right, irrelevant.

    I have run across a number of Christians who have acted in similar fashion. In having discussions regarding non paranormal events, they state, “but I’m a Christian”. Excellent, and that pertains to “Coffee: Colombian or Sumatran” in what way? Often times people wear their belief on their shoulders, seemingly as a challenge for other to knock it off.

    So I am left to wonder… why? Why is Pamela bringing her faith system to the conversation? Is it to challenge non-believers, is it a chance to be different, or is it an attempt at conversion? Regardless of the answer it is clear to me that Pamela should have expected some push back.

  13. After re-reading the comments I would like to add one further piece:
    I have seen comments stating that is impossible to know what someones perception of God is (in the Christian since). I dispute that. Christianity is not some vague notion. It has a bible that describes what it is and how it was started. There are entire passages stating exactly who God is and what he is about. The bible is both a description of and an instruction manual for the belief system. When someone states they are Christian, we know exactly what they believe in. If the God they believe in differs from what the bible teaches, they are not Christians, they are “Other”.

  14. Star Stryder: “This is false logic. Being a skeptic does not preclude a belief in a God.”

    No one can sceptically, logically and rationally examine the world and conclude that there is sufficient evidence for god, or indeed anything supernatural. Therefore anyone who believes in god is either ignorant of some of the facts, or they are reasoning fallaciously, since being aware of the facts and reasoning correctly would not result on the conclusion that there is a god, or indeed anything else supernatural.

    Star Stryder: “…there are things that in the absence of sufficient data I may choose to believe in or not believe in (such as God).”

    As any skeptic ought to know, if we lack sufficient evidence for something then we must abstain from believing in it. In this quote you are actually admitting that you may believe in something, such as a god, despite there being insufficient data.

    Star Stryder: “In our classrooms, this distinction between what we scientifically know to be true (vaccines work), and what individuals choose to believe in without sufficient data (that life must exist somewhere else in the universe)…” and “Right now, [science] can’t even tell me if string theory is true. And in the absence of data, there is room for belief. I don’t have laboratory evidence of a God, but I choose to believe in one, and I will let others hold onto their beliefs as well. We also don’t know if aliens exist on other planets (although that one has a lot more hope of being solved with a telescope), and I choose to believe at least one other world in our great cosmos contains a technology loving society. What is key is I know what are beliefs, and I know what are scientifically based facts. In the realm of data, I am a skeptical thinker. But I am a human whose mind goes beyond the constraints of science to question, and to sometimes, without laboratory data, dare to believe.”

    This is fundamentally a false analogy. You’re trying to equate a belief in something that is part of nature (like life existing somewhere else in the universe) with something supernatural and therefore beyond nature (such as a god). We can legitimately infer that some form of life might exist somewhere in the universe from our understanding about how life may evolve and the size of the universe. We have absolutely no such knowledge or insight to the supernatural, a concept which not only lacks any evidence, it lacks any coherent meaning (I say this because everything we can know and even comprehend is part of nature, yet the supernatural rules out nature–it is something else entirely–consequently we cannot say anything about it, nor even think about it, since any such pronouncements or thoughts would always rely on a recourse to the only thing that we know: nature, the antitheses of the supernatural).

    Even if we were to grant the premise that without sufficient data we can still *believe* (in aliens, in god, in string theory, etc) we must still nevertheless ensure that our beliefs are logical, rational and do not conflict with what we already do know. But belief in the supernatural is not supported by logic or reason, so on that basis alone we ought to reject such an idea.

  15. Dr. Gay said, “There is currently a philosophy that “skepticism is a proper subset of atheism: that is, not all atheists are skeptics but all skeptics are atheists.” Since scientists, if they are good scientists (and I’d like to think I’m a good scientist) have to be scientific-method-employing skeptical thinkers, this philosophy than would profess that since all scientists are skeptical thinkers, and all skeptics are atheists, then (using set theory), all scientists must be atheists, and just as a non-skeptical scientist is a bad scientists, than a non-atheist scientist must also be a bad scientist.”

    As a Christian, you seem very skeptical of their claim, thus, you have just debunked their claim! 🙂

  16. Astronomy Cast has been instrumental in my un-belief. I could care less if you believe or not… your work has freed my mind.

