Science and Religion Incompatible? Just a Recycled Argument from the Soviet Union

Let’s start with a quote.

 Scientific atheists believed that their technological and scientific successes would obviously disprove the validity of religion because the two are fundamentally in opposition.

What if I were to tell you this comes from a scholar posting on his blog?  You’d probably say, ‘So what?  Everyone knows the Gnu atheists think religion and science are fundamentally opposed and the success of science has effectively disproved religion.”

Of course, if you read carefully, you’d notice that this person is talking in the past tense.  That’s odd.  Is this person trying to write some fictional historical account from the vantage of the future?

No, the sentence comes from a sociologist’s peer-reviewed paper that looks at atheist propaganda in the Soviet Union.   Here is the reference:

Froese, Paul.  2004. Forced Secularization in Soviet Russia: Why an Atheistic Monopoly Failed.   Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 43, 1, Mar, 35-50

I remember when people used to document examples where leaders in the ID movement were making claims/arguments that creationists had made many years before them.  The consensus was that this type of evidence showed a clear and distinct link between creationism and intelligent design.

If we are to be intellectually honest and consistent, then we should be able to use the same approach with the Gnu movement.  Are its leaders making claims/arguments that were made by other movements many years before them?  And as we can see, the argument that science opposes and defeats religion is not something invented by the Gnus.  Soviet atheists were making this same argument long before modern day Gnus were born.

Yet the similarities in thinking don’t stop there.  Let’s consider some more excerpts from this journal article too see if anything else sounds familiar.


Scientific atheists believed that their technological and scientific successes would obviously disprove the validity of religion because the two are fundamentally in opposition.  Official Soviet ideology stated that “religion exists where knowledge is lacking, religion is opposed to science” (Yaroslavsky 1934:48).  One can think of this as a strong albeit naïve version of secularization theory.

So one of the core, non-negotiable positions of the Gnu atheist movement – science and religion are opposed – is also an expression of old, “official Soviet ideology.”

Scientific atheists viewed any technology as evidence of atheism because it demonstrated that humans could work “miracles” that were not preformed by God.

 Another common argument among the Gnus.  For example, Gnus often argue since we rely on medical technology to cure diseases, and not prayer, such advances are somehow evidence of atheism.

 Similarly, scientific atheists thought that atheism was empirically proven because God remained unseen or because certain religious stories were scientifically inconceivable.   Following World War II, Soviet officials started a campaign to produce natural-scientific arguments against belief in God.  For instance, Soviet scientists placed holy water under a microscope to prove that it has no special properties and “the corpses of saints were exhumed to demonstrate that they too were subject to corruption” (Van den Bercken 1975:143).   The Museum of the History of Religion and Atheism also detailed the scientific impossibility of many Biblical stories; one exhibit explained that “the ark that Noah built could not have accommodated all the animals which then populated the earth” (Bourdeaux 1965:107).  And in one of the most famous examples, cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin proclaimed upon his return from the very first space flight in history that he did not see God in space.

 Natural-scientific arguments against belief in God are the bread-and-butter of Gnuism.  As just one of many examples, both Coyne and Dawkins argue that Jesus could not have been resurrected because it violates what we know from science and biology.  To add another, consider Dawkins’ argument that God’s existence is a scientific hypothesis and that the universe looks precisely like one where there is no God.

As these examples illustrate, scientific atheists did not recognize the non-empirical character of religious concepts and stories.   And in most cases, atheist proselytizers had little or no knowledge of actual religious doctrine.   In fact, a visitor to the Soviet Union in the 1960s reported that “no atheist ringleader has ever dared to allow those under him to study the Bible, even for the purpose of spying out the enemy’s territory in order to more easily conquer it”  (Bourdeaux 1965:125).   Under these conditions, atheist recruiters were largely ignorant of the non-empirical tenets of religious belief which led them to only attack the supernatural using empirical arguments.

Yet another similarity.  Today’s Gnus do a much better job reading the Bible and becoming familiar with Christian apologetics.  But, more often than not, Gnu understanding exists at a superficial level, as they prefer to attack straw men positions that deny some rather basic Christian theology (see here, for one example off the top of my head).  What’s new is that they have come up with a way to rationalize their ignorance – the so-called courtier’s reply.

So the Gnus are better prepared than their Soviet counterparts.  But the same core problem (and similarity) remains.

professional scientists realized that they had nothing really to say about religion.  While they were making rapid advancements in physics and chemistry, Soviet scientists rarely accepted the enticements of available funding and career promotion to work on the “science” of atheism.


Because atheism was supposed to be scientific, atheist promoters were wed to the use of science to prove atheism.   This led to difficulties as actual scientists avoided the topic of religion.  In the end, atheistic “science” became an ideology that avoided the scientific method altogether.  While scientific atheists may have initially discussed evidence for atheism, they soon fell into an ideological stance which did not allow for any actual discourse.

Yet another striking similarity.  Most working scientists do not support the Gnus.  In fact, most do indeed avoid the topic of religion.  This is precisely why Gnu activist Victor Stenger was attacking mainstream scientists recently (as a documented here). It’s why people like Coyne and Myers are often attacking mainstream scientific organizations for their positions on religion and science.

