Futile Confrontations Between Theists and Atheists

by Ludwik Kowalski, Ph.D.



Futile conflicts between theists and atheists, often amounting to "we are better than you" confrontations, are common, as one can verify by browsing the Internet. Those who promote such poisonous conflicts are usually neither scientists nor theologians. Is it desirable to end such confrontations? Is it possible to end them? If yes, then how? I have posed this question to many online discussion groups, and here are some of the comments I've received:

1. "I don't mind coexistence with religion, but religious people seriously need to practice religion in their bedrooms only. As soon as you theists cross over the line and try to interfere with my life through politics, law, and lifestyle, then you can go shove it up you know where and expect no mercy from me."

2. "Organized religions are often guilty of trying to convert atheists and non-believers; this is not good. Atheists, calling themselves intellectuals, are not better. They also often try to convert believers."

3. "The focus on belief or non-belief is counterproductive for both sides of the equation. The corrosive element to the rhetoric of some modern atheists is pure arrogance, matched only by that of some theists."

4. "I am opposed to peaceful coexistence [with theists]. One does not halt a boxing match for fear of losing" (1).

My purpose here is to address conceptual conflicts between theists and atheists, avoiding the word "religion." To discuss religion, one would have to address differences between religions, political exploitation of theism and atheism, and much more. Such important topics are certainly worth addressing, but not in a short essay.

Section 1 (As published in American Atheist, February, 2013)

In "Bridging Science and Religion: Why It Must Be Done," Robert John Russell says that the path toward a world without aggressive confrontations is in cooperation between theologians and scientists (2). I tend to disagree. Cooperation may or may not develop in the distant future; what should be done first is conceptual separation.

The first step toward mutual respect between theists and atheists should be the recognition that most people on earth are surrounded by material structure and by spiritual superstructure. People investigating these aspects of our environment are scientists and theologians.

Methods of validation of claims made by theologians are very different from those used by scientists. God is not a material entity, and attempts to refute God's existence by performing scientific experiments are not appropriate. The same is true for attempts to refute scientific claims, such as the age of the earth, on the basis of disagreements with holy books.

Theology is like mathematics, not science. Mathematicians start with axioms (initially accepted truths) and use logical derivation to justify consecutive claims, called theorems. Once proven, a theorem cannot be rejected, unless a logical error is found in the derivation. Science is very different. Here, claims are justified, in the final analysis, by experimental observations, not by pure logic. A scientific claim becomes valid after it is confirmed in reproducible experiments. Furthermore, scientific validations are always tentative; scientists know that future experiments might result in rejection, or partial rejection, of what has already been accepted. Scientific truth is not claimed to be eternal.

The methods of validation and refutation used by scientists and theologians are sufficiently different to justify separation rather than cooperation. Separation will allow theists and atheists to rethink and reformulate basic ideas and methodologies. Until this happens, scientists should not participate in debates about the spiritual environment, unless they happen to also be theologians. Likewise, theologians should not participate in debates about the material environment, unless they happen to also be scientists. Debates about ways to eliminate existing conflicts might last decades, if not centuries. They are likely to be more productive if conducted separately.

I am a scientist, not a theologian (3). As a university student in Poland from 1949 to 1957, I was an aggressive atheist and subsequently became a member of the communist party. I am now a theist, believing in God and attending a synagogue. Missing an earlier introduction to God, I am very different from other theists, and I describe my ideological evolution in my autobiography, which I've posted online (4). Writing it was a moral obligation, to my parents, and to millions of other victims of Stalinism. The victims are dead but I was definitely with them when I was writing. What can be a better confirmation that many of us live in two different environments, material and spiritual?

The idea that theism and science are two "non-overlapping magisteria" was formulated by Stephen Jay Gould. He wrote, "The net of science covers the empirical universe: what is it made of (fact) and why does it work this way (theory). The net of religion extends over questions of moral meaning and value. These two magisteria do not overlap, nor do they encompass all inquiry (consider, for starters, the magisterium of art and the meaning of beauty)" (5). Informal cooperation between the two camps will always exist; many scientists are also theologians and many theologians are also scientists. They will certainly know which methodology of validation is appropriate in each of the two environments, material and spiritual.