  17. Althought my faith has no contradiction whatsoever with proven scientific facts, I can understand where you are coming from.

    When I talk equally enthusiastically about my religion and science, I notice people give me this strange look… The irony is that nobody asks why but they are quick to judge. They do not understand that when you call it faith, that is what it is… you have to believe in unseen, else why would you call it faith?

    Good on you Pamela.

  18. Much applause for you, Pamela! I love AstronomyCast, and I too, am a Christian. I also see both science and Christianity able to exist side-by-side with no contradiction. Science observes and makes predictions about nature…it never assumes who or what created it. So if you believe it was created by a God (as I do too) or if you believe it just “happened”, science does not prove or disprove either, and you certainly do not have to be an Atheist to agree that the Universe is 13 billion years old (give or take) as this is what science has observed. Kudos to you!

  19. I saw Dr. Gay on tv this morning as I was getting ready to go to work. I was impressed with her knowledge and passion for her subject. So I did the natural thing, I googled her. This post was the first thing I encountered.

    My background to this question of faith and science is from someone who was raised in the Southern Baptist tradition where when you say you are a “Christian,” it means you believe literally in what the bible says. You don’t go picking and choosing. From Adam and Eve in a real garden to a real resurrection on the third day and an eternal lake of fire, you believe it all. These are not metaphors to the people of my hometown!

    I now consider myself an agnostic in terms of is there or isn’t there a god and rather atheist towards the question of is the Christian god real, for such a god as that smells all too human of a creation in my opinion. An exaggeration in the sky of some of our best and worse characteristics. When Dr. Gay says she is a “Christian,” it is hard for me to get my mind around the idea that she could be the same type of Christian as the literal believers of my hometown. With her knowledge of science, that seems like too big of a contradiction to keep in one head! For example, how do you reconcile the Garden of Eden with evolutionary biology? If you get rid of the story of Adam and Eve, then there was no fall, and thus no need for a savior to rescue us from our sins.

    I wish she would explain more about what does it mean when she says she is a Christian. Has she picked and chosen from the bible pieces to put together her vision of a Christian god? Or does she accept all of the bible like the people of my hometown do? If the former, what does that say about God’s authority to spread His word? One couldn’t just pick the parts of “Hamlet” that one likes and ignore what contradicts your opinion and call oneself a literary scholar.

    Take home message: I just wish scientists like Dr. Gay would be more specific when they say they are Christians, for the term these days no longer seems to have as defined of a meaning as it once did. You have everybody from Southern Baptists who don’t ignore the lake of fire passages to your Unitarians who choose to skip over such mentionings. And I would add, the Southern Baptists don’t spend near enough time on the passages about the good samaritan like the Unitiarians do.

  20. Okay, I explored your site some more, and “I don’t believe in the literal truth of the entire bible” is something I found on another page. But my Southern Baptist hometowners would ask, “Why not?” Why not go whole hog, so-to-speak? I would be curious to know why as well.

  21. To begin with, I am a big fan of Dr. Gay & Astronomy Cast.

    In my youth I was a Christian. But never once was I not a skeptic (small “s”). When I was old enough (maybe not old enough) to challenge certain claims of my church leaders, and statements in the bible, that’s when the philosopher in me was born. I was probably eight years old. I slowly moved from a position of consilience, through agnosticism, to a reasonably well-formed philosophical non-theism as a young adult.

    Though my educational intentions were toward physics, my love of music took me down another path. Still after a 30+ year career in the music industry, 23+ years of experience as a university professor of music technology, with degrees in music and philosophy, being certified as a Humanist Celebrant, and though I was never a professional scientist, I never left science behind.
    It was always in my blood…

    Any attacks from either side on the good doctor that are vehemently hateful, ad hominem, and the like, must be dismissed as simply as that. She has the right – which I would faithfully defend as a Humanist and as an American – to Believe as she chooses, without retribution or derision, anything she wishes, provided it causes no demonstrable harm to another. I could end here. However…

    Our friend Kevin of 29 July 2010 is correct when he states “If you get rid of the story of Adam and Eve, then there was no fall, and thus no need for a savior to rescue us from our sins.” And many can understand a criticism from that position.

