Sep 5th 2013

Science Is Not Religion

by Jeff Schweitzer

Jeff Schweitzer is a scientist and former White House Senior Policy Analyst; Ph.D. in marine biology/neurophysiology

Author Christine Ma-Kellams recently told HuffPost Science that, "In many ways, science seems like a 21st Century religion. It's a belief system that many wholeheartedly defend and evolve their lives around, sometimes as much as the devoutest of religious folk."

Nothing could be further from the truth. Science is not a "belief system" but a process and methodology for seeking an objective reality. Of course because scientific exploration is a human endeavor it comes with all the flaws of humanity: ego, short-sightedness, corruption and greed. But unlike a "belief system" such as religion untethered to an objective truth, science is over time self-policing; competing scientists have a strong incentive to corroborate and build on the findings of others; but equally, to prove other scientists wrong by means that can be duplicated by others. Nobody is doing experiments to demonstrate how Noah could live to 600 years old, because those who believe that story are not confined to reproducible evidence to support their belief. But experiments were done to show the earth orbits the sun, not the other way around.

Here is the fundamental and irreconcilable conflict between the two: science searches for mechanisms and the answer to "how" the universe functions, with no appeal to higher purpose, without assuming the existence of such purpose. Religion seeks meaning and the answer to "why" the world is as we know it, based on the unquestioned assumption that such meaning and purpose exist. The two worldviews could not more incompatible.

Unlike scientific claims, beliefs cannot be arbitrated to determine which is valid because there is no objective basis on which to compare one set of beliefs to another. Those two world views are not closer than we think; they are as far apart as could possibly be imagined.

Religion and science are incompatible at every level. The two seek different answers to separate questions using fundamentally and inherently incompatible methods. Nothing can truly bring the two together without sacrificing intellectual honesty.

We are told that since science and faith are both fallible, both are equally valid approaches to understanding the world and ourselves. Here is what Jeffrey Small says about this: 
"Bias, preconceived ideas, academic politics, ego and resistance to change are ever-present in scientific and academic communities and often result in institutional opposition to new theories, especially ground-breaking ones. Many scientists initially resisted Copernicus, Kepler and Galileo because they presented a new paradigm of the universe."

Well, exactly! What this proves is that over time, science is indeed self-correcting while faith is not. While we all know now, due to science, that the earth orbits the sun, the Church is still fighting the battle with Galileo. Even today in the 21st century, the Church claims that Galileo shares blame because he made unproven assertions. Unproven assertions! The best the Pope could muster was that he regretted the "tragic mutual incomprehension" that had caused Galileo to suffer. As the new millennium settles in, the Church still claims that Galileo was wrong. The dissonance between Scripture and fact is not a problem relegated to earlier centuries, but remains relevant today.

Science is indeed fallible, and scientists suffer from all the usual human foibles. But reproducibility, scrutiny from other scientists, the drive for new knowledge, the glory of overturning orthodoxy, all drive science to a better understanding of an objective truth or our best approximation of it; this method of understanding the world is inherently incompatible with faith. Faith cannot be contested: I believe, therefore it is true. All scientific claims are by nature contestable. Those differences cannot be reconciled. Ever.

In reality we need to turn this argument about fallibility on its head. Science never claims to be infallible. There would be no need for more research if scientists believed they had all the answers, and all of them right. But god by definition is infallible. And yet. The Bible's clear statement about age of the earth, off by more than 4 billion years, is one example of an important factual error. Sure, maybe this is a mistake of human interpretation of divine will. But with each new discovery proving a Biblical assertion wrong, the Church retreats to the safety of errors in interpretation or dismissing the discrepancy as unimportant. Yet the ever-accumulating factual mistakes must call into question the certainty with which the Church claims that god, or the Bible, is infallible, since their previous insistence has proven unsubstantiated with glaring factual mistakes. These doubts about infallibility apply, too, to the Church's teachings on morality. If the bible is the literal word of god, then god has clearly blown it. If the bible is a flawed interpretation of god's will, then the conclusions about morality can be equally flawed. The issue of fallibility is a problem for the faithful, not for science and reason. Never confuse the two.

Originally posted on the Huffington Post, posted here with the kind permission of the author.

 


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