Science and Religion: Differences?

January 7, 2009 | By | 17 Replies More

We have all been through one cycle after another of debate with someone who insists that science is a religion.

This is a tiresome argument on one level because it is one with all sorts of things that fall under the category of “I know it when I see it.”  But on another level, it’s a rather interesting question.  Not that science itself, as practiced by people who understand it or appreciated by those who don’t practice it but at least have a grasp of its nature, is a religion, but certainly people make religions out of all sorts of things.  So the question arises, what are the necessary and sufficient constituent elements of religion?  And which of those constituent elements does science (a) possess or (b) lack?

On the one hand, I’d like to be able to shut down the folks that blithely,without thought, make that allegation, that science is a religion.  On the other hand, I am interested in the psychology of religious adherence.

It would be easy to say the one element both share is Faith.  One has to believe that something is efficacious in order to base one’s thoughts, ideas, or life on the principles embodied by a given discipline.

I dismiss this out of hand because a lifetime of rubbing up against religious folk has convinced me that, for many (especially those who make this particular argument) faith alone is not sufficient.  It’s not enough that you express a belief in a religious philosophy, you have to demonstrate it.  You can’t sit at home on Sunday and be a good believer, you have to show up where the others can see you being a believer, and mouth the words they all mouth, and show them that you believe.  Ironically, of course, this is proof of a sort, something faith is supposed to do without.

Faith wavers, but that alone does not make it unreal, so it is clear that people put their faith in many things—family, friends, money, political ideologies, the Lottery, the fact that the sun will appear in the morning—but these things do not constitute religions.  (One can jokingly make a case for any of them, but there are no churches associated with most of them except by the longest stretch.  I’ve made the case before that sports constitutes a religion—people get passionate about it, build great cathedrals for the practice of it, attend services regularly, and argue doctrine [designated hitter, college basketball ranking for the finals, etc]—but obviously, though some folks treat it that way, they do not believe regular observance at football or baseball games will get them to heaven after death.)

Religious faith is supposed to stand regardless of challenge.  The kind of faith science engenders requires that adherents be willing to ditch a belief if it is proven wrong.  Semantics aside, that’s a clear difference.

But religion embodies things other than faith and that’s where it gets thorny.  Why isn’t science a religion?

Does it have a priesthood?  You could make a case for that.

Does it have associated ritual?  Yes, certainly—peer review if nothing else.

Does it have worshipers?  Fans, certainly, and I suppose you could say that any collection of amateur devotees can be said to worship something if they go far enough.

Does it demand worshipers?  Ah, well, depending who you ask….

To what end would the worship of science lead?

Do worshipers derive the same sort of warm comfort from science as they might from religion?

We’re getting into questions of sociology now.  Which leads to a question of intent.

Do scientists actively seek to build a community of worshipers?  I would say not.  Supporters, yes, but they prefer supporters who understand what they’re supporting.

Do scientists insist that the trappings of science be inculcated in daily life?  Like, for instance, rosaries or St. Anthony medallions, crucifixes on bedroom walls, a Bible in the house?  Do they argue over which trappings are important?

We get into a fairly complex arena of interchangeable motifs.  Anything can be retasked for a purpose for which it was not originally intended.  So you might argue that while a religion always intended that its trappings be seen and used as objects in support of worship, this is not the case in science.  If people subsequently embue such things with an aura of religious potency, this is clearly a mis-use per the original intent.

So is it the continuation of original intent, allowing for slight modification over time, that informs a religion with its particular identity?  Perhaps.  This can also be seen as a transmission of ideas over time, which certainly science relies on as well.

We reach a point, again, where just about anything can be described functionally as a religion if we deconstruct it sufficiently.  By the same token, we can do the reverse, and argue that anything is merely a manifestation of community involvement in matters of importance to that community, which renders even religion as nothing more than a kind of tribal custom, meaningless outside the context of a given community, no different at all from politics, music, theater, art…or science.

Those who claim that science is a religion are not making anthropological observations.  They are engaging in an attempt to bring science to a level with religion, make it the same as religion, and thereby stripping science of any special capacity to challenge religious claims.  The fact that it really does get difficult to state a necessary and sufficient condition for what constitutes a religion makes it equally difficult to debate the point clearly for lay people.