    Consider this: Both science and religion have their terminology, and such terms have specific definitions. But I would remind everyone, however, there have been more variations of the definition of “Christian” than most terms I can think of in theology (with maybe the exception of “God”). Religious terminology has become “soft” around the edges, and many would argue that it was always so. I think Dr. Gay should be careful in this respect, as careful as she is in science about terms and their definitions, but we should all accept the fluid nature of the popular use of religious terminology and cut her some slack. Take any two self professed Christians and push them hard enough and they will disagree about something. Pick any one of them (or any one human of any belief system, or none) and push him or her hard enough and you will find that they are not even self-consistent in most instances.

    Holding both religious and scientific views as true is indeed human, as is such a defense. In Dr. Gay’s words “But I am a human whose mind goes beyond the constraints of science to question, and to sometimes, without laboratory data, dare to believe.” Yet, holding two contradictory views to be true, a phenomenon called “cognitive dissonance”, is also human. Many would argue that holding both religious and scientific views as true is an example of cognitive dissonance. The evaluation of this alleged contradiction depends on the content of one’s religious or metaphysical claims (and we do not, I assure you, know what the doctor believes in detail), and how far one is willing to trace to each logical conclusion the claims of such a system of beliefs.

    We should look at the claims of religion with the same rigor as that of science when it comes to claims about the physical world (and there are many). And we should insist upon a logical consistency comparable to any great metaphysics (e.g. Leibniz’ “Monadology”) when it comes to claims “beyond” the natural world (whatever that may mean in the given context).

    We need rigorous scholarship of history, and the book we call the “Bible”. See the writings of Dr. Robert Price, for instance. Support this with evidence from anthropology, paleo-anthropology, sociology, sociobiology, psychology, neurology, and such, and we might very well discover that some of our most cherished beliefs come into question, and may be found to be nearly undeniably false. If this is so, what does this mean for Humanity? Do we tear ourselves to shreds? Or do we remind ourselves and embrace that fact that the good and ethical life has been a secular concept as far back as human records of philosophy go? — then we do right anyway, despite this fact — or because of it…

    Being spiritual, religious, a “believer”, a “Christian”, a “theist”, etc. (whatever these should mean), does NOT by default prevent one from teaching and participating in GREAT SCIENCE. And Dr. Gay has consistently done so!

    I have recommended the podcast and her site to several people, and with good response. She has taught me well, and from what I know of her, I can say that I respect her work. I might go elsewhere to learn about theology or philosophy. But for the public understanding of astronomy and astrophysics, I hold her among the finest.

    I would love to chat with Dr. Gay, wax philosophical, so to speak, to help tighten up those soft term. But how presumptuous am I to suggest — My apologies.

    Best to Dr. Pamela Gay!

  22. Kevin,

    Yes, Adam and Eve are historical or literal, or both, figures in the eyes of many Protestants, including Southern Baptists, like me. The edification science brings to answering whether or not they were the first of all mankind reveals that pre-Adamites were likely. This is strong apparent inconsistency for some literal translations (e.g. YEC) but not all. Others Christians see Adam and Eve as allegory to specifically address the issues some say are nullified by not having a literal view.

    Indeed, Francis Collins is just one example of someone who understands the human genome yet can demonstrate why concordance between science and religion is not illogical. ASA (American Scientific Affiliation) is an entire association of scientists and Christian theologians that see concordance, though their views vary between one another. Most Christian scientists are not literalists.

    The Galileo affair is a wonderful example of how science can impact certain elements of religious beliefs — but only those elements that have exposure to objective tests, which are very few in number. Had the Church back then simply separated the baby from the bathwater, they would not have to still be enduring the mess they made of it.

    It should be recognized that science and religion are in two different realms. Science has grown amazingly because it is founded upon objectivity. It relies on objective measurements. It is the basis to theory. But it is like a developing island that has strong bedrock on which to build, as opposed to the sea which does not. Yet the sea is just as real as the island. Religion and philosophy are of the subjective realm, though, as in Galileo’s case, science and impact them.

  23. Ah well pamela turned out to be a bible basher – no worries plenty more science podcasts out there hosted by rational logic based presenters.

  24. Well, remember that I’m the atheist of the team, so we’ve got the whole yin/yang thing going on. And the show itself is completely facts-based.

