Recently I engaged in yet another cycle of debate with someone who insists that science is a religion.
This is a tiresome argument on one level because it is one with all sorts of things that fall under the category of “I know it when I see it.” But on another level, it’s a rather interesting question. Not that science itself, as practiced by people who understand it or appreciated by those who don’t practice it but at least have a grasp of its nature, is a religion, but certainly people make religions out of all sorts of things. So the question arises, what are the necessary and sufficient constituent elements of religion? And which of those constituent elements does science (a) possess or (b) lack?
On the one hand, I’d like to be able to shut down the folks that blithely,without thought, make that allegation, that science is a religion. On the other hand, I am interested in the psychology of religious adherence.
It would be easy to say the one element both share is Faith. One has to believe that something is efficacious in order to base one’s thoughts, ideas, or life on the principles embodied by a given discipline.
I dismiss this out of hand because a lifetime of rubbing up against religious folk has convinced me that, for many (especially those who make this particular argument) faith alone is not sufficient. It’s not enough that you express a belief in a religious philosophy, you have to demonstrate it. You can’t sit at home on Sunday and be a good believer, you have to show up where the others can see you being a believer, and mouth the words they all mouth, and show them that you believe. Ironically, of course, this is proof of a sort, something faith is supposed to do without.
Faith wavers, but that alone does not make it unreal, so it is clear that people put their faith in many things—family, friends, money, political ideologies, the Lottery, the fact that the sun will appear in the morning—but these things do not constitute religions. (One can jokingly make a case for any of them, but there are no churches associated with most of them except by the longest stretch. I’ve made the case before that sports constitutes a religion—people get passionate about it, build great cathedrals for the practice of it, attend services regularly, and argue doctrine [designated hitter, college basketball ranking for the finals, etc]—but obviously, though some folks treat it that way, they do not believe regular observance at football or baseball games will get them to heaven after death.)
Religious faith is supposed to stand regardless of challenge. The kind of faith science engenders requires that adherents be willing to ditch a belief if it is proven wrong. Semantics aside, that’s a clear difference.
But religion embodies things other than faith and that’s where it gets thorny. Why isn’t science a religion?
Does it have a priesthood? You could make a case for that.
Does it have associated ritual? Yes, certainly—peer review if nothing else.
Does it have worshipers? Fans, certainly, and I suppose you could say that any collection of amateur devotees can be said to worship something if they go far enough.
Does it demand worshipers? Ah, well, depending who you ask….
To what end would the worship of science lead?
Do worshipers derive the same sort of warm comfort from science as they might from religion?
We’re getting into questions of sociology now. Which leads to a question of intent.
Do scientists actively seek to build a community of worshipers? I would say not. Supporters, yes, but they prefer supporters who understand what they’re supporting.
Do scientists insist that the trappings of science be inculcated in daily life? Like, for instance, rosaries or St. Anthony medallions, crucifixes on bedroom walls, a Bible in the house? Do they argue over which trappings are important?
We get into a fairly complex arena of interchangeable motifs. Anything can be retasked for a purpose for which it was not originally intended. So you might argue that while a religion always intended that its trappings be seen and used as objects in support of worship, this is not the case in science. If people subsequently embue such things with an aura of religious potency, this is clearly a mis-use per the original intent.
So is it the continuation of original intent, allowing for slight modification over time, that informs a religion with its particular identity? Perhaps. This can also be seen as a transmission of ideas over time, which certainly science relies on as well.
We reach a point, again, where just about anything can be described functionally as a religion if we deconstruct it sufficiently. By the same token, we can do the reverse, and argue that anything is merely a manifestation of community involvement in matters of importance to that community, which renders even religion as nothing more than a kind of tribal custom, meaningless outside the context of a given community, no different at all from politics, music, theater, art…or science.
Those who claim that science is a religion are not making anthropological observations. They are engaging in an attempt to bring science to a level with religion, make it the same as religion, and thereby stripping science of any special capacity to challenge religious claims. The fact that it really does get difficult to state a necessary and sufficient condition for what constitutes a religion makes it equally difficult to debate the point clearly for lay people.
The one element I have not mentioned is god. (Forgive me, I always spell that with a small G because it is not, to my mind, a proper name. It is a designation of a concept. Which god? Zeus? Queztelcoatl? Odin? Vishnu? They are all proper names for gods. By the same token, I tend not to capitalize “human” for much the same reason. It is a category. Over time, the plethora of gods have gradually been subsumed into a concept, at least by many people, of one god, and yet…it is a category.) The inclusion of god (or gods) into the make-up of all the foregoing descriptors inevitably characterizes those agglomerations of doctrine and ritual and architecture as religions.
There is no god in the necessary and sufficient descriptors of science or scientific practice.
Metaphorically, much literature alludes to false gods—money, power, certain idols, celebrity, etc. But in all these it is implicit that the objects in question are not gods, but are only seen as such by those who are being judged as worshipers by those who disapprove of that worship. Fair turnabout would then argue that if a religious person making that argument really believed that the bestowal of godhood onto one of these objects is sufficient to define it as a religion, albeit a false one, then you must admit that it is only such bestowal of godhood on the accuser’s object of worship that makes it a god as well—hence no actual deity, only the assertion of a believer. Not wanting to open that particular can of worms, I think most religious people who condemn false gods admit, at least to themselves, that really the objects in question aren’t gods even to those who seem to be worshiping them. At most they are distractions.
No, it is the assertion that there is an actual deity that separates the concepts.
But it does pose a most interesting question—is god real if no one believes in it?
The religious will say yes, absolutely.
The scientist will likely say probably not. The scientist will say Show me proof. If none is forthcoming, belief is not so much denied as never credited.
Functionally, then, we come to a clear difference.
And yet, the argument continues. Why? Because there is strife between them. They both represent differing views of the Real. Religion seems incapable, as a discipline, of regarding any challenge to its hegemony as anything other than a religion. Religion can only be legitimately displaced by another religion.
It cannot be ignored. It cannot be sidestepped as irrelevant. It cannot be seen as obsolete.
Which it is not. But for those who insist on categorizing science as a competing religion, there is very little traction out of their own extinction. In my opinion, they have missed the point of both religion and science and have been conscientiously digging a rut for themselves ever deeper.
For the benefit of both, I believe, a sound distinction should be found. Perhaps there is one that answers all the questions I’ve put forth here. I am one of those who basically “knows it when I see it” and find it difficult to succinctly characterize the differences. If it is, indeed, simply the inclusion of god in the mix, then there ought to be no argument between the two. But it seems to me that there is something much closer to home embodied in the question. There is an issue of consequence inherent.
By that I mean that the acceptance of one or the other discipline as a guiding principle is seen to have consequences in morality and ethics and, for one side, in the afterlife. Setting aside the extremist position that so-called godlessness leads to rampant immorality (it is a hard thing to prove as no regime has ever succeeded in stamping out belief in god, only particular manifestations of worship), the larger question is simply this: is the belief in other things not included or inculcated by religious practice (the universe as revealed through scientific inquiry) de facto counter-religious? In other words, is the practice of science inevitably destructive of religious expression? Conversely, is religious observance inevitably destructive of scientific inquiry?
If both are indeed religions, then the answer is likely yes. That would make them competitors, with contrary agendas.
But if there is a sound distinction (which I suspect there is), then the answer is no.
Given all these questions, I invite discussion. I am curious.