Science and Religion Are Pretty Different, Actually


May 20, 2019


Photo Courtesy of Aiken Lao

About a month ago, an op-ed titled Science and faith are not as different as we often think, drew parallels between religion and science based on the esoteric nature of perceived facts in both these realms, taking as a specific example theoretical physics and the recent imaging of the black hole. Some comparisons warrant addressing, if only to introduce nuance counter to this position.

The author claims the black hole graduated from theory to fact based on three criteria: 1) scientists said so, 2) others agree, and 3) the rest of us don’t know any better. Admittedly, it seems the current milieu of flagrantly uncritical thinking reflects this manner of consumption of scientific information; however, it misrepresents the way science works. The factualness of an assertion does not depend on appeals to authority, or the impressiveness of the source of information. So, the black hole is not a scientific fact by virtue of the credentials of those who declare it so, or by the incapacity of skeptics to counter these declarations due to their lack of understanding of a highly specialized field, as suggested by the article.

Science is demonstrable; religion is not.

Religion and science differ in the standards they hold for what qualifies as evidence. The scientific method factors in demonstrability – a significant absence in matters of faith and religion. If demonstrable, a scientific phenomenon can be “discovered” many times over, across time and geography, without one experimenter’s knowledge of the other’s efforts (a concept called multiple discovery – exemplified by the fact that the theory of evolution through natural selection was proposed by Charles Darwin, as well as by someone called Alfred Wallace, at roughly the same time); natural science findings do not change depending on who is discovering them.

In fact, Albert Einstein’s famous equation denoting the relation between mass and energy (the theoretical basis of much of what we know about black holes) is also attributed to multiple origins. Such accidental concurrence hints at the demonstrability of phenomena and theories, and subsequent scientific methods attempt to provide empirical evidence for causality through experimentation. Replication studies conducted by independent research teams attempt to reproduce research findings on purpose, in order to verify that the original finding holds true in changed contexts or with improved methodologies.

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As explained by Professors Luciano Rezzolla and Eduardo Ross, in the European Commission’s livestream announcement of the black hole image, it was in the interest of such objectivity that scientists actively sought out contrary evidence that could falsify their hypotheses. Models for how matter ought to behave contingent on the nature of black holes were simulated theoretically and mathematically; the data collected via different methodologies were compared and analyzed to provide a consensus backed by statistical significance (to demonstrate that findings were a result of experimental manipulations and not chance/random circumstances). Science mandates that we make it as difficult as possible to conclude something to be true. Faith, true to its definition, evades all such scrutiny. Instead, it misapplies and weaponizes its historical arcaneness, and leverages this impunity for social control.

While it is true that we bank on the expertise of those who make it their business to “know stuff,” and it is rather irresponsible to wax soliloquy on topics that are not our turf, I only contend the incorrectness of diluting the rigor of the scientific method and placing it at par with religion, simply on the basis of our current state of understanding.

Science is subject to revision; religion is not.

Science is a slow and deliberative process, and a majority of research publications that contribute to a media event like the black hole image will be relegated only to academic discussions at chai tapris or lecture halls. Google Scholar’s “Stand on the shoulder of giants” is a worthy reminder of how most knowledge is incremental, but particularly so in academia. Critically, this is because science is subject to revision, when more evidence is collected – a tenet that is demonstrated in all of the many hindrances the scientist so masochistically but willingly incorporates into her methodology, in the interest of objectivity.

Religion, on the other hand, has resisted internal reform and remained static, arguably because its privileges appeals to authority and the illusion of omniscience, rather than revision to its texts and doctrines. Admittedly – barring the last few years – the negative influence of religion in society has tempered over time, but this is attributable to social reform, which was successful because it diminished the role of faith in everyday life. It was a movement toward unfaith that allowed for this reform, not an evolution of religious ideas. 

By contrast, scientific research incorporates publishing as the final step in its long-drawn process, with the explicit purpose of inviting criticism to every aspect of the undertaken operation. There is no accusation of blasphemy waiting for reviewers and readers, no consequence as final as capital punishment for scientific apostasy, no state intervention censoring critiques.

Undoubtedly, academic publishing is not immune from the influence of capitalism. Publication bias, paywalls, ideologically or commercially motivated ‘science,’ predatory journals, and the hilarity that is the Indian Science Congress suffice as evidence for our need to do better. But it likely won’t happen should we depend on divine intervention to internally reform this one of many broken systems. What would help, however, is increased funding, which is negligible. In academic professions, a researcher’s only currency is prestige, not profit; their immediate reward is publications, not job security. The limited funding allotted to academic research, even less so for the social sciences, makes these funds extremely coveted. Even so, researchers must go through the cycle of proposal writings and rejections to eventually deserve a grant – benchmarks yet to be set for religious funding, thanks to tax exempt donations and political and business patronage.

Scientific knowledge is accessible; religion is not.

If scientific knowledge seems esoteric, it is indicative of a flawed system of education, one that calibrates understanding superficially through marks and not a mastery of concepts and its applicability. However, unlike religion, the knowledge that equips scientists is accessible, should we feel sufficiently moved and awed by today’s findings, for us to learn in the hopes of contributing to tomorrow’s trove of knowledge. The extended interpretability of religious ‘knowledge’ renders it beyond utility. Historically, religious writings and doctrines have been privy to a select few and peddled by them in a system that leveraged exclusivity to institute hierarchies reinforcing this monopoly.

Perhaps to disguise this, religion also misappropriates much of science’s methods to seem credible — case in point being when Darwin’s theory of evolution was force-fit to analyze patterns of religious evolution, even though theories are contingent upon discipline-specific assumptions and knowledge; a theory about the evolution of species can’t possibly apply to the evolution of thought. The author claims that the trust we hold in scientists is comparable to the faith that religion is founded on – that what he enjoys most about “science as a lay person is that it is a simulation of religion.”

Science and religion perhaps share common ground in that they both intend to elucidate the nature of nature, the substance of reality. But they differ starkly in method and held authority. It is religion that is a poor simulation of science, not the other way around. The art and media that have popularized scientific concepts are cultural odes of non-scientists to science and natural phenomena. Arguably, so is religion.


Written By Saloni Diwakar

Saloni Diwakar is an assistant professor and researcher at Fergusson College (Autonomous), Pune. She primarily teaches research methodology, psychometric test construction, industrial/organizational psychology, and cognitive psychology.

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