Science is not a religion

Before criticizing our newest ScienceBlogger, David Sloan Wilson, who has moved here from the Huffington Post, let me add my voice to those who are welcoming the move. It is a good thing to have such an esteemed and accomplished scientist among our ranks. But like fellow blogger Eric Michael Johnson, I found David's first post in these parts is more than a little unsettling.

Under the headline of "Goodbye HuffPost, Hello ScienceBlogs: Science as a Religion that Worships Truth as its God," he provocatively writes:

Science can even be regarded as a religion that worships truth as its god. It might seem provocative to put it this way, but I find the comparison compelling and challenge my readers to show what's wrong with it.

Well, he asked for it.

As you might imagine, those kind of thoughts don't go down well here on the Island of Doubt, which was named partly because I really like the Talking Heads song, "Cross-eyed and Painless," from which the line was taken, but mostly because without doubt, science is nothing. Indeed, a lack of uncertainty is one of the ways you can identify something as unscientific. The one thing science is not is a religion.

Nature editor Henry Gee has already written a better response than I could manage, so I'll just point you there and pass on his opening:

I don't think I've read or heard anything more misleading all day, and in this post I hope to explain why I am so concerned.


What science is all about, in contrast, is the quantification of doubt.

It is doubt, friends, that fuels science: the testing of hypotheses; the subjection of scientific ideas, grant applications, papers and presentations, to exacting scepticism..

Let me just add that I know that social theorists find these kind of statements annoying. They consider science just another ideology with all the baggage that comes with one. But whenever I get into a debate with one of those social theorists, it's clear they don't understand how science really works. I will continue to insist that science is neither ideology nor religion. No other ideology or religion even comes close to the scientific method's reliance on skepticism to advance understanding. (Some Catholics will claim that doubt is an essential element of their faith, but I think they're using the word in a manner that makes no real sense.)

Again, read Henry's response. It's dead on. But do welcome David to the collective.

More like this

David Sloan Wilson certainly got a warm and appropriate welcome here. His first post was titled Science as a Religion that Worships Truth as its God, a phrase that purées together both "religion" and "science" with "truth" as a wickedly wielded whisk, and immediately set a number of people on edge…
I am tremendously excited to have David Sloan Wilson as a member of ScienceBlogs, and having had a small role in his decision is extremely gratifying. However, I take serious issue with the thesis of his first entry that bears the subtitle "Science as a Religion that Worships Truth as its God."…
You should never, ever criticize something a New Atheist says about science and religion. Never tell them maybe it's not the best idea in the world to just go on about science/evolution + religion in whatever way, at whatever time, in whatever manner, for whatever reasons. In fact, you cannot…
David Sloan Wilson, an atheist himself, has a few things to relate to 'angry atheists' like Richard Dawkins. I piss off atheists more than any other category, and I am an atheist. One of the things that infuriates me about the newest crop of angry atheists, such as Richard Dawkins, is their denial…

It seems DSW is an "I'm and atheist but". I have no time for the ambivalence. The world has wasted enough time on religion already.

Apparently bringing along a backlog of posts from HuffPo or elsewhere, DSW has nine items up on SciBlogs already.

There seems to be nothing about group selection in any of these, apart from a passing mention in the 9th. Maybe he should re-title his blog "Atheist-bashing for Everyone".

By Pierce R. Butler (not verified) on 23 Oct 2009 #permalink

I already said as much over at the Primate Diaries, but since you've picked up the meme, I'll repeat myself...

I don't think you can articulate the concept of 'doubt' without reference to the concept of 'truth,' nor can you explain the value of doubt in science except in terms of its relation to truth. So Gee has, unfortunately, served up a platter of red herring.

This serves as a concise illustration of how good working scientists might nonetheless harbor illusions about what they do every day -- not so different from more tradional religionists.

By bob koepp (not verified) on 23 Oct 2009 #permalink

I think science is really all about 3 questions:

1. How can I tell I'm not fooling myself?

2. How can I tell if I'm wrong?

3. What test can I perform that will tell me?

All the rest is details.

And religion is the antithesis of those questions.

I didn't read the original article and can't say I feel greatly compelled to do so. On the otherhand what is written here and the given link are great explanations of why science is not a religion nor even an ideology, any more than addition, multiplication, division or subtraction are religions or ideologies. Am I religious? Yes, but I'm smart enough not to confuse science and religion.

