Scientific versus Religious Arguments

Chuck Doswell - 10 June 2011

The inspiration for this comes from a wonderful essay by Chris Mooney in “Mother Jones" that describes “The Science of Why We Don’t Believe Science”.  Its basic premise is the simple observation that folks who’ve become convinced of something almost always find it difficult, if not impossible, to change their minds.  This is probably true for most humans, but it’s not true for most scientists, because science is perpetually in a state of change.  Even scientists have their equivalent to “sacred” notions, but a big difference between science and religion is that scientists must nevertheless always remain open to the possibility that the ideas to which they might cling may need to be discarded.  New evidence forces us to reject old ideas and replace them with new ideas that fit the evidence better than the old ones.  Scientists train themselves to remain as open-minded as possible, even when the ideas being challenged are their own creations.  Having to change one’s ideas happens routinely in science.  Most of the time, the new paradigms are small in scope, narrowly–focused on some tiny part of the science.  Such small changes are very esoteric and matter only to a few specialists.  Other times, the changes are vast and even revolutionary, with stunning new implications (like quantum mechanics and relativity) and perhaps spreading to scientific disciplines outside of the original field (such as chaos theory).  And everywhere in between these extremes.  Science without change is dead and uninteresting, so learning to accept change is an essential part of becoming a scientist.  We embrace change and seek to foster it.

If we consider the mindset of religious believers, on the other hand, a fundamental characteristic shared widely among them is that they cling to their beliefs on faith (which can be defined here as belief without reason or evidence).  And many believers claim, clearly in direct contradiction to the reality of science, that science is a type of religion.  Let’s ponder that notion.  Nothing in science is beyond question.  Science accepts no supernatural “explanations” for anything.  Arguments by authority are recognized in science to have no validity.  Science makes no claim to absolute understanding – rather science seeks to identify the limits to its understanding.  Most of all, scientific debate resolution is always about evidence favoring one notion more than any others.  It’s difficult to see any similarity between science and religion!  Given that most modern world religions were created more than a thousand years ago – that is, prior to the development and rapid expansion of modern science during and after the Renaissance – religious prophets and sacred texts mention relative few direct conflicts with science today.  Among the few arenas in which they clash are:  cosmology, geology, and evolutionary biology. 

When confronted with scientific evidence in favor of modern scientific understanding, many believers follow the patterns described in Chris Mooney’s aforementioned essay:  they seek to rationalize their beliefs so as not to have to change them.  That rationalization involves such things as trying to discredit the evidence, finding ways to interpret the evidence in such a way as to confirm their beliefs, “cherry-picking” the evidence, and so on.  Thus, we have such chimeras as “creation science” that attempt to simulate the scientific process in rationalizing fundamentally unscientific concepts.  This whole rationalization process is puzzling to me, because if religion is founded on faith, it’s inconsistent to seek evidence to justify it!  In response to a challenge based on science, a believer could respond honestly and say “We have faith that our version of reality is correct and your evidence will never cause us to give up our faith.”  But many believers seem to prefer rationalization.

Scientists also seek to question the validity of the evidence presented by others, and offer different interpretations for the same evidence.  But the nature of scientific debate revolves around honesty and full disclosure, disallowing any attempt to resort to supernatural “explanations” and argument by authority.  The very uncertainty about the evidence and its interpretation that any good scientist always tries to express and address openly as part of the presentation makes the science vulnerable to attack from religious believers, who see uncertainty as an admission of error, rather than an acknowledgment of our limits.  For most believers, there is only absolute proof or absolute disproof, leading to unshakeable beliefs and the delusion of knowing absolute truth.

Extraordinary claims in science are required to provide extraordinary evidence. Scientific skeptics outside of the consensus aren’t tortured, exiled, or killed for their lack of acceptance of the consensus – they have a right to disagree.  But they have to be innovative and work very hard to overturn the consensus.  Supernatural explanations offer zero explanatory power and so are not allowed.  Knowing that some mysterious creator named “Timex” made my watch tells me nothing about how it was made or by what mechanism it works.  Science seeks only to understand the process and that understanding is only gained by hard-fought debate and an accumulation of evidence.

Finally, an important distinction between science and religion is that science works!  There can be no doubt that scientific understanding provides the basis for virtually all of modern technology.  There’s still no objective evidence for the efficacy of intercessory prayer, the existence and divinity of a jew named jesus 2000 years ago, the possibility of life after death, and so on.  Religion just doesn’t have much to show for its extraordinary claims.