Is Science a Religion?

Jonathan Morgan

ScientistBefore you scoff, try to take the question seriously. If you’re willing to do that, then your first question should be: what do I mean by religion? But definitions are slippery — it really depends who’s doing the defining. There are plenty of definitions that make my question ridiculous: for example, religion is belief in supernatural beings. But this definition is science’s own definition of religion. Shouldn’t it raise some suspicion that the times science seems the furthest from religion is when science is defining religion?

If I were going to be really ridiculous, I’d point out that this is the easiest way for one religion to de-legitimate another: by redefining the other in such a way that it is either co-opted or anathema. Christians weren’t converting people of other faiths– they were converting the “faithless.” But that’s just me being silly. Scientists define religion as belief in the supernatural because that’s the part of religion they’re interested in studying.

When religious scholars define religion, the lines become fuzzier. If you’ve been in a religious studies class, you’ve probably seen the anthropologist Clifford Geertz’s classic definition of religion.

“A religion is: (1) a system of symbols which acts to (2) establish powerful, pervasive, and long-lasting moods and motivations in [individuals] by (3) formulating conceptions of a general order of existence and (4) clothing these conceptions with such an aura of factuality that (5) the moods and motivations seem uniquely realistic.”

This was written 40 years ago, but still holds sway in the study of religion. And rightly so– it’s hard to find a better way to describe what religion is up to. If you think I’m wrong about science being a religion, which part of the definition does science not fulfill?

It’s certainly a set of symbols. You might contest that the symbols of science point to stuff that’s actually real. Atoms and black holes really exist — unlike the symbols of religion, which many scientists believe point to fictions. I promise I’ll move away from this example, but I’m pretty sure that Christian missionaries would have said something similar: “Those woods spirits aren’t real. Jesus is what’s really real.”

I’ve never seen a neutrino or a red dwarf, but I trust that they really do exist. I believe this because I trust the authority of scientists who know how to use the appropriate technology to study these things. But again I’m going to ask, without just saying that science is real and religion isn’t, how is this different from an oracle interpreting signs? Isn’t the I Ching a technology used by trained experts to reveal unseen things?

Moving on, science certainly establishes powerful and lasting moods and motivations. I feel excitement at the thought of deciphering nature’s laws. I feel awe when I learn about the complex processes of photosynthesis or DNA replication. I feel hope and promise when I learn of new discoveries that may help heal various diseases. All of which motivates me to trust science and believe in progress. All of which also creates a very persuasive idea of order to existence.

Sorry, I just breezed right through #3, but is anyone really going to debate whether science gives a sense of order to existence? #4 and #5 also seems pretty obvious. The only likely objection is that science doesn’t give things an aura of factuality — it gives genuine facts. But isn’t that just proving the point? Science is so persuasive that we’re bound to forget about the entire history of science, which is full of false facts.

Even now I probably haven’t convinced you that science is in fact a religion. When it comes down to it, I don’t believe it is. But simply to say that science deals with what is actually real, while religion deals with illusions, isn’t sufficient. That’s the way every religion has justified its superiority over others. Resorting to this type of explanation for the superiority of science is precisely what makes it function as a religion.

Both religion and science deal with an unseen realm that is taken to be more real than the realm we normally live in: one is a realm of molecules and physical forces; the other is a realm of beings and moral forces.

Both have professional experts with privileged access to this unseen realm. Would that make CERN the Holy of Holies? Both have elaborate sets of rituals to gain access to this realm. Both have elaborate educational systems to teach children how to understand the world. Both have histories of refining and changing ideas about what is true. Both have complex cosmologies about how the world works and what our place is within the world. Both sets of experts wear silly things (like this hairnet or these shoes). Beyond religious experts having way better outfits, where is the difference?

If you’ve stuck with me this far, then perhaps you’ll allow me to ask the next question. If science is a religion, then what does it teach us about the good life? What does it say about how to treat each other? Does it tell us about the meaning of existence? What about transcendence?

I’m not drawing this out because I really think they’re the same. If we want to get into the differences between science and religion, then we have to go back to #1 and talk about symbols. But that’s for another time.

I’m drawing this out because I think we do, increasingly, treat science as a religion. Perhaps that isn’t a problem — frankly, I’d rather worship in a cathedral that can tell me about photons and far off galaxies and evolution. But it IS a problem if science becomes the only true religion. Just listen to Harris or Dawkins and tell me they don’t sound like they’re on a crusade.

But maybe I’m just being ridiculous, I mean — science isn’t really a religion, right?

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