  25. And now I really wish I had been able to make it to the Boulder, CO Meetup with you. Stupid Finances.

    It shouldn’t have to be expected, but tests do need to have their questions worded VERY carefully. The Prof Should have asked “Considering the theories laid out in the chapter on Cosmology, which theory do you believe is most likely to end the universe.” The word believe is still in the question but now it limits the answers acceptable to those covered by the material. I had one Professor who was very good at qualifying her questions with the source material, and others who were lousy at it, but at the same time, I was aware the profs weren’t asking MY beliefs, but asking me about the course materials and which parts of the course materials I liked best, especially in courses with competing theories.

    To be honest, I’m getting tired of the tribalism tearing people apart. The idea that some arbitrary aspect makes one person better than another, religion, race, color, national origin, etc… is Bullshit to me.

    The actions of a person is what is important to me, not some label attached to them. How they behave and treat other people. How they handle their professional lives in contrast to their personal life, which can be in conflict. These things sare important to me.

    From what I have read of Pamela Gay, from the professionalism she shows in her podcasts, from the high opinion of her by her colleagues, this all shows me she is a professional, and she can hold her personal beliefs separate from her professional work.

    This debate of Christians can’t be Scientists or Skeptics is missing the point. I know many people who are Christian and LAUGH at the completely unscientific aspects of religion, and tend to toss them aside in the face of real evidence in the face of belief. But for those aspects for which science doesn’t have an answer, why should someone have to discard something for which there is no evidence against? So long as a person is willing TO discard an idea or belief when there is strong evidence against.

    Last I checked Pamela is not trying to teach young earth creationism, or tell us that her god in the reason for all things, But, We also can’t observe past the CMBR so without evidence of what happened before the big bang(yet) what’s there to say there wasn’t a huge powerful being that kicked the first moments of the universe into motion? I personally have severe issues with such an idea, but until there is evidence for or against anything before that moment where the universe was suddenly flooded with light, We Don’t Know.

    And I like that. I LIKE the fact I can honestly say I DON’T KNOW, and have it be an acceptable answer until more information becomes available.

    Skeptics and Atheists, just like Christians and believers, need to back off from this attack dog policy when it comes to things they don’t agree with. You don’t like an idea, come up with a better idea, don’t scream in the person’s face. No one changes a person’s mind by screaming in their face YOU ARE WRONG over and over and over again. The hostility often times merely invalidates your point of view in the eyes of the person you are trying to convince otherwise.

    Pamela, Keep up the good work. I look forward to Astronomy Cast when you and Fraiser have the time to put them out, and I really believe you are a valuable part to the science and education communities.

  26. Its good to see that you have an atheist and Christian delivering the excellent Astronomy cast. I watched Richard Dawkins discussing the issues surrounding teaching by Faith Schools. As my daughter is about to start at a faith school it has made me question the value of such an action, this is what we are trained to do as scientists.

    I found Richard Dawkins to be over prescriptive and realised that the science that we promote allows an un presciptive freedom of thought and belief.

    Thanks for your encouraging post.

  27. Wow – thank you for writing this. I agree wholeheartedly. I am also a woman astronomer (OK, I don’t have my PhD just yet) and a skeptic and a Christian. In particular, an Episcopalian. So, from the bottom of my often misunderstood heart, thank you.

  28. Thankyou Pamela,your article has finally given me the strength to admit my beliefs to others.I am also a person of faith and have been constantly
    ridiculed since i came out.I have lost communication with many of my friends and family over this and have been made
    to feel like a freak.Thankfully i have found an ally in you to overcome there small minded bigotry.
    Scientology teaches us that people are immortal spiritual beings who have forgotten their true nature,i find this not so far
    removed from your own faith.I have not looked into Christianity but do you also agree the practice of psychiatry is destructive and abusive?
    Skeptics,Atheists,Christians and Scientogists need to stick together and find the true meaning of reality.I hope in future episodes
    of astronomy cast you will venture into these topics.God bless you and Fraser Cain x

  29. As a science-loving religious person (though I’m a librarian, not an astronomer!), thank you for your post. I’ll be reading from now on. 🙂

  30. OK

    we all agree Pamela is great, Astronomy Cast is great, people should be free to choose whatever bullsh@t they believe in etc etc…

    but honestly, in our atheist heart-of-hearts we know that faith requires a degree of compartmentalised stupidity- or a ‘suspension of disbelief’ to put it politely.