This similarity is also useful in helping to debunk a common gnu myth about scientists.  In their minds, the Gnus think scientists everywhere are eager to join their movement and help them destroy Christianity.  So why don’t they?

According to Stenger (from the above link):

 Most scientists prefer to stay out of any conflicts with religion. They don’t want to endanger their sources of research funding and generally just don’t want to be bothered.

Coyne echoes the same nonsense:

This disharmony is a dirty little secret in scientific circles. It is in our personal and professional interest to proclaim that science and religion are perfectly harmonious. After all, we want our grants funded by the government, and our schoolchildren exposed to real science instead of creationism. Liberal religious people have been important allies in our struggle against creationism, and it is not pleasant to alienate them by declaring how we feel. This is why, as a tactical matter, groups such as the National Academy of Sciences claim that religion and science do not conflict.

We can tell this is nonsense because no such threat to funding, or any other such problem, prevented the Soviet scientists from linking up with the Soviet atheists.  The fact is most working scientists have had no interest in promoting atheism for the simple reason that it has nothing to do with their science.  Thus, we can see the Gnu’s relationship with science is much like the Soviet atheists relationship with science.  They claim to speak for science, but it is just propaganda.  That’s why most scientists ignore their cause.

Soviet atheism admits no serious differences of opinion, no skepticism vis-à-vis the monocausal explanatory theory of historical materialism.  Each and every book repeats the old truths and is a variation on the same theme, a re-establishment of principles…the avoidance of confrontation with those who think differently, the fear of direct challenge, must surely indicate an unvoiced realization that the doctrine is not up to it. (van den Bercken 1989:146).

Again, this reminds me of modern day Gnu atheism. Yes, there are plenty of differences of opinion, but only as long as the topic is not atheism, Christianity, and science.  Once that is the topic, there are no serious differences of opinion and no skepticism vis-à-vis the monocausal explanatory theory of historical materialism.  Each and every book and blog posting repeats the old truths and is a variation on the same theme, a re-establishment of principles.  As for confrontation and dissent, I can’t help but notice how Dawkins refuses to debate Christian apologists and how Coyne/Myers heavily censor their blogs to strip away dissenters.

 In attempting to provide an alternative to religion, scientific atheists were unable to construct any clear or resounding message.  On the one hand, they hoped to demonstrate that science was opposed to religion.  But their scientific “proofs”, like showing that God did not live in the sky, misjudged the meaning and intent of religious explanations. On the other hand, they demanded an unquestioning faith in atheism without any real evidence for atheism.   The line between faith and science became blurred within the doctrine of scientific atheism which demanded a holy reverence for non-scientific ideas masquerading as science.

Another nice description of Gnu atheism.  I especially like the last sentence, as I have long been pointing out that Gnus aggressively promote non-scientific ideas masquerading as science.   There is the example of Richard Dawkins promoting the non-scientific idea that a religious upbringing is child abuse.  There is the example of Richard Dawkins and many others Gnu leaders promoting the idea that the existence of God is a scientific hypothesis.  There is the example of Victor Stenger promoting the god-of-gaps approach as part of science.  There are the examples of Jerry Coyne and Jason Rosenhouse attacking science in order to uphold their non-scientific belief that religion, on balance, is very harmful.

Summary:  It is a clear and simple fact that today’s Gnu atheist movement shows extensive similarity of thought with the atheist propagandists of the Soviet Union.  In fact, the similarities are so profound that one could reasonably argue we are dealing with the same thinking.  We can say for sure that many of the arguments are the same.  But what does this mean?

It is also a well known fact that the Soviet communists instituted a massive, authoritarian effort to secularize Russia that involved serious persecution and even death camps.  Would it be fair to say the Gnu atheists of today are reaching for the same thing?  I don’t think so.  But again, let’s not jettison intellectual consistency and intellectual honesty.  Back in the 1990s and 2000s, many people insisted that those in the ID movement were trying to set up a theocracy which would eventually round up atheists and homosexuals and put them in concentration camps.  If one truly believed that, then intellectual consistency and honestly would demand that we likewise believe Gnu atheists are trying to set up some atheistic, authoritarian system.  I, myself, always thought the notion that the ID movement was trying set up a theocracy was nonsense, so there is no inconsistency on my part when denying Gnu atheists are trying to set up an atheistic, authoritarian system.

But again, what does it mean?  The simple answer is that I am not sure.  I have to chew on this some more.   All I do know is that the similarities are there and I see no reason to ignore such facts.

This entry was posted in atheism, Jerry Coyne, New Atheism, Religion, Science and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Science and Religion Incompatible? Just a Recycled Argument from the Soviet Union

  1. mechanar says:

    very well written.

  2. Allallt says:

    Do you believe that the Soviet Union created these arguments?

  3. Isaac says:

    Communists were the first to use this particular toolbox of arguments that I know of. It’s not the kind of more philosophical atheist propaganda you get from, say, Nietzsche or Voltaire. Until fairly recently the community of pioneering scientists was mostly devoutly religious, and this was very much the case during the Scientific Revolution, the greatest-ever leap forward in scientific knowledge.

    There was never any real marriage of science and atheism until it became fashionable culturally. Science certainly got along fine up until then.

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