Religion is very rational until you understand what “rational” means

Romanian version of this story

Preamble: Popper and the humility of science¹

In 1902, when Karl Popper was born in Vienna, the modern scientific method was already several hundred years old. Francis Bacon had proposed the first scientific method in 1620. He believed that we can objectively know nature through the inductive method (later refined and called inductivism): start from observations about nature and generalize them to produce laws and theories.

Image Public Domain Vectors

Inductivism took us a long way. To this method we owe everything we discovered before the 20th century and even more recently. However, inductivism is an imperfect method. Everyone’s favorite example is the black swan. Europeans observed only white swans and concluded that all swans are white. But when they explored Australia and discovered black swans, their mini-theory crumbled. In Popper’s words:

No amount of observations of white swans can allow the inference that all swans are white, but the observation of a single black swan is sufficient to refute that conclusion.

Starting from this problem with inductivism, Popper pointed out a discrepancy between two popular theories at the time. Einstein’s theory of relativity made clear and testable predictions, for example that during a solar eclipse we should be able to observe stars directly behind the Sun (since the Sun’s mass curves space). This prediction had been verified in 1919, four years after the publication of the theory of relativity. By contrast, Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalysis did not lend itself to experimental refutation because it was not testable. No human behavior could disprove psychoanalysis. Popper concluded that psychoanalysis was not a scientific theory.

To facilitate the demarcation between science and pseudosciences, Popper defined the criterion of falsifiability: a theory is not scientific unless it makes refutable predictions. This criterion is generally accepted today (with nuances).

Falsifiability is Popper’s great contribution to scientific progress. He showed us that science must take the risk of making predictions. He convinced us that it is not a virtue, but on the contrary, a vice, for a theory to be irrefutable, immune from testing or disproof. Science must be humble, for any theory implicitly contains the concession: “If you find any counterexample, this theory will need to be revised or abandoned.” Religion is poles apart: arrogant, infallible, sententious, haughty.

Image from One Step Behind the Seraphim

Thus, over the centuries, not only has our understanding of the world changed, but so has the way we believe the world can be known. Today there is no unanimously accepted definition of a scientific theory, but all its definitions include all or some of these principles, to which I will refer in the next sections:

  1. A scientific theory explains an aspect of the natural world.
  2. A scientific theory starts from observations that need to be explained.
  3. A scientific theory, once formulated, must be tested experimentally.
  4. A scientific theory makes falsifiable predictions.
  5. A scientific theory proposes reproducible experiments.
  6. A scientific theory can never be definitively proven.

I gathered this rational view of the world over time, from fragments, from various sources, often on my own, and I got the complete picture only after the age of 35. As long as there were gaps in the image, Christianity offered to fill them. I believe a lot of people are in the same situation.

Acts of faith tend to increase faith

Antilavou, soson, eleison ke diafilaxon imas, o Theos, ti Si hariti. I don’t understand anything the priest says… ironically, it’s all Greek to me. And yet I understand absolutely everything. Eleison, “have mercy.” Theos, “God.” Hariti must mean “grace” (Romanian: har); it sounds like the kind of word that Romanian would inherit from Greek. Now I have enough clues to find my place: “Help us, save us, have mercy upon us, and protect us, O God, by Your grace.” Perfect, now I’ve also learned what the other words mean.

Image by James Ogley

When I first set foot in a Greek church in Boston in August 1999, I had been going to church for over three years. I knew the text of the liturgy by heart in Romanian. Now I had just arrived in the United States to study. I was ecstatic to have this great opportunity. I was busy over my head exploring the campus, choosing courses for my first semester, searching for an advisor… but not on Sundays. Sundays were not mine. And one of the concerns during my move to Boston was continuing to go to church. I assumed that I would not find a Romanian church, but to put church attendance on hold was inconceivable.

