In 2008, the renowned physicist, Steven Weinberg, delivered the Phi Beta Kappa lecture at Harvard. His oration, entitled "Without God" was edited and printed in The New York Review of Books in the September 25, 2008 issue.

Although I may tend to agree with some of Weinberg's points, and I certainly sympathize with the apparent motivation for his lecture--the politicization of science by the religious right during the Bush years--I nevertheless felt that Weinberg's approach to religion was, from an anthropological point of view, naive.

I wrote as much in letter to the NYRB, but my letter was not printed. I posted it as a comment to the Harvard Magazine site, where the oration was reproduced, and there my comment sat for a while. Recently I wanted to refer someone to my "exchange" with Weinberg and I discovered that my comment had been removed from the site. Either my puny disagreement with Weinberg annoyed someone, or it was erased during web house-cleaning. I dug up the original file and resubmitted it, but so far it has not been approved and posted.

It seems to me that OAC is a better forum for this topic anyway, so I will post links to Weinberg's lecture and my comments here. The references to the Bush era culture may be dated, but the topic and Weinberg's approach to it are still debatable.

Weinberg's oration/essay:

My response:

Steven Weinberg’s well-rendered oration, “Without God,” gives us one of the clearest statements of a scientist’s views of religion since Bertrand Russell’s “Why I am Not a Christian.”

As a physicist, Professor Weinberg can be pardoned for overemphasizing the role of scientific rationality in his theory of the practice of religions. His oration, however, takes up an implicit position in a much larger debate. Science vs. religion (or rationality vs. belief) is a battleground in the contemporary culture wars. With the aid of the Bush administration, the religious right has penetrated the inner sanctum of science, threatening its core practice and its sway over public education. This is undoubtedly the threat that Weinberg is reacting to.

The problem is that Weinberg writes as if one more decisive demonstration of the “truth” of science will unsling the knees of the popular conservative religious right, who are often antagonistic to science, or at least to the rationalist-scientific-atheist-progressive left.

In this, Weinberg has failed to understand the basic elements of religious experience. It is true that some scientific explanations have undermined and eclipsed the nature-explaining dominion of religion, at least in the West. What Weinberg and the New Atheists he aligns himself with do not seem to understand about religious worldview is that only a small part of religious doctrine is devoted to explaining nature as a scientist aims to—in terms of causalities in nature.

“Without God” unselfconsciously takes up the Enlightenment argument, asking: How much longer can the irrationalities of belief withstand the onslaught of increasingly exact scientific explanations of thunder, earthquakes, and disease? After all, the Medieval Church failed in its attempt to preserve its authority on the grounds of its expertise in planetary cosmology. It is therefore only a matter of time before ordinary belief will be swept away by science—if only we can guarantee that evolution continues to be taught in the classroom!

Weinberg’s theory that religion and science represent successive strategies to explain nature is an old one. Nineteenth-century writers posited theories of linear evolution from magic to religion to science, in which progress was thought to be propelled by the recognition of the inferiority of the prior explanatory model. Weinberg’s opening analysis of the conflict between science and religion could have come directly out of James George Frazer’s Golden Bough, published in 1890. Weinberg writes, “Religion originally gained much of its strength from the observation of mysterious phenomena--thunder, earthquake, disease--that seemed to require the intervention of some divine being. There was a nymph in every brook…”

Weinberg allows that the greater part of religion may be concerned with “what makes us happy or good.” He personally is interested in “what is true,” and it seems to him that in the end religion will lose its authority to teach us morality also when its scientific ideas are shown to be false. He summarizes the difference between scientific and religious knowledge: “We progress.”

A reader could be forgiven for linking Weinberg’s notion of scientific progress to the more ideologically charged idea of liberal progressivism. It is societal truths and not scientific ones that religion is after, as Emile Durkheim (1858-1917) first argued. In Durkheim’s view society is above all a moral entity. The falsifiable kind of truth-seeking characteristic of science would not apply to social-moral realities.

The late Clifford Geertz advanced Durkheim’s notion with his 1966 explanation of how the moral-aesthetic-emotional-symbolic truth making of religion trumps all other kinds. The religious perspective, he wrote, “differs from the scientific perspective in that it questions the realities of everyday life not out of an institutionalized skepticism which dissolves the world’s givenness into a swirl of probabilistic hypotheses, but in terms of what it takes to be wider, non-hypothetical truths. Rather than detachment, its watchword is commitment; rather than analysis, encounter.”

The overemphasis on scientific-style rationality/irrationality and its attendant underpinnings comes at the cost of distracting us from a proper understanding of many social phenomena, not just religion. The application of the principle of the falsifiability of claims, for instance, will no more determine the future of religion than it will the outcome of the coming presidential election—and not (just) because some people are stubbornly irrational. More damagingly, interpreting religious commitment in terms of rationality and its opposite, as if to say “here is scientific rationality on one side and their obtuse model on the other” antagonizes religious people at any strata.