    Do Americans realise how stupid they seem to the rest of the western world? Have you idiots never heard of “The Enlightenment”?

    Jesus was just some crazy Jew- get over it already! Move on! There’s work to be done- on them there stem cells!

  31. This is an excellent piece Pamela. Well done. I am an atheist myself, and a scientist (a geologist actually).

    I agree that science is not a subset of atheism. As an atheist I don’t make that claim. However, your piece seems to suggest that your belief in a deity is so irrelevant to your science that it is not worth mentioning at all. Perhaps simply better to not rise to complaints about your faith?

    Equating a belief in alien life to a belief in god is problematic. Presumably you are reffering to a christian god, not the “Einsteinian God” and so your god is based on scripture, hearsay and history, rather than a quite plausible agrument from probability.

    While I’m here, I note an ad for Scientology on this page today 1/8/2010. You might want to look into that….



  32. Even atheists have a belief system, and even atheists can disagree on that belief system, or hold beliefs that don’t hold up to scrutiny.

    Just listen to Dawkins speak about vegetarianism. (I notice he’s mentioned elsewhere here). His thought experiment relating increasingly related species to man and asking the question of where you draw the line is ridiculous. We all have to eat something and even if it’s a plant it’s still related. His views may be popular in certain circles but they aren’t well thought out, especially for a man of science.

    Also the good work you do in all areas of science are not negated by your personal beliefs. Nor does anyone have the right to try to force you to change them. Or ridicule you for them. (Note I said ridicule, not criticise).

    So the rest of this post is NOT an attack on you. You’ve given me hours of pleasure learning things I would not have otherwise learnt. I OWE you a huge debt of graitude. I certainly “believe” you are one of the good guys. You fight for science and you’ve dedicated your life to it. You’re not above talking to and educating lay people. You know the trials and tribulations of a real scientist. Importantly you don’t feel the need to constantly mix your religion in with your science.

    However we’ll have to disagree on atheism being a subset of skeptism. I don’t think it’s possible to hold a belief in a Catholic God based on all the traditions of that church. Certainly not in the literal version. So if you don’t believe in the literal version why bother with the ceremony and traditions, and why label yourself a Catholic? How likely is it that the watered down version you can accept is true? How much science did church members not have that you take for granted when those beliefs and traditions came into being? How much more nonsense were they therefore likely to believe?

    While I class myself as an aetheist I can’t say I’m certain that God doesn’t exist (though I think that the case is that no such being does). What I can say is that the Gods of all our formal traditional religions is so unlikely that I do not believe that “HE” could exist. That’s almost the definition of skepticism.

    So personally I think you’ve been misguided by your upbringing and what you want to believe is true. In my book that is a hole in your skepticism. People aren’t perfect. I know I ain’t. It doesn’t invalidate the rest of your good work. Anyone who tries to hold you back, discourage you or ridicule you is a fool. We need more like you. You’re not beyond criticism though. It might be rare but it is possible to criticise without attacking.

    As for your 2 students, yes the question was badly worded. Yes it was a negative experience for them. How many negative experiences have you had, Pamela? You’ve described some in Astronomy Cast so I know you’ve endured them. That too is part of learning about science. The lessons they learnt – professors are imperfect and sometimes unreasonble. There is a cost to sticking to your guns. (Hey it could be worse, think how Galileo must have felt!). So in that situation you have to go beyond being a science teacher, beyond being a Catholic and help your students learn about the politics and stupidity that human social structures are filled with WITHOUT losing their wonder and curiosity. We’ve all had bad teachers or ones who unfairly gave us bad grades.

    The irony is that the question isn’t just bad, it’s actually bad science – as in untestable. The professor had no way of knowing for certain what the girls believed. They could be lying. So he can’t even assign the score with any certainty! At the same time I bet he was annoyed that the girls did not understand what he had intended, hence the score.

  33. “there are things that in the absence of sufficient data I may choose to believe in or not believe in (such as God)”

    With the same argument I could also firmly believe that the world is coming to an end in (year) by (pseudoscientific cause). If (year) is far enough away, such a belief can hardly be disproven by sufficient data like for example now Planet X 2012 impact theories can be dismissed using “we would have seen it with telescopes by now”.