Since I didn’t know how to search the Internet (in my defense, it was 1999), I went to the campus chapel. The chapel was interfaith, meaning that various Christian denominations held their services therein by rotation. To my non-ecumenical mind at the time, “interfaith” meant that all participants were going to hell, so I ruled out going there on a weekly basis. At the chapel they gave me a list of nearby churches. I don’t remember whether there were any English-language churches, but I chose a Greek one. Somehow it felt closer to me. I wasn’t put off by not knowing the language. I expected at least fragments of the liturgy to be carried out in English (and they were). As for the rest, eternal truths do not depend on language. Except maybe in the tiny almah-parthenos dispute. But I blaspheme.

Going to that church felt like being with my kind, which says a lot about the power of religion. In truth, the church was striving to be open to non-Greek speakers. For instance, each pew had a book containing three versions of the liturgy text: in Greek, in Greek with the Latin alphabet and in English. In fact, many of the church’s parishioners were third- or fourth-generation Americans. Probably their command of Greek was not great.

Five months later, at the end of a Sunday service, a churchgoer told me that there was also a Romanian Orthodox church in Wakefield, about 12 miles north of Boston. So I started going there.

Image by Dennis Jarvis

The trip to the church in Wakefield took about an hour and a half by train. Time ain’t money when all ya got is time. I had to wake up at 7 in the morning, not one minute later, so as to have time to take two subways and get to North Station, where I boarded the Haverhill Line train. I knew that Wakefield Station was coming up when we passed Crystal Lake, a picturesque lake that I still remember 20 years later whenever I listen to the Mike Oldfield song. From the train station I walked another mile and got to church just in time for the matins. Sometimes I was lucky on the return trip, because a parishioner lived in Boston, drove to church and dropped me off close to home. Otherwise… it was the same train, the same subways again.

It was in Wakefield that I started singing as a cantor. In Romania I used to sit in the back of the church and just answer in song, along with everyone else. But here the community was small and a potential cantor, even a mediocre one, did not go unnoticed. An MIT colleague, a mathematician, was a cantor. When he heard me carry a tune, he immediately beckoned me next to him to learn the craft. That’s how I started to learn the more detailed order of the services and the eight tones. I even had favorites! The third tone moved me every time I heard it; by rotation, every eighth Sunday gave me that extra joy of going to church. It is a relatively sweet and conventional tone, although I think musically the sixth tone is much more interesting.

I suddenly had the realization that the church was a little emptier without me, the services a little harder to keep. It was a sensation I had never had in Romania, where the attendance is stronger and the lack of one person is scarcely felt.

The routine, the perseverance in the small sacrifices I made, belonging to a community, the desire to be useful, the attraction to religious music… they all sprang from my faith and kept me anchored in it in a mutual conditioning. In those early years of Christianity, nothing challenged the logical coherence of my value system.

Image by godserv

Meanwhile, in a different part of my brain…

I transferred to MIT at age 21, following high school and three years at the Politehnica University of Bucharest. In Romania I had been a good student, with perfect grades in math and natural sciences (physics, chemistry, biology, geography). But it is one thing to memorize facts and formulas in order to get perfect grades, and a completely different thing to understand how we discover the world, how we know what we know. This aspect is explained rarely and incompletely in Romanian grade schools. As for college… in my opinion, the physics courses at the Politehnica were the worst taught courses I attended in 18 years of education.

At MIT, things were much better. There I received the first notions about how science works. For example, the chemistry course included lessons in the history of physics, the discovery of the electron and of quantum effects, and the turmoil they created in the community of physicists. It was the first time I learned that a scientific theory is not a book you publish and everyone agrees with. A scientific theory is born from an observation that existing theories did not anticipate, and the path of the new theory involves hypotheses, experiments, occasionally a spark of genius, a touch of luck for funding, and then acceptance in the community. It is a path that can take decades.

The biology class also gave me practical examples of the scientific method. In a lecture I remember to this day, the professor spoke with humor and passion of “his hero”, Gregor Mendel, and of his experiments with peas that led to the rules of Mendelian inheritance.

I had learned about these experiments in high school, but only at MIT did I appreciate the rigor with which Mendel eliminated any possibility of error and the intelligence that allowed him to translate numbers (quantities of peas in certain proportions) into an unapparent model of dominant and recessive features. Moreover, Mendel was not content to find a model that explained the experiments he’d already done, but took another crucial step: he designed more cross-breeding experiments whose results he predicted even before fertilization. If any of those experiments had produced results that differed from expectations, Mendel’s theory would have had to be revised. It is the perfect example of applying the criterion of falsifiability!

