Skeptics and True Believers

In 1996, physics professor Chet Raymo joined several college students in observing the passing of the comet Hyakutake as it burned through the night skies. Noting his students’ simultaneous awe at and desire to learn about the phenomenon, Raymo was inspired to propose that our spiritual wonder should be based upon our knowledge of science.

In SKEPTICS AND TRUE BELIEVERS: THE EXHILARATING CONNECTION BETWEEN SCIENCE AND RELIGION Raymo points out that Americans know much more about ESP, horoscopes, and the Loch Ness monster than they do about the Human Genome Project, DNA replication, or cellular automata. Raymo details scientific discoveries that inspire him personally to a sense of “religious” wonder, and discusses critiques of hard science; astrology; prayer; evolution; psuedoscience; the popularity of angels; the academic trend towards evaluating science in light of its impact on society; and alien abduction lore as a present-day manifestation of the Medieval belief in witches.

While Raymo’s celebration of scientific knowledge is engaging, his fusion of science and faith can occur only with a complete rejection of traditional religious faiths. His argument that believing should be based upon knowing— that religion should be a response to an understanding of DNA replication or particle physics— is marred by his evident contempt for traditional religious beliefs. Raymo argues continually that the traditional Christian God and Christian faiths based on Scripture are merely comforting myths (particularly Roman Catholicism and fundamentalist Christianity). His evident contempt for the beliefs, if not the believers— as when he writes mockingly of hospital nuns “reduced to prayer” during the first outbreak of the Ebola virus— jars in light of his insistence that he is a typical open-minded, tolerant scientist. Readers misled by the book’s title may be disappointed by Raymo’s glib dismissal of Judeo-Christian traditions.