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Science as Religion?

There is an argument that science is just another religion, and therefore only as reliable, and as much taken on faith as any other religion.

This can certainly make sense if you do not see the steps leading to the scientific conclusions. For example, what do you know about dark energy?Me, I know next to nothing. So if you do know something feel free to chime in and enlighten us all.

I went to a planetarim show that involved the probability of aliens and something about dark matter. I don’t remember it very well now, but it was presented something like this:

The universe is this specific way that is totally different from this other specific way that we used to think. This dark matter stuff that you can’t see or feel or know about except by relying on scientists to tell you about it is really important. This dark energy stuff that is in the title? Yeah, we’re not even going to try to describe it.

Part of myself thought, “What, I’m supposed to take this invisible stuff on faith? On someone else’s word? No way!”

That was when I realized the meaning of Church of Science. For those who have a religious context, who haven’t had the experience of looking for the details, they get their science news the same way they get their religious studies. Somebody in authority tells you what it means.

Now, I believe that there’s lots of math and lots of observations going into the dark matter theory, but I don’t know what they are. (Of course, the planetarium people could be lying to me. Probably not) However, if one were to skip that step, the actual science step, or gloss over it and only look at the final result, I can certainly see how science would seem like another religion.

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24 Comments

  1. Dark Energy is not well understood, fine. But to jump to the conclusion that Science and Religion are equivalent is quite a leap.

    Science will be testing the claims of Dark Energy and will eventually come to a definitive conclusion and will either accept or reject the theory based on evidence.

    Where is the parallel in Religion? There is nothing to test and therefore no conclusions to draw. How many angels can dance on the head of a pin?

  2. Thanks for an interesting post.

    A friend of mine wears a pin that says atheism is a religion like baldness is a hair color.

    I think most atheists tend to be of the mindset, religions are bad and they want to disassociate entirely from them. That being said, some atheists can be fairly dogmatic about non-belief in God, sometimes to the point of being a little arrogant or rude to religious people.

    I certainly don’t like when the argument for science as a religion is intended to have one draw the conclusion that science must be regarded as equal with non-evidence based belief systems. However, I am all for incorporating scientific truth into my world-view and letting that shape my belief system. I am also fine with calling my belief system my religion. I take exception at the idea that when one’s belief system is entirely evidence-based it achieves some state of transcending all other belief systems and has become the One Great Truth.

    Aside from all that– probably a lot of people do see science as just accepted on authority rather than having verifiable and repeatable means of demonstrating the truth of its claims. They are mistaken in thinking this. Usually they have let a desire to defend some fundamentalist notion of creation cloud their judgment or whatever other theological axe they have to grind.

    So, where am I going with my long and rambling comment? Even though I might nit-pick at whether embracing a scientific world view is embracing a religion or not. I vehemently oppose the idea of teaching anything in a science classroom that has its foundation from a sacred text as opposed to its basis in evidence and ongoing confirmation through observable phenomena.

    The other side of that is that I do think questions of meaning and purpose in life really should be discussed, and that these discussions shouldn’t preclude religious/spiritual/existentialist implications. Religions shouldn’t ignore the knowledge of science. Often they have a bad history of doing this, but I can hope they’ll catch on, can’t I?

  3. There’s a parallel in the sense that Dark Energy and religion (at least early on) were both attempts to explain things that were observed in the natural world.

    Dark Energy was proposed based on observations of the increasingly rapid expansion of the Universe. Prehistoric Urg made up an angry earth god to explain why the volcano spewed hot lava all over his family.

    The distinction is exactly as awbranch put it. Urg’s surviving relatives relied on faith that their prayers to the earth god would prevent a repeat of the “OMG we are all burning” incident. Scientists, meanwhile, are out there testing to see if it works or not.

    If the “please don’t melt our cave” didn’t work one time, Urg and his family would simply dance harder the next time the mountain got indigestion. If Dark Energy doesn’t pan out, science will abandon it in favor of a better explanation.

  4. Here’s an important difference between science and religion:

    Scientist: “You don’t accept my conclusions? Fine, here’s the data, the math, the experiments, the observations, the influences allowed for in the experiments, and my theoretical conclusions to explain the phenomena. If you still disagree, show me where I went wrong, and/or do your own work that disproves it. I welcome your constructive contributions to resolve any apparent flaws, errors, discrepancies, or misunderstandings.”

    Religionist: “BURN, HERETIC!”

    ~Wordplayer

  5. There is no dark matter, the unaccounted for mass in the universe is made up of missing socks, bic lighters, change, and other items sucked through the gray holes in the universe that exist at the back of dryers. Come on the Government has been covering that up for years.

  6. @awbranch Vera isn’t saying that Science is a religion. She’s saying that it can be easily mistaken for a religion due to the fact that most people don’t understand the facts and must rely on authority figures.

    In fact, if you were one to unshakenly believe that your ancient book were truth, there really is no difference:

    Religion = a big confusing book full of inconsistencies yet purported to be ultimate Truth; interpreted and explained by authority figures.

    Science = several confusing books and journals full of inconsistencies yet purported to be a explanation for how the world truly works; interpreted and explained by authority figures.