The one element I have not mentioned is god.  (Forgive me, I always spell that with a small G because it is not, to my mind, a proper name.  It is a designation of a concept.  Which god?  Zeus?  Queztelcoatl?  Odin?  Vishnu?  They are all proper names for gods.  By the same token, I tend not to capitalize “human” for much the same reason.  It is a category.  Over time, the plethora of gods have gradually been subsumed into a concept, at least by many people, of one god, and yet…it is a category.)  The inclusion of god (or gods) into the make-up of all the foregoing descriptors inevitably characterizes those agglomerations of doctrine and ritual and architecture as religions.

There is no god in the necessary and sufficient descriptors of science or scientific practice.

Metaphorically, much literature alludes to false gods—money, power, certain idols, celebrity, etc.  But in all these it is implicit that the objects in question are not gods, but are only seen as such by those who are being judged as worshipers by those who disapprove of that worship.  Fair turnabout would then argue that if a religious person making that argument really believed that the bestowal of godhood onto one of these objects is sufficient to define it as a religion, albeit a false one, then you must admit that it is only such bestowal of godhood on the accuser’s object of worship that makes it a god as well—hence no actual deity, only the assertion of a believer.  Not wanting to open that particular can of worms, I think most religious people who condemn false gods admit, at least to themselves, that really the objects in question aren’t gods even to those who seem to be worshiping them.  At most they are distractions.

No, it is the assertion that there is an actual deity that separates the concepts.

But it does pose a most interesting question—is god real if no one believes in it?

The religious will say yes, absolutely.

The scientist will likely say probably not.  The scientist will say Show me proof.  If none is forthcoming, belief is not so much denied as never credited.

Functionally, then, we come to a clear difference.

And yet, the argument continues.  Why?  Because there is strife between them.  They both represent differing views of the Real.  Religion seems incapable, as a discipline, of regarding any challenge to its hegemony as anything other than a religion.  Religion can only be legitimately displaced by another religion.

It cannot be ignored.  It cannot be sidestepped as irrelevant.  It cannot be seen as obsolete.

Which it is not.  But for those who insist on categorizing science as a competing religion, there is very little traction out of their own extinction.  In my opinion, they have missed the point of both religion and science and have been conscientiously digging a rut for themselves ever deeper.

For the benefit of both, I believe, a sound distinction should be found.  Perhaps there is one that answers all the questions I’ve put forth here.  I am one of those who basically “knows it when I see it” and find it difficult to succinctly characterize the differences.  If it is, indeed, simply the inclusion of god in the mix, then there ought to be no argument between the two.  But it seems to me that there is something much closer to home embodied in the question.  There is an issue of consequence inherent.

By that I mean that the acceptance of one or the other discipline as a guiding principle is seen to have consequences in morality and ethics and, for one side, in the afterlife.  Setting aside the extremist position that so-called godlessness leads to rampant immorality (it is a hard thing to prove as no regime  has ever succeeded in stamping out belief in god, only particular manifestations of worship), the larger question is simply this: is the belief in other things not included or inculcated by religious practice (the universe as revealed through scientific inquiry) de facto counter-religious?  In other words, is the practice of science inevitably destructive of religious expression?  Conversely, is religious observance inevitably destructive of scientific inquiry?

If both are indeed religions, then the answer is likely yes. That would make them competitors, with contrary agendas.

But if there is a sound distinction (which I suspect there is), then the answer is no.

Given all these questions, I invite discussion.  I am curious.


Category: Communication, Culture, Education, ignorance, Language, Psychology Cognition, Religion, Science, scientific method

About the Author ()

Mark is a writer and musician living in the St. Louis area. He hit puberty at the peak of the Sixties and came of age just as it was all coming to a close with the end of the Vietnam War. He was annoyed when bellbottoms went out of style, but he got over it.

Comments (17)

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  1. Erich Vieth says:

    Mark, good job sorting through many issues and inviting further distilling. This is a problem with which I’ve struggled. It SEEMS that we should be able to do better than “I know it when I see it," but coming up with an unproblematic test isn’t easy, because the meaning of words is so damned elastic, especially in the hands of those who don’t think critically. For instance, when we start with the proposition that science doesn’t have a “god,” the believers storm in and stretch the concept of “god” to fit the “bias” that there is order throughout the universe (which actually happens to tie in with Einstein’s conception of "God").