When science is used as the warrant for progressive views, it is no wonder that conservative religious activists will seek to unhinge its authority in society. Weinberg is a very fine scientist who, quite justifiably, feels that science in this country is under threat by the encroachment of those who embrace irrational propositions. His essay does not explain that development in terms of religious cultural reasoning but only draws more heat (not light) to the contact point of misunderstanding and misinterpretation.


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Comment by Keith Hart on May 17, 2012 at 9:10am

I checked out Bellah's new book. I was able to download a sizeable chunk of it free on my Kindle. It looks interesting and makes a lot of play with the idea of evolution. He does not cite Rappaport at all. In my Foreword to that book, I explained why I thought it would not appeal to the academic anthropologists of our day. Apparently the problem goes deeper than that.

It set me wondering at first whether we should be adding a third culture to CP Snow’s sciences and humanities. If so, how shall it be: social science, or religion?

That's one way of putting it. For me the issue is how to make a personal connection with impersonal society and religion in principle does that better, but not if it ignores what we know from science and art.

Comment by Kalman Applbaum on May 14, 2012 at 5:29am

“If philosophy and the sciences were born in religion, it is because religion itself began by serving as science and philosophy” (Elementary Forms [1995], p. 8)

Thanks for the reflections. It set me wondering at first whether we should be adding a third culture to CP Snow’s sciences and humanities. If so, how shall it be: social science, or religion?


This is only half a jest. Some of us have lately gravitated to the understanding that the solution to the push-me—pull-you paradox of “participant observation” (humanities/science, emic/etic, etc.) is what Geertz said was the watchword of religion—engagement. Pursuits such as medical or environmental anthropology seem to assert that we can often best study others by jumping in as would-be reformers and giving up the theoretical and ethical pretense of participation at-a-distance. In which case, we come with our politics ready in hand. In the US, politics these days is religion plain and simple (if science can be subject to religious censorship then of course politics, economy, and aesthetics, will be likewise subordinated).


(I still haven’t read Rappaport’s book. Seeing the title again I wonder how Robert Bellah’s latest book—Religion in Human Evolution—intends to cover the territory. Bellah seemed long ago to have begun endorsing “religious” renewal as a good basis for volunteerism and other social goods.)


Fear engendered by the unmitigated private property system as the source of gun violence, religious devotion, and possibly racism in the US? I can’t think of civilizational fear without being reminded of Asimov’s great story, “Nightfall” (1941). In much of the US today more permissive gun laws and increased sales of them accompanies deepening mistrust of government and, as a consequence, the further dismantling of what remains of the welfare state. (In Wisconsin where a vengeful college dropout governs, library burning also feels possible.) It’s like a greenhouse effect. The incidence of a black president at just the same time injects cosmological significance to the rumination.

Comment by Keith Hart on May 14, 2012 at 3:02am

Modern knowledge, as organized by the universities, falls into three broad classes (leaving aside the professional schools): the natural sciences, the social sciences and the humanities. This is to say that the academic division of labor in our day is concerned with nature, society and humanity, of which the first two are thought to be governed by objective laws, but knowledge of the last requires the exercise of subjectivity or critical judgment. Whereas nature and society may be known by means of impersonal disciplines, human experience is communicated between persons, between individual artists and their audiences. Nature and humanity are represented conventionally through science and art, but the best way of approaching society is moot, since social science is a recent (and, in my view, failed) attempt to bring the methods of the natural sciences to bear on a task that previously had fallen to religion. If science is the commitment to know the world objectively and art the means of expressing oneself subjectively, religion was and is a bridge between subject and object, a way of making meaningful connection between something inside oneself and the world outside.  For a time it seemed that science had driven religion from the government of modern societies, but the search is on now for new forms of religion capable of reconciling scientific laws with personal experience. Kant’s cosmopolitan moral politics offer one vision of the course such a religious renewal might take. The best statement of such an objective by an anthropologist that I know is the concluding chapter of Roy Rappaport's Ritual and Religion in the Making of Humanity (1999).

There is also the question of why the United States, considered by Marx (and many others) to be purest vehicle for modern capitalism is such a religious society, especially when contrasted with Europe. Nor is this just a matter of the religious right in the last decade, since around 80% of the population still believe in God and attend church, as opposed to around 10% of Europeans. There is a moment in Michael Moore's Bowling for Columbine, the movie he made about gun violence in the US, where he inserts a cartoon to explain the phenomenon and the answer he gives is race. Americans kill each other because of the history of black oppression. The town he grew up in, Flint Michigan, is notorious for its racial antagonism. But why do Canadians, who have as many guns, use them to kill animals, not people, one of his stronger points in the film? I would suggest it is because private property is mitigated by social democracy there.

The Americans are exposed to the full consequences of the private property system with very little to fall back on in the way of a welfare state. This is the main difference between them and the Canadians/Europeans. It is why they are much more religious than the others. Only God can assuage the fear provoked by their vulnerability to the market. This is imho the link to gun violence too.


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