Essay Competition: Science vs Religion

Faith vs Fact 2Many of you, like me, are readers of Jerry Coyne’s Why Evolution is True website. Yesterday he posted a story called ‘Templeton-sponsored essay contest: Big bucks for telling stories about accommodationism‘. It detailed an essay competition offering large financial prizes for personal stories that show science and religion in harmony. Templeton, of course, is all about promoting religion in science, and they don’t much care how ethically dubious their methods are. Many scientists, including Coyne, refuse to accept money from the foundation on principle for this reason.

The competition is  asking for “creative nonfiction” stories to advance the Templeton’s dogma “… that science and religion can reinforce each other to allow a more nuanced, profound, and rewarding experience of our world and our place in it.” They continue:

One of the best ways to foster collective understanding is with a good story. Creative nonfiction–true stories, well told–allows for complexity, novelty, and revelation, and through compelling voice, suspense, character development, and well-chosen details has the potential to engage the widest audiences and change the way they know the world.

If you have a true story that you would like to tell about harmonies between science and religion—drawn from your personal life, your work, your experience, your studies—we want to help you do it.

My opinion is that “creative nonfiction” is a synonym for “lies.” The stories submitted may be based on true experiences, but whether they would stand up in court is something I personally consider doubtful.

The truth is that science and religion are not compatible. While there are, of course, many scientists who are religious to varying degrees, there is no place for religion in science itself – a fact Coyne himself demonstrated convincingly in his latest book, Faith vs Fact: Why Science and Religion are Incompatible.

In the comments of that post was the following exchange:Comments

A “Sokal” hoax refers to Alan Sokal, a physics professor who submitted a hoax article to an academic journal called Social Text called ‘Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity’ in 1996. As stated by Wikipedia:

The Sokal affair, also called the Sokal hoax, was a publishing hoax perpetrated by Alan Sokal, a physics professor at New York University and University College London. In 1996, Sokal submitted an article to Social Text, an academic journal of postmodern cultural studies. The submission was an experiment to test the journal’s intellectual rigor and, specifically, to investigate whether “a leading North American journal of cultural studies – whose editorial collective includes such luminaries as Fredric Jameson and Andrew Ross – [would] publish an article liberally salted with nonsense if (a) it sounded good and (b) it flattered the editors’ ideological preconceptions”.

The article, “Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity”, was published in the Social Text spring/summer 1996 “Science Wars” issue. It proposed that quantum gravity is a social and linguistic construct. At that time, the journal did not practice academic peer review and it did not submit the article for outside expert review by a physicist. On the day of its publication in May 1996, Sokal revealed in Lingua Franca that the article was a hoax, identifying it as “a pastiche of left-wing cant, fawning references, grandiose quotations, and outright nonsense … structured around the silliest quotations [by postmodernist academics] he could find about mathematics and physics.”

The hoax sparked a debate about the scholarly merit of humanistic commentary about the physical sciences; the influence of postmodern philosophy on social disciplines in general; academic ethics, including whether Sokal was wrong to deceive the editors and readers of Social Text; and whether Social Text had exercised appropriate intellectual rigor.

Anyway, I thought commenters alexander and paul collier had a good idea, so here’s the competition:

There are two categories, and you can enter both if you wish.

1. Sokal-type Essay
Write an essay of an experience that led to a “personal” epiphany of the “undeniable” link between religion and science.

2. Anti-Accommodationist Essay
Write an essay expressing clear and concise arguments to use in opposition to the proposition that religion and science are compatible.

Entries can be up to 1500 words. There is no minimum word limit.

Closing Date for Entries
Sunday 2 October. Best entries will be posted soon after.

Submission of entries includes a skill test: go to the Why Evolution is True website, find the link to “Jerry Coyne Research Interests” and click on it to locate his e-mail address. Submit your essay via that address, making sure it’s clear that your e-mail/essay is an entry to the Heather’s Homilies competition. Jerry will forward your entry onto me. No, this isn’t a joke – he’s doing me a favour so I don’t have to tell everyone my e-mail address.

There are no prizes except the pleasure of seeing your essay published on Heather’s Homilies. (No, not even anywhere near as good as Huffington Post!)