    I just visited Wikipedia, where I found a couple definitions of religion:

    A religion is a set of stories, symbols, beliefs and practices, often with a supernatural quality, that give meaning to the practitioner's experiences of life through reference to an ultimate power or reality. It may be expressed through prayer, ritual, meditation, music and art, among other things. It may focus on specific supernatural, metaphysical, and moral claims about reality (the cosmos, and human nature) which may yield a set of religious laws, ethics, and a particular lifestyle. Religion also encompasses ancestral or cultural traditions, writings, history, and mythology, as well as personal faith and religious experience.

    The term "religion" refers to both the personal practices related to communal faith and to group rituals and communication stemming from shared conviction. "Religion" is sometimes used interchangeably with "faith" or "belief system," but it is more socially defined than personal convictions, and it entails specific behaviors, respectively.

    Here’s another definition from Daniel Dennett (in Breaking the Spell). Religions are “social systems whose participants avow belief in a supernatural agent or agents whose approval is to be sought.”

    It seems to me that science doesn’t pretend to tell us whether we should give to the poor or whether masturbation is evil. Therefore, there are some things that religions concern themselves with that science ignores.

    Maybe it’s a matter of degree. Yes, you could argue that there are scientific rituals, but not at all like religions, where the rituals are prominent and constant.

    Science does pay attention to its history and traditions, and it sometimes hangs on too long (e.g., it’s resistance to tectonic plate theory). But it’s far more likely that scientists use history only for context when it no longer “works.” When doesn’t it “work”? When dispassionate people (those without a preconception of how things work) conclude that the theory fits the evidence. Religions are (with rare exceptions) loathe to question their historical underpinnings—for religion that “history” (which usually is based on little or no evidence) should never be questioned. For religions, their personal history provides context AND evidence.

    The thing that stands out to me most clearly is a consistency in the burden of proof and skepticism. Religion A declares that it’s own ancient apocryphal writings are true merely because they exist in a book and because they “feel” them to be correct. When those who belong to Religion A consider most other religions, they scoff at that same quality of evidence. Science is very different. Imagine a scientist rounding off his own experimental results to the nearest centimeter and declaring success while criticizing other experiments that rounded off to the nanometer as inclusive.

    Imagine a scientist announcing that water boiled at 14 degrees Centigrade because she saw it in an ancient book and claims that her announcement is even more certain because tens of millions of people agree with her, based on that same book..

    Science would say check it and see.

    I’ll conclude (for now) with an excerpt by philosopher Daniel Dennett, who (contrary to Stephen Jay Gould), leave very little work for religion (Dennett doesn’t cede any moral expertise to religions):

    There are no factual assertions that religion can reasonably claim as its own, off limits to science. Many who readily grant this have not considered its implications. It means, for instance, that there are no factual assertions about the origin of the universe or its future trajectory, or about historical events (floods, the parting of seas, burning bushes, etc.), about the goal or purpose of life, or about the existence of an afterlife and so on, that are off limits to science. After all, assertions about the purpose or function of organs, the lack of purpose or function of, say, pebbles or galaxies, and assertions about the physical impossibility of psychokinesis, clairvoyance, poltergeists, trance channeling, etc. are all within the purview of science; so are the parallel assertions that strike closer to the traditionally exempt dogmas of long-established religions. You can’t consistently accept that expert scientific testimony can convict a charlatan of faking miracle cures and then deny that the same testimony counts just as conclusively—"beyond a reasonable doubt"—against any factual claims of violations of physical law to be found in the Bible or other religious texts or traditions.

    What does that leave for religion to talk about? Moral injunctions and declarations of love (and hate, unfortunately), and other ceremonial speech acts. … Religion plays a major role as a source of possible injunctions and precepts, and as a rallying point for public appeal and organization, but it does not set the ground rules of ethical agreement and disagreement, and hence cannot claim ethics or morality as its particular province . . .

    That leaves ceremonial speech acts as religion’s surviving domain.

