Religion vs. science

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Religion and science often come into conflict on certain matters; this is a subset of the larger conflict between religion and reason.

Biologist PZ Myers nicely sums up the conflict as it applies specifically to science:

PZ Myers said, on 2008-04-30:

...the line separating science and religion is not a false one. That is ultimately the actual, central source of the conflict: how are you going to figure out how the world works, from inquiry into natural causes, or from metaphysics, superstition, and evidence-free revelation? That is a significant piece, even the central piece, of this long-running argument in our culture.

In addition to (and probably largely because of) this conflict of principles, increasing education in science apparently leads to a loss of faith (in general), and is particularly destructive to literalist religions. [1]

Religion and science offer mutually contradictory explanations for the origins of humanity, of life on Earth, of the Earth itself, and of the entire universe. The religious explanations on these points, furthermore, are generally expected to be taken "on faith", and discourage questioning and further exploration. The scientific community does the exact opposite – it assumes that its conclusions will be ruthlessly questioned, and declines to accept any theory that isn't backed up by large amounts of mutually-consistent observations.

Science is also often criticized or dismissed by religiously-inclined people on the following premises:

  • "Science is no better than religion", or even "...just another religion" is frequently the basis of arguments that science should have no more of a voice in public policy than any of the many disagreeing factions among the world's dominant religions.
    • If this is true, which "religion" would you rather have: one which verifiably and repeatedly commits "miracles" such as curing diseases and allowing humans to visit the heavens and return alive, or one where miracles are rare and sparsely-documented occurrences? (kudos: Eliezer Yudkowsky)
    • Religious people who say this, however, do not seem to be able to come up with a good definition for "religion". Certainly if you define it broadly enough -- e.g. "a system of beliefs or knowledge" -- science would qualify, but so would a lot of other things not generally considered to be religion.
  • "Science has no morality" is often used as an argument that without religion, people would feel free to behave immorally and that therefore religious views should dominate over scientifically-derived views in certain predefined areas of discourse, regardless of how sensibly or rationally science might be able to address those areas.
    • This is related to the argument that morality requires God, which has been pretty thoroughly disproven for the bulk of humanity (though it may be true for people who are psychopathic).

Some reasonably accurate one-liners about science:

  • Science is a method, not a position. (Religion starts from a position, i.e. a particular set of premises, and tries to understand the universe in terms of that position. Science takes only the minimum usable set of premises – i.e. that we can discover truth about the universe by using observation and reason – and re-examines it ruthlessly even while using it.)
  • Science is applied* rationality. (Religion values rationality only insofar as it can be used to support the religion's central tenets. The scientific method is based entirely on rationality and observation.)
    • *in the sense of being applied to the process of learning about the universe

A one-liner which seems true and which religiously-inclined folks may nonetheless take up gleefully:

  • Science is based on faith in the continuing rationality of the universe.
    • The universe has proven itself to be enormously consistent in uncountable ways; this rational consistency is one of the central requirements for science to work.
    • There is, however no guarantee that the universe will continue to operate this way. Most religions, on the other hand, claim to have some form of personal guarantee (one or more statements which the religion's faithful are expected to believe is true, regardless of the justification) from one or more supernatural entities.
    • The question is, how do you decide which is more trustworthy? On the one hand we have an extremely good track record but no promise, while on the other we have "personal" promises of various sorts coupled with (at best) highly questionable track records.
    • Science bets on the track record rather than the personal guarantee.


Areas of Conflict

  • "Revelation", which claims metaphysical sources for knowledge is, by definition, unscientific, since the term "metaphysical" is generally understood to refer to hypothetical entities outside the realm of science. As soon as any evidence was found which allowed such entities to be studied, they would no longer be "metaphysical", and religious thought would probably deem them unsuitable sources for "revelation".
  • Religiously-based theories positing a comparatively miniscule age for the Earth and the universe flatly contradict vast areas of science.
  • The battle over evolution vs. direct creation (of which the battle over evolution vs. Intelligent Design is the current hotspot), is part of a larger battle between Biblical and other religiously-based accounts of creation versus the Scientific theory of the origins of life, the Earth, the solar system, and the universe. "There are now more people in our country who believe that the universe was created in six solar days than there were in Europe in the 14th century." [2]
  • In the debate over abortion, the anti-abortion point of view seems to be largely fueled by religious arguments claiming that the newly-fertilized egg has a soul – which contradicts scientific understanding of fetal development, i.e. the embryo does not even have a nervous system (and thus is incapable of feeling pain, much less consciousness of any sort) for several weeks after conception. Although we have so far achieved only the very beginnings of a scientific understanding of consciousness, there is as yet absolutely no believable evidence that it can exist that early in life; furthermore, based on what we do know, it would seem unreasonable to treat an embryo as being morally equivalent to a fully-developed human, or to put the needs of that embryo over the needs of its parents. Only when the fetus is rather closer to birth can such a comparison reasonably be made.
  • In the various debates over homosexuality, the anti-gay arguments seem to be largely fueled by insistence that God condemns homosexuality in the Bible. Scientific investigation of sexuality (often hindered and condemned by religious extremists) has revealed no reasons why homosexuality should be in any way discouraged, especially in an era when overpopulation is a significant worry (and in which there is always a significant backlog of children needing adoption into good homes). Moreover, scientifically-guided medical advice encourages the wide distribution of both sex education and condoms to help homosexuals (and everyone else, for that matter) to avoid spreading sexually-transmitted diseases; both sex education and condom distribution (and contraceptives in general) are discouraged by many religious groups, for entirely religious reasons.
  • The Bible labels as "unclean" or "abomination" many practices (e.g. masturbation) which we now know through scientific investigation to be harmless or even healthy, especially when practiced in a sanitary way. (The Bible, unfortunately, does not inform us of the advisability of washing one's hands frequently, much less the existence of germs.)
  • Religious fundamentalists often claim that science destroys morality and trivializes human life.


