frank_wilczek's picture
Physicist, MIT; Recipient, 2004 Nobel Prize in Physics; Author, Fundamentals
The Science Formerly Known as Religion

I was an earnest student in Catechism class. The climax of our early training, as thirteen year-olds, was an intense retreat in preparation for the sacrament of Confirmation. Even now I vividly remember the rapture of belief, the glow everyday events acquired when I felt that they reflected a grand scheme of the universe, in which I had a personal place. Soon afterward, though, came disillusionment. As I learned more about science, some of the concepts and explanations in the ancient sacred texts came to seem clearly wrong; and as I learned more about history and how it is recorded, some of the stories in those texts came to seem very doubtful.

What I found most disillusioning, however, was not that the sacred texts contained errors, but that they suffered by comparison. Compared to what I was learning in science, they offered few truly surprising and powerful insights. Where was there a vision to rival the concepts of infinite space, of vast expanses of time, of distant stars that rivaled and surpassed our Sun? Or of hidden forces and new, invisible forms of "light"? Or of tremendous energies that humans could, by understanding natural processes, learn to liberate and control? I came to think that if God exists, He (or She, or They, or It ) did a much more impressive job revealing Himself in the world than in the old books; and that the power of faith and prayer is elusive and unreliable, compared to the everyday miracles of medicine and technology.

For many years, like some of my colleagues and some recent bestselling authors, I thought that active, aggressive debunking might be in order. I've changed my mind. One factor was my study of intellectual history. Many of my greatest heros in physics, including Galileo, Newton, Faraday, Maxwell, and Planck, were deeply religious people. They truly believed that what they were doing, in their scientific studies, was discovering the mind of God. Many of Bach's and Mozart's most awesome productions are religiously inspired. Saint Augustine's writings display one of the most impressive intellects ever. And so on. Can you imagine hectoring this group? And what would be the point? Did their religious beliefs make them stupid, or stifle their creativity?

Also, debunking hasn't worked very well. David Hume already set out the main arguments for religious skepticism in the early eighteenth century. Bertrand Russell and many others have augmented them since. Textual criticism reduces fundamentalism to absurdity. Modern molecular biology, rooted in physics and chemistry, demonstrates that life is a natural process; Darwinian evolution illuminates its natural origin. These insights have been highly publicized for many decades, yet religious doctrines that contradict some or all of them have not merely survived, but prospered.

Why? Part of the answer is social. People tend to stay with the religion of their birth, for the same sorts of reasons that they stay loyal to their clan, or their country.

But beyond that, religion addresses some deep concerns that science does not yet, for most people, touch. The human yearning for meaningful understanding, our fear of death — these deep motivations are not going to vanish. 

Understanding, of course, is what science is all about. Many people imagine, however, that scientific understanding is dry and mundane, with no scope for wonder and amazement. That is simply ignorant. Looking for wonder and amazement? Try some quantum theory!

Beyond understanding inter-connected facts, people want to discover their significance or meaning. Neuroscientists are beginning to map human motivations and drives at the molecular level. As this work advances, we will attain a deeper understanding of the meaning of meaning. Freud's theories had enormous impact, not because they are correct, but because they "explained" why people feel and act as they do. Correct and powerful theories that address these issues are sure to have much greater impact.

Meanwhile, medical science is taking a deep look at aging. Within the next century, it may be possible for people to prolong youth and good health for many years — perhaps indefinitely. This would, of course, profoundly change our relationship with death. So to me the important challenge is not to debunk religion, but to address its issues in better ways.