Friday, March 26, 2010

Skinner on Religion

B.F. Skinner, the father of Radical Behaviorism, is still a polarizing figure in some circles in the field of psychology. As the years pass, however, more people keep returning to the ideas of this consummate scientist. This article, published in 1987 in Free Inquiry, a few years before his death, is about the interaction of science and religion in Skinner’s own life. We at SM feel that it reflects some of our own values and goals in keeping this blog.

What Religion Means to Me

B. F. Skinner

I grew up in a moderately religious culture. For many years I went to a Presbyterian Sunday school, where a sympathetic and liberal teacher took six of us boys through lessons supplied by the church, most of them, as I remember it, on the Pentateuch. When I was in high school, a watch I had lost was returned to me in what seemed a miraculous way, and I thought God had spoken to me. I soon lost my faith, however, though I was rather troubled about it for a number of years. In college I attended compulsory morning Chapel, where our professors took turns reading passages from the Bible, especially the parables. Possibly that explains why, at eighty-two, I lead a kind of religious life.

Every day I take communion--not in a church with God but with myself in a Thoreauvian community of one. I do so for forty minutes while walking to my office. At one time I carried a pocket edition of Shakespeare's sonnets and memorized some of them as I walked. Occasionally I still recite one to myself, always astonished at how hard they are to remember. Usually, as I walk, I put the business of the day into some kind of order. I commune with myself again in the afternoon while listening to music-the four Bs (Bach,Beethoven, Brahms, and Bruckner), Mahler, Wagner--in a word, the Romantics. I do not read while listening, but I think about my work; and I always have a notebook at hand, because that is when fresh ideas most often make their appearance. When I am at my desk I practice a kind of Zen, as I understand it, putting myself into the best possible condition for saying things. Writing is a process of discovery. The paper I complete has almost no resemblance to the paper I start to write. I learn what I have to say.

Science, not religion, has taught me my most useful values, among them intellectual honesty. It is better to go without answers than to accept those that merely resolve puzzlement. I like Bertrand Russell's reply to Pascal's wager. Pascal argued that the consequences of believing in God were so immense that only a fool would not believe; but, said Russell, suppose God values intellectual honesty above all else and that he has given us shoddy evidence of His existence and is planning to damn to hell all those who believe in Him only for the sake of the glittering prizes.

Like many people, I wonder about things. How did the world begin? Unfortunately, we are not in a very good position to say. We live on one of the smaller planets of a small sun in one of the smaller of millions of galaxies, and it is remarkable that we have made as much sense of the available facts as we have. We have yet to find many answers, but what we have found is more credible than the hypothesis that the world is the handiwork of a creator. How did the creator begin? How did living things come into existence? We are on better ground in answering that question. Current molecular theories of the origin of life seem to me more plausible than any of those said to have been revealed to us by a god.

Scientists may someday construct groups of molecules that will reproduce themselves; and, if the molecules do so after undergoing variation, they could evolve into living things. What is man? Here, closer to my own field, I am less likely to agree with scholarly or scientific accounts. I believe the human species is distinguished by one thing: through an extraordinary step in evolution, its vocal musculature came under operant control. How that led to language, self-observation, and self-management is too long a story to be told here, and it is not a fully satisfying answer; but I think it is better than saying that man was created in the image of a creating god. I often wish I could pray. I want to help people, especially those I love. When I myself cannot help, I wish it were possible to call upon someone who could. As a child I called upon my parents, but I no longer believe that I can call upon a god as father (or mother). I often wish I could say thank you for good fortune, as I was taught to do as a child; but I do not believe that good fortune is a sign of grace. What happens, happens, and we should accept it, no matter how inscrutable the reasons (Nor do I curse God or ask God to curse others for me when I have suffered.) I marvel at the intricacy of nature. I look at a tall tree and try to imagine how one cell at the tip of the topmost leaf could have found its way there. I see the orioles in our garden returning each spring from a round trip of thousands of miles and wonder how it is possible. Nature is marvelous but not, I think, miraculous. We began to learn more about it as soon as we stopped regarding it as the work of a god.

Religious faiths have been responsible for beautiful architecture, music, painting, sculpture, prose, and poetry. They have held people together in durable communities. At times they have helped people behave well toward one another and manage their own lives more successfully. But the claimed power to intervene in supernatural rewards and punishments is the kind of power that corrupts, and it is no accident that religion today is so often associated with terrorism and repression. Even in relatively peaceful America, religious organizations are trying to suppress knowledge in our schools, encourage the birth of unwanted children, impose their beliefs upon others through political action, and in many other ways interfere in peaceful, informed living. I accept the fact that like all living things I shall soon cease to exist. For a time, some of the genes I have carried will be replicated in my children, and something of me will survive in the books I have written and in the help t have given other people Death does not trouble me. I have no fear of supernatural punishments, of course nor could I enjoy an eternal life in which there would be nothing left for me to do, the task of living having been accomplished.
FREE Inquiry
Spring I987


  1. wonderful words from a great scientist, humanist and naturalist...

    thank you for posting

  2. I have carried around a tattered copy of this article for 20 + years, so happy to find someone who took the time to post it online. Thank you! This essay seems to resonate more and more as the years go by.

  3. As a young atheist trying to make sense of the world..This helps. :)


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