It is often said that "science is just another religion". This is certainly true if you define your terms just right.


Religion and science have the following characteristics in common:

  • Both are collections of beliefs


Religion and science are different in the following ways:

Religion Science
There are multiple religions, each of which disagrees with the others on certain points There is only one body of science; there are sub-branches, but knowledge within each branch must be consistent with knowledge in the other branches. (See "New knowledge", below.)
Each religion's belief-set depends ultimately on black box explanations which cannot be further investigated Anything science can't explain is left as an open question, to be studied further and eventually answered
New knowledge, arguments, or practices must be shown to fit within the existing belief-set, or it is discounted (often quite vigorously) New knowledge and arguments are encouraged, often overturning significant areas of scientific understanding; new practices are encouraged if they produce useful results, and otherwise generally tolerated unless they are somehow destructive; intolerance is strictly limited to censuring of practices found to be intolerable, fines levied by scientific organizations, or (in extreme cases) expulsion from scientific organizations.
Religious membership is generally exclusionary: you either belong to a particular religion or you don't, and membership in more than one religion is largely unheard-of. (Some religions even levy harsh punishment for joining and then leaving, e.g. Islam considers this act punishable by death.) There are scientific organizations, but any competition between them is generally of economic, not ideological, nature; one can belong to several societies with overlapping areas of interest, and there is no empirical penalty for leaving a society once joined.
Each religion has a set of core beliefs with which all members must agree, or be disqualified from membership Science has no beliefs which cannot, in theory, be overturned by new observations


  • Violence:
    • What incidents have there been, either historically or recently, of individuals or groups being inspired to commit violence "in the name of science"? How does the resulting list compare to the record of violence committed "in the name of" God or any other religious figure?
    • Should the comparison be between (a) deeds done in the name of religion and (b) deeds made possible by science, such as Hiroshima? (Personally, I don't think this is a fair comparison, as any tool can be misused; the debate should be over whether the usage was appropriate, and if it was inappropriate we need to figure out how to prevent inapprorpriate uses – but I suspect this point will come up, so a more detailed rebuttal might be a good idea. --Woozle 09:23, 1 October 2006 (EDT))
  • Remedies:
    • If the Bible is being "quoted out of context" by those who attack religion, then why is there not more of a faith-based initiative (especially within the more moderate areas of Christianity) to publish a clearer, better-written version of the Bible which is harder to misunderstand? Or better yet, where is the moral encyclopedia in which one may look up any issue upon which any given religion might have an opinion and find out what each religion ultimately believes about it, and why?
    • Why is there not more horror expressed by moderate Christians regarding the abuses of these "out of context" passeages by those who do take them literally, such as those who believe adultery and homosexuality should be capital offenses?



Filed Links

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Faith does not offer the least support for a proof of objective truth. Here the ways of men part: if you wish to strive for peace of soul and pleasure, then believe; if you wish to be a devotee of truth, then inquire...

Friedrich Nietzsche, letter to his sister, 1865

How is it that hardly any major religion has looked at science and concluded, "This is better than we thought! The Universe is much bigger than our prophets said, grander, more subtle, more elegant"? Instead they say, "No, no, no! My god is a little god, and I want him to stay that way." A religion, old or new, that stressed the magnificence of the Universe as revealed by modern science might be able to draw forth reserves of reverence and awe hardly tapped by the conventional faiths.

Carl Sagan, Pale Blue Dot, as quoted in The God Delusion page 12

The incantatory mind set probably STILL makes up a majority of the human species. In most civilizations, it was THE official mind set... that the greatest power is achieved through right incantations.

The fact is that opponents of science cannot view science except as a competitor or rival to their own preferred incantatory systems. Hence the profound hostility toward science that you see among romantics of all stripes, including BOTH the "far right" and the "far left."

In parsing their disdain for science, they reveal their inclination by constantly misunderstanding (or deliberately misconstruing) what science is about. The postmodernists say that it is just another system of incantatory semantics, and a rather oppressively bullying one. The neocons and fundies call it "just another religion" without ever pondering how this logically disses religion, in general!

It is useless to try (endlessly) to explain the myriad ways that science is simply OUTSIDE of the incantatory worldview. Indeed, there is a very real minority of SCIENTISTS who – by fundamental personality – can never escape viewing their fields through the lens of incantation.

David Brin, blog entry, 2006 (with minor typographical corrections)

Religion is an insult to human dignity. Without it, you'd have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, it takes religion.

Stephen Weinberg, physicist and Nobel Prize winner


Some proposed slogans to clarify the difference:

  • Science isn't a religion; it's an exposition.
  • Science isn't a religion; it's a correction.
  • Science isn't a religion; it's a solution.
  • Science isn't a religion; it's a liberation.
  • Religions are -isms; sciences are -ologies. (interesting, but probably wouldn't mean anything to most people)


  • Science can be done by anyone. Most religious truths appear to be centrally controlled, but anyone can use science to contradict even the mightiest megacompanies. (Can anyone challenge the latter statement?)
    • 2007-04-03 Science Fair, Science Foul: two 14-year-old girls in New Zealand go up against American drug giant GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) by demonstrating scientifically that a beverage sold by GSK has a Vitamin C content that is much less than claimed on the drink's bottle; GSK finally admitted the error, two years later, and paid a small fine.