As I stated earlier, holy books contain pronouncements about the physical world. Such pronouncements are rooted in the incorrect beliefs of our ancestors, who lived when faith and science were not yet separate intellectual disciplines. The story of creation, the world being created in one week, for example, is no longer taken literally, even by many theologians. A formal unambiguous recognition of this, for example, by the Pontifical Academy of Sciences in the Vatican, would be a tremendously important step toward the elimination of futile debates. Another commenter online opined that "God means something more sophisticated than the old man in the sky, rewarding the good and punishing the bad like a cosmic Santa Claus. It is not what proselytizers tell us, or what tells terrorists to bomb buildings and trains." Yes, political abuse of religion is also one of the important issues to be subsequently addressed.

Commenting on relations between science and mathematics, one person wrote that "science would be a shadow of itself if not for the math, and math wouldn't be anywhere as significant if not for the science." Will theology also become a partner of science, as Russell expects? It is too early to speculate about this. One fact is undeniable: many professional theologians and scientists usually respect each other. And they know which methodology of validation is applicable in each field.

Section 2 (added on 9/13/2013, after the American Atheist article was published).

The NOMA approach would probably be accepted at once by scientists, as soon as theologians accept NOMA; most of them never attempted to actively criticize the spiritual environment of gods, souls and angels, except when attacked. But acceptance of NOMA by theologians is likely to encounter more difficulties. Why is it so? Because scientists are a uniform group; all of them accept the scientific method of studying our material surrounding. Theologians, on the other hand, do not share the same doctrine. Furthermore, most of them believe that changes in our material structue can result from what happens in our spiritual superstructure--prayers, divine interventions, etc.

Here is a typical prayer (page 57) recited at this morning's Yom Kippur service, in a Jewish reform temple: "You are our King, delivering us from the hands of oppressors, saving us from the fist of tyrants, doing wonders without number, marvels that pass our understanding. You give us our life; with Your help our people has survived all our oppressors. You did wonders for us in the land of Egypt, miracles and marvels in the land of Pharaoh. " Similar prayers can probably be found in most Christian, Muslim and other prayer books. How many theologians are ready to start saying that Biblical text should not be interpreted literally?

Several attempts to modify traditional Jewish theologies are described in (6). Most of them are still being debated. A famous theologian-reformer, Baruch Spinoza, excommunicated as a heretic by his contemporaries (in17th century Holland), wrote: "By God's direction I mean the fixed and unchanging order of Nature ... so it is the same thing whether we say that all things happen according to Nature's laws or that they are regulated by God's decree and direction. " Why was such a philosophical position considered heretical? Probably because it implied that God is not as omnipotent as described in the Bible.

Modern Reform Judaism is rooted in the nineteenth-century question-- "is the Torah history or legend? " (6) The German Rabbi Abraham Geiger asked: "How much longer can we continue this deceit ... presenting stories from the Bible as if they were actual historical happenings? " He was probably referring to the story of creation of the world in seven days, to the story of Jewish slaves in Egypt, the Golden Calf, etc. We value such stories because they represent beliefs of our ancestors.

Addressing Geiger, another German rabbi asked, "would you deny the Torah " ? The answer was simple-- "I do not deny the Torah. But ... all laws and all prayers that are unworthy or irrelevant should be eliminated [from our books]. " Why do I suspect that only a small fraction of contemporary theologians would be willing to follow such advice? Because biblical stories are intertwined with recommended rules of morality. God, according to most preachers, records all our transgressions, and punishes those who disobey--many Christians believe in hell and heaven; many Jews believe in exclusion and inclusion in the "world to come. " Do we have a more efficient method to impose desirable rules of social behavior on millions of uneducated people? I do not think so. The challenge facing progressive theologians is to make old doctrines compatible with NOMA. This will not be an easy task. But is it possible?

Section 3 (added on 9/17/2013)

Our prayer book (7) contains the following advice to believers : "Pray as if everything depended on God. Act as if everything depended on you. " Browsing the Internet I found the same advice in Polish, at:


The author of the above advice was either Saint Ignacio Loyola, as stated on one Polish website, or Saint Aralias Augustine, as stated on another. I am pleased to see statements made by Christian saints in our Jewish prayer book. I read two interpretations of the above advice to believers, one in our book and another on a Polish Catholic forum. According to our book:


God's Presence to suffuse our spirits,

God's will to prevail in our lives.