  2. Erich Vieth says:

    BTW, I can't help but thinking that publicly accessible and testable facts are the best way to throw water on creationist fires. For instance, the information in this recent post.

    That is a stark divide between religion and science. Where is the evidence that Jesus walked on water or that Mary was a virgin. Because some anonymous person wrote it in a book? Give me a break. That would be laughed out of any legitimate assembly of scientists. On the other hand, Believers also LOVE facts, but only when they nourish the confirmation bias.

  3. Tim Hogan says:

    Mark, faith without deeds is dead.

    Erich, Dr. Oz on Oprah says we need to have over 200 orgasms a year for better health, that; "will take six years off your complexion."

    God bless Dr. Oz!

  4. Karl says:


    I can agree with much of your synthesis in regards to what organized and codified religions are like, and what most place their belief or faith in.

    The concept of a creator God is not easily capable of being placed into a human model that operates according to how our minds think this God should function. The concept of a sovereign God who rules over every event and knows them all from beginning to end is not at all user freindly to our linear though process. Likewise natural law and moral law from a Just and Loving God also require that such a God be both predictable regarding general application of these laws but also somewhat unpredictable according to specific instances.

    To me the religious person places faith in what their thoughts and personal values tell them is a reasonable manner and methodoolgy for explaining both that which is knowable, as well as that which is currently unknowable.

    The portion of these beliefs that strongly impacts upon the human condition are the ones the codify the human condition in regards to moral versus immoral, right versus wrong thinking, actions and lifestyles, and as usual for any religion, the holy versus the secular.

    "Science" by itself is not a religion, never has been never will be. That's like saying gravity needs to be considered for what it can't explain.

    However, if you can show me a place where science is truly detached from the values and perspectives of people doing the research, I will show you open, honest people who do not fear public discourse or who do not need to resort to intimidation or debates to come to a consensus. Likewise they do not fear the investigation of data that makes little sense (or is even perhaps contradictory) to the research and world view they currently possess.

    It is the point of view of people doing science that stretches it into a religion because of how the individuals and groups of people attempt to both take some of that which is currently known and overextend it into a univeral application, which in the course of being done, makes some actual other data that doesn't agree just be dropped and ignored.

    Good science does not discount data that doesn't fit, it makes an effort to consider what the implications of the non predictable data actual mean.

    I have said before, the methodology of scientific empiricism that can approach physical data in real time and then limit itself to the reasonable amount of time that can be actually be studied in recorded history, this I have no problem with. This is what is observable, measurable and repeatable. No one I know worships the fact that the sun rises and sun sets, but perhaps some still do.

    People do however need to come to grips with what in the world they are thinking when the predictable natural course of normalcy stray off course by some unpredictable event. Is is a natural event that goes beyong beleief "supernature" as I call it or is it just something to toss on the trash heap as useless and a pointless because of the frustration it represents to out neat little human picture of how everything is suppose to operate.

    People who are religious point to the object of their faith and attribute to this object of their faith to have the ability to have it everything under control and to have the explanation even if sometimes the explanation for the time would sound like something we couldn't wrap the current level of our science around.

    If questionable physical observations have been recorded and corraborated as apparent historical facts (some with scientific ramifications) are not ignored or labelled as preposterous then I am willing to investigate them and stay open minded even though some who call themselves scientists would simply relegate these matters to the genre of fiction.

    This is my initial comments upon the distiction between science and religion.

    It is obvious to me that some people who practice science use it to justify any number of beliefs that are not purely observable, measureable and repeatable. When the scientist claims to be able to use science as support for a moral versus immoral decision, right versus wrong thinking , actions or lifestyles, or for what is holy versus secular, they are bling to how they have superimposed their religious beliefs upon the methodology of science.

  5. Erich Vieth says:

    Tim: Your "health tip" sounds way off topic, unless you are claiming that an orgasm is the divide between faith and religion . . . then again. Tim, sometimes I don't know if you are a genius or a fool.

  6. Dan Klarmann says:

    Karl, bravo. Most of your first response to this topic suits me better than most. Let me address one phrase:

    …show me a place where science is truly detached from the values and perspectives of people doing the research…

    I don't intend to break his context, and invite everyone to look above for his own meaning. But our point here so often is that the process trumps the individuals. For any scientist with one bias, you can usually find at least one with an opposing bias, trying his best to counter the argument, to reinterpret the evidence, to challenge the experimental methods, and otherwise be a royal individual pain.