Sadly, I wasn’t taught the definition of a scientific theory at MIT either. It seems that every course strangely assumes that you have already learned this definition elsewhere. By the end of college, in 2002, I had deduced principles 1–3 from the above list on my own.

But without principles 4–6, religion could placidly coexist with my scientific training. The existence of God (1) perfectly explained the natural world, (2) explained my observations about the world, and (3) could be verified experimentally by the results of prayer, of fasting, and of my Christian life in general. After all, I did get into MIT! It was clear that God existed, was helping me, and was rewarding my acts of faith.

As long as (4) I did not test falsifiable hypotheses, (5) I did not invite other people to objectively reproduce my observations, and (6) I already considered the existence of God to be definitively proven, there was no way to arrive at any other conclusion. Of course, I did not treat religion as a scientific theory, but I was a rational man and it seemed natural to ask for evidence. I thought I found it everywhere. I understood that some scientific discoveries contradicted the Bible’s literal text. It was just that the explanation that the Bible should be interpreted symbolically sufficed for me.

Image adapted from Pixabay

Too little, too soon

Before my master’s studies, in the summer of 2001, I came across a Scientific American magazine for the first time. I subscribed and have been a subscriber ever since, for 20 years. I devoured articles about physics, astronomy, chemical engineering, medicine, anthropology… I was learning about fascinating fields and theories being born, at the border between known and unknown. But towards the end of each issue there was a one-page column, Skeptic, written by Michael Shermer. The column discussed the relationship between science and pseudoscience, with examples and suggestions on how we can distinguish between them. I consider myself lucky to have caught this column almost from its beginning (April 2001) until the end (2019).

Via this channel I got the first clues that my understanding of the world was incomplete. Articles such as Baloney Detection or The Gradual Illumination of the Mind showed me that there exist rigorous criteria for separating truth from quackery. More importantly, they forced me to ask myself: if religion takes a step back whenever science takes a step forward, what happens in the long run?

ID (aka God) miraculously intervenes just in the places where science has yet to offer a comprehensive explanation for a particular phenomenon. (ID used to control the weather, but now that we understand it, He has moved on to more difficult problems, such as the origins of DNA and cellular life. Once these problems are mastered, then ID will no doubt find even more intractable conundrums.) Thus, IDers would have us teach children nonthreatening theories of science, but when it comes to the origins of life and certain aspects of evolution, children are to learn that “ID did it.”

— Michael Shermer, The Gradual Illumination of the Mind

I was happy to receive this monthly dose of skepticism, but it took a few years for the effects to begin to show. Today’s Cătălin wants to shout at Cătălin from 20 years ago: “How can you read this and not understand?”

It was too little, too soon.

The missing pieces

In addition to principles 1–3, which I gathered from context in my high school and college years, it took me another 10–15 years to glean principles 4–6.

Falsifiability: A theory must lend itself to refutation. For example, a single rabbit fossil in Precambrian strata would suffice to disprove the theory of evolution. Haldane’s quip, of course, deserves to be generalized: any fossil found in the wrong geological stratum would disprove the theory of evolution. Any person armed with a shovel could become the nemesis of a 160-year-old theory. How the Church would love that person! But it didn’t happen.

Image by Glendon Mellow

In comparison, religion makes unfalsifiable predictions (“Good people go to Heaven after they die.”). A theory which no conceivable experiment can disprove is not a scientific theory.

Reproducibility: In an ideal world, the results of any research should be published along with experimental data. A skeptical but well-meaning person (with access to the necessary equipment) must be able to repeat the experiments and get the same results. Unfortunately, in practice no one has insisted on reproducibility for several decades, but that is another topic.

In comparison, many supernaturalist people trust in personal experiences that are impossible to reproduce: “I dreamed of my dead grandmother and she foretold something that later did happen to me, therefore there is life after death.”