    Now skeptics completely disregard the purported truth of the religious books and they realize that Science’s strength lies in the recognition and self-challenge of it’s inconsistencies. However, to non-skeptics there is little difference and it is important to understand how someone could feel that way.

  7. Oh, I love it.

    “You’re just as ridiculous as we are!”

    “Um, so you’re ridiculous then?”

    “Wait…”

    What is the point of “accusing” scientists of having faith? And I think that ignores the distinction between types of faith – i.e., the one kind where you believe in something in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary versus plain and simple trust.

  8. It is an absurd comparison to be sure, but that hasn’t stopped it from being thrown my way a few times, and understanding its allure as an argument is just as important as being aware of its inanity, and I think the post gets it right-when faced with conceptions of a man being built out of mud or out of thousands of generations of non-men, neither one jives especially with your day-to-day existence in the land of Medium Physical and Temporal Scale, and both come in large hardcover books.

    And deference to authority is of course a useful trick-it allows us access to a body of knowledge and skills beyond what we could accumulate-good sense and knowledge are not uniformly distributed. The issue becomes meta-trust at that point-is there evidence this person could, does, or will make good decisions, or provide me with accurate information? I think science education fails in this regard a lot of the time-emphasizing facts rather than the history of the discipline, and the evidence, theories, and experiments that led from one model, formula, or technology, to the next.

  9. Aristosthenes wrote, “I think science education fails in this regard a lot of the time-emphasizing facts rather than the history of the discipline, and the evidence, theories, and experiments that led from one model, formula, or technology, to the next.”

    YES, YES, YES, and yes!!

  10. “if one were to skip that step, the actual science step, or gloss over it and only look at the final result, I can certainly see how science would seem like another religion.”

    Well… I agree with you whole-heartedly that if we take out the actual science from science then science would seem like a religion. But wouldn’t science be missing… something critical? (Actual science maybe?)

  11. I think it’s true that some people treat science as a religion. Science isn’t alone in this: Some people also treat sport as a religion, for that matter.

    Those who think that it’s impossible to have science as your religion should check out this essay by Michael Shermer, about a cult based around reason. Yes, it seems antithetical, but that’s primates for you.

    Of course it’s nowhere near as common as the Expelled whacked-out conspiracy-theory nut-job[1] crowd would have you believe. However, I can see how you would get the mistaken impression if all you ever read was the comments on Pharyngula.

    [1] Naturally, by “nut-job”, I refer to those who believe the crap in Expelled. Those who made it are more correctly classified as “liars”, not “nut-jobs”.


  12. “You’re just as ridiculous as we are!”

    “Um, so you’re ridiculous then?”

    “Wait…”

    I think Kierkegaard would have regarded this as an argument in favour of religion ….

  13. First, I prefer scientific explanations to religious when they compete on the same ground, so I’m not coming at this as a religious apologist.

    That said, I think you can make a good argument for science as religion from an anthropological perspectives. Admittedly, most definitions of religion would include reference to supernatural beings or powers, but given quasi-religious phenomena such as Zen Buddhism or certain ideological beliefs the margins what can be defined as a religion are not firm.

    Religion from a functional standpoint is an us and them phenomenon in which a non-believer goes through a series of stages and learns a series of rituals to become a member of the “church”. It is certainly arguable that a science major in university is initiated into a belief system about how to understand and derive meaning from the universe (hypotheses, p-values, and such) and once properly prepared through undergraduate and graduate studies, they are admitted to the body of scientists as one might be baptized into a church.

    Once one is a member (a scientist) then you can engage in the rituals of grant proposals, double blind studies, and peer review. One becomes a believer in and practioner of scientific method. Do I think the content and methods of understanding the world through the scientific method are to be prefered? You bet, but we are talking about a hierarchy of preference – science then maybe liberal christianity or buddhism then far down the line fundamentalist christianity or Aztec sacrificial rites.

    Of course, the claim that science can make that other religions have more difficulty with is verifiability. I can replicate the experiment … or can I. As a practical matter, I have to have faith in others who assure me that the mysteries they describe are true as I can’t fit a Hubble telescope, large hadron collider, or several different flocks of Galapagos birds in my apartment and even if I could I would then need to go get the expertise to interpret the data intelligently (and this presumes that I would have the intellectual and financial resources to successfully be educated sufficiently).

    Of course, various religions would make similar claims that if you put in sufficient study that you too could learn the mysteries of the universe, but until then you must take it on faith.

    As a result from an outsider perspective, it would be easy to equate science (a belief community in which certain practices and rituals lead members to truth and meaning and demand various ethically behaviors) to a religion (a belief community in which certain practices and rituals lead members to truth and meaning and demand various ethically behaviors).

    Finally, vibrating multi-dimensional strings, intersecting branes, singularities, strangelets … karma, intercession of saints, the sound of one hand clapping – either way, most of us have to believe in the methods of discovery and the word of the authority on any of these issues and neither list is particularly intuitive. As such, I just can’t by that one is less ridiculous and more understandable to me individually – I just have to believe in my prefered methodology and sources of authority.

