Is science a religion?

Discussion in 'Religion' started by Yazata, Jan 4, 2020.

  1. Yazata Valued Senior Member

    That's probably true for millions of laymen and even for a few evolutionary biologists (that's you, Dawkins and Coyne). These kind of biologists function as evolution's theologians, those with advanced educations in the doctrines, those who know the technical vocabulary and many of the arguments backwards and forwards. They serve as the apologists who battle against rival faiths.

    Of course there's the problem of distinguishing between science and religion. I'm not convinced that there's a clear and distinct distinction between them. The borderline is fuzzier. Both of those words are family resemblance terms (see my remarks in this thread). Sciences and religions are both collections of beliefs and practices that share enough characteristics with others in the same class to be assigned to that class themselves.

    But while sciences and religions don't share nearly as many similarities with each other, they do share some. Science and religion are both worldviews and belief systems that most of their adherents believe in by faith. (The laymen, certainly. Even scientists, when it comes to findings outside their own areas of expertise.) There's a moral component to that faith, where it's typically perceived as being bad to be an unbeliever. (That's you, Bill Nye.) There's a missionary impulse.

    Science and religion both have universalistic pretensions, seeking to assign a place and a significance to pretty much everything that can be observed and give our lives a context and even (though in science's case it's debatable) meaning. Both embody metaphysical and epistemological views. Both appeal to transcendental realities, personalized divinities in the case of theistic religion, abstract mathematics and 'laws of nature' in the case of science.

    On the level of laypeople, that's probably true. There's lots of controversy, open questions and discussion in the professional literature, but that's perceived as being controversy within the science, not a challenge from outside. The scientists prefer to keep those discussions under wraps, since the creationists love to get their hooks on them and portray them as challenges to evolutionary biology itself. They used punctuated equilibrium that way, they used Steven Jay Gould when he carelessly spoke of the "Death of Darwinism". The scientists would like to prevent their words being distorted and misused in that way.

    Sciforums readers will recall repeated attempts by a board participant to use one journalist's account of something that Francisco Ayala (a famous evolutionary biologist) supposedly said at a conference (Ayala denied saying it) as evidence of some kind of conspiracy that, if more widely known, would discredit evolutionary biology in its entirety.
    Last edited: Jan 4, 2020
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  3. James R Just this guy, you know? Staff Member

    No. Science isn't a religion.

    Religions typically involve beliefs in one or more supernatural powers. Usually these are thought to be conscious entities who have the power to control the physical universe and affect human lives directly or indirectly. Often these entities are thought to have caused the physical universe to come into being in the first place. Most religions have institutional worship of their deities involving meditation, prayer or similar practices.

    When somebody says "Golf is my religion", they are speaking ironically, not factually.

    Science, on the other hand, is a set of methods for studying and learning about the natural world using theoretical models and data from experiments and observation. It has no deities, no prayers, no supernatural assumptions.

    Its sounds like you're mixing up Dawkins' atheism and his science in your mind. The two things are conceptually quite separate.

    Scientists only have arguments against faith-based beliefs where those faith-based systems make claims that impinge upon territory covered by science. In the case of evolution, when religious fundamentalists make claims that get the science wrong, who else is going to correct them, if not scientists?

    You speak as if evolution is a dogma, as opposed to the evidence-based scientific theory that it is.

    To say there can be a fuzzy border does not justify claiming that there's no clear distinction or difference. It only points to the fact that some training and expertise might be necessary to tell the difference in some borderline cases.

    The class you are thinking of must be a lot wider than the definitions of science and religion as they are usually defined. I mean, you could say that both science and religion are aspects of human thought or ideas, but that isn't saying anything very useful.

    I've written about this on this forum at some length, before.

    The word "faith" is slippery. Religious faith is not the same as the faith that your mother loves you, or faith that your house won't collapse during the night. Religious faith is belief in the absence of knowledge or good evidence, whereas those other kinds of faith I mentioned are evidence-based faiths, grounded in objective experience.