33 Responses to “Essay Competition: Science vs Religion”

  1. j.a.m. says:

    Science and “religion” (do you mean religion or faith or theology?) are incompatible in the same sense that math and poetry are incompatible.

    Or, for that matter, the sense that surfing and salami are incompatible.

    • All three – religion, faith, and theology. I don’t see any as compatible with science. For example, scientists who are religious don’t rely on God to interfere in their experiments. They assume there will be no such interference. They rely on facts and data to support their conclusions and don’t ask others to have faith that the results are what they say they are.

      As you know, there are those that refuse to accept science because their religion says something different such as those who don’t accept the theory of evolution.

      • j.a.m. says:

        There are mathematicians who love poetry but don’t use it to solve equations. Conversely, there are poets who love math but few if any try to transform equations into iambic verse. Still, why would anyone ever say these two pursuits are incompatible? They fulfill very different needs.

        Yes, there are those who refuse to accept science because their religion says something different. They mistakenly think the two are incompatible. It’s ironic that you take the same position. Now, why would you agree with those who don’t accept the theory of evolution?

        • Alexander Hellemans says:

          To j.a.m: Science and religion are incompatible because science is not a belief system, while religion is. All the tenets of a religion are based on scriptures and there is no proof or experience that these tenets are true, while science only accepts its tenets because they are based on experience, that is experiments that can be repeated. If at one point the experiments prove to be wrong, scientists change/correct their views without shedding tears. If you disagree with those who don’t agree with evolution, you disagree because most of them who are against evolution use the wrong scientific arguments, not verified by scientific observation, and not because they are Scientologists or evangelical fundamentalists.

        • Ben Goren says:

          Still, why would anyone ever say these two pursuits are incompatible? They fulfill very different needs.

          Both science and religion are attempts at understanding what the Universe is and how it functions. Both propose answers with varying degrees of confidence. Whatever you might want to think of as “needs” to be “met,” they’re both in the exact same business.

          The methods used to attain answers are fundamentally and radically incompatible — as are, it should come as no surprise, the answers.

          It should also be noted that only one of the two methods has demonstrated any degree of practical success, unless you wish to consider the vast accumulation of material wealth and sociopolitical power that the priests have achieved a practical success.



          • j.a.m. says:

            @ben: Most religions have as their object wisdom, understanding, and truth, whereas science seeks merely to explain and predict natural phenomena. Science as such is utterly indifferent to meaning or understanding, let along wisdom, and it prefers cold data to living truth. That is to take nothing away from the marvels and benefits of modern science, but it is hardly the case that science is in the same “business” or the same league as philosophy and religion.

            Or to assess your claim empirically: Of the umpteen zillion pages of religious, theological and spiritual discourse produced over the past twenty or so centuries, roughly what proportion would you say is primarily and fundamentally concerned with the science business — i.e., explaining natural phenomena?

          • Ben Goren says:


            Science as such is utterly indifferent to meaning or understanding, let along wisdom, and it prefers cold data to living truth.

            This is a most uncalled-for libel against science and scientists, and a Goebbels-style twisted caricature of reality far too often repeatedly lobbed by religious propagandists. Perhaps you know nothing whatsoever about science and don’t know any scientists, which would reasonably explain how you could find such nonsense plausible — but that still wouldn’t excuse your furtherance of such a vicious calumny.

            roughly what proportion would you say is primarily and fundamentally concerned with the science business — i.e., explaining natural phenomena?

            If by, “natural phenomena,” we are to include humans and our interactions; the rest of life on the planet, including its nature and origins and history; and the fundamental nature of reality itself…then, clearly, 100%. Even the relatively few examples that concern themselves primarily with divine realms and their denizens, such is only ever considered in the context of humans and how we interact with them.

            And, again: it should at this point be obvious just how spectacularly worng the theologians are on such points. There is no conceivable relevance to modern sociology to be found in an ancient faery tale about an enchanted garden with talking animals and an angry wizard — yet overwhelming numbers of theologians would assure you that that’s exactly the proper explanation for all our woes. You’d have to search long and hard to find a theologian whose writings don’t carry great significance for what happens after death, and yet there’s no more reason to take after-death realms any more seriously than Oz, Neverland, and Tatooine. And every theological musing, by very definition, is concerned with one or more gods…yet, centuries before the Caesars, Epicurus had already laid bare the overwhelming evidential case against the existence of powerful moral agents of any form operating in the realm of human affairs.

