One of the common mantras of accommodationists, be they secular or religious, is this: “science is a religion just like any other faith.” No lie: I have heard this from scientists who are sympathetic to religion! I could respond at length why this characterization is completely bogus, but Richard Dawkins has already done so.
In case you weren’t aware of his response, “Is science a religion?”, it was published in the 1997 Humanist, and is the transcript of a talk Richard gave when accepting the Humanist of the Year award from the American Humanist Association.
It’s an excellent piece, and presages many of the themes later discussed in The God Delusion: religion as child abuse, the divergent “ways of knowing” practiced by science and faith, and so on. Towards the end, he muses about whether we should admit that science is a faith anyway, just so it can be taught in religious education classes.
I want to return now to the charge that science is just a faith. The more extreme version of that charge — and one that I often encounter as both a scientist and a rationalist — is an accusation of zealotry and bigotry in scientists themselves as great as that found in religious people. Sometimes there may be a little bit of justice in this accusation; but as zealous bigots, we scientists are mere amateurs at the game. We’re content to argue with those who disagree with us. We don’t kill them. But I would want to deny even the lesser charge of purely verbal zealotry. There is a very, very important difference between feeling strongly, even passionately, about something because we have thought about and examined the evidence for it on the one hand, and feeling strongly about something because it has been internally revealed to us, or internally revealed to somebody else in history and subsequently hallowed by tradition. There’s all the difference in the world between a belief that one is prepared to defend by quoting evidence and logic and a belief that is supported by nothing more than tradition, authority, or revelation.
I have little to add to what Richard says, but would add three other points:
- If science and religion are both conceived of as a “search for truth,” then the faith- and revelation-based methods of religion have failed to converge on single, agreed-upon answers. Different religions have different “answers,” and even within a single faith different people diverge in their notion of religious “truth.” In contrast, scientists—regardless of religious creed, ethnicity, or nationality—converge on single, agreed-upon answers (of course there is still scientific disagreement about many cutting-edge issues). Water has two hydrogen and one oxygen molecules whether you’re a chemist in Africa, Eurasia, or America. DNA in the nucleus is a double helical molecule consisting of sugars and nucleotide bases. Evolution is a fact for scientists in every land, for they can all examine the massive evidence supporting it. There are many faiths; but there is only one science.
- The fact that different people from different backgrounds converge on the same scientific answers also implies that there really are objective truths about the universe, decrying the postmodern notion that all truths are subjective. In contrast, if there were objective truth about God and his ways—truths revealed by God to people through revelation, dogma, and authority—you might expect that everyone would be of the same faith.
- The Oxford English dictionary defines religion as “Action or conduct indicating belief in, obedience to, and reverence for a god, gods, or similar superhuman power; the performance of religious rites or observances.” Even if you maintain that scientists “worship” reason and empirical truths, our discipline does not rely on or exhibit belief in and reverence for gods or the supernatural.