Science: not just another religion

“Isn’t science just another religion?”

This question is typically levelled at a rationalist by a theist in an attempt to reduce the empirical to the same level of subjectivity as the theist’s belief .

The short answer is “No.”
A slightly longer answer follows.

In A Devil’s Chaplain, and again in the “Tanner Lectures on Human Values” delivered at Harvard in 2003, Richard Dawkins characterizes the origins of information as a hierarchy of five sources: Evidence, Tradition, Authority, Faith, and Revelation. A comparison of the properties of each source shows that science and religion do not occupy the same intellectual turf at all.

These information sources are hierarchical because, as one moves down the list, the source becomes less and less objective and testable. The less objective and testable information becomes, the further away it travels from what we can reasonably call “knowledge.”

Dawkins describes science’s reliance on Evidence this way:

Scientists believe X because we have seen evidence for it. Philosophers may turn this around: the X hypothesis has withstood strenuous attempts to falsify it. But I am not concerned with such refinements. It still counts as evidence, even if technically all our beliefs are on probation. Nor shall I lose any time on fashionable claims that science is just the white, Western, patriarchal view of truth. Science works. That is why when you go to an international conference on cultural relativism you go by Boeing 747 rather than by magic carpet.

And what evidence lies at the basis of religious belief? There isn’t any, Dawkins writes, unless one counts as “evidence” the accounts of miracles which “support” the holy stories of religions around the world. Proof by evidence requires more than anecdotes. The “miracles” attributed to the waters of Lourdes have been shown to fall within normal statistical probabilities. In fact, comparing the incidence of miraculous cures after visiting Lourdes to the rate of spontaneous remission among sufferers who have never visited Lourdes shows that you have a better chance of being cured if you stay away than if you go.

Tradition is not very prominent in science, but it is a major feature of religion. Why is it, Dawkins asks, that religious “truths” group themselves geographically? Why should the children of Muslims in Saudi Arabia grow up to believe different “truths” than the children of Pentecostals in Alabama, or of Hindus in Bangalore? This regionalism is absent in science: “Confronted with the same strong evidence, an Indian scientist, an American scientist, and a Japanese scientist will come to the same conclusion.”

Authority, sacred texts and the priestly castes which interpret them, is central to most religions, including all of the major monotheistic religions of the West. The Old and New Testaments and the Koran are promoted and explained by rabbis, priests, ministers, and imams. The Catholic doctrine of “papal infallibility” and the many deficiencies of dogma that can lead to death sentences in strict Muslim cultures are just the most spectacular examples of the power of religious authority.

Dawkins, with characteristic scorn, illustrates the incompatibility of science and the religious version of authority:

But just imagine if science worked in the same way: “On the Origin of Species is the inspired word of the Prophet Darwin. No word of it can possibly be mistaken. All Darwinian children must learn to recite it by heart, nodding their little heads backward and forward as they do so.” Just imagine if biologists, instead of going out into the field and doing research on seagulls or antelopes or dandelions, spent their time locked in argument about exactly what Darwin meant in chapter 6, line 32. Or, worse, exactly what some learned exegete meant in his interpretation of Darwin’s inspired words.

While there is respect for authority in science, it is based on evidence, and it is not immutable. Experimental data is, sensibly, first interpreted in terms of the current theory (which, unlike religious “theory” is itself based on empirical data), on the reasonable expectation that the new results will be explainable in terms of our present understanding. However, unlike religious dogmas, scientific theories will be altered, even abandoned, if the evidence is strong enough. Similarly, the theories advanced by renowned scientists are respected because these experts have tended to be right in the past. Yet as soon as the data is strong enough, the entire scientific community, including the esteemed researcher whose previous theory has now been contradicted, modifies or abandons the discredited theory and accepts the new evidence. This never happens with religious dogmas.

The religious impulse to Faith — “I just believe it” — has a limited kind of scientific parallel. There is a kind of faith, Dawkins acknowledges, in accepting the work of other scientists as competent and honest; and “faith” that a new postulation is true will determine what kinds of experiments are done. But again, contrary facts trump expectation, and a scientist will abandon an approach or a hypothesis in the light of evidence. In contrast, religious faith is that belief which persists in the absence of evidence, or even in the face of contrary evidence. For some, the ability to believe even more strongly as the evidence piles up against you is a cardinal religious virtue.

The appeal to divine Revelation — “God spoke to me from a brush fire on the road to Damascus” — has no scientific equivalent. While it’s certainly true that scientists have often “dreamed up” new ideas that, when tested, have turned out to be brilliant and creative insights, no scientific idea is ever accepted on the basis of imagining alone. Never.

Is science a religion? Not at all. And the theist’s tactic of trying to characterize science as “just another religion” is remarkably short-sighted. After all, at its base the argument is that if science is a religion, it has no objective truth, no universal application, and therefore it doesn’t have to be believed.

Theists should probably think a little more carefully before throwing around that argument!

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2 thoughts on “Science: not just another religion

  1. Another way of looking at Dawkins’s approach is to say that he is trying to make a science of religion by requiring evidence for beliefs. Considering religious belief as a cultural construct which deals with ideas about how humans should act should cut religious belief a bit more slack.

    • A good and fair reversal, and certainly appropriate for the definition of religion you offer. It’s not the religious impulse per se that’s under fire in these postings, but the fundamentalist’s insistence that the physical universe is what his holy books tell him it is. In that specific case, the literalist makes a science of religion, and thereby deserves to be held to the same evidentiary tests as any other empirical claims.

      However, you’re not the first (see Peter’s comment on Dogmatism: right, left and wrong) to caution against excessive rigour (or excessive rhetoric) on this topic — so my next posting — to be published Tuesday — offers a corrective, in a way, by outlining the non-literal religious impulses which I do respect.

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