maher-jesusThis morning in preparing for viewing and discussing Bill Maher’s Religulous with our movie group from church, I decided to write something on two red herrings in the movie because they’re related to two of my biggest pet peeves: manipulation of the Bible out of gross ignorance and the claim that science and faith are incompatible.

1. In the very beginning of the movie Maher says, “Megiddo [is] the place that the Book of Revelation says Jesus Christ will come down to, end the world, and save the people who believe in him.” This is just plain wrong. Revelation does not say anything about Jesus and Megiddo. Read Revelation 16 for context of the word “Armageddon.” Furthermore, Revelation does not teach that Jesus “will come down to end the world.” Maher is correct, however, that many Christians do believe Jesus will come back to end the world.

2. Maher says to Francis Collins that he is “the one famous scientist who is also religious,” and at the same time the movie displays the caption, “93% of scientists in the American National Academy of Sciences are atheist or agnostic.” Yes, Maher makes this statement to Collins with tongue firmly planted in cheek, but because the moviemakers chose to put the above statistic on the screen at the same time and because the movie relies heavily on the cultural stereotype of scientists as rational seekers of truth and discovering the way the world really is, this particular red herring deserves some detailed attention and debunking. There are four major problems with using this statistic and the interview with Collins in the context in which they are presented in the movie.

First, the above statistic is assuredly referring to a survey reported in the July 23, 1998, issue of Nature by Edward J. Larson and Larry Witham titled, “Leading Scientists Still Reject God.” Larson and Witham sought to replicate a questionnaire by James H. Leuba in 1913 and 1933 asking leading scientists about their belief in “a God in intellectual and affective communication with humankind” and in “personal immortality.” In 1997 Larson and Witham sent their questionnaire to 517 members of the NAS and received a 50% response rate. According to the NAS website at the time of this blog post, “The Academy membership is composed of approximately 2,100 members and 380 foreign associates, of whom nearly 200 have won Nobel Prizes.” The following table reports Larson’s and Witham’s findings on NAS members as representative of “leading scientists.”

     Personal belief          7.0%
     Personal disbelief      72.2%
     Doubt or agnosticism    20.8%

Larson and Witham did a similar survey in 1996, replicating Leuba, and reported their results in the April 3, 1997, issue of Nature titled, “Scientists Are Still Keeping the Faith.” In this earlier survey Larson and Witham sent their questionare to 1,000 randomly selected names from the current edition of American Men and Women of Science (originally published in 1906 as American Men of Science and served as Leuba’s source of respondents). Larson and Witham received a 60% response rate. The results are below, which were similar to Leuba’s results decades earlier.

     Personal belief         39.3%
     Personal disbelief      46.3%
     Doubt or agnosticism    14.5%

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2008-09 Edition, there were 487,800 professional scientists employed in 2006, which makes Larson’s and Witham’s 1997 survey respondents from the NAS about 0.05% of the total number of professional scientists in the United States. And, of course, nothing in Leuba’s or Larson’s and Witham’s surveys can be equated with whether or not scientists are “religious.” Someone can disbelieve in “a God in intellectual and affective communication with humankind” (i.e. a personal God who answers prayer, for example) yet believe in a depersonalized God who is still creator, sustainer, and even redeemer of the universe. There are many varieties of people who believe in God and are religious and yet reject the personal God of some brands of Christianity.

Second, the terms “atheist” and “agnostic” as labels for personal belief/worldview contain diverse meanings for people using these terms to self-identify and do not fit cleanly within the labels used by Larson and Witham to categorize their results. For example, many people, scientists or not, identify with agnosticism, which in its most general sense is simply the belief that it is not possible to have (certain?) knowledge about metaphysical propositions, such as the existence of God or the afterlife. Many agnostics are also religious; that is they attend church and/or believe in religious teachings as a framework for making sense of the world and their own lives; many agnostics also believe in God and even in the Bible and Jesus Christ, they simply do not claim their faith is the same as scientific knowledge, such as the earth orbiting the sun, even though to our naked experience the sun moves in relation to the earth in the sky. Far fewer people self-identify with atheism, which itself has different meanings, including simply being without god-belief to stating positively and certainly that there is no god or gods; there are very few people of the latter kind of atheists in the general population. Among the general population in the U.S. about 4% self-identify as atheists and 14% as agnostics (2006 Financial Times/Harris Interactive Poll of 2,078 adults in the United States).

Third, most of the scientists that appear on lists of the most important and influential scientists in history were/are religious or had/have religious affiliation.  See for such lists.   Some of the notable Christians in the “top 100” are: Roger Bacon (champion of the modern scientific method), Johannes Kepler (developed laws of planetary motion), Blaise Pascal (mathematical genius and champion of scientific method), Robert Boyle (one of the founders of modern chemistry), Anton van Leeuwenhoek (“father” of microbiology), Carolus Linnaeus (“father” of modern taxonomy), Michael Faraday (established electromagnetism in the field of physics), James Prescott Joule (pioneer of the first law of thermodynamics), Gregor Mendel (“father” of genetics), Lord Kelvin (“father” of the laws of thermodynamics), James Clerk Maxwell (first to comprehensively synthesize electromagnetic theory), George Washington Carver (botanist and inventor who revolutionized agricultural methods), Arthur Stanley Eddington (experimentally confirmed Einstein’s theory of general relativity).

Fourth, as with most of the movie, highly selective editing, jump cuts to humorous footage, and splicing together wildly divergent topics and interviews with vastly different people serve only Maher’s desire to provoke, poke fun at, and otherwise pummel any legitimate argument for religious belief into the ground. Steven Waldman, Editor-in-Chief of Beliefnet and author of Founding Faith, contacted Collins about his appearance in the movie. Dr. Collins told Waldman in an email: “I thought my interview with him was going to be about the so-called controversy between science and faith, and whether someone could both believe in God and evolution. I was willing to discourse on that. But in a rambling discussion, Maher migrated into other territory where I am hardly an expert (like the historicity of the Gospels). As you could see, that was the part he chose to include, though he presented a very limited excerpt.” Maher’s production team also set up his interview with Collins based on deception by writing in an email to Collins that “as a documentary film, we are approaching this project as a journey toward understanding [and that] Dr. Collins’ explanation of the human genome and its relationship to his faith will express a key point of view on the subject.”

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