            When the whole point of theology is the study of entities of overwhelming significance who so plainly don’t even exist in the first place…should it be any surprise that all its other conclusions about reality are just as bizarre?



          • j.a.m.: Because you’re a regular commenter, and as this competition isn’t really designed for people with your background, if you want to submit an essay on why you think religion and science ARE compatible, go ahead. If it’s well written/argued, I’ll publish it along with the rest.

        • Is “living truth” different from “truth”? Is it not true that DNA is a double helix? That water is two parts oxygen and one part hydrogen? Science is not a method for discerning the truth from a collection of hypotheses?

          If one of these magisteria are about truth it’s science, not religion. Religion is about feelings, and although your type likes to confect rationalizations for why feelings can count as reliable knowledge, when the rubber meets the road you’ll flinch. Would you not appeal a conviction and death sentence given you if you were on trial for murder, and if you were innocent, and if the reason you were convicted and sentenced to death was that someone felt you were guilty?

        • Epistemology.

          Science is about requiring objective verification before accepting that something is true. Religion is about trying to invent rationalizations for why your wishful thinking doesn’t need to be objectively verified in order for you to say it’s true.

          One person might be both a scientist and religious, but not at the same time.

        • Jenny Haniver says:

          Why is it that when I read this post, this came to mind:

          And hence no force, however great
          can stretch a cord, however fine
          into a horizontal line
          that shall be absolutely straight.

          Those tetrameters are almost verbatim the words of William Whewell:

          “Hence no force, however great, can stretch a cord, however fine, into a horizontal line which is accurately straight”.

          All I did was preface the “And”, then slightly, but not materially, alter the last clause and, there are four nice tetrameters describing a mathematical principle.

          • Could you please be more explicit about how that is supposed to refute our claim that religion and science are non-compatible epistemologies?

          • Sorry. I thought this comment was from j. a. m.
            (Maybe it’s because it’s very late here, but I could still use some explanation.)

          • Jenny Haniver says:

            Reply to Musical Beef: If you’re referring to my commen (Jenny Haniver)t, sorry, I should have quoted the specific portion of j.a.m.’s comment that I was referring to (and I should have written “comment” instead of “post”), to wit: “There are mathematicians who love poetry but don’t use it to solve equations. Conversely, there are poets who love math but few if any try to transform equations into iambic verse.” True, it was off-topic re science and faith, but I wanted to challenge that statement. I was simply trying to demonstrate that poetry and science aren’t inherently incompatible, even when it comes to iambic verse. And the example I gave rhymes, too: ABBA. Sadly, I’m not much good at math or poetry – but I think that there’s a lot more math at work in well-constructed poetry than poets are aware of (but this may be veering into woo), and when I behold a well-constructed equation, I see pure poetry. Whewell wasn’t attempting to be poetic – he fell off the rails right after penning those lines but, to me, those lines are pure poetry and good math. In times past, scientists sometimes wrote serious treatises in verse, Fracastorius for one, wrote a treatise on syphilis in verse. I read that in the late 17th century science was often expressed in verse, and that Lewis Carroll experimented with mathematical logic to write poetry. By no means was I attempting to reconcile science with faith. Lordy, no. Also, ever since I first came across Whewell’s quote, I found it so charming that I love sharing it, so shoehorned it in where, perhaps, I shouldn’t have.

          • Alexander Hellemans says:

            Astronauts in the International Space Station can do it (because of the absence of gravity). And at Whewell’s time there was enough physics available to predict this.

  2. Max Wallace says:

    Re: the Templeton Prize, this is from my 2007 book The Purple Economy at p.168:
    In 1995 Professor Paul Davies, a physicist, was rewarded with the US Templeton Prize of $1M. The Templeton Prize is sponsored by the Canyon Institute for Advanced Studies. It describes itself as a ‘Christian interdisciplinary research center.’ It would be helpful in Professor Davies could explain just exactly how matter transmogrifies into supernatural phenomena. That WOULD be worth a million dollars. On his personal website, there is a photograph of Professor Davies accepting his cheque from the Prince of Wales in London. Science meets constitutional monarchy.