    Science, as a method, is detached from the passions of the scientists because it is essentially an adversarial system. Most scientists do strive for individual detachment to improve their odds of actually finding something new that will eventually be confirmed. But it is the method that always wins out.

    In the last 8 years we learned (again) the danger of publicly funded science. As in the U.S.S.R. decades ago, only approved results were allowed to be released by government science agencies. In this case, mainly on issues of health and the environment. We expect that this will be one aspect of the promised "Change" in the new administration.

    This is relevant as an example of what happens when an agenda is applied to science. Eventually, the science wriggles out from under to reveal (dare I say it) truth. Every time, across many cultures, over 400 years, this has been the case.

  7. Karl says:


    I agree with the fact that science may be able to eventually recover from long excursions down dead end roads, by someone pointing them in the other direction.

    Where I have my major fits with science, as I have stated, is when its practitioners chose to ignore potentially reasonable recorded historical daya that someone needs to discount to make their scientific ideology work.

    Science isn't just what trend I measure today, it should try to include that for sure, but it shouldn't ignore recent historical data trends that may show cyclical relationships.

    Current science seems to discount much of a historical scientific nature nature if it doesn't agree with the popular ideology of the day. This is where I think science really can do better, but is pulled by modern culture in directions it later finds itself regreting.

  8. This may be a rhetorical question, at least in consequence, but, Karl, at what point along a trajectory of research does a detail become so thoroughly discredited that it can safely be discarded reflexively as irrelevant? I mean, what would be the point of continually reinventing the wheel when something is well understood to be wrong?

  9. Erich writes:—"It seems to me that science doesn’t pretend to tell us whether we should give to the poor or whether masturbation is evil. Therefore, there are some things that religions concern themselves with that science ignores."

    Actually, given the wealth of data about the physiological consequences of both abject poverty and healthy sexual expression (re: Tim's apparent non sequiter) you could make a claim that science does have something to say about them.

  10. Karl says:


    "This may be a rhetorical question, at least in consequence, but, Karl, at what point along a trajectory of research does a detail become so thoroughly discredited that it can safely be discarded reflexively as irrelevant? I mean, what would be the point of continually reinventing the wheel when something is well understood to be wrong?"

    Its not a question because I can answer this from my vantage point. If a naturalist considers an event to be possible gradually over an emmense imagined time frame, although nearly undetectable at the present time, I would consider that a supranatural process in real time could also be a possibility for the same data.

    This would mean that when a naturalist like Jefferson states that we need to let our reason guide us, we need to consider that reasonable events have occurred historically that science can't limit themselves to only easily predictable behaviors.

  11. Karl writes:—"science can’t limit themselves to only easily predictable behaviors."

    Of course, it doesn't.

    I understand the linkage you make regarding time frames. It's a false syllogism, but I understand it.

  12. Karl,

    There is a book upon which many religions have been founded. The Book of Urantia. I wonder if you're familiar with it and if so if you consider it a valid piece of historical record-keeping.

  13. Karl writes:—"Current science seems to discount much of a historical scientific nature nature if it doesn’t agree with the popular ideology of the day."

    Like what? Oh, you mean the global flood? I do believe it was in an attempt to substantiate the flood that modern science came around to the position that there wasn't one as described in Genesis.

    And that's what I mean when I asked at what point something could be discarded as irrelevant.

  14. Karl says:


    Physical observations which are part of recorded history can not be toss out as if they didn't exist. That has bias written all over it. I answered you question and said any amount of other corraborating evidence means the data can't be discarded as irrelevant just because the sun will come up tomorrow or the ice pack seems on a downward trend that will kill us all.

    Some data is cyclical whether we like it or not, and there have been catastrophes that only a few people survived to tell us about.

    And that where statements like Jefferson's that leave an individual open to selectively considering what evidence could mean when there is more than one way to interpete the data can lead a person down the proverbial path of his or her own interest and ideas.

    Reason is used by liars all the time. Its called rationalization. I'm not saying modern science is a pack of lies, its potentially a pack of rationalizations which could very well be circular and incapable of honest open and unbiased self-evaluation.

