Friday, June 12, 2009

Is Science a Religion?


If only I could leave it at that. But unfortunately I am all-too-often confronted with the accusation that science is just like any other religion. The accusation invariably comes from believers of some or other supernatural thing - something that scientists have been unable to verify (or have perhaps conclusively disproven). In other words, it's a kind of ideological attack tactic, intended to bring science down to the level of a religion, and to thereby make the findings of science just as questionable and open to interpretation as any silly superstition or fantasy.

Fortunately for those of us who value reality, calling science a religion does not make it so. But why? What is it about science that separates it from religion? Is it not true that adherents of just about any other religion would describe their faith as something other than religion (be it a "personal relationship with Jesus", a "philosophy" or a "way of life")?

To understand this, we must first define the terms. What are science and religion?

What is Religion?

Simply put, religion is a kind of belief system that necessarily incorporates some sort of supernatural power. That power exercises some manner of control over the lives and destinies of humans, and is generally an object of worship or at the very least adulation. The proclamations of that power are recorded in some way by a prophet or avatar who receives those proclamations via personal revelation, and generally form the basic canon of sacred texts upon which the practice of that religion is based.

In most cases, the practice of religion takes the form of a series of rituals designed to invoke the supernatural power and call its blessings upon the faithful. This will also often extend to a code of behaviour by which adherents are supposedly bound - often taking the form of moral guidelines and restrictions on food and sexuality.

The core feature of a religion is that it is based on personal, divine revelation where the supernatural contacts the prophet (and sometimes the individual adherents) directly and privately in a way that cannot be verified by any objective observer. Remember that part for later.

What is Science?

In it's simplest form, science is a mechanism for separating fact from fiction. It is a process consisting of asking questions about the world, and attempting to answer those questions. The fundamental backbone of science is the scientific method, which goes more-or-less as follows:

  • A phenomenon is observed.
  • An explanation is invented as to why the phenomenon took place.
  • A test is derived to determine the accuracy of the explanation (which has now become a hypothesis).
  • The test is performed and the results recorded.
  • If the hypothesis is shown to be false, it is discarded, and a new explanation is invented. If the hypothesis is confirmed by the test, the entire history of the project is recorded in writing and submitted to a journal for it to be published.
  • Once published, the report is evaluated by the community of other scientists interested in that kind of phenomenon. Some of them will attempt to replicate the experiment to see if they obtain similar results. If they don't, the original study is discredited. If they do, the hypothesis becomes a theory, and the human race's understanding of the world in enhanced a little bit.
The exact tools and methods employed by scientists in this process vary as widely as there are phenomena to observe. Each specialty and sub-specialty has its own particular tools which are constantly being improved through the same scientific process.

The most important aspect of all this is the repeatability in the peer-review part of the process. If the results aren't replicable, they are worthless. Science rests on public revelation: the necessity for anyone with the appropriate tools and methodology to be able to obtain the same results regardless of who you are.

So What's the Difference?

The core difference is that between public and private revelation. While religion rests on things that must be believed to be seen, science rests on things that must be seen to be believed. In this way, science is the polar opposite of religion.

Science assumes that something must be proven before it can be accepted - defaulting to the null hypothesis. Religion insists that faith is a virtue, and belief without evidence (or in spite of evidence to the contrary) is a necessity.

What About the Big Questions?

This is an area of some contention. Many people believe that both science and religion are attempting to answer the big questions in life: "What is the meaning of life?", "Why is there something rather than nothing?" "Why do bad things happen to good people?" and so on. Perhaps that is true.

The key difference comes in the approach to those questions. Religion and its adherents attempt to answer those questions with a simple, placating response: "God did it." Science is not satisfied with this as a response, for two main reasons: God cannot be shown to exist, and telling us who did it tells us nothing about how it was done.

In fact, religious dogma often gives us demonstrably false information instead of satisfactory answers. The book of Genesis gives an account of the beginning of the universe that is wrong in just about every possible way - every factual claim is incorrect, and can be shown, through public revelation, to be so. Where religion attempts to hold onto false and archaic myths, science discards the incorrect and creates new myths: ones that have the distinct advantage of being true.

The perception of science as a dogmatic institution with lab-coated, crazy-haired theorists and researchers as its clergy is a false one propagated by the religious. I would suggest thinking twice before invoking the "science as a religion" argument next time - in doing so you are only revealing your own ignorance.