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.


  1. Good article, Owen.

    The essential difference between science and religion lies, I think, in Carl Sagan’s wise words that go, “The method of science, as stodgy and grumpy as it may seem, is far more important than the findings of science.” Religion is all about “findings” with little to recommend it in the way of method, and therefore it places much emphasis on authority and tradition. Put bluntly, religion’s methods consist of verbiage and obfuscation, augmented with pontification and possibly coercion if all else fails.

    The findings of science are always tentative and subject to possible revision (not to mention their being eminently fruitful) precisely because that is what its method demands of it. It is part of its rules of engagement. In contrast, religions usually would have you believe that they deal in eternal, immutable, transcendent truths – a contention that history has repeatedly shown false: Religious doctrines do change over time. Why, just recently US Reformed Church leaders adopted the Belhar Confession, which, if widely approved by regional churches, would officially make racist practices a “sin.” In the past, such practices were often defended on a scriptural basis.

  2. Funny you should mention that Sagan quote... I'm currently reading The Demon Haunted World for the first time, and I finished that chapter yesterday.

    I'm constantly wanting to put the book down to blog or tweet some or other beautiful quote, but if I were to follow every such impulse I would be reproducing virtually the entire text :-)

  3. You know, I got so tired about fighting religious nuts about this issue, I just want to scream.

    There is only one lot that is worse and that is those that twist scientific facts to try and reason for a god.

  4. Science might not be a religion. But atheism certainly is.. which i think is the actual point most people are trying to make when they bring this topic up.

    The understanding and application of science from an atheistic world view.

  5. I'm sure you've heard the adage "If Atheism is a religion then 'bald' is a hair colour".

    Care to explain why you think atheism is a religion?

  6. Bald could be considered a hair style.

    Atheism, like any other world view, has a view of life, the universe, and everything based on an understanding of how they perceive the world to be (bias).

    Science is science... and you dont have to be religious or a-religious to observe it.

    So you're blog is right. Science is not a religion. However it still doesn't account for atheism (which is not the same as science).

  7. Anonymous wrote (4:36 PM, June 24, 2009): “Atheism, like any other world view, has a view of life, the universe, and everything based on an understanding of how they perceive the world to be (bias).

    Oh, rubbish! Religious belief is always a premiss from which assorted deductions are made, whereas atheism is a conclusion that is drawn from a considered rejection of a/any/the god-hypothesis, based on (1) a desperate want of reason and evidence in its favour, and (2) a mass of countermanding evidence and reason that militates against such a being existing, at least insofar at it is commonly conceived of. In this, atheism follows exactly the methodology of science which unremittingly demands that any unproven hypothesis is rejected, pending convincing evidence in its support. If being consistent across one’s ethos has any merit at all then a genuine desire to maintain a scientific approach makes atheism and agnosticism the only tenable viewpoints quite as a matter of course.

  8. There are some points in the blog post that I disagree with, but I thank you for writing this article which made me think, question and strengthen my beliefs.
    I think the topic for this article is too broad since the issue is discussed from a single standpoint lacking neutrality, not letting the reader judge finally. The words bear negative connotation for the religious aspect: “ACUSATION that science is just like any other religion”, “bring science DOWN to the level of a religion”, which probably means that you think of religion lower than science. This is not a quality of a formal article, because nowadays articles on the Internet are rich sources of information, so we should feel responsible for what we publish as articles, and try to be as objective as possible, less biased and consider all probable aspects. The definition for religion is good, but still negatively biased (Ian Kluge, 2008b) which may seem normal due to your scientific background taken in all efforts. As a believer of Baha’i Religion (www.baha', I suppose reality is unique, and there’s no contention in that of science and religion, they just express it in different ways, and see it from different perspectives.
    The description concerning science was interesting and effective in a nut-shell. I think the statement about science being tentative to revision by Con-Tester is true about religion too. If ‘repeatability’ is an important factor of scientific process, it cannot necessarily be true about religion; the same is true about different domains of science. We should know that any aspect of human life has its own way to be dealt with; body in physics, and soul metaphysics like the fact that each lock has its own specific key.
    The last sentence of the next part needs to be either referenced, or cleared that it’s the personal belief of yours, because it’s not true to me as a follower of Baha’i’ Faith.
    In an article John, S. Hatcher makes clear that even in accepting a religion you need to seek for the truth using your logic and reasoning to distinguish the true religion(Critical Thinking: Faith and Reason). Abdul’baha, the son of the prophet in Baha’i’ Faith, has mentioned that science without religion is materialism, and religion that is not in harmony with science is superstition, and the two should always be in harmony. Finally, I’d say that the final part fits the definition of fallacy (Ian Kluge, 2008c). Instead of proving science to be higher-according to you, you attack religion to weaken its role.

  9. Hello Owen Swart,

    You wrote: "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."

    I recommend a article found in (right menu) . It proves the existence, based on scientific premises, of a Creator and His purpose of humankind.

    Have a nice weekend! Anders Branderud