Prayer may not bring water to parched fields,

nor mend a broken bridge,

nor rebuilt a ruined city.

But prayer can water an arid soul,

mend a broken heart,

rebuilt a weakened will.

Water, fields, bridges and cities belong to our material structure. But arid souls, broken hearts and weakened wills belong to our spiritual superstructure. God helps us to be effective in the material surrounding by influencing us spiritually. We pray AS IF HE WERE ABLE to make changes in our material surrounding directly. Can I say that the advice attributed to Christian theologians--how to act and how to behave--is consistent with NOMA? Such questions should be answered by theologians, not by an amateur like myself.

Some people say that the term "non-overlapping," in the NOMA acronym, implies that certain topics, such as evolution and the age of our planet, should be studied only by scientists, while other topics, such as morality, instinct and emotions, should be studied only by theologians. That is not how I interpret this term. Our two environments, material and spiritual, belong to the same reality; all human beings should try to study this reality, and debate it, using language and logic.

The two environments do not overlap because methods of validation of claims are different, not because topics or logic are different. In the final analysis, scientists rely on empirical investigations while theologians rely on the authority of holy texts. But we are united by the commitment to exact definitions of words, when topics are debated. Unresolved conflicts in debates about God usually result from absence of agreements on what the word God stands for.

Section 4 (added on 11/27/2013)

What does it mean to conceptually understand something? According to Wikipedia, understanding "is a psychological process related to an abstract or physical object, such as a person, situation, or message whereby one is able to think about it and use concepts to deal adequately with that object." To understand something means to be able to predict what will happen to it under different conditions, and to solve associated problems.

The number of conditions influencing an outcome is practically unlimited. That is why our understanding is always partial. To understand different aspects of reality humans construct conceptual models, called theories. Predictions of solar eclipses, for example, are possible because we understand the solar system, using Newton's theory of universal gravitation.

Theories are abstract logical structures. Both scientists and theologians use logic. Do theories belong to the material structure of the world or do they belong to its superstructure? Abstract concepts used by scientists and engineers, such as force, energy and temperature, are not material objects. How do they differ from abstract concepts used by theologians, such as God, soul and sin? One difference is that scientific theories are quantitative while theological theories are qualitative. The most important difference, however, is in something else. It has to do with ways in which theories are validated. Scientific theories are accepted or rejected by observing and experimenting in our material world; theological theories, on the other hand, are accepted or rejected on the basis of intuition, and on the basis of logical consistency with holy books.

This is not surprising; scientific theories were invented to deal with our material world phenomena while theological theories were invented to deal with the spiritual superstructure of this world. Such superstructure does exist; most people in the world are believers. Conflicts between theists and atheists, and between different groups of theists, are also real, as illustrated in Section 1. Such conflicts are dangerous and all of us should think about effective ways to reduce their intensity.

Referring to the spiritual side of our existence Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz (8) wrote that it consists of "all things we relate to through our minds. This includes our thoughts and emotions, love, hate, and envy, the ability to read, to enjoy music, or to solve equation, to know that we exist, and relate to others. All of these are intangible--they cannot be touched or weighed." But they are certainly real. God has been part of human existence since prehistoric times. Some people say that God created humans in his image, others say the opposite--humans created God, and gods, in their own image. ...

Is the spiritual world real? It is in the same way that everything which exists is real. It cannot be touched, just as a scant or a magnetic field cannot be touched; it cannot be seen, just as the sound of a trumpet is invisible. Yet it can be perceived and measured, checked and defined by its own tools of perception and measurement."

P.S. (added on 11/29/2013)

What do concepts of "force" and "God" have in common? Each of them helps us to deal with visible reality. But neither a force nor God are visible objects. They are abstract concepts invented by human beings, to understand the world. Forces, according to Newton's second law, are responsible for accelerations of objects. A physics student is likely to know that a net force of 100 N, for example, acting on a 50 kg object, will always produce the acceleration of 2 m/s2. Validity of this prediction can be verified in a laboratory. Unobservable forces are causes of observed accelerations.