By Mike Olson (not verified) on 23 Oct 2009 #permalink

Science is not religion, but people are very religious about every sort of thing, especially supposed knowledge of how things work.

I have scientific questions for you , can you answer all these:

The test of any theory is whether or not it provides answers to basic questions? Some well-meaning but misguided people think evolution is a reasonable theory to explain manâs questions about the universe. Evolution is not a good theory â it is just a pagan religion masquerading as science.

1. Where did the space for the universe come from?

2. Where did matter come from?

3. Where did the laws of the universe come from (gravity, inertia, etc.)?

4. How did matter get so perfectly organized?

5. Where did the energy come from to do all the organizing?

6. When, where, why, and how did life come from dead matter?

7. When, where, why, and how did life learn to reproduce itself?

8. With what did the first cell capable of sexual reproduction reproduce?

9. Why would any plant or animal want to reproduce more of its kind since this would only make more mouths to feed and decrease the chances of survival? (Does the individual have a drive to survive, or the species? How do you explain this?)

10. How can mutations (recombining of the genetic code) create any new, improved varieties? (Recombining English letters will never produce Chinese books.)

11. Is it possible that similarities in design between different animals prove a common Creator instead of a common ancestor?

12. Natural selection only works with the genetic information available and tends only to keep a species stable. How would you explain the increasing complexity in the genetic code that must have occurred if evolution were true?

13. When, where, why, and how did
a. Single-celled plants become multi-celled? (Where are the two and three-celled intermediates?)
b. Single-celled animals evolve?
c. Fish change to amphibians?
d. Amphibians change to reptiles?
e. Reptiles change to birds? (The lungs, bones, eyes, reproductive organs, heart, method of locomotion, body covering, etc., are all very different!)
f. How did the intermediate forms live?

14. When, where, why, how, and from what did:
a. Whales evolve?
b. Sea horses evolve?
c. Bats evolve?
d. Eyes evolve?
e. Ears evolve?
f. Hair, skin, feathers, scales, nails, claws, etc., evolve?

15. Which evolved first (how, and how long, did it work without the others)?
a. The digestive system, the food to be digested, the appetite, the ability to find and eat the food, the digestive juices, or the bodyâs resistance to its own digestive juice (stomach, intestines, etc.)?
b. The drive to reproduce or the ability to reproduce?
c. The lungs, the mucus lining to protect them, the throat, or the perfect mixture of gases to be breathed into the lungs?
d. DNA or RNA to carry the DNA message to cell parts?
e. The termite or the flagella in its intestines that actually digest the cellulose?
f. The plants or the insects that live on and pollinate the plants?
g. The bones, ligaments, tendons, blood supply, or muscles to move the bones?
h. The nervous system, repair system, or hormone system?
i. The immune system or the need for it?

16. There are many thousands of examples of symbiosis that defy an evolutionary explanation. Why must we teach students that evolution is the only explanation for these relationships?

17. How would evolution explain mimicry? Did the plants and animals develop mimicry by chance, by their intelligent choice, or by design?

18. When, where, why, and how did man evolve feelings? Love, mercy, guilt, etc. would never evolve in the theory of evolution.

19. How did photosynthesis evolve?

20. How did thought evolve?

21. How did flowering plants evolve, and from what?

22. What kind of evolutionist are you? Why are you not one of the other eight or ten kinds?

23. What would you have said fifty years ago if I told you I had a living coelacanth in my aquarium?

24. Is there one clear prediction of macroevolution that has proved true?

25. What is so scientific about the idea of hydrogen gas becoming human?

26. Do you honestly believe that everything came from nothing?

After you have answered the preceding questions, please look carefully at your answers and thoughtfully consider the following questions.

1. Are you sure your answers are reasonable, right, and scientifically provable, or do you just believe that it may have happened the way you have answered? (Do these answers reflect your religion or your science?)

2. Do your answers show more or less faith than the person who says, "God must have designed it"?

3. Is it possible that an unseen Creator designed this universe? If God is excluded at the beginning of the discussion by your definition of science, how could it be shown that He did create the universe if He did?

4. Is it wise and fair to present the theory of evolution to students as fact?

5. What is the end result of a belief in evolution (lifestyle, society, attitude about others, eternal destiny, etc.)?

6. Do people accept evolution because of the following factors?
a. It is all they have been taught.
b. They like the freedom from God (no moral absolutes, etc.).
c. They are bound to support the theory for fear of losing their job or status or grade point average.
d. They are too proud to admit they are wrong.
e. Evolution is the only philosophy that can be used to justify their political agenda.

