Why do people say “Science is just another religion?” Any time you’re trying to see inside the head of someone who disagrees with you, you’re in dangerous territory. But two weeks ago we were driving through the mountains of British Columbia, and I’m kind of missing dangerous territory, so here goes. If this appears to be an attack on a particular individual, I apologize; sometimes the best way to address the general is through the particular. It isn’t intended to be personal.
There is a lovely bit in Trotsky’s Their Morals And Ours: “…to the Roman pope Freemasons and Darwinists, Marxists and anarchists are twins because all of them sacrilegiously deny the immaculate conception. To Hitler, liberalism and Marxism are twins because they ignore ‘blood and honor’. To a democrat, fascism and Bolshevism are twins because they do not bow before universal suffrage. And so forth.” When you say X and Y are the same, you are generally saying little about X and Y, and a great deal about your own method and ideology.
When someone says, “Science is just another religion,” it is worth asking, “Of exactly what does this ‘just another’ consist?”
In the previous discussion, one commenter wrote, “Science, whether it falls under a precise definition of religion, certainly has a lot of features of one – including tenets, rituals, and zealots.” Therefore, we may conclude, the existence of tenets, rituals, and zealots is the most vital matter in analyzing the nature of beliefs. The question of how well a belief system can be used to explain and consciously change the objective world, its willingness to change itself when contradictory evidence appears, its effort to draw the laws of motion of nature from facts rather than imposing them on facts–none of these, it seems, matter. What matters is that there are tenets, rituals, and zealots.
What does this tell us? That, to this individual, the search for objective truth is irrelevant–very likely, it indicates a belief that there is no objective truth. But, if there no objective truth, how do we understand the world? By practical effect. And practical effects, to a subjectivist, are personal and individual. This gives the person the freedom to list “bad things” science has done and “good things” religion has done, picking examples that are meaningful to this individual and that just happen to put religion on top. (Meanwhile, these people merrily use hardware, software, and infrastructure (including electricity and the shelter that, presumably, is over their heads), all of which are the products of science, in order to go onto the internet and explain that science is just another religion.)
Tim Minchin, in “Storm” (which I linked to in my previous post) says, “Every mystery solved so far has turned out to be–not magic.” Yeah, there are mysteries we haven’t solved yet. There are whole fields that science is only starting to look at. And it is quite natural that some people will look at those mysteries and fields and put God there; after all, there isn’t any room for Him in the mysteries we’ve solved. But to take the next step and use this to dismiss science requires a determined sort of ignorance.
The object of the game, in my opinion, is the creation of a better world. That means, for starters, one without poverty, without war, with good health care for all, with full access to culture for all, with human liberty and equality for all. The more we understand the world (both the “natural” world and the social world–two classes of knowledge that can be separated in our minds, but not in reality), the more effectively we can work to accomplish these goals. There is a name for the effort to understand objective truth: we call it science. If you believe the methods of science fall short in accomplishing this goal, then it is perfectly fair to propose ways in which science itself can be improved. This is how the scientific method itself changes and adapts. But dismissing it by labeling it a religion–that is, a set of beliefs no more or less “valid” than any other–is to work against our ability to understand the world, and thus is, ultimately, to support reaction.