Is science a religion?

by Neil Rickert

The answer, of course, is no.  However, others often claim that it is.  Take, for example, this quote, which I am copying from a recent post at the Don Hartness blog:

Another reason that scientists are so prone to throw the baby out with the bath water is that science itself, as I have suggested, is a religion.

Those words are not from Don Hartness himself.  He quotes them for a book, and is not completely clear on whether he agrees with them.

To be fair, the author apparently uses “religion” to refer to a world view.  That makes it hard to know what he means.  I don’t much like this talk of “world view.”  As best I can tell, the “world view” language is something that theists use to delude themselves that their rejection of a lot of evidence is okay because others do it too.

The author of that quote appears to have a poor understanding of science.  Here, for example, is the first quoted paragraph:

Scientists are dedicated to asking questions in the search for truth. But they too are human, and like all humans, they would like their answers to be clean and clear and easy. In their desire for simple solutions, scientists are prone to fall into two traps as they question the reality of God. The first is to throw the baby out with the bath water. And the second is tunnel vision.

That is a false picture.  Scientists, for the most part, are not driven by a desire for simple solutions.  They are driven by curiosity, by a desire to understand as well as possible.  They are pragmatists, and will sometimes accept a useful approximate answer, even when it is not exactly correct.  But this is not a desire for simple solutions.  Airplanes would not fly, if we went by simple solutions.

Scientists are not perfect.  They can make mistakes.  But that is not because of a desire for simple solutions.  And, with most scientists, it is not because they question the reality of God.  Science, itself, is neutral in the God question, for that is not a scientific question.

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6 Responses to “Is science a religion?”

  1. I saw the pingback and thought I would try to clarify some confusion. The quote you drew from is the second part of a two-part feature, of which the first post can be found here (for anybody else following):

    http://donhartness.wordpress.com/2013/05/04/all-wars-are-holy-wars/

    In addition, I highly recommend reading the book in its entirety for a complete and accurate picture of Peck’s thesis. Although I am doing my absolute best to stay true to Peck’s thesis with the selected quotes, it is exceedingly difficult to capture the subtle complexity of his argument with just a few selected quotes. I will say, however, that after reading this book, I can see why it has the distinction of longest running time on the NY Times bestseller list.

    With that said…

    Everybody has a world view, and I think few would deny this. Each world view is drawn from a mixture of upbringing, culture, social influences, monotheistic religious upbringing (if applicable), education, and various institutional influences, among others. The reason Peck uses the word “religion” for one’s world view is that everyone’s world view is a mixture of empirical experience and belief. Whether one is raised in a fanatical cult under a superstitious belief system, or in an intellectual home utilizing empirical research and reasoning, one still carries a degree of belief in their world view, great or small. Hence, each world view is ultimately a “religion” in some sense. This was the point of the first post, of which I’ll repost a select part of that quote here:

    “We tend to view religion as something monolithic, cut out of whole cloth, and then, with this simplistic concept, we are puzzled as to how two very different people can both call themselves Christians. Or Jews. Or how an atheist might have a more highly developed sense of Christian morality than a Catholic who routinely attends mass.”

    The disagreement you state is acknowledged by Peck (“A mark of maturity in scientists, however, is their awareness that science may be as subject to dogmatism as any other religion.”) The keyword in that sentence is “may”. This error is found far more in those that utilize science to further an agenda (journalists for sensationalism, politicians for their legislative agendas, undergrads enlightened for the first time, etc) than legitimate scientists who are often guided far more by curiosity, as you mention.

    How so with scientists? Again, I recommend reading Peck’s whole work, but I can include another quote from that same section here:

    “Among the causes of this scientific tunnel vision I would like to discuss two that result from the nature of scientific tradition. The first of these is an issue of methodology. In its laudable insistence upon experience, accurate observation and verifiability, science has placed great emphasis upon measurement. To measure something is to experience it in a certain dimension, a dimension in which we can make observations of great accuracy which are repeatable by others. The use of measurement has enabled science to make enormous strides in the understanding of the material universe. But by virtue of its success, measurement has become a kind of scientific idol. The result is an on the part of many scientists of not only skepticism but outright rejection of what cannot be measured. It is as if they were to say, “What we cannot measure, we cannot know; there is no point in worrying about what we cannot know; therefore, what cannot be measured is unimportant and unworthy of our observation.” Because of this attitude many scientists exclude from their serious consideration all matters that are – or seem to be – intangible. Including, of course, the matter of God.”