  14. Vera, I agree with your point completely. Unfortunately, a lot of people seem to have missed it somewhat.

    For those of you who haven’t quite caught what was said, and in honor of the late Aurthur C. Clarke, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

    In that context, when one realizes how completely ignorant of the sciences most people are actually are then it is a lot easier to understand how they could mistake it as, ‘just another religion’

  15. csrster,

    I find that during debates with creationists for example (we all experiment in our younger days), when all other evidence has been discussed and there is nothing left to argue, the creationist pulls out the “well, science is just like a religion anyway” argument. The context seems to suggest that they are pulling the “my arguments have been weak so far, so all I have left is to beat you down to my level” tactic. I’m not convinced that this is because they don’t understand science, I think it’s because they are trying to use scientific arguments to support their point and when that ultimately fails, they have no other alternative but to insist that science is just as faith-based as they are. I find it hilarious. They’re basically using themselves as an ad hominem attack on science.

  16. awbranch Vera isn’t saying that Science is a religion. She’s saying that it can be easily mistaken for a religion due to the fact that most people don’t understand the facts and must rely on authority figures.

    I misunderstood her point. I would argue that since Science in general is such a large field, no one person can have deep understanding of every aspect of it, so they need to take some parts of it on faith.

    But anyone can understand, test and therefore know, some aspect of science. And the Scientific Method is very understandable. This reinforces the whole of Science.

    Again, there isn’t a parallel in Religion. There aren’t any articles of faith that one can test, talking snakes, virgin births, resurrections, to help reinforce the belief.

    I’m an atheist, but if I saw someone raised from the dead, or walk on water, and it was reproducible and testable, I would start going to church on Sunday. ;)

  17. I think the problem comes from incomplete understanding. We have enough evidence to point to the existance of dark matter and dark energy, but not enough to define what they are. This can easily be misinterpreted as “scientists must believe because they obviously don’t have evidence”. Then a good scientist says something like “science doesn’t have all the answers, but we’re working on it. We need more evidence to solve this mystery.” To those with a faithful mindset, this sounds like waffling or “I don’t know why I believe in this”, when it really is the right answer from a scientific standpoint.

    I think there is a big communication gap between scientists and the religious. I’m inclined to say that the less educated should be brought up to standard, but as a teacher, I find it works better if the educated can ‘lower themselves’ to meet the ignorant on their level. For example, let’s state scientific mysteries as questions, such as: “Galaxies have lots of mass, but not enough to keep themselves orbiting together. We added it all up and we’re sure we’re right and there simply isn’t enough stuff to keep them together. So how do we resolve this?” And the answer is dark matter, which is basically an “I don’t know” answer, but then we can start to figure out ways of creating a test to find out what it is.

    I suppose what I’m saying is that we must be true to the scientific method when answering woo/pseudo-science/supernatural arguments; we must ask questions of those making outrageous demands.

  18. Ahh, darkmatter, “each pound of which weighs more than 10,000 pounds”

    anyway,
    On the surface, religion and say, particle physics both seem untestable to you and have to be taken on faith.

    The major difference is of course not if YOU can’t test a hypotheses, but if it can be tested. Period. Which is where the two differ.

    That is my standard short answer to any religious nutjob trying to equate science with religion. Which is funny in itself “but you’re just like us, and our stance is valid.”

  19. Those who say science is the same as religion have no idea how science works.

    Science is a process. It doesn’t ask you to accept anything at faith. The ‘unproved’ stuff, like dark matter and dark energy, are at this point, hypotheses to explain how the Universe works at the large scale. They are a best guess at this point, based on the existing evidence. They will be confirmed or not by more observations.

    Scientific hypotheses are confirmed or proved wrong all the time. That’s how science advances. Religion thrives on dogma; science thrives on proof, and questioning all the time.

    To me, science is more analogous to a team sport than to a religion. The best players who score big discoveries get the Nobel Prize, Science’s MVP award equivalent. But for each of these greats, hundreds more play the game and take one for the team.

    For example, the ‘Standard Model’ of particle physics has been put together painstakingly by hundreds of physicist in the last 60 years. Many participants to this effort won Nobels, like Murray Gell-Mann, Richard Feynman, Steven Weinberg, etc. And yet that model rests on a particle nobody ever detected, the Higgs boson. Now we may finally have a particle accelerator powerful enough to generate this elusive prey, which will come operational this summer. If they detect it, whoever led that effort is guaranteed a Nobel – such a discovery is physics’s equivalent of scoring an overtime goal in Game 7 of the Stanley Cup final.

    And if they don’t find it? Just as exciting. We were wrong; back to the drawing board!

  20. I think your logic is false. Science does not claim that dark matter definitely exists; it just claims that it’s a *theoretical type of matter* that some models of the universe suggest does exist. It is definitely not accepted as definite fact and no amount of faith is required, even if you have no idea what it is. If you don’t know anything about physics, you can still easily accept the proposition that dark matter may, or may not exist.

    On the other hand religion claims that God or other supernatural entities or events exist. It makes this claim without any real evidence and it can’t demonstrate in a convincing manner the likelihood of it being true.

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