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Is Science a Religion?

Do those who reject science merely belong to a different faith community?

Eric Dietrich
Source: Eric Dietrich

Many people think that science is just another religion, no better than their own. Their reasoning is apparently something along these lines: “Beliefs about the unseen world are based entirely on received truth—truth that is known to be right because it is felt to be right. All and only religions offer an opinion about the unseen world. Science offers such an opinion. So science is a religion.” (For those interested in the technical, this argument is valid, so if its premises are true, so is its conclusion. The second premise is false, however.)

Another version of the above reasoning is this: “Religion is based on faith. Science is based on faith. So science is a religion.” (For those interested in the technical, this argument is invalid; it doesn’t matter if its premises are true. It is just like this argument: "All students carry backpacks; Professor X carries a backpack; So Prof. X is a student." Or: "Bill Gates is rich; Vladimir Putin is rich; So Gates is Putin." [Have you ever seen them together?] All arguments of this form commit the fallacy of “undistributed middle.” Any argument of this form fails to establish its conclusion.) This argument, though fallacious, can be made valid by just noting that all knowledge of the unseen world must be based on faith, so faith is all both religion and science have access to. (Of course, now there is another problem, which we will discuss below.)

Others, who think that the whole science vs. religion debate is annoying, reason roughly as follows: “I don’t have to get involved in this annoying debate because science is just another religion.”

The prevalence of the “science is just a religion” view is shockingly large. I say
“shockingly” because science and religion are nothing alike and in fact are locked in a bitter and deadly war for the minds of humans (see my previous posts “The Ghost of Christmas Present” and “Lord of the Flies”). Religion cannot cure a single disease. It cannot usefully explain a single physical fact: not where humans came from, not where life came from, not where the universe came from. Religion cannot explain volcanoes, earthquakes, thunderstorms, hurricanes, epidemics, allergies, birth defects, diseases ... nothing. Religion cannot usefully explain a single thing. Science, however, explains all these and a lot more. So how can any reasonable person think that science is a religion?

Furthermore, all religions have three central properties. (1) All religions are social systems, (2) all endorse (and even require) something that is supernatural, and (3) all designate something as holy or sacred. (For a detailed discussion of these, see Excellent Beauty: The Naturalness of Religion and the Unnaturalness of the World.)

Sciences are social, but only because that is often the best way to get work done. Religions are social out of necessity—in order to reinforce their supernatural beliefs, which of course are utterly false. (Just to be thorough: Many significant scientific advances were made by lone scientists toiling in their labs or out in their fields. Think of Newton, Darwin, and Einstein.) No science endorses anything supernatural (weird, yes, but not supernatural; see my posts “The Excellent Beauty of Scientific Mysteries,” “The Paradox at the Heart of Psychology,” and "Excellent Beauty, Part 4"). And no science countenances anything holy—nothing is sacred in science—it is all fair game.

Let’s return to the second argument:

  1. Religion is based on faith.
  2. Science is based on faith.
  3. Both religion and science give us knowledge of the unseen world.
  4. All knowledge of the unseen world must be based on faith.
  5. So science is a religion.

At step 4, this argument assumes what it wants to prove—it commits the fallacy of begging the question. Faith is an expressly religious thing: It is belief in a deity when there are no good reasons to believe in that deity and plenty of good reasons not to believe. (Example, childhood leukemia is a good reason not to believe in any all-kind, all-powerful god.) So, by saying that faith is required for all knowledge of the unseen world, step 4 is saying science is religion. Concluding that science is a religion is easy when one assumes that science is a religion. (The first argument also begs the question when it says: "All and only religions offer an opinion about the unseen world." That premise is also false.)

And what about the last argument: the “can’t be bothered” argument? It’s either social cowardice of the highest order or the worst kind of shirking of one’s duty. As I noted, science and religion are engaged in a deadly war. There can be no bystanders, for it really matters who wins—it really matters that science, I mean truth, wins.