God, according to theologians, is the primary cause of everything that happens in the universe. Theological theories, described in holy books, such as the Jewish Torah, are said to be formulated by sages under divine inspiration. The concept of God's commandments was invented to deal with behavior of our ancestors. Individual believers were instructed to obey commandments. Such behavior was expected to produce better social life in the material world. This does not conflict with NOMA. Theological theories are usually intuitively accepted on the basis of authority of God and clergy. Such theories are not expected to be empirically tested.

The omniscient and omnipotent God is said to be able to cause miracles. He can, for example, change laws of nature. Under God's direct influence the acceleration, in the above illustration, could be either much smaller or much larger than 2 m/s2. Such miracles--direct divine interventions--are not consistent with the idea of non-overlapping magesteria.

Fear of God is probably not the only possible motivator for socially desirable behavior. Do we have an innate moral sense that helps us to identify good and evil? Can fear of legal punishments be more effective than fear of God? What else is worth promoting to minimize immorality, and to protect the world from threatening waves of mass murders? I wish I knew how to answer such questions.

P.P.S. (added on 12/5/2013)

In his 1999 book (9) Gould writes that the NOMA approach, to relationship between science and theolgy, is a possible compromize between two extremes. Here are his words: "Our minds tend to work by dichotomy--that is, by conceptualizing complex issues as 'either/or' pairs, dictating a choice of one extreme or the other, with no middle ground (or golden mean) available for any alternative resolution. ...

Thus, when we must make sense of the relationship between two disparate subjects (science and religion in this case)--especially when both seem to raise similar questions at the core of our most vital concerns about life and meaning--we assume that one of two extreme solutions must apply: either science and religion must battle to the death, with one victorious and the other defeated: or else they must represent the same quest and can therefore be fully and smoothly integrated into one grand synthesis."

Section 5 (added on 12/7/2013)

In an email message, received yesterday, a reader of my online autobiography wrote: " Would you mind talking a bit about your switch from atheism to theism? What events (internal or external) contributed to it, how your position has developed since then, etc.”?

What can I add? Subdividing people into two groups--believers and non-believers--is certainly an oversimplification. Each religious community thinks that their own theology is the best. Orthodox Jews, for example, would probably reject some of my interpretations of what is written in our common Torah. Do ideological differences also exist among Christian and Muslim believers? Probably yes. But my knowledge in this area is very superficial. One thing is undeniable, ideological dilemmas persist after one becomes a theist.

As I wrote in Section 1, accepting the NOMA attitude by one group of believers, such as Catholics, would be very significant. But would it lead to automatic acceptance of that attitude by Russian Orthodox Christians, by Buddists or by Sunni Muslims? Probably not. That is why I suspect that evolution toward the universal acceptance of NOMA will take at least several centuries.


Ludwik Kowalski is professor Emeritus at Montclair University. His evolution, from an active atheistic student in Poland, to a theist, is described in his on-line autobiography (see reference 4 below).


1) Collected Internet comments, http://pages.csam.montclair.edu/~kowalski/theo_sci.html

2) Robert John Russel, ‚"Bridging Science and Religion: Why it Must be Done‚"
at http://www.ctns.org/about_history.html

3) Ludwik Kowalski's publications: http://csam.montclair.edu/~kowalski/LK_publications.html

4) Ludwik Kowalski, "Diary of a Former Communist: Thoughts, Feelings, Reality‚"
at http://csam.montclair.edu/~kowalski/life/intro.html

5) Gould, S. J. (1997). "Nonoverlapping Magisteria." Natural History 106 (March): 16-22.
Also at www.stephenjaygould.org/library/gould_noma.html

6*) Barry L. Schwartz, "Judaism's Great Debates: Timeless Controversies from Abraham to Herzl, "
The Jewish Publication Society, Philadelphia, 2012 (Part 3, Modern Judaism).

7*) "Mishkan T'Filah: A Rform Sidur," CCAR Press, NY, 2007, page 47.
Published by Simon & Schuster, NewYork, 1999.

8*) Adin Steinsaltz, "Simple Words "
Published by Simon & Schuster, NewYork, 1999.

9*) Gould, S. J. (1999)."Rocks of Ages: Science and Religion in the Fullness of Life"
The Library of Contemorary Thought.Published by Ballantine Publishing Company Group.

Items: 6*, 7* 8* and 9* were added after my American Atheist article was published, in February 2013.