    It is bad to make scientific claims that get the actual science wrong. It's bad in the same way as claiming to be knowledgeable about any topic, scientific or otherwise, while demonstrating your ignorance. Certainly Bill Nye and other good scientific communicators like to promote scientific literacy. If you want to call that a missionary impulse, I guess you're welcome to it, but it's not the same thing as actual religious missionaries who want to spread the faith.

    If something can be observed in nature, then it falls within the purview of science. Matters of context and meaning can be conceptually separated from the empirical quest to understand nature.

    Science is primarily a methodology, although obviously it also has a knowledge base and makes knowledge claims. It adopts as much epistemology as is required for it to function effectively.

    There's no need to adopt the Platonic view of the eternal existence of ideal mathematical forms to do science. The same goes for "laws of nature". I think you'll find that different scientists have different epistemological views on that kind of stuff.

    Like it or not, these days scientific research is a very specialised field of study. There are many areas of science that are largely inaccessible from the "outside" unless you are willing to dedicate yourself to years of study and training. That doesn't mean that the experts can't explain anything about the science to the general public, but it does mean that they are often forced to explain using analogies or simplifications. This is especially true when mathematical theories are involved, since most people lack the necessary expertise to understand the details.

    Debate at any frontier of knowledge, in any academic discipline, is always conducted internally. Internal controversies can sometimes spill out to the "outside" that you mention, but it is seldom the case that outsiders are equipped to introduce new ideas or approaches that have not already come to the attention of the experts. The reasons have to do with what it means to be an expert in the first place, once again. The professional literature is for the professionals who can understand it. This is not unique in science. All professional fields have their own literature in which internal discussions and debates occur.


    Science is, by its nature, an open discipline, in that its findings and methods are publically available to all. The only exceptions are certain proprietary processes, usually tied to the commercialisation of research, and then only for a limited time.

    There are no secret handshakes in science, or sealed secret writings or documents that you're only allowed access to you when the high priests deem that you've reached a sufficient level of grace.

    It's interesting that you use Gould - an accessible and prolific populariser of science - as an example of somebody who wanted to keep his ideas under wraps!

    I recall showing that the alleged conspiracy was ludicrous.
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  5. Jeeves Valued Senior Member

    Does any word mean anything anymore?
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  7. Saint Valued Senior Member

    there is no evidence in lab to prove that single cell can mutate into multi cell and develop complicated functions.
    no evidence at all.
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  8. exchemist Valued Senior Member

    There is no evidence in the lab that a red giant star can become a supernova, or that there are convection currents in the rocks of the Earth's mantle either. Yet they too are established science.

    Ask yourself how that is.
  9. origin Heading towards oblivion Valued Senior Member

    False. Stem cells have been used to grow multicellular organs.
    Feel free to ignore this since conflicts with what you want want to believe.
  10. Yazata Valued Senior Member

    Important note: I didn't start this thread. James R did. This post originally existed in a context in which Saint had expressed an opinion and received a lot of rather rude abuse. My motivations in writing the post that's now the OP in this new thread were twofold: 1. To head off the abuse. I don't like bullies and bullying and I always stand up to them and challenge them to come through me. (They can't.) And 2. To perhaps communicate with Saint. You don't get people to listen to you by insulting them, you have to be sympathetic to what they are trying to say.

    I'm inclined to agree. The thing is, since both 'science' and 'religion' lack clear mathematical-style definitions, their edges are typically fuzzy and the interface between them indistinct.

    My point was merely that science and religion do share qualities in common. I think that's indisputable, despite the hostility that adherents of one might feel for the other.

    This rest of your reply seems to be objections to what I took to be shared qualities.

    Your "typically", "usually", "often" and "most" suggest that these qualities won't do if we are seeking necessary and sufficient conditions. Certainly they are qualities shared by a number of paradigmatic religions and thus possession of them will likely result in something being labeled a 'religion'. That's how it seems to work.