    • Not quite sure what to say to this! I suspect “FFS” might be the best response … How can you stand up and call yourself a physicist and accept money from Templeton? The only justification I can come up with is desperately needing the money for life-saving surgery or something similar.

      I’m not as much against Prince Charles as most, but his susceptibility to woo makes him look like a complete twat.

    • Alexander Hellemans says:

      And Martin Rees, who was until recently Britain’s Astronomer Royal, also accepted a Templeton price. Rees is an atheist, but I personally, as did Richard Dawkins, think Rees was wrong. He would have done a favor to science if he had rejected it.

  3. Jenny Haniver says:

    That’s is a wickedly delightful idea, but why not go full-throttle Sokal and also send ’em to The Templeton competition. If enough people did that, it might really gum up the works — they might waste a lot of time (and money) trying to figure out what was bullshit or not, especially since all of it is really bullshit — just which kind of bullshit? Just what is gen-u-ine bullshit and what is inauthentic bullshit?* Heck, one might actually win the prize! Though a damned good prize and enough of a prize it would be to be published on your website. Wish I had the wherewithal to dash one off, but I don’t, so I’ll just sit back, await the results and enjoy.
    *There’s a little book, a disquisition titled On Bullshit, written by an academic . Think I’ll have to re-read it to refresh my recollection; he might have the answer to my question.

    • I love the idea of people submitting Sokal-type entries to the genuine competition but it would be ethically dubious to endorse that, hence this move. I’d like to do a fake entry myself but it’d make me a hypocrite so I won’t. That doesn’t mean I won’t enjoy it if someone else does. 😀

      • Alexander Hellemans says:

        Jerry’s coauthor Maarten Boudry did a similar hoax by submitting a nonsense theology (well, more nonsense than current theology) paper to a theological conference or workshop in the Netherlands, which was accepted, causing fiercely glowing red faces among the theologians that would have shown the existence of non-intelligent life on a planet circling the sun to observers on distant planets.

  4. Jenny Haniver says:

    I find your framing of the matter poses an interesting ethical question, especially when considering bullshit. I do understand your scruples (how Catholic of me to use that term). Personally, I love such spoofing – ever since I read Diderot’s La Religeuse when I was about eleven. I couldn’t figure out whether it was true or not – it was written to hoodwink the reader (an elaborate satire to expose corruption in convents and corrupt priests if I recall correctly), and apparently at least some people fell for it. One must draw the line somewhere – but where? When does what’s intended to be just a spoof cross the line? Can a spoof or a satire be a legitimate, perhaps even necessary, way to critique something if it directly affects the spoofed or satirized? I’m in a quandary and will have to sleep on it. No wonder you call your site “Heather’s Homilies, this is the essence of the homiletic. If my suggestion is unethical, then I have sinned in thought, though not in deed in this case. Mea culpa but there’s just something in me that loves that kind of foolery. Must be hard-wired.

    • I guess the reason I wouldn’t do it in this particular case is that there’s a cash prize – I would see it as making money by lying. I do agree that this kind of spoofing, satire etc are excellent ways to expose bad thinking though, and, as I said, I do love it when other people do it.

      It’s just that I feel like I can’t criticize people for taking money from Templeton if I then do something in an attempt to get some of it myself.

  5. Ben Goren says:

    Religious faith is the highly-touted virtue which provides the foundation upon which all faith traditions are laid. In science, faith is the one-and-only unforgivable sin. The two approaches to understanding reality are no more mutually compatible than haruspicy and an insurance company’s actuarial tables.

    …all else is commentary….



  6. Coel says:

    Here’s my essay, though it’s a bit short for an essay, consisting of only two quotes:

    Feynman on science: “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself—and you are the easiest person to fool.”

    The apostle “John” on faith: “Jesus saith unto him, Thomas, because thou hast seen me, thou hast believed: blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed.”

  7. Will you be submitting the winning Sokal-type essay to the Templeton contest?

    • No. People are free to do that themselves if they want to – I’m happy for you to submit the same entry to Heather’s Homilies and Templeton. However, their deadline is after mine so there’s an outside chance of letting the cat out of the bag early if someone from Templeton reads this site. Also, I don’t think they have a word limit, so there’s more scope in the Templeton competition.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *