The God Hypothesis

Originally posted on www.thepeopleproject.com

I have rarely met an atheist who was scientifically illiterate.

According to recent polls and studies, the more scientifically literate an individual, the less likely he or she will believe in a god, or believe that a god plays a role in the universe (e.g., Gallup, 2012; Gallup International, 2012). A Pew Research Center poll revealed that only 33% of members of the American Association for the Advancement of Science believed in a god (Pew Research Center, 2009), and a Nature poll of members of the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) revealed that only 7% of the ‘top’ scientists believed in a personal god (Larson & Witham, 1998).

On the other hand, 59% of the world’s population claim to believe in a personal god (Gallup International, 2012), 83% of the American public believe in a personal god, and 95% believe in some higher power (Pew Research Center, 2009).

Although these statistics clearly show that more scientific education is needed, they also raise another important question: Why do scientifically literate individuals become more critical of gods and religion?

To answer this question I think we need to take a look at religious belief from an evolutionary and scientific perspective.

God is essentially a hypothesis. Throughout human history all human societies have assumed that the The God Hypothesis was true, i.e. that a god exists. The form of the god and the number of gods may have varied, but belief in a supernatural being or beings has been ubiquitous throughout history. This comes as no surprise. After all, in early human societies, the development of a god allowed humans to answer “unanswerable” questions: “How did life arise?” “Where did the Earth come from?” “Where did the universe itself come from?”

As such, origin myths and creation tales about humans, life, earth and the universe are also ubiquitous features of religion (Kimball, 2008). Creating a narrative with a god (or many gods) as the creator was simple, convincing, and until recently, unchallengeable.

Atheists are generally scientifically literate, and scientists are generally atheists, because atheism, even from its earliest days, has developed by answering origin questions from an empirical “way of knowing”. With the rise of modern science, humans were able to test The God Hypothesis for the first time: Did a god create the Earth? Did a god create life? By employing the scientific method, people have tested The God Hypothesis using empirical evidence.

As atheists know, the evidence has not added up.

Scientists have made many findings, including the following: The Earth is not the middle of the universe (Copernicus, 1543). The Earth is much older than the Bible suggested (Lyell, 1830). Life has changed naturally in response to environmental pressures (Darwin, 1859). The universe is not static and unchanging (Hubble, 1929).

Many academics in areas like physics, biology, geology, anthropology, chemistry, geography, sociology and history have used the scientific method to answer previously unanswerable questions. During this process many academics have become critical of those aspects of religion which were previously assumed to be true and which had been left unchallenged. They began to ask other important questions: Why is religious belief dependent on socialization and geography? What is religion’s ethical purpose if morality is not dependent on religious belief? How can we trust religious texts when each, claiming divine objective truth, is incompatible with the other? Why is prayer ineffective?

The God Hypothesis has crumbled.

Unfortunately for atheists and scientists, answering the unanswerable was not the deity’s only function in our evolutionary past, which is why most people on our planet still believe deeply in a personal or creator god (Gallup International, 2012), even though it makes no sense from a scientific point of view. After all, a god serves other important human functions. For many individuals it is a source of morality, a culturally important aspect of their heritage, or a way to cope with the fact that life is finite. When faced with empirical evidence, many use faith as a defence mechanism, comfort themselves with pseudoscience or simply ignore the evidence.

As such, although belief in a god is declining globally with improved access to education (Gallup International, 2012), atheists and scientists alike should not expect it to disappear entirely. The God Hypothesis may have been falsified, but faith, cultural traditions, incredulity, misinformation and ignorance will keep the gods alive throughout the 21st century.

References

Copernicus, N. (1543). On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres. 

Darwin, C. (1859). On The Origin Of Species. London: John Murray.

Gallup International. (2012). “Global Index of Religiosity and Atheism, Gallup International.” July 27, 2012.

Gallup Poll. (2012) “Those With Postgraduate Education Least Likely to Believe in Creationist Explanation.” May 3-6, 2012.

Hubble, E. (1929). A relation between distance and radial velocity among extra-galactic nebulae. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in the United States of America 15, 168-173.

Kimball, C. (2008). “Creation Myths and Sacred Stories.” Comparative Religion – a Course Guide. Recorded Books, LLC.

Larson, E.J. & Witham, L. (1998). Leading scientists still reject God. Nature 394, 313.

Lyell, C. (1830). Principles of Geology, being an attempt to explain the former changes of the Earth’s surface, by reference to causes now in operation. London: John Murray. Vol. 1.

Pew Research Center for the People & the Press. (2009). “Science and Bioethics – Scientists and Belief.” Accessed September 13th 2012: www.pewforum.org/Science-and-Bioethics/Scientists-and-Belief.aspx

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About Cadell Last
I am a science educator, freelance science writer, and founder of The Advanced Apes based in Toronto, Ontario. In the past my academic research focused on the evolution, ecology, and behaviour of non-human primates (i.e., chimpanzees, gorillas, ring-tailed lemurs). Currently, my official blog, The Ratchet, can be found via The Advanced Apes and Svbtle. I enjoy exploring recent research in human evolutionary sciences, as well as biology, ecology, astronomy, physics, and computer science. My work has been featured in Scientific American, American Humanist, Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science, and Jane Goodall Institute of Canada. I am also exploring science popularization in new mediums in collaboration with PBS Digital Studios with an animated YouTube channel. You can contact me on Twitter (@cadelllast) or via email: cadell.last@gmail.com

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