    Choosing a random belief in absence of supporting data is neither rational nor scientific. Of course one is free to live a scientific life on the job and a life of magic in private and there is absolutely no reason to hate Pamela just for that…

    But… then again, how it is possible for someone to use the scientific method to debunk pseudoscience and – at the same time – believe in a childish wish-it-were-true-fantasies like afterlife/heaven will probably always elude me.

  34. Thank you Dr. Gay for pointing out what should be more obvious. After all, skepticism, aka science, deals with the objective observable universe; with facts. Faith and religion do not overlap in this area of human experience, and they should not. Even people of faith should recognize boundaries where faith should not go: we cannot be blind to scientific observations.

    I wish scientists would spend a little thought on the FACT that science cannot explain all there is in our human experience. When we feel grief, love, joy, or anger, although a scientist might identify specific chemical and electrical impulses in our bodies, they don’t explain, nor do they do anything to aid our spirit, our feelings, our souls.

    Scientific knowledge does nothing to explain or deal with our inner self. Humans are spiritual beings. We know there are things that a six year old can identify yet science cannot explain: why did the big bang occur? where were we before we were born? after we die? why do all of us billions of humans experience the same set of emotions? have the same set of needs? etc.

    Skeptics, you can have faith and experience your inner self, and still rely on science to explain the world around us.

  35. Another point: Science can never invoked to make ethical judgements. Facts have no feelings, can not be used to weigh arguments about whether killing a lab rat is OK ; whether human experiments are OK. Why not? Science is objective. If you can only answer a scientific question by killing a human being, they why shouldn’t you if you are interested in the pursuit of TRUTH?

    Underneath we all (I hope) believe killing humans is ethically wrong. Many of us think that killing lab rats is OK for science (some don’t) . Why is that? There are no scientific explanations for making these judgements. They come from a realm of ethical beliefs, from an area of human experience that is not governed by the cold hard facts required by the scientific method. Ethical decisions are NOT grounded in science. They are relative judgements derived from the human values we hold. Facts don’t apply to our values. We could raise a whole population with complete disregard for human life (e.g. the Spartans of ancient Greece) and thus a different set of ethics.

    There is a huge reason to “hang on” to those ancient religious beliefs. They are how we define our humanity. Science is how we define the universe. They are not the same subjects.

  36. A philosophy teacher pointed out to me an interesting point comparing religion and science. Religious followers believe in entities that are eternal; non-physical things that existed before humanity and will exist “forever”. But scientists do too! For example, a triangle is something that was not invented so much as discovered. The concept of “triangle” had no beginning, nor has an end: it is eternal. It is non existant; there is no such physical structure that is a perfect triangle. So a triangle is eternal and non-physical. And it is accepted without question by scientists as a perfect “icon”. It isn’t that much apart from an angel.

  37. I actually dont care if Pamela is religious shes one hell of a communicator,sticks to the facts and is drop dead gorgeous (sorry something about an intelligent woman is sooo sexy!)

  38. I applaud you for having the courage to post this!

  39. I just deleted a post from someone who left a false email, a false URL, and claimed that I’d made scientific statements I’ve never made. People are welcome hold opinions and state them. They are not welcome to lie from a position of anonymity.

  40. I too have just come to your website after listening to, and being impressed by, your joint podcast. And this is the first place I landed. And I am rather surprised.

    I find it impossible to believe anyone who is a sceptic could also be a Christian (or Hindu, Moslem, Jew etc.) How can one have a belief in something for which there is no evidence?

    What is to stop you believing anything? Why not believe that chocolate teapots fly between the stars? Or that we are secretly ruled by lizard shape-shifters? The (lack of) evidence is exactly the same.

    Why “your” god rather than the multitude of other gods in which humans have believed or do believe? Had you been born in (say) India or Malaysia, would you still be a Christian?

    How can it be rational to accept that an accident of birth changes the nature of your “true god”? Or is everyone else wrong? Or were you just lucky to be born into the one true faith?

    I’m curious and perplexed.

    Thanks for the podcast though. I am sure I will continue to enjoy it.

  41. I’m really glad you made this post. While I am an atheist, I get pretty annoyed with the assumption that all smart people, all scientific people, and all skeptical people are/should be atheists as well. There are some Christians (and also Muslims, Jews, Taoists, and Pagans) in my life that I respect greatly and are very smart people with a lot of knowledge in their areas of expertise. Although I disagree with belief in God, it is important to me to do so mostly privately and always respectfully.

