Once Again, Science Explains Religion
by Massimo Pigliucci
The following article is from Free Inquiry magazine, Volume
That science and religion have constantly been at odds is a fact that only
certain politically correct revisionists seek to deny. This does not mean that
there is a necessary conflict between the two, because science simply cannot
address all of the statements and assumptions that go into religious
pronouncements-not to mention that faith is by definition beyond any rational
However, science can show that some specific statements found in religious
texts are in fact false.1 This has happened many a time: Copernicus
swept away the Catholic (actually, Aristotelian) doctrine of the Earth as the
center of the universe. Both indirect observations and photographs from space
have shown that the Bible was wrong in implying that the Earth is flat.
A more recent and intriguing example comes from research conducted by an
eclectic group of scientists comprising archeologist John Hale, geologist Jelle
De Boer, chemist Jeff Chanton, and toxicologist Rick Spiller. In an article
recently published in Scientific American (August 2003), they detail how they
came to solve the mystery of the famous ancient Greek "oracle" of Delphi. As
described by ancient historians and commentators, including Plato and Cicero,
the priestess of Delphi entered trances induced by the god Apollo, who spoke
through her (often in rather arcane terms) to those who had consulted the oracle
for guidance before they took action on some proposed plan. We have very
detailed eyewitness testimony of how the proceedings went, for example, from the
hand of Plutarch (46-120 c.e.). A piece of Athenian pottery dating from 440
b.c.e. depicts the priestess of Delphi in action.
This is all superstition and legend, or so went the official scientific
explanation until very recently. The French-English classicist Adolphe Paul Oppˇ
"debunked" the Delphi myth at the beginning of the twentieth century, arguing
that no known geological phenomenon could explain the details reported by
Plutarch, and so modern science would be much wiser if it completely dismissed
But Plutarch was to be vindicated by Hale and his team, who over a period of
several years found not only that the precise location of the oracle's chamber
coincides with the crossing of two underground geological faults, but that this
unusual configuration-coupled with the particular makeup of the porous rocks
under the temple-produces a mix of ethane, ethylene, and methane that sometimes
invades what is thought to be the oracle's small chamber. These gases are known
to affect human beings by inducing a trancelike state of trance and
hallucinations, as well as occasionally causing violent reactions and death-just
as Plutarch had said long ago.
Chalk up one for a naturalistic interpretation of the world, and one against
religious superstition. And yet, Hale and collaborators conclude their
Scientific American article with a series of curious sentences that are worth
Two thousand years ago Plutarch was interested in reconciling religion and
science. . . . Plutarch's careful observations and reporting of data about the
gaseous emissions at Delphi show that the ancients did not try to exclude
scientific inquiry from religious understanding. The primary lesson we took from
our Delphic oracle project is not the well-worn message that modern science can
elucidate ancient curiosities. Perhaps more important is how much we have to
gain if we approach problems with the same broad-minded and interdisciplinary
attitude that the Greeks themselves displayed.
Now, I am certainly all in favor of "broad-minded interdisciplinary"
attitudes. But it seems to me that the "well-worn message" that modern science
can debunk ancient superstition is in fact the moral of the story and that
scientists should not shy away from this conclusion, if and when it is
substantiated by facts.
If Hale and coworkers felt compelled to end their fascinating article with
such a whimpering remark about the debunking of a religious myth nobody actually
believes in anymore, one can only imagine the lengths they would have gone to in
order to save religion from science if they had discovered, say, how Moses
parted the waters of the Red Sea, or how Jesus multiplied the loaves and fishes.
Why is it that we cannot face the simple truth? Religion is at best
unsubstantiated superstition. Whenever it comes close enough to reality that its
claims can be investigated by science, they invariably end up falsified.
Religion's record as truth-revealing is abysmal, and it is getting worse every
year, thanks in part to people like Plutarch, as well as to Hale and his
1. As I have argued, for example, in "A Case against God: Science and the
Falsifiability Question in Theology," Skeptic 6, no. 2 (1998): 66-73.
Massimo Pigliucci is a professor of evolutionary biology at the University of
Tennessee. His latest book is Denying Evolution: Creationism, Scientism, and
the Nature of Science (Sinauer, 2002). Many of his ramblings can be found at