Should We Think of Science as a Religion?

As evolutionary biologist David Sloan Wilson sees it:

The truth is regarded as sacred within science, more than within public life, with all the obedience commanded by the word sacred in religious life. Science can even be regarded as a religion that worships truth as its god. It might seem provocative to put it this way, but I find the comparison compelling and challenge my readers to show what’s wrong with it.
Here are some insights that emerge from viewing science as a religion that worships truth as its god. First, being a scientist is not natural. We evolved to adopt beliefs when they are useful, not when then they are true, so being a scientist requires resisting temptation, just as religious believers must resist temptation to achieve the ideals of their faiths. Second, the ideals of science can only be achieved by an entire cultural system. Simply exhorting people to respect the truth is not good enough, just as exhorting people to do unto others isn’t good enough. Third, science as practiced often falls short of the goals of science as idealized, just as religions as practiced fall short of the goals of religions as idealized.

Henry Gee, senior editor at Nature, finds this characterization of science highly misleading, arguing:

It is not the business of science to discover “truth,” because “truth” cannot be judged to be such, in any absolute way. To put it another way, were we to stumble upon the “truth” we could never know that we had done so.
What science is all about, in contrast, is the quantification of doubt.

And PZ Myers takes issue with the thesis entirely:

Science isn’t a religion, period. It doesn’t worship anything. Science is a toolbox, and if you must stretch the metaphor even further, doubt is the crowbar we use to get at useful answers … but again, we don’t worship the crowbar. We admire it, can ooh and aaah over a particularly well-tricked-out crowbar, and we can relish opportunities to swing it, but it never, ever assumes the role of religion in our our lives.

Category: Debates

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  1. V. V. Raman says:

    Science as Religion

    David Sloan Wilson has drawn attention to a perspective from which (evolutionarily speaking) science may be regarded as another religion,

    However, it is good to remember that science and religion are both complex, and have various aspects.

    So there are overlapping and similar features, as well as non-overlapping and very dissimilar features.

    The following are five ways in which science may be regarded as a religion:

    (a) Religion is a quest, so is science.

    (b) Religions acknowledge the pioneers who paved the way, and so does science.

    (c) Religions is based on certain fundamental assumptions, and so is science.

    (d) Religions brings fulfillment to it practitioner, and so does science.

    (e) Religion grapples with some fundamental cosmic mysteries, and so does science.

    The following are five ways in which religion and science drastically differ:

    (a) Religion is a quest for spiritual knowledge/experience. Science is a quest for physical knowledge/understanding.

    (b) Religions accepts certain authorities and writings as infallible, subject utmost to differing interpretations. Science does not regard any person or publication is infallible.

    (c) The assumptions of religions include the existence of a supernatural realm. The assumptions of science exclude any supernatural realm.

    (d) Religions prescribe codes of behavior for its practitioners – and these may pertain to food, sexual activity, and days of observance. Science describes and tries to explain the perceived reality and does not prescribe any morality beyond being honest and truthful in the report of observational finds.

    (e) Religions are tied to geographical, cultural, and historical anchors. Science is trans-cultural and trans-national.

    The differences between science and religion should not be forgotten, not only because of their divergent epistemology and methodology, but also in the interest of maintaining their respective integrity.

    V. V. Raman
    Author of “Truth and Tension in Science and Religion.”
    October 29, 2009

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