    When I do get upset about religion, it’s not with people like you. I don’t see belief in religion damaging when it does not restrict one’s ability to see and understand what we do have evidence for. As long as evidence comes before dogma, it’s all good. When I DO object it’s when people are using their faith as a way to restrict science, or restrict the rights of other people.

  42. Benny
    “I get pretty annoyed with the assumption that all smart people, all scientific people, and all skeptical people are/should be atheists as well.”

    Why would it annoy you?

    How can someone who claims to be a “sceptic”, believe in something for which there is no evidence? The two are mutually exclusive, surely?

    Indeed, one of the definitions of “sceptic” in the OED is: “a person who doubts the truth of Christianity and other religions”

    Seems pretty clear cut really.

  43. I think i know why this is such a ‘hot topic’!

    Those of us who listen each and every week to AstronomyCast with Pamela and Fraser know it is one of the BEST science podcasts out there… absolutely astounding effort- and i don’t know why it isn’t broadcast on NPR or PRI etc. etc.

    (I know it’s not ‘astronomy’, but i’d love to hear a special “God” edition of Pamela vs Fraser)

    I think we science-geek-fans easily get ‘posessive’ about the things we love..

    We might feel ‘betrayed’ or angry when we find out that our beloved uber-skeptic-science -godess turns out to be a theist!

    This is her Jar-Jar-Binks moment and, although we love her, we can never forgive.


    It’s like when i found out the tooth fairy didn’t exist… only in reverse.


  44. Dr. Gay, is a skeptic with some humility, which some of you “holier than thou” skeptics could stand to have a little more of. Your skepticality makes you feel powerful, you are way above those puny, naive, superstitious brains below aren’t you? Sorry, you don’t know s#%$#! We are less than a blink of an eye in this Universe and you think you will have it all figured out.
    By the way, not sure how the multi-documented life of Jesus Christ equates to “magical fantasies” and being a “crazy Jew”. Try reading the gospels with an open mind…I know, it’s scary, you might get sucked in and heaven forbid, be happy 🙂

  45. I really like the use of beliefe in intelligent extraterrestrial life as an example of something that can be believed without verifiable evidence. It is a reasonable belief but not currently provable. I think a mind that functions only on verifiable facts is quite …. limited.

  46. @Kemp,

    I’m just about as happy as i can be without being happy clappy….

    Yeah right- ‘documentation’ decades after he died doesn’t really qualify as an eye-witness account. Not only that, the gospels don’t even agree with each other- maybe you should read them again with an open mind.

    The cave was empty… what a miracle that was! Top of my head? I can think of a dozen non-supernatural reasons why His body was missing.

    Also, i think you’re confusing skeptics with Christians – you’re the ones who think you’ve got the answers for everything. You don’t know s#$%^!. Why don’y you explain why you think all those Muslims are going to hell? The Jews? The Hindus?


    the possiblility of Extraterrestrial Intelligence is interesting but unproven- The possibility of God is also interesting but unproven. What we can say is that if god exists, he’s very unlikely to have been Jesus.

  47. This is a debate that will never die. The scientific method has yielded more good in the world than what many professors of religion have had to offer. I believe that religion has been used as an instrument of great evil in the past. The power vested in some preaches was immense and caused great suffering to those who sought truth which, incidentally, impeded the progress of science for centuries. Who can deny these facts?
    I personally believe, however, that the chemist Henry Eyring put the argument in a nutshell when he said: “Is there any conflict between science and religion? There is no conflict in the mind of God, but often there is conflict in the minds of men.”
    A person’s religion should invoke the highest ethical standards or she/he has not understood it correctly. This reason alone should ring bells with those who are sceptics since better ethical standards would eliminate a great deal of bad science.
    I believe for different reasons, however, that science and religion should remain separate in the class room just as the church and state should. Nonetheless, I would like to believe that those who have religious convictions are able to make significant contributions to the society in which they live whether they are scientists, politicians, teachers or mums and dads.
    PS: I am a Latter Day Saint. I love Astronomy Cast and although I do not agree with everything on the Skeptics Guide to the Universe I think that is a great show also. Thanks to Pamela for the great job she does in making good science more accessible.


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