    Dan mentions the need for an adversarial nature to science, but when it becomes politicized, the nature is no longer adversarial, its tends towards dictatorial control, like a despotic ruler with no one able to pull in the reigns of power and exclusionary abilities.

  15. Mindy says:

    Karl, you are the most adept circular talker I've read in a very long time. Wow. The flood – scientists who attempted to prove that it HAD happened, ended up proving that it actually HAD NOT.

    But on you go, continuing to say that "physical observations of recorded history" cannot be discounted, as if the Biblical fable of Noah and his ark has somehow been "proven" to be an accurte physical observation, rather than a story passed down to explain something not yet understood.

    As it stood at one point, someone tried hard to show that yes, this really is a true and realistic observation of an event that happened. Alas, the opposite was shown to be true. So the biblical story of Noah cannot be correct – it is a myth, a fable, an exaggeration – something entirely made up or put together with bits and pieces of fact that did not actually exist as stated. Yet you continue to use the story as "proof," insisting it IS what it has been proven not to be.

    And you wrap it in lengthy paragraphs, sprinkle it with multisyllabic words, and expect it to stand as a real argument, a reason for readers to look at the other posts and say, AHA!!! Bible 1, Science 0.

    Science examines the exceptions regularly – I know of few scientists worth their salt who would look at an experiment and say, "Oops, that result is rather odd. Certainly doesn't prove my theory – out with it, then!" Even my 8th grader is being taught to practice observation for the exception as she works through a science fair project. Leaps forward are often made from the one little piece of data that didn't land where it was expected to land.

    We humans are programmed as social creatures, programmed to interact with and depend upon each other. Seeking cures for illnesses as a means to ending suffering or hunger – science leads us to accomplish this, does it not? Science tells us that, to reference another post here, breast milk is good for our babies and we should honor breasts as the providers of such – but religion tell us that those same breasts should be shunned and covered. Hmmmm . . .

    You do EXACTLY what you are accusing science of doing – over and over and over yet again. It would be funny if it weren't so damned frustrating.

  16. Erich Vieth says:

    Sam Harris on the difference between science and religion:

    Science, in the broadest sense, includes all reasonable claims to knowledge about ourselves and the world. If there were good reasons to believe that Jesus was born of a virgin, or that Muhammad flew to heaven on a winged horse, these beliefs would necessarily form part of our rational description of the universe. Faith is nothing more than the license that religious people give one another to believe such propositions when reasons fail. The difference between science and religion is the difference between a willingness to dispassionately consider new evidence and new arguments, and a passionate unwillingness to do so. The distinction could not be more obvious, or more consequential, and yet it is everywhere elided, even in the ivory tower . . .

    To win this war of ideas, scientists and other rational people will need to find new ways of talking about ethics and spiritual experience. The distinction between science and religion is not a matter of excluding our ethical intuitions and non-ordinary states of consciousness from our conversation about the world; it is a matter of our being rigorous about what is reasonable to conclude on their basis. We must find ways of meeting our emotional needs that do not require the abject embrace of the preposterous. We must learn to invoke the power of ritual and to mark those transitions in every human life that demand profundity — birth, marriage, death, etc. — without lying to ourselves about the nature of reality.

    To what Harris writes, I would add this: Monkeying with the burden of proof and the level of skepticism employed while considering various topics is a huge red flag that the inquiry is not "dispassionate" and is therefore not science.

  17. TheThinkingMan says:

    Mark wrote: "Anything can be retasked for a purpose for which it was not originally intended. So you might argue that while a religion always intended that its trappings be seen and used as objects in support of worship, this is not the case in science."

    Anything can be retasked for other purposes, and I think religion falls into this category. As the popular phrase goes: "Trust in God, not religion," I think that people in power have used their wealth and power to create institutions that take advantage of the faith of the masses.

    Spiritual figures about whom scriptures have been written claim that adherence to the institutions of religion are not the aim of spiritual people. Jesus tore down the temple saying it was corrupt. Buddha said find your own path. Etc.

    Spiritual thought (or lack of) is therefore a personal ideology based on faith (or facts depending on where you choose to look or what you choose to believe in).

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