7. Should we continue to use outdated, disproved, questionable, or inconclusive evidences to support the theory of evolution because we donât have a suitable substitute (Piltdown man, recapitulation, archaeopteryx, Lucy, Java man, Neanderthal man, horse evolution, vestigial organs, etc.)?

8. Should parents be allowed to require that evolution not be taught as fact in their school system unless equal time is given to other theories of origins (like divine creation)?

9. What are you risking if you are wrong? As one of my debate opponents said, "Either there is a God or there is not. Both possibilities are frightening."

10. Why are many evolutionists afraid of the idea of creationism being presented in public schools? If we are not supposed to teach religion in schools, then why not get evolution out of the textbooks? It is just a religious worldview.

11. Arenât you tired of faith in a system that cannot be true? Wouldnât it be great to know the God who made you, and to accept His love and forgiveness?

12. Would you be interested, if I showed you from the Bible, how to have your sins forgiven and how to know for sure that you are going to Heaven? If so, call me.

Joseph Dunnam: *Your* answer to many of those questions is something that is utterly unscientific: a(n almost by definition) non-testable hypothesis. Science, in contrast, offers testable hypothesis, and is not afraid to call speculation "speculation", but followed by possible ways of testing this speculation. This is completely and utterly lacking in religion. Consider this an answer to your second point 3: a nontestable issue is not a field of science. You then also know why religious beliefs should not be discussed in science classes.

Faith in science?

The uneducated people still need "faith" to "believe" in science or the scientists. Even I need "faith" to trust that our whole scientific system works adequately in order for me to "believe" that studies have been performed with the scientific method and controls properly used.

I have evidence in my own life that my own scientific education prepared me properly to be able to discern a "real" study and "real" researchers from the grey zone of fraud, wanna-be's, imitators (like creationist science) or marketers who bend science for sales and PR.

But it's not easy! Many studies are difficult to understand for the lay person. And we're not talking physics here -- we all get it that physics, math, chemistry can be difficult to understand even for fellow scientists. "Softer" science studies (are dogs intelligent?, does garlic repel mosquitos? ) are VERY difficult to asses -- how many lay people judge the statistics based on small samples, the stupidly-formulated hypothesis, the missing references ?!

So it's all about education or lack of education in a rational manner. I know I don't have to "believe" in science or engineering: the results speak for themselves. LOUDLY! Just look around for proof that our science/tech knowledge works.

But I still have to "believe" and have "faith" that any particular study that I cannot understand and that other scientific groups have not yet duplicated is accurate -- I have to have faith in our fellow scientists, in the institutions, universities and journals, in the peer review systems, etc. And in our science writers. There is little I can do to check, to see for myself. I have to take others' word for it! Hence, "belief" .. hence .. some people who do not understand science would see how they have to believe in a god or church they know nothing about, or in scientists they know nothing about.

Unfortunately, our collective "faith" (how I hate using that word) in a rational world-view seems on the vane here in USA. The crimes of religion are easily forgotten, people believe in alternative medicine, ghosts, talking to the dead. Psychics get rich while psychologists scramble for funding.

Anyone has any solutions? Chime in. I for one love the scienceblogs, a good way to hear directly from scientists.

By stilldreaming (not verified) on 26 Oct 2009 #permalink

Aw shucks, James. (blushes)

By cromercrox (not verified) on 27 Oct 2009 #permalink

The word "religion" comes from the Latin root (religio), the bond between men and Gods. Or perhaps from (religare) to bind back: re - , back + ligare, to bind, fasten.

It seems to me that the term has been used by everybody without this consideration. Whatever ties many mysteries all together with truth, insight, wisdom, and discovery leading to knowledge it seems to me, should permit it to qualify it as religion. The whole creation is one big mystery and we are as men the measure of all things. So lighten up and allow the science to qualify. The fact that communists (rabid atheists) also do science has doesn't prove that science is disqualified as being a link to solving mysteries of creation. This squabble is proof that we are still in the dark ages arguing over insubstantial hair splitting topics while our energies are better used in the quest for truth and science does much of that today. Copernicus and others did us all a favor when he pulled us all out of the dark ages with his work. Superstition and dogma began there retreat into the fires of obsolescence as science liberates the mind of mankind . To miss this fact is to slip on the slope of reason where traction firmly grasps all but the irrational.

By Markus Broyles (not verified) on 10 Nov 2009 #permalink