    The second cause discusses the role of paradox in discovery, and is too lengthy to quote here. All of these quotes are taken from Section III: Growth and Religion, if you wish to read further. I hope this helps to illuminate his position more.

    As for myself, I agree with the author, only because I think everybody is prone to this error, regardless of their “religion” or world view. I see this problem acutely in science (and academia in general): the more “right” someone is (and the scientific method is a great way for eliminating error), the harder it is to see when one is actually wrong (since the occurrence is uncommon).

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    • Everybody has a world view, and I think few would deny this.

      I am skeptical of the whole notion of world view.

      Sure, people have their own biases, tastes, etc. However, “world view” is often taken to be about what is objectively available to all, and for which the effects of biases should be minimal. For example, it is used by Young Earth Creationists to explain away the quite clear evidence for an old earth.

      Because of this attitude many scientists exclude from their serious consideration all matters that are – or seem to be – intangible. Including, of course, the matter of God.

      But this is quite wrong.

      Scientists exclude that from their science. They do not exclude if from their personal lives. There are many scientists who are religious. There are many who are lovers of fine art or fine music or fine food.

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      • I think the confusion here is that you are seeing the word “world” in a communal aspect (as in the most accurate, commonly held view available to us utilizing all of the data available), but that’s not how Peck is using it. He’s using it as a comprehensive individual view, which may consist of any combination of objective or subjective data, flawed or not. In other words, the lens we choose to see the world through, regardless of how much bias that lens contains.

        Peck is not making any sort of judgement on any one world view; rather, he is illustrating how a particular world view can close an individual off from evidence which may enlarge that world view and/or destroy false notions. This applies for the Creationist that ignores scientific evidence for the age of the earth, as well as the scientist who ignores evidence for phenomenon that has no viable explanation as of yet, outside of religion (or perhaps speculation from mystic gurus sitting on mountain tops).

        This isn’t an all or nothing proposition. Some scientists do not exclude these matters from their personal lives, of which, based on what I’ve read on your blog, I would include you as one of those people. But others do, of which I have met some. For these, anything that falls outside of the discipline of science is to be not only discarded, but ridiculed as superstition. All Peck is pointing out is that this is an impoverished world view.

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        • I think the confusion here is that you are seeing the word “world” in a communal aspect (as in the most accurate, commonly held view available to us utilizing all of the data available), but that’s not how Peck is using it.

          I have not read Peck, except for the parts you quoted in your two posts, so I guess I will have to take your word for that. Still, it seems strange. Religion, as the word is ordinarily used, is very much communal. So why use the word “religion” for something personal and not communal. At the very least, that is confusing.

          A related point is that science is communal. An individual scientist may have a biased view. But his work is submitted for peer review and criticism, which tends to minimize any effects of bias.

          Granted, Peck was talking about the views of scientists about God. And that part of a scientists views is not normally subject to peer review. Still, most scientists say little about that. Many have made personal choices to doubt that there is a God. But only a very few are outspoken on that. Most accept that this is a personal issue.

          Some scientists do not exclude these matters from their personal lives, of which, based on what I’ve read on your blog, I would include you as one of those people. But others do, of which I have met some.

          I admit to puzzlement on the things people say. For example, Jerry Coyne will often seem to say that the only way to knowledge is the use of empirical methods such as done in science. But then he posts pictures about his preferences for shoes and for food, and about his appreciation of felines.

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  2. not to simply the long discourse but i think religion is rooted on one’s belief system, where belief is grounded on something that may not have an empirical basis. science and religion may be both ‘human’ in nature but distinct as ‘reason’ and ‘speculation’

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