Is Science Just Another Religion?

Consider the musings of this blogger at Yawning Bread.

“This then raises a question: do we, like them, believe what we believe merely out of familiarity? Do we put faith in scientific rationalism simply because it is something we’ve grown up with, not because it is in any way more objectively correct?

Consider this: how many of us are able to explain exactly how Tamiflu works, or what are the theories of vulcanology relevant to the Merapi situation? We merely trust. We trust because we’ve been schooled in scientific rationalism. We’ve gone through chemistry classes in which we had to titrate some chemical solutions, and at some calculable point, the liquid changes colour. We’ve learnt to determine how much load a given mechanical set-up can bear, and how the mathematics of probability can anticipate queue behaviour at supermarket check-out counters.

With this initiation into scientific rationalism, we learn to trust of rest of it. More importantly, all through life, we see repeated demonstrations of it. Airbuses take flight despite weighing tons, mobile phones bring distant voices to our ears and antibiotics make us feel much, much better. We trust scientific rationalism because we’ve been schooled in it and they are familiar to us in our world.

How different is this from people who have grown up in other cultures? Isn’t how they believe similar to how we believe — which is, to trust the familiar? Should we adopt a perspective of cultural relativism instead of the arrogant belief that our way of thought is objectively correct?”

Although this is thought provoking, it’s not congruent with my point of view. The suggestion that, in order to eliminate “faith”, each person must fully understand every scientific discovery and process in existence simply isn’t plausible. The fact that scientists each have their area of expertise advances, not retards, scientific progress. To be good at everything is to not be great at anything.

I don’t have to understand how Tamiflu works to know that my values are more in line with science than religion. It’s the method I identify with, not just the discoveries.

The method of religion is to start with the answer (God did it) and then rationalize why that is true. The method of science is to start out assuming nothing and wanting to know as much as possible.

The method of religion is to be defensive when your current beliefs are challenged. The method of science is to investigate all challenges and claims, rewarding those who shed light on the folly of our long held beliefs (because that is progress – we’ve gotten closer to the truth – that’s good, not bad!).

The method of religion is to discourage critical thinking (ex. “Don’t be a Doubting Thomas“, “Have faith“, and “Trust in the lord with all your heart, on your own intelligence rely not“). The method of science is to question everything, because any hypothesis that is worthwhile will stand up to challenge.

The method of religion is to revere the Word of someone (ex. God) as inerrant, so that when discoveries are made that threaten that Word, their whole belief system is threatened. The method of science is that NO ONE’s theory is sacred because we are engaged in an honest search for truth. Criticism and debate can only bring us closer to truth.

Moreover, science by its very definition is diametrically opposed to faith. By all means, humans are flawed, and surely there are scientists who attach ego to their own ideas and keep trying to prove the false. But that’s where science corrects itself because, in order for a theory to be respected within the scientific community, it must survive rigorous peer review from other scientists that have no ego investment in the idea. This eliminates the possibility of believing in something despite the absence of evidence, the definition of faith.

So no, I may not understand every scientific discovery and process in existence, but what I do understand is that the method and intellectual honesty of science is designed to promote a sincere search for truth. So, as a truth seeker, I choose science.

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  1. I think that the distinction between trust (based on past experience) and faith (not based on past experience) is important here. I trust that scientific rationalism works for a combination of logical reasons, personal experience (eg. science classes, seeing causes preceeding their effects), and having been relibably told by multiple sources that there are mechanisms in place to repeatedly and independently test claims before they make it into textbooks and reputable popular works. I have faith that the search for abstract knowledge is always worth doing. I would not try to prove this (although I could make some supporting arguments, like most intelligent believers in a premise)- one must take it or leave it on faith. As you say, we don't have to understand every product to say that the machinery that produced it works. A superstitious medieval Catholic might _think_ that his beliefs were supported by things he had seen or heard himself, but a critical analysis would reveal that he was misinterpereting the evidence (so his beliefs in ghosts and demons is faith, not trust). His beliefs are based on trust in the familiar, not good evidence.

  2. Science and religion do not have to be enemies. Only fundamentalists take religion to the extreme that you've mentioned.

    In reality, science and religion address two different issues.

    Science works to explain how the physical universe works. Understanding how the universe works, however, doesn't provide meaning or purpose to our lives (unless we feel compelled to become scientists, science writers, or teachers). Still, we find that purpose outside of science, even when our primary passion is related to science.

    Religion gives us a way to assign purpose to our lives. Religion is not the only way to find purpose and search for meaning. Philosophy is another way, that does not depend on the supernatural. Regardless, relgion and the mythos on which it is built, is meant to examine the human condition and give us a way to live purposeful lives.

    But science can not tell us why we are here and what we are supposed to do with our lives. We each need to find an answer to those questions, although some of us fine these questions more pressing than others.

  3. Science-as-religion seems to be a popular view, of late, and it's always frustrating when people bring this up.

    The problem is really a fundamental misunderstanding of what science is. As you say, science is just a method. However, largely inspired by the poor quality and poor focus of science curriculi in most schools, the average person doesn't know that. Instead, they think that science is merely a collection of facts and therefore no better than any other collection of facts, when in reality science is the way we learn things. There was no overnight break-through where some prophet came down from the mountain and said, "My brothers, we must test things to prove or disprove their truth!" No, science as we understand it today is the codification of thousands of years of inquiry into the natural world, and it synthesises all the successful methods of inquiry while controlling for our human biases.