    See the discussion here:

    I think that defining the word 'religion' is much tougher problem than Sciforums seems to want to acknowledge. It's still an open question among scholars, a question that can't just be easily dismissed by looking in a dictionary. That's not how it works.

    The same thing is true of 'science'.

    That may or may not exclude psychology and the social sciences. It would seemingly exclude mathematics, which is often grouped with the sciences, if only by courtesy. (Physics is hugely dependent on mathematics.) Mathematics seems to proceed by very different methods.

    It does have its "laws of physics" which seem to be transcendent in some mysterious sense.

    We even saw Krauss trying to spin the reality of reality itself out of his beloved laws of physics, believing that he was driving a stake through the heart of "the philosophers and the theologians". Except that 'God as the source of cosmic order' and 'Laws of physics as the source of cosmic order'... six of one, half a dozen of the other. It really does start to look like traditional natural theology, except more abstract and depersonalized.

    I think that he's the one mixing them up.

    Dawkins goes far beyond explaining evolutionary biology (as I've tried to do in response to Saint on the other thread, pretty much the only person in that thread that actually wrote about biology). Dawkins' target is religion per se.

    He's pretty clearly attacking what he perceives to be a rival faith/belief-system/whatever you want to call it. It reminds me of a lot of the Christian rhetoric that we saw in the 19th century attacking the Buddhists or whoever it was. Heathens... they are all going to Hell.

    For laymen it is a dogma, an article of faith. It probably is for most scientists as well, those who aren't evolutionary biologists who haven't examined the evidence themselves and all of the exceedingly technical theorizing that goes into interpreting it. They are just accepting on faith that others have examined it and come to the correct conclusions. (That's all that Sciforums ever seems to do.)

    Yes, I agree. But oftentimes it's a matter of judgement.

    But my point wasn't that there is no distinction, but something rather different. I was arguing that both 'science' and 'religion' take in a whole lot of different examples that each display a wide variety of characteristics. Examples are classed as 'science' or 'religion' based on how many of these characteristics they share in common with other examples that we already consider paradigmatic 'religions' or 'sciences'. Belief in 'God'? Coheres with Christianity, Judaism and Islam, hence we'll say it's a religion.

    I'm inclined to define 'faith' to mean commitment (it goes beyond simple belief to something more like trust) in things whose justification is insufficient to be conclusive. Take it or leave it, it's how I was using it in my response to Saint.

    Why is it do important to people like Bill Nye that laypeople all believe in science, even if they are in no position to understand it?

    You seem to be agreeing with me there.
    Last edited: Jan 5, 2020
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  11. Yazata Valued Senior Member

    Post went over 10K characters, so here's part II:

    My point there, in the context of the other evolution thread, is that a great deal of what laypeople believe is established scientific fact is really an arena of intense controversy. While everyone participating in the controversy accepts the big evolutionary picture, natural selection and all that, when it comes to things like phylogenetic reconstructions of the time-tree of life, the whole thing kind of dissolves into issues and sub-issues and sub-sub-issues, the answers to which typically seem to involve a host of assumptions.

    When was the last time you saw material like the material in the UC Berkeley graduate class in Phylogenetics whose detailed syllabus and lecture notes are in the link below, presented on the layman's level? (Could it be presented at the layman's level? Probably not.) Laypeople just assume that the scientists understand the history of life and the relationships of all living things (with maybe a remaining question here and there). But in real life its an exceedingly complex process of reconstruction that's very much a work-in-progress,

    I am NOT arguing that what these biologists are doing is religion, or even that it resembles religion in any significant way. I am arguing that by the time this kind of stuff trickles down to the street, it does resemble religion in some interesting ways. It's well on its way to becoming myth, for one thing, what Steven Jay Gould called 'just so stories' (he didn't originate the phrase).

