Correcting stereotypes about Science and Religion

May 4, 2010

Too much popular writing about science and religion relies on mistaken stereotypes. These simple stereotypes are useful for rhetorical attack. But they can leave wrong ideas about science and how it works. Better to teach about what science really does, than to score cheap points against religion.

False contrasts between science and religion

Here are some false contrasts. Even if the first part of each contrast is right about religion, the contrast is misleading.

  • religion supposes that there is a deeper hidden reality, while science only deals with what is observable
  • religion projects wishful thinking onto an unknown reality, while science passively accepts the facts from a known reality
  • religion relies on flights of fanciful imagination, while science relies on calculating rationality
  • religion is not constrained by plain common sense, while science conforms to expectations of plain common sense
  • religion talks about highly unnatural spooky things, while science talks about fairly ordinary natural things
  • religion proliferates into innumerable varieties, while science settles straight into one account
  • religion appeals to any numbers of strange powers to deal with, while science only uses one strict form of lawful explanation
  • religion thinks that we can relate to higher powers to help us, while science thinks that higher powers are utterly independent and beyond manipulation
  • religion is about guiding people towards a hopeful potential future, while science is about telling people what will necessarily happen anyways
  • religion will never converge on one story for all the answers, while science will eventually have a comprehensive explanation for everything
  • religion wants to think that it serves an irreplaceable role, while science can eventually replace all religious answers and functions

Correcting the stereotypes about science

Science does propose that there is a deeper reality behind what can be observed. Science searches for the hidden underlying powers that are really responsible for what observable things are doing.

Science does not know what reality is like in advance. Scientists must actively project their best guesses onto the unknown world to find out what may be correct.

Science relies on flights of fanciful imagination even more than religion, since religion is typically conservative while science must occasionally try radical new ideas.

There is no limitation upon scientific imagination. Sciences occasionally postulate wildly counterintuitive and "unnatural" things that violate both common sense and what counted as natural according to older scientific knowledge.

Science doesn’t settle into any simple account of reality. The sciences postulate very different kinds of things. Physics describes atoms and biology deals with cells, and cultures are very different from continents. The quantum level of nature is very different from our human-scale realm of nature.

There is a general method of scientific inquiry (but not a strict essence), in which scientific laws can vary widely. Some sciences use precise mathematical laws in partial differential equations, some sciences only use statistical-probability laws, while other sciences can at best postulate habits/tendencies/bell curves (eg social sciences). The three main orders of nature (physical, sub-atomic, social) conform to three different modes of lawful behavior.

Science only understands nature as it relates to our interactions with it. Science confirms its hypotheses by demonstrating reliable control over expected experimental outcomes.

Science is the technology of reasonable hope for potential futures. Science helps people to technologically produce what they want as they manipulate nature into one future rather than another. Where there are limits to our powers, science also tells us why.

Science will never have a complete explanation for everything. For any “final” laws or set of “initial” conditions, science can always ask, and try to investigate, why just those laws and those initial conditions. “It just happened that way” is a halting of intelligence, not a scientific answer. 

Correcting the stereotypes: the real differences

Science and religion differ mainly on the way they propose and confirm hypotheses. They primarily aim at different aspects of reality , they postulate different kinds of things in their explanations, and they test their explanations in distinct ways .

Science postulates habitual impersonal things (like atoms or forces) to explain patterns in the environment. Religion postulates unpredictable willful agents (like spirits or gods) to explain particular extraordinary events.

Science only resorts to postulating agents where impersonal things won’t work as well (eg social sciences). Religion will accept natural forces so long as agents are ultimately responsible for those forces.

Science can secondarily explain particular extraordinary events after primarily studying nature’s regular ways. Religion can explain nature’s regular patterns only after first crediting a god for establishing the world that special way.

Science rigorously tests its hypotheses against novel and specific experimental results, trying to prove theories false. Religion always can invent a story about an unpredictable god so that any future outcome can always be vaguely explained, trying to prove mythologies true.

Science is an endless process because it seeks corrections from nature, replacing limited theories with better theories. Religion is not endless in this sense, because particular religions tend to fixate on absolute unquestionable answers.

Science is an endless process because it will never run out of environing patterns and initial conditions to empirically investigate. Religion is also endless in this sense because it will never run out of extraordinary events demanding explanation.

Science can never replace all religious answers and religious functions. Religion can forever dance beyond the extent of scientific knowledge, and religion is designed to perform functions for human societies that science is not.

The Big Picture

Science and religion go about their respective explanatory tasks in sufficiently different ways so that a religion can avoid replacement by science. Avoiding replacement by science is the kind of work undertaken by a religious theology. A theological religion can, in theory, keep gods forever beyond the reach of disconfirmation by science. Western theologies have done this by constructing supernaturalisms on top of physical processes. Eastern theologies have done this by elaborating transcendental idealisms on top of psychological processes. Science will endlessly contradict particular religious answers about the world. However, science is not well-designed to directly oppose theologies. Science cannot accommodate religion, but theology can "accommodate" science on its own terms. Nonreligious thinkers can skeptically question theologies and build philosophical naturalisms (starting from the sciences) to deal with theologies over questions about ultimate reality.

Science can never replace all religious functions. Science and religion offer their respective accounts for quite different purposes, so that a religion can avoid replacement by science . “Religion is (1) a community’s hard to fake commitment (2) to a counterfactual and counterintuitive world of supernatural agents (3) who master people’s existential anxieties, such as death and deception.” (Scott Atran, In Gods We Trust , 2002, p. 4) Science can understand how religions do their work, but that ability is very different from science doing religious work. Science is not well-designed to offer existential coping with emotional situations. Theological religions are confident that only they can deal with existential and ethical problems. Science should not try to directly confront theologies. Science cannot directly construct morality, but science can understand how morality objectively fits into the natural world . Nonreligious thinkers can skeptically question theologies and build philosophical humanisms (starting from psychology, etc.) to deal with theologies over questions of meaning, value, and ethics.