By now we should all know how to respond to this bit of criticism, which is leveled by believers and accommodationists at science as a way to drag it down to the level of religion. Faith is simply belief without good evidence, with no evidence, or in the face of evidence. Believers will deny that characterization, or try to redefine “faith” in more sophisticated words, but I always refer them to the Bible itself (Hebrews 11:1):
Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.
Yet even smart people try to insist that science, like religion, is based on faith. One of them is Christine Ma-Kellams, a social psychologist at Harvard, who, with Jim Blascovich, a professor of social psychology at the University of California Santa Barbara , did a study purporting to show that exposure to science made people more moral.
I recently criticized that study as being rather weak, suggesting that we need longer-term analyses on the effects of studying science on morality. However, given that Ma-Kellams and Blascovich were touting the positive effects of science, I was surprised that the first author, in a HuffPo piece, leveled the old “science is a faith” canard:
“In many ways, science seems like a 21st Century religion,” Ma-Kellams told HuffPost Science. “It’s a belief system that many wholeheartedly defend and evolve their lives around, sometimes as much as the devoutest of religious folk. And although many have studied the link between religion and morality, few had tried empirically at least to test whether science also had moral repercussions.”
. . . ”Many like to think of science as a neutral, purely objective force,” she said. “But in reality, the things what we study and investigate and think about influence our very conceptions of right and wrong, acceptable and unacceptable, without us necessarily realizing it.”
Well, she’s not even right about the claim that scientific investigations are always being informed by our conceptions of right and wrong. I’m hard pressed, for instance, to see how morality has in any way influenced my work on speciation in fruit flies. And certainly science is not a “belief system” in the way that Ma-Kellams proclaims. Let’s call it a “confidence system” instead.
Fortunately, as reader Gregory pointed out, Jeff Schweitzer, in another HuffPo piece called “Science is not religion,” has done the heavy lifting for me. (Schweitzer is a marine biologist and bioethicist who worked in the Office of Science and Technology Policy during the Clinton administration.)
Here’s an excerpt from Schweitzer’s piece, but there’s much more:
Science is not a “belief system” but a process and methodology for seeking an objective reality. Of course because scientific exploration is a human endeavor it comes with all the flaws of humanity: ego, short-sightedness, corruption and greed. But unlike a “belief system” such as religion untethered to an objective truth, science is over time self-policing; competing scientists have a strong incentive to corroborate and build on the findings of others; but equally, to prove other scientists wrong by means that can be duplicated by others. Nobody is doing experiments to demonstrate how Noah could live to 600 years old, because those who believe that story are not confined to reproducible evidence to support their belief. But experiments were done to show the earth orbits the sun, not the other way around.
Here is the fundamental and irreconcilable conflict between the two: science searches for mechanisms and the answer to “how” the universe functions, with no appeal to higher purpose, without assuming the existence of such purpose. Religion seeks meaning and the answer to “why” the world is as we know it, based on the unquestioned assumption that such meaning and purpose exist. The two worldviews could not more incompatible.
Unlike scientific claims, beliefs cannot be arbitrated to determine which is valid because there is no objective basis on which to compare one set of beliefs to another. Those two world views are not closer than we think; they are as far apart as could possibly be imagined.
Religion and science are incompatible at every level. The two seek different answers to separate questions using fundamentally and inherently incompatible methods. Nothing can truly bring the two together without sacrificing intellectual honesty.
It’s refreshing to read that sentence: “Religion and science are incompatible at every level,” which is of course true but makes accommodationists put their fingers in their ears and say “nyah nyah nyah nyah!” And one other difference between science and religion is that science gets the answers and religion does not. The difference rests on something Schweitzer also points out: when you arrive at an “answer” to a religious question, there’s no way of knowing whether you’re right or wrong. Science has such ways, and if it didn’t we wouldn’t ever learn anything.
Schweitzer’s article is forthright, strong, and excellent: bookmark it or print it out the next time you hear a mealy-mouthed faitheist, accommodationist, or believer utter the moronic words “Science is a faith, too!” It will save you a lot of arguing.