Does Science Make Belief in God Obsolete?
the John Templeton Foundation
About This Event

As a glance at the headlines or the best-seller list demonstrates, religion is an increasingly prominent subject of debate in American life. Polls show that America is becoming both more evangelical and more secular, and the discussions about religion’s role--particularly in public life--are often acrimonious.

In an effort to elevate Listen to Audio

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the discussion, the John Templeton Foundation recently invited thirteen prominent thinkers to write short essays on the question “Does science make belief in God obsolete?” Contributors range from the avowedly atheistic Christopher Hitchens to Christoph Cardinal Schönborn, lead editor of the catechism of the Catholic Church. (The full collection of essays can be found at

To advance this important discussion, AEI is hosting a dialogue between two contributors to the collection: William D. Phillips, the 1997 Nobel laureate in physics, and Michael Shermer, publisher of Skeptic magazine. The discussion will be moderated and joined by AEI’s George Frederick Jewett Scholar and 1994 Templeton Prize winner Michael Novak.

This event is cosponsored by the John Templeton Foundation.

12:15 p.m.
Registration and Lunch
Henry Olsen, AEI
Gary Rosen, John Templeton Foundation
William D. Phillips, University of Maryland
Michael Shermer, Skeptic magazine
Michael Novak, AEI
Event Summary

Faith under the Microscope

WASHINGTON, MAY 20, 2008 -- When confronted with the inexplicable and uncontrollable, people often invoke a higher power to make sense of the world around them. But is faith in God plausible in an age of staggering scientific advances in areas such as genetics, neuroscience, and reproductive technology, when much of what was previously attributed to the supernatural has been explained scientifically? Does science make belief in God obsolete?

Undeterred by the polarization that frequently attends debates about the relationship between science and religion, the Templeton Foundation recently posed the latter question as the third in its series of "Big Questions"--a campaign to reach the public through print, radio, and online media with learned opinions on important, relevant issues. With this particular question, Templeton engaged thirteen leading scientists, scholars, and commentators--from across the religious and political spectrum--who responded in essay form. At an event last week at the American Enterprise Institute, two of the essayists, Michael Shermer, publisher of Skeptic magazine and a monthly columnist for Scientific American, and William D. Phillips, a professor at the University of Maryland and a Nobel Laureate in physics, squared off in person.

Shermer, who pointed out in his essay that the "veracity of a proposition is independent of the number of people who believe it," said at the event that, while science probably makes God obsolete, it certainly has not made belief in him obsolete. According to a 2007 Harris Poll, 82 percent of adult Americans believe that there is a God. And Shermer cited a 1916 survey indicating that at that time roughly 40 percent of practicing scientists believed in God--which is commensurate with the number of scientists today who affirm faith in God. As these numbers demonstrate, there is no doubt that human beings--even scientists themselves--experience "some impulse toward religiosity," but that does not mean there is a God, Shermer said. In fact, in what he calls, tongue-in-cheek, Shermer's Last Law, he says that "any sufficiently advanced extraterrestrial intelligence would be indistinguishable from God." Science has nothing to say empirically about a supernatural being outside the realm of the natural world.

Phillips, himself a scientist and a practicing Christian who talks openly about his faith, wrote in his essay that "a scientist can believe in God because such belief is not a scientific matter." At AEI, he was eager to find grounds on which to agree with Shermer, particularly on the lack of empirical proof of God's existence. Moreover, he said that examining belief in God from the vantage point of science was the wrong approach entirely because one cannot measure God scientifically: "I do not believe that science is ever going to prove the existence of God, nor do I believe that science is ever going to disprove the existence of God." The real question, he said, is not a scientific one and should not be dealt with in the scientific paradigm. He maintained that people want to experience religion the way they do art, music, or love.

Shermer, however, pushed further. Religion cannot be separated wholly from science, he insisted, because "at some point, if you believe in God, you just have to believe that he's . . . entering our world. And if he's entering our world, isn't he doing it in some measurable way? And now we're back to the natural world." Phillips, while assuring Shermer that he believes God does work in the world--he is a theist, not a deist--said that he "has a hunch" that God does so in "undetectable" ways.

If one cannot trace God's actions or presence in the world, "what's the difference between an invisible God and a nonexistent God," asked Shermer. "For you, none," Phillips replied. "But for me, I claim that I can feel God's presence in my life." The difference to Phillips lies solely in believing, and the function of faith for him is that it provides direction to make him a better person. "The problem here is that you're thinking . . . the whole question is about whether or not God exists," he said. "I already have an answer to that. It's not a scientific answer. My question is: what does God want me to do." Shermer, recognizing that Phillips's insistence about the question not being a scientific one was a refusal to engage the issue on the given terms--whether science makes belief in God obsolete--suggested that the conversation was at an end.

Shermer said that he understands the draw of transcendence, of finding "something grander than me." Religion is the ultimate source of explanation, he continued, which he does not need but understands why other people do. Phillips was unflappable. "It's not like I'm without my doubts, but I'm comfortable with those doubts," he said.

Despite the impasse, Shermer was positive about the discussion and dismissed the idea that conversations about difficult questions are not worthwhile because they are not determinative. The significance of the debate over science and faith makes the conversation worthwhile.


For video, audio, papers, and event information, visit For more information, contact Jon Flugstad at [email protected] or 202.862.4878.

For media inquiries, contact Véronique Rodman at [email protected] or 202.862.4870.


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