    Sure, but the version that leaks down to the man or woman on the street is presented as a lot more certain and nailed down than the actual science really is.

    A rather blithe, expansive and unguarded popularizer. I think that his experience with creationists taking his words out of context and misrepresenting them has led other scientists to be careful not to make the same mistakes.

    Yes, I thought so too. But it does illustrate how an unguarded word, whether Ayala's or the science-writer's, can stir up all kinds of unwelcome shit.
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  12. iceaura Valued Senior Member

    Evolution is no more a religion than earthquakes or planetary orbits are. It's a category of physical event.
    You are attempting to shoehorn "theology" into an arena that lacks deities. I predict confusion.
    Dawkins as an explainer of evolutionary theory is no more a theologian than any modern astronomer or geologist is.

    An inability to distinguish physical theory from theology, bottom up from top down in a sense, is going to screw up any analysis of scientific theory or explainer thereof.
    What "mistakes"?
    Since when is being lied about, misrepresented, slandered, and dishonestly attacked, a mistake made by the victim?
    Doubtful. I meet very few laymen whose accurate assumptions of scientific claims in evolutionary biology include anything controversial. Laymen's awareness seldom reaches that frontier - or even the arena of the well established. It's one of those arenas whose entry requirements involve significant effort.

    Where the layman commonly or normally parts company with the evolutionary biologist is in the layman's inaccurate beliefs concerning scientific fact - and these are not controversial either: they are simply wrong.
  13. davewhite04 Valued Senior Member

    So is medicine, IT, astro physics, mathematics... a religion?

    Do you know what a religion is? It is not science. Two different forums. Cesspool.
  14. iceaura Valued Senior Member

    Saint's OP and subsequent posting, like a lot of Saint's posting here, is rude and abusive - as is most of the posting here from that crowd. Their track record of dishonesty and slander and bad faith and abusive attack, represented here by Saint in typical fashion, is a reality that anyone can address without fear of escalation - they are already there.

    They have no claim on anyone's "respect".
    A personal divinity ("personalized"?) is not a reality on any kind of par with an established mathematical deduction or an evidence and mechanism and theory backed law of nature.

    It's not that deities and the like are necessarily bogus or ill-considered - it's just that they are not comparable as "realities". Laws of nature and mathematical deductions are not "personalized", by definition.
  15. iceaura Valued Senior Member

    The syntax problems almost universal among apologists for fundie religions are typical of attempts to say in English what if written directly and clearly would immediately be read as nonsense.

    Scientists believe in a belief system? One immediately asks whether that belief is part of the belief system - and creates a muddle.
    Laymen are "adherents" of science? - does that mean they share the (fairly sophisticated) belief system of "science", or that they believe in it by faith without knowing what it is (which would imply that belief in belief by faith is part of the belief system of "science"), or what?
    "Religion" - the entire category - has "adherents"? A given worldview? A single belief system?
  16. James R Just this guy, you know? Staff Member


    In fact, Saint made a number of false claims about scientific facts. He was asked to provide arguments or evidence to back up his assertions but made no attempt to do so, instead going on to make further erroneous claims without supporting argument or evidence.

    I moved your post to its own thread to extract it from the mindless context of Saint's posts in that other thread, to allow for discussion of an interesting topic as a spin-off.

    I've recently had a similar discussion with Magical Realist. When somebody comes to a science forum and makes false claims about science, never attempting to provide evidence or argument in support of the assertions that he makes, it is not abusing or bullying to ask him to provide such argument or evidence. Saint is, presumably, an adult. He knows what he is doing. He really doesn't need to you step in to try to legitimise his disingenuous and lazy attempts to abuse scientists and the scientific process.

    That's never worked for anybody before. I'll give you one example. Saint has had a long-running thread in which he repeatedly asks our membership to help him with points of English grammar and meaning. Over years now, various members have patiently answered his questions, often with in-depth explanations and examples.

    How many times have you seen Saint thank our members for their help? How many times have you even seen him acknowledge the helpful answers he has been given? Has it ever happened? Not as far as I can recall.

    Saint has never given any indication that he is anything other than somebody who is wrapped up in himself and his own concerns. Has he ever thanked you for jumping in on his behalf, as you claim to be doing here? I'll wager he hasn't, and he won't.
  17. James R Just this guy, you know? Staff Member

    Correct. I disagree with the shared qualities you have suggested so far.

    I'm well aware that defining something as complex as science or religion is problematic. That is why I was careful to qualify the statements I made. I don't think you can list necessary and sufficient conditions any more than I can.

    sciforums isn't group think.

    You often talk as if there's a sort of unspoken consensus here about a lot of topics, especially the ones that you find yourself out on a limb about. In this case, you assume that our membership in general thinks that religion is easy to define, even though, as far as I can tell, you haven't tested the waters on that one to find our what our various members think about that. There's no guarantee that there's any kind of consensus position on something like that, here. Also, there's no secret cabal discussing the party line behind the scenes.

    I don't think it excludes them, at least in so far as they are based on observation. Psychology, in particular, has lots of controlled studies.

    Mathematics was traditionally part of the Arts faculty in some universities. It is not an empirical science. I'd be reasonably comfortable saying that it is not science at all.

    Yes, as a tool.

    In some respects, yes. On the other hand, there are also similiarities.

    Not in my opinion. I'm an instrumentalist.

    I'm not sure what you're talking about with Krauss. As far as I'm aware, he only set out to show that our universe is consistent with a "zero-total-energy" model, thereby showing that "something can come from nothing", in a certain sense. Again, as far as I'm aware, he doesn't assume anything outside of what we observe.

    I think you're mistaken about him, in this respect.

    For a long time before he wrote The God Delusion, Dawkins only wrote about biology and evolution (i.e. science). His ideas about science are not in any way dependent upon his beliefs about God or religion. They stand on their own and can be (should be) considered on their own merits.

    I agree with you that in The God Delusion and in other works discussing atheism and religion, Dawkins has "targetted" religion? But what of it? That doesn't make him a bad scientist, or anything like that.

    What I don't understand is why you think he mixes science and religion. In what way do you think he does that?

    I think that he would say that he's speaking out about the harm that is caused by various specific religious beliefs and followers. You can call it rhetoric if you like. It is political. Note, however, that Dawkins is not advocating that anybody be punished for not being atheist, or that they will go to Hell, or whatever. The same can't be said for his religious opponents.

    This brings us back to a modern problem that we've probably discussed before: whether we can trust experts and, if so, how far should that trust extend.

    It sounds to me like you don't have a lot of trust in evolutionary biologists, for some reason, or that you don't think "laymen" should trust them. In principle, the laymen are in a position where they can test the claims of the evolutionists for themselves. The relevant evidence and arguments are all in the public domain. If they lack trust in the experts, they can spend their time learning evolutionary biology themselves and check for errors or fraud, at least in principle.

    But this is true of any expert field, whether it be chartered accountancy, musical composition, engineering, constitutional law, or whatever you want to name. Don't trust the Supreme Court justices? Well, go read the Constitution yourself, and the precedents, and hte case law and the conventions and learn about legal interpretation etc. etc. Decide for yourself whether they are right or wrong.

    Don't trust your baker to make bread properly? Learn how to do it yourself. Bake your own bread!

    What I don't understand is why you choose to focus on scientists as being experts who are especially worthy of your distrust. And do you think that religious authorities are more trustworthy?

    That sounds very similar to the ordinary use of the word "faith" that I talked about before. You have faith that your car won't break down today, because you only had it serviced last week. That faith encompasses a reasonable, evidence-based assessment of the probable outcomes, combined with an implied trust in the people who repaired your car, and so on. It's not guaranteed that your car won't break down today, but you're confident that it won't.

    Faith that a supernatural God exists isn't the same thing. It's not just that the justification is insufficient to be conclusive. It's that justification for the belief is wholly lacking if you consider it objectively.

    In principle, I could assess the state of mechanical repair of your car, and look into the expertise and record of your repairers and so on, and judge for myself whether your "faith" that your car will get you to work without breaking down is reasonable or not. But there's nothing I can do to objectively ascertain whether your God belief is justifiable. It's a purely subjective belief you have, not based on any objective evidence that stands up to close scrutiny.

    I can't speak for Bill Nye, but if I had to guess, I'd say that fundamentally he wants people to put themselves in a better position to understand the science better than they do. That's what science educators and popularisers do: try to lift the level of scientific literacy among the general public.

    The hope is that, with education, people are less likely to believe things for bad reasons. Knowing some science ought to help disabuse people of some false beliefs.

    It's wrong of you to imply that the public are all idiots who can only trust in science (or not). This isn't a binary situation. It's not a case that either you're a Nobel Prize winner or you're an idiot who knows nothing about science. Scientific learning - like every other kind of learning - exists on a continuum. Knowing a little science has to be better than knowing none at all.
  18. James R Just this guy, you know? Staff Member


    I disagree.

    What laypeople know about evolution are the basics, generally speaking, if they know anything. The basics are uncontroversial. The controversies don't make it into the school textbooks. There isn't time to discuss them in a crowded curriculum, and besides, the arguments are being had a level where the schoolkids can't be in a position to decide the issues either way on their own.

    What makes it into the school textbooks is the science we're very sure about, generally speaking.

    What you're probably looking at there is a set of competing theories, which is business as usual for science. Science works by spinning multiple hypotheses and testing them, ultimately rejecting the ones that don't fit the observations. All research at the boundaries of what is currently known involves multiple, competing ideas: it could be this; it could be that; we don't know until we do the experiment/make the observations/collect more data.

    There you go. You answered your own question.

    Now you're talking perhaps, of laypeople placing too much trust in scientists, assuming they know more than they actually know. Certainly that can happen, but again that isn't unique to science. People trust all kinds of experts too much, and at the same time people trust all kinds of experts too little. Let's face it: a lot of people don't have good methods for deciding who to trust about what.

    Certainly, there are common misunderstandings of science that you might call urban myths. I'm not sure you can blame the scientists for that, though.

    It was Rudyard Kipling.

    Personally, I find that scientists, when quoted accurately or interviewed in person, tend to be careful to give clear signals about what they are sure about and what is uncertain. On the other hand, second-hand media reports (to take one example) often tend to hype up the science for the sake of the story, sometimes going off on wild extrapolations of the journalists' own invention.

    It should also be said that scientists are not always the best communicators, even of their own work, though there are many prominent counterexamples.

    Like iceaura, I'm not sure what mistakes you think Gould made. I don't see how it's his fault if creationists quote-mined him and took him out of context, deliberately and dishonestly.
  19. Jeeves Valued Senior Member

    Except the existence of you, me and every other animal and plant in the world.
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  20. kx000 Valued Senior Member

    Science can be part of and honored by (the dharma) religion, but they arent the same. But if faith can really tell the truth it belongs with the sciences, what so ever.
  21. iceaura Valued Senior Member

    That isn't clear to very many people - for one thing, he seems to be talking mostly about God-based beliefs held by people in modern industrial societies that support scientific research etc - the great monotheisms of the modern Western civilizations; that's hardly "religion per se".
  22. Hapsburg Hellenistic polytheist Valued Senior Member

    No. Science is a method of discovering knowledge, based on experimentation. It has no rituals, no specific creed or belief system. There's a loose community, but science doesn't contextualize ideas and experiences through ritual the way that religion does. They're not comparable at all, even using the broadest definition of religion.
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  23. Saint Valued Senior Member

    Science must be able to repeat and reproduce.
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