Sunday, November 21, 2010

Presentation to The TTU Secular Student Society

On Monday, 15 November 2010 I had the honor to address the TTU Secular Student Society concerning the topic "Is science a religion?" This event was open to the public and took place in Holden Hall on campus. The lecture hall was full and I was expecting a good mixture of those in both the skeptic and religious camps. Unfortunately, not as many pro-religion people attended but it was till a good discussion. Here are my thoughts on the talk which certainly could have been much clearer that night.

In this presentation I argued four main points: (1) Both camps use similar (or even the same) terms but with different meanings, (2) neither camp is composed solely of idiots, (3) each camp privileges different kinds of evidence and (4) decision makers of education policy are not really stakeholders in the debate (or do not really see themselves as such).

Both camps use similar (or even the same) terms but with different meanings.

Consider the four reasons that Carl Sagan proposed for studying science:

These are all great reasons to study science but if one were to replace "science" with "religion", one could make the same argument. In the past, Christianity was seen (especially in the colonial powers) as a means to escape poverty. Most any religion argues that it best explains the "deeper mysteries of life" while warning of the technological perils created by modern society. Most religions also see themselves as compatible to democracy; only some few religious fundamentalists would quibble with that. For someone not in the debate, this looks similar.

Also, for most scientists, religion is not seen as falsifiable; this is in some ways a mistake. True, no one has devised a means to test for God but religion is flexible and does correct itself to adapt to cultural norms. Once, the Quakers did not use cars because it was deemed "worldly". Now, they do as long as it is simple, black, and with no radio. This is but one example of how religion adapts and morphs to the current needs of its members. For many people, this is quite similar to the notion of science changing through evidence. Although the change may be slower, change does happen and, to the outsider, this is similar to falsification.

Neither camp are idiots.

This should be obvious. Many pro-religion and pro-science people are highly educated and intelligent. What constitutes as evidence, however, is what is different. One may not agree but this does not mean that they are ignorant sheep, heathens who "God has darkened their intellect", or idiots. They simply believe differently (and with good reasons) according to their world views. If each side cannot summon respect, each should, at least, be gracious.

Both religion and science do study similar social effects, teleology, and cosmology. This desire to understand the world may incubate competing dialectics which seem similar to the outsider:

Both camps are interested in understanding the world but go about it in different ways.

Each camp privileges different kinds of evidence.

One aspect that religion and science have in common is that they both are built on underlying assumptions, albeit they are different ones, i.e., each discipline has its own set of assumptions. Not only do religion and science rest on differing underlying assumptions, only one -- science -- goes about rationally testing its assumptions.

- Gottlieb, S. (1997, April 8). Religion & Science: The Best of Enemies, The Worst of Friends. The Harbinger.

When one asks "What is the evidence?" during this debate, each camp believes that they have overwhelming evidence for their position. This is because each camp privileges what kinds of argument constitutes evidence. Both camps may use various methods of evidence, but each camp privileges what is the best kind of evidence as rational. This is confusing for people who are trying to understand the debate.

In general, science prefers inductive reasoning. Most people see a simplistic example of this in police procedure TV shows such as Sherlock or CSI. Certainly the scientific method uses this line of reasoning in order to present evidence of a scientific or empirical understanding of nature. This line of reasoning is contingent on observation and extrapolation based on empirical evidence. This lies at the heart of science and may seem to be unfair to religious thinkers; after all, who has observed anything beyond 100 years ago? How can tradition be understood using this line of reasoning?

Religion, on the other hand, tends to prefer deductive reasoning in its investigation of reality. Most people would equate deductive reasoning as a series of "if/then" statements. Scientists may use this reasoning to create a hypothesis but certainly not to argue conclusions. For religious thinkers, however, this line of reasoning tends to be acceptable to discover understanding about God, social practice, and the world. Of course scientists may concede that this may be a good start for investigation but how can one say its definitive?

My point here is that both systems of evidence are rational--from each perspective. Science is based on observations of nature while religion is based on deductions from tradition. This needs to be understood, articulated, and defined before a meaningful debate can occur with any hope of resolution.

Decision makers of education policy are not really stakeholders in the debate.

Most people in the United States are woefully educated in both science and religion. Even people who practice a given religion really know little about the religion they practice--let alone any other religion--and have difficulty in conversing in even their own practices. For many people, religion is more of a social institution where practitioners simply attend occasional services and celebrate life goals, such as marriage or baptism, or holidays. This is lost in the cacophony of fundamentalist voices who often speak the loudest--regardless of religious or atheistic worldview--but most people view themselves outside of the battle. To these people, scientism and religion look quite similar so why not teach both? For many people, the big bang and the Genesis account are separated by context, one in