Science as Religion Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

Science as Religion

6 Conversations

Defining Terms of Belief
A Critique of Belief | Neurotheology - is God in our Heads?
The Evolutionary Advantages of Faith | The Biological Basis of Belief
Why do we have Beliefs? | Why are Beliefs held so Dearly? | The Stages of Belief
The Contradictions of Atheistic Assumption in the Social Sciences | Science as Religion
Joining and Leaving a Minority Religion
Why Someone Might Choose Neo-Paganism Over Mainstream Religion
On Medieval Heresy | The Percieved Dichotomy Between Sexuality and Spirituality
Religion as a Tool for Social Control

This entry presents a personal perspective on science and scientists. It is not the most useful perspective, and it is certainly not the only perspective, but it is a valid one. In the author's words:

'The Church of Science' was a title I originally started to use to express my frustration with some aspects of science. After some consideration, I decided it really was a valid perspective on science, so I retained it. You may or may not agree....

The Church of Science

Comparing Science and Religion

Science displays many of the characteristics of religion. In fairness, it should be pointed out that many of these derive from human failings, not from science itself. Nevertheless:

  • The avowed purpose of science is to understand the universe. Although no such claim is made by science, this might be seen as equating the universe with God. The search for knowledge and understanding is then identified with the search for God. Stephen Hawking - in his famous quote - mentions the possibility that greater understanding may give some insight into the mind of God.
  • Like many religions, science seeks to answer some of the central questions: Where did we come from? What is the future? Is the universe finite or infinite?
  • For a practicing scientist, seeking knowledge, and making discoveries, is 'good' behaviour. The reward is immortality, in that a famous scientist's reputation can live forever. Everyone knows Sir Isaac Newton...
  • Science has saints - individuals held up as examples to us all - Einstein, Darwin, Newton, and so on. There are even relics: Einstein's brain is preserved in a jar!
  • Heresy is suppressed, and heretics are excommunicated.
    • A good example is Eric Laithwaite - inventor of the linear electric motor, and possibly the foremost scientist of his generation - cast out as a result of his work on gyroscopes.
    • Goethe - the German poet and playwright - also produced worthwhile science on colour perception, as well as other topics (see Goethean Science). Have you ever heard of it?
    • The Aquatic Ape theory (Human Evolution - the Aquatic Ape Hypothesis) is a good example of a theory that was suppressed, apparently for no good reason other than that it contradicted scientific orthodoxy.

Human Failings in Science

Science also shares some of the less attractive features of other human institutions, such as organised churches. These features are due to their human functionaries, not to the institution they serve:

  • Lesser researchers can have their work suppressed if it would devalue the work and reputation of their sponsors.
  • Senior members act so as to protect their own positions and reputations. Sometimes these interests outweigh the aims of the organisation.
  • The pressure on scientists to publish - to establish or enhance their reputations - has lead to a number of instances of fraud and deception. Apparently, even Mendel's ground-breaking work on genetics was based on falsified experimental data (see Psychological, Historical, and Ethical Reflections on the Mendelian Paradox).

Science as a Religion for the Masses

With the decline in popularity of organised religion in recent decades, people have missed the day-to-day moral guidance it used to provide. Many have chosen to co-opt science into this role. This is the most worrying aspect of this topic, and the reason why it is significant enough to justify inclusion in this Project.

  • During the recent outbreak of foot and mouth disease in Britain1, public unrest was calmed by our Prime Minister with a promise that he was following 'the best scientific advice'. Sadly, the issue in dispute was a political one, not a scientific one, and yet the security offered by 'science' calmed and reassured the British public.

Scientists, although they have never put science forward as a viable religion, share some of the blame for this. They are never slow to appear on the media, giving apparently reliable advice on the basis of little or no evidence:

  • In the UK, just after the Chernobyl disaster, we were advised by scientists that there was nothing to worry about; any radioactive material would disperse naturally within six weeks. There are still farms in Wales and the Lake District where the sheep are too radioactive to sell for human consumption!

Many atheists use science as a form of religion, although they might prefer to describe their belief system as 'scientific materialism', 'objective rationalism', or something similar.

The point to be made here is not that science is bad or wrong, but that it is often misapplied. As an aid to making objective2 decisions, it is probably the best tool we have. However, human issues3 are insignificant, or actually invisible, from a scientific perspective. To deal with them, we need tools such as religion, philosophy, or some other form of ethical code.

Science cannot be held to blame if we use it to help in (say) matters of morality. Would you use a hammer to boil an egg?

Strong words indeed, and words that may be considered by many to be a form of heresy. Our next Entry, On Medieval Heresy, examines the historical reasons why such non-orthodox views are often difficult to accept.

1In the year 2001.2The term 'objective' is used in its generally accepted sense, setting aside - for convenience - that humans cannot objectively verify truth in the real world, as our perception is not objective.3Eg: moral, ethical, religious, social and political matters.

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