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Sunday, June 18, 2017

Science is a religion

Religion has not lost the culture war. On the contrary, the intellectual descendants of religion have conquered the world.

R ecently a guy named Rod Dreher, in his book The Benedict Option, wrote that the culture wars are over, religion has lost, and the West is headed for chaos:

The West has lost the golden thread that binds us to God, Creation, and each other. Unless we find it again, there is no hope of halting our dissolution. ... The shadow of the Enlightenment's failure to replace God with reason has engulfed the West and plunged us into a new Dark Age.

The only way to survive it, he says, is to withdraw to monasteries or small communities and wait for the storm to pass. I believe this would be a tragic mistake.

Saints with flasks and bubbles
Artist's impression of early chemistry experiments

When people call science a religion, they usually mean it disparagingly. But that is not what I mean.

Religion has not lost the culture war. On the contrary, it has mutated into something more powerful: science. Consider: both science and religion believe there is such a thing as absolute truth. Both hold that truth is more important than government and politics. And both hold that universal laws exist that created the universe and control it.

Aside from the trivial differences like the lack of crucifixes, religious rituals, and singing of hymns, the differences between science and religion are actually fairly minor; so much so that science could be considered a new form of Christianity.

There are four ways that religion mutated to become science.

1. The source of authority is different.

One weakness in religion was its answer to the question “How do you know?” Without an answer to this question, people can be easily tricked by charlatans, mystics, and con men.

For religion, all knowledge comes from God, as revealed by their religious leaders and prophets. The problem they face is that without an answer to the question “How do you know?” there's no way to be sure if it's true. Faith is required, not only that the deity exists, but also that his intentions are good and that his words were recorded accurately.

Cancer research building at MIT
Cathedral of cause and effect at MIT (David H Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research, Building 76.) Source

In science, this question became fundamental. Every scientific paper describes the hypothesis being tested, the methods in detail, the statistical calculations, even the software version, that were used. The goal is to leave no doubt about how the knowledge was acquired.

Contrary to popular belief, science also has faith: faith that knowledge, properly obtained, can represent a phenomenon in the real world, and faith that there are discoverable universal and immutable laws underlying all phenomena in the universe, including human nature and society. These things can never be proven; we don't call it faith, of course, but assumptions.

These assumptions is justified only so long as science is independent of government, politics, and monetary self-interest (i.e., grants). So, we're talking theoretically here. And science is under constant attack by political activists who want to appropriate its mantle of supposed authority and use it for their own political ends.

Religious people often mistake these activists for real scientists, and have come to think of Darwinism, evolution, and science as threats to their values. Instead of helping science, they would abandon us to the activists who would eventually destroy it.

Of course, there have been bad scientists: Kinsey, Ansel Keys, and many others whose names are mostly unfamiliar to the public (and some who would sue me if I named them); and many more like Sigmund Freud and Karl Marx, who were not scientists at all, but who tried to claim its authority.

2. The description of God is different.

The second difference is the conception of God. Religions generally see him as a sentient being deserving of worship. Religious philosophers have assigned other attributes to God: infinite, unchanging, and so on.

Similar attributes are also present in science: the laws of nature—gravity, the speed of light, the role of energy and entropy in driving chemical reactions—are unchanging. The only difference is the source of the authority for making the claims. Religion's source is its holy texts. Science's is observation of nature.

Thus science is not atheistic: its concept of a deity is merely different. Like the blind men and the elephant, science and religion describe different aspects of the same thing: a force of creation and order in the universe.

3. They have different attitudes toward new knowledge.

The third difference is the concept of unchanging knowledge. Religion is a tradition that has survived by handing down unchangeable doctrines preserved in revered texts. This served it well in a time when knowledge could disappear forever when a person died.

The printing press provided a means of preserving existing knowledge while simultaneously permitting knowledge to change and evolve. As the danger of losing irreplaceable knowledge receded, the printing press encouraged continual questioning of knowledge and revising it as new facts emerged.

4. The concept of sin has mutated.

The idea of sin comes from ancient wisdom which our ancestors attributed to divine inspiration. We use the term ‘sin’ infrequently in science, but contrary to popular belief science is not amoral. It's gradually rebuilding a morality on an empirical basis. Religion is way ahead of us: science is still at the “foods you must not eat” stage.

Yet even here religion has us beat. Leviticus has a long list including moles, mice, geckos, monitor lizards, sand reptiles, chameleons, camels, flying bugs except for crickets and locusts, bats, seagulls, and animals with cloven hooves. What do we have? trans-fatty acids.

Science pours vast resources into finding information that can benefit individuals and nations. If we assume that the goal of morality is to ensure survival of the individual, tribe, and nation, then we must conclude that science, like religion, is also in some sense a moral system. Religious people sometimes claim that science supports cultural relativism or consequent­ialism, but this is not true: many traditional beliefs have found support in science.

I often encourage my scientific colleagues not to use cells or tissues collected unethically and to be brutally honest when doing statistical tests. It's not easy, since many of them equate legality with morality. This is slowly changing, yet we get little support from religious people. If they turn Benedict on us, it'll be even harder.


When religious leaders feel threatened by science, they characterize it as atheistic, secular, and amoral. These are words that members of one religion typically say about a competing religion.

Likewise, some politically oriented scientists harm the relationship between science and religion by being contemptuous of religious beliefs and traditions. For them, Christianity is a competitor and therefore a threat.

Others have claimed that science and religion are non-overlapping magisteria. There are differences, but they're far outweighed by the similarities. Scientists should appreciate religion as the intellectual parent from which science evolved. Religious people should appreciate that science shares many of their most fundamental values, including the most important one: the existence of absolute truth.

Religion has not lost the culture war. On the contrary, science—the intellectual descendant of religion—has conquered the world. Religious people should glory in this achievement. For religion to withdraw from the world now would be to abandon its child to the wolves, and hasten the Dark Age that they fear.

created jun 18, 2017; last edited jun 31 2017, 8:06 pm

See also

Particle Religion
Religious metaphors in science are a sign that our beliefs are changing.

Atheism, ducks and Bananas
Atheists and religious people both need to work on their sense of humor.

Forging the universe
Why is there something instead of nothing? Science, religion, and philosophy have different ideas.

Science, Religion and Other Crazy Ideas
What do scientists really think about religion?

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