    Further than that, science, even as a method, is always changing in response to what we learn about what works and how we as humans are biased. Take, for instance, falsifiability, now the standard for all experimentation and theory, which as a scientific idea is less than a century old. The reason science changes is that it seeks to discover and understand the world as it actually is, rather than, as you say, to start with the answer and rationalise from there.

    In fact, contrasting science with religion in this way is somewhat misleading. The process of rationalising from an a priori assumption isn't unique to religion. It is a fundamental bias in the way the human mind works. Thus it's not surprising to find the process at work in religion, but religion can't take the blame for it. And, again, this is a fine example of why science is such a good way of studying the world. The whole point of science is to discover biases like this and remove them and the barriers they present to true inquiry and understand.

  4. By the way, Bronze Dog, your Doggerel Index is an absolutely fantastic resource. Kudos! Skeptics everywhere should check it out.

  5. When people claim you have to have faith in science, and then go on to imply this is the same as religious faith, they are relying on the logical fallacy of equivocation – using the same word in different meanings in an argument, implying that the word means the same each time.

    I wrote about equivocation here.

  6. When you take a scientific result as true without knowing all the details, you aren't (or shouldn't be) working on faith, but on trust. Faith is given blindly — trust is earned.

  7. Bronze Dog – thank you for the mention. I loved your site and have added you to my favorites. :)

    Skeptico – Great piece on equivocation. My favorite quote:

    "The fallacy is to say that trust, based on evidence, is the same as blind faith based on no evidence at all."

  8. I suppose there really is a difference between "science" as "a method to find out how the universe works", versus "the collection of knowledge that's been amassed over the last dozen milenia" (being what people usually think of when talking about "science").

    I suppose that in a way, we do put our faith in this collection of knowledge, because nobody is testing everything themselves, although as James said, it's not really blind faith, it's trust that the scientific method is reliable.

    One interesting quote from teh article though:

    "We saw it again when a Massachusetts school teacher became a subject of controversy for reading a fairy tale to her class. The problem was that the prince (or was it a princess?) eventually fell in love with a same-sex partner.

    Outrageous! some people said. The teacher should be sacked!

    But wait a minute, same-sex marriage is legal in Massachusetts, and is supposed to be treated by the State as completely equal to opposite-sex marriage. If the fairy tale ended with inter-racial marriage -– which is legal too [2] -– few would think it controversial. So why not same-sex marriage?

    At the heart of the controversy was really this: that the fairy tale rendered same-sex marriage familiar to a new generation.

    Familiarity is the battleground in cultural relativism."

    It's something we all know. In fact, it's the basic idea in many sci-fi stories: paint a picture of a world where something is very different from our current earth, and how people are unaware of this difference since they've always know it to be like that.

    Kids will probably see there are visible differences between the skintones of caucasians, asians and black people, but until someone actually tells them that such colour differences were once perceived as a difference in intelligence, status, etc… they will not even think about it in that way.

    In other words, any bias is culturally ingrained. So to stop the bias from existing, you either have to not say a word about it, ever, to the kids, or make them familiar with the situation so the idea behind the bias is considered ridiculous and/or dismissed as silly superstition (such as creation for instance).

  9. Science is a method, not a religion. religion claims that there is a mailman outside your house delivering the mail, sience opens the door to check it out. Religion is happy if only one person sees the postman, science demands that other people go out and see it, just to make sure he's out there. Religion and science are philosophical methods. One looks for confirmation, the other looks for anecdotes, and books. You do not have to understand thw whole of science to understand the philosophy behind it. That'd be as riduculous as saying that you have to understad all Buddhist writing to be a buddhist.

    I do not think that traditional religion and science can coexist, unless science found evidence about the existence of religious myth. So far the opposite has happened. Affitionally, there are some religious experiences that science can't explain yet. I believe there are NO supernatural elements in the religious experience. I think our amazing brains create it, but I do not discard its value.

    Understand the methods, THEN understand the results and how they came to be.

  10. It seems to me that the belief that science is another religion stems mainly from a bifurcation created by many religious people (or rather, a series of bifurcations).

    Bifurcation #1: You're either religious, or against religion.


    Bifurcation #2: You're either one of us, or one of the evildoers (Christianity versus Islam, Christianity versus Judaism, Islam versus Judaism, it can go any way among the big three. And that doesn't even bring in any polytheistic religions)

    –Against Religion:

    You're a scientist, an "evolutionist," liberal, and an atheist.

    (Or maybe I should just say it's "trifurcation" here…)

    It's the athiest part at the end that's critical. Strict atheism, the faith that there is no god, could reasonably be categorized as a religion. And since it's always grouped in with science, the distinction blurs in their minds. "Atheism is just another religion" (reasonable) becomes "Science is just another religion" (unreasonable).

