I've been thinking a lot about the relationship between science and religion. Each camp seems to characterize this relationship in their respective ways. For instance, theists will typically claim that science is a faith, implying that the same amount of faith is required to believe in it as, say, Christianity. Others, on the other hand, tend to treat them as completely separate — "incompatible magisteria" being the classic label.
I must note that I am very likely abusing the word "science" here. By it I am trying to encompass all skeptical thought based on observed evidence. Also implied in science is the possibility that any theory may be proven incorrect in the future, given sufficient evidence.
First of all, I take issue with the theist's claim by arguing that the faith in science is somehow comparable to the faith required to accept something like Christianity. It is true that there are some things that will never be proven and we must take them to be axiomatic truths. But the amount of faith required to believe in any religion is orders of magnitude greater than that required to accept the basic axioms that we use to describe the world which we observe.
The more interesting issue that this brings up, however, is that the theists are more correct than they know — science and religion actually are quite similar. The error is in which criteria by which to compare them.
My assertion is that science is what religion tries to be. So, from this perspective, science supersedes religion, as it is more powerful and less prone to religion's pitfalls.
Of course, this is incompatible with the theist perspective that religion (whichever one is correct) is supernaturally revealed and therefore trumps any conclusions based on evidence and observation. But there are clues inside of every believer that invalidate the theist's position. To illustrate this, I outline the typical process of coming to faith.
- A prospective believer somehow comes in contact with the bible (or other holy book).
- He reads it and finds that it contains profound wisdom and provides meaning for his life.
- He decides to accept it and dedicates his life to learning from and obeying this book.
I omit the possible step of 0) a religious or miraculous experience. Although I believe it to be common, theists typically don't allude to it as a reason for their faith in a discussion such as this, which seems wise.
Now the crucial point of this process to note is step 2). How does someone come to the conclusion that this book holds profound wisdom? Answer: the bible accurately and successfully (in the prospective believer's mind, anyway) explains the world that he has experienced so far; it illuminates and confirms his suspicions about how the world works.
And this is precisely what science does — attempt to explain the evidence that we observe about the world. I reiterate my claim — religion is an attempt to explain the observable world, and is therefore an attempt at what science more powerfully achieves.
Another way to look at it is this: there are several myths and religions to choose from; why reject almost all of them in favor of just one? Most of them are quickly dismissed because they do not accurately describe the world that we observe. If you found that the holy book to which you currently subscribe had decreed something ridiculous, like "kill all babies," you would never have considered it legitimate in the first place. Why? Because it deviates so wildly from what you already observe to be true and right.
When faced with deciding between equivalently realistic religions, what does the believer do? He assesses the credibility and authority of each religion based on the weight of evidence for each. Again, science has provided the means of distinguishing between religions.
Other thoughts regarding the relationship between science and religion:
- Science is the means by which we choose to accept a religion (consciously or not).
- Science is the means by which we judge between religions (consciously or not).
- Science is the means by which we correct/reinterpret religion's incorrect/misinterpreted claims (consciously or not).
- Science evolves and grows, whereas religion is static, except for reinterpretation, which is enabled and prompted by science.
- No religion has been perfect from its inception; each is trying to get closer and closer to an ideal. This nullifies any advantage of divine revelation that religion can claim to provide over science.
- Religion is more vulnerable to gullibility and a stubborn resistance to correction than science because it depends on belief disproportionate to the amount evidence supporting it.
The other approach to the relationship between science and religion, that they occupy non-overlapping magisteria, has its mantra: "Science tells us how; religion tells us why." The problem with this is, the answers that religion gives for those "why"s are so scant and nebulous as to be effectively worthless and serve only to raise the suspicion that they are mere hand-waving inventions of man. Try following any of these lines of questioning and you end up with infinite regression.
Why are we here? God has a purpose for all of us. What is our purpose? To love God. Okay, what does that entail? Love people. So, in other words, do whatever helps people (including myself) succeed in life? Did I need God to tell me that?
What happens when I die? We go to heaven. What's that like? Better than anything you can imagine. What will we do? Trust me, you want to be there. Um, okay.
The only way I can see these answers satisfying anyone is in the way of comfort. Certainly it is comforting to believe that an omnipotent father-figure is always watching out for us, or that the greatest loss we can possibly suffer in this world is cushioned, even eclipsed, by the promise of an afterlife. Pity that truth is not subject to wishful thinking.