No guarantees: A scientific theory can never be proven, only reconfirmed. A theory that has stood the tests of time and of many experiments is a theory we gain confidence in. The specter of a single counterexample will always haunt that theory, but its probability will diminish. We will probably never find evidence against the theory of evolution, while we found loads of evidence for it: resistance to pesticides and antibiotics, transitional fossils, etc.

In comparison, religion uses ad hoc hypotheses to adapt to evidence that contradicts it. Is the Earth far over 6,000 years old? It’s okay, one shouldn’t interpret the Bible literally; the days of Creation are geological eras. Does the genealogy of Jesus differ radically between Luke and Matthew? It’s okay, the Bible is consistent because Luke actually takes levirate marriage into account or, possibly, because Luke and Matthew present the respective genealogies of Mary and Joseph. Does the Bible mention giants (Numbers 13:32)? It’s okay, they were probably just slightly massive people. Did Herod not actually kill any babies in Bethlehem? It’s okay, the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecies is more important than the truth (Matthew 2:16–18).

Image by Amy Watts

A theory that eludes any scientific principle is not a scientific theory. Of course, there is the viewpoint that religion and science are non-overlapping magisteria and that we should not ask for scientific evidence from religion. Who am I to contradict Stephen Jay Gould? And yet that is exactly what Richard Dawkins, another leading figure in the field, proposes with much common sense:

Despite the confident, almost bullying tone of Gould’s assertion, what, actually, is the justification for it? Why shouldn’t we comment on God, as scientists? And why isn’t Russell’s teapot, or the Flying Spaghetti Monster, equally immune from scientific scepticism? […] What are these ultimate questions in whose presence religion is an honoured guest and science must respectfully slink away?

— Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion

Conclusion: What is a demonstration?

Before we can debate whether someone really saw a ghost, whether homeopathy is better than placebo, or whether life after death exists, we need to agree on what a demonstration is. What arguments do the two camps need to change their minds?

Image by Alexas_Fotos

Regrettably, all too often this question receives only one answer. Rationalists say, “In order for me to believe you, show me some evidence, suggest experiments that I can reproduce, and make a falsifiable prediction.” Supernaturalists reject the discussion a priori, not out of bad will, but because their way of knowing the world seems good enough to them. “I am certain of the truth of my opinion and no counter-argument will sway me.”

I don’t know how to fix this unproductive way of experiencing the world, once it’s seated in the brain. But I think we can, and should, prevent it from seating. It is therefore our duty to occasionally reiterate the definition of a scientific theory, in order to reflexively detect and reject fabrications and quackery. This would also aid us in filtering out much of the fake news that has become more and more abundant in recent years.

Of course, I do not suggest that absolutely every book and every newspaper article repeat the definition of a scientific theory. There is a place and a time for the ad nauseam repetition of notions, and it is called school! From about the 6th grade until the end of high school, the natural sciences (physics, chemistry, biology, geography) could dedicate one lesson per year to the scientific method, with historic examples appropriate for the students’ age. With a little more effort, we could adopt this rational spirit throughout the curriculum, which today is too dogmatic. Instead of teaching a snapshot of what we know today, it would be more useful to also teach some outdated theories, so that students can learn how we build the science pyramid and on what grounds we accept or reject bricks in this pyramid.

Image by OpenClipart

These could be memorable lessons which would displace some dry data and figures. Perhaps continental drift and Wegener’s struggle to make room for his theory in the community are more interesting than the list of bauxite deposits in Romania. Perhaps the decline of geocentrism and the rise of heliocentrism tell a nobler story than that hundredth page of formulas in the physics textbook.

The spread of a rational way of thinking would have good effects on the discernment of individual people and of society as a whole.


[1] I must state from the outset that the philosophy of science is a vast field and my knowledge is limited. Not one statement in this section is universally accepted and I do not want to indefinitely lengthen every sentence with parentheses. But the point of the section is valid: falsifiability is a necessary criterion in any attempt to know the world.




software engineer living in Bucharest, Romania

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Cătălin Frâncu

Cătălin Frâncu

software engineer living in Bucharest, Romania

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