    Nothing illustrates this better than Ann Coulters next book (not that you should look farther than the cover). She blurs all of these groups together into the same category. While there may be significant overlap, they are far from being the same thing, and by no means should they be treated as such. Even if all scientists did happen to be atheists, and all atheists did happen to be scientists, it still wouldn't be appropriate to say that science is a religion (for reasons articulated quite well by others right here).

  11. I don't think the position of Atheism as just another religion is reasonable. I don't have faith that god does not exist it is just my opinion based on the fact that it seems so darn unlikely to me.

    And even if you want to say "strict" atheists do have a faith in the non-existence of god I am not sure the argument holds. There are lots of things I don't believe in – is my belief or faith that there is no tooth fairy a religion too?

  12. One of the things to distinguish between science and religion (and between rational and irrational beliefs in general) is the openmindedness-test:

    Is there anything anyone could show you that would change your opinion on this issue?

    If a belief is irrational, the answer is "No, nothing anyone could find or show me would change my belief".

    If a belief is rational (or at least arrived at by evidence and logic), then the answer is "Sure, just one contradicting fact would have me reconsider everything to fit this new information".

    It's the standard retort to use on believers who are calling you close-minded for not buying into their brand of woo. But it also works just as well for any other beliefs not based on fact, like religion.

  13. As the argument goes, the leap of faith that there's no god out there is exactly as plausible as the faith that there's a god out there that's doing nothing to affect us. There's absolutely no way to distinguish between the two, and it takes faith to pick a side. (Though granted, atheism does have Occam's Razor going for it. If there's no interaction from out there, it's simpler to say there's no one out there than it is to say there's someone out there doing nothing.)

    But maybe we can split up levels of atheism. To apply exarch's last comment, religious atheism would be the atheist who would deny God's existence even he manisfested in front of him (most likely assuming that they must be hallucinating). A non-religious atheist would simply change there beliefs.

    Personally, I use the term "agnostic" to cover everyone who has a religious standpoint short of absolute faith, and this is what I would in general categorize as non-religious (of course, it's all subjective, so feel free to disagree with me on these definitions). There's wide variety in it, going from "I'm not completely sure" to "I don't know" to "I can't know" (the last being my position).

  14. I consider myself agnostic because my motto is "I admit it – I don't know!", but I don't think atheism is an unreasonable "leap of faith", equal to belief in God. It's much more logical to not believe in something when there's no evidence than to believe in something when there's no evidence. Us agnostics just leave the possibility open – it doesn't really make us any more rational than atheists, IMO.

    I mean, at what point does it become a reasonable provisional conclusion that something doesn't exist? When millenia pass, with billions of people trying to prove its existence, and still no evidence?

  15. It seems we are all generally in agreement with some debate over the definition of agnostic and atheist and degrees of atheism. I call myself an atheist but I admit there is no way to know for certain. It is more of an opinion or working hypothesis. As Exarch puts it I would reconsider my position on receiving further evidence (although it is an interesting question becuase if I suddenly saw god or heard his voice then madness might be my first supposition not existence of the divine).

    Leaving aside the details it is fair to say I could be convinced over time. But I wonder isn't that true for all atheists? Are there really any "religious" atheists as Infophile describes? I am not stating there are not only that I haven’t met any so I wonder.

    I agree very much with Sraiche "It is much more logical to not believe in something when there's no evidence than to believe in something when there's no evidence". That sums up my sentiments well (and succinctly which is always a bonus).

  16. I actually like the term "non-theist". It's a dodge around the usual negative, dogmatic connotations of "atheist" without sounding as wishy-washy as "agnostic" sometimes can. (Most people who aren't agnostic think it means waiting to make up your mind, rather than discarding the question as fundamentally unknowable.)

  17. I would tend to agrre that there are very few (if any at all) "religious atheists". However, atheists are generally portrayed, by the medis and especially religion, as being "religious atheists". I don't think it's done out of spite but more because religious folks simply cannot understand the concept of atheism – faith is such an integral part of their psyche that they cannot comprehend a person exisitng without it. So, they equate atheism with anti-religion. Atheism is not anti-religion. It's not faith in no god. It is simply an individual who comes to the realization that there is no verifiable evidence of any deity and that there is always (so far at least!) a naturalistic explanation for any observed phenomenon. It is a person who opened their eyes and saw the world for what it was and lost the need for a protective or vengeful deity watching over them. Generally speaking us atheists are not an organized bunch – theres no atheist council out there stating exactly what we don't believe and how we don't believe it – unlike all the major religions who argue constantly over which bit of myth to believe explicitily and which to assume is allegory or flat out fabrication.

  18. I was going to say something similar to what Stark said (but then I got down and saw it had already been said).

    But it's true, a-theists are being perceived more and more as anti-theists. Some fundies even seem to think atheists must be believers or followers of Satan, and you have a hard time explaining to them that only christians believe in the existence of Satan, and so only they can be satanists.

    As for the term agnostic, that just sounds like it's another denomination of something or other.

    If it comes right down to it, I find "non-religious" to be the most encompassing and understandable term. Free of misinterpretation. Of course, it does bring with it a whole new discussion on just exactly what is religion and which beliefs in supernatural beings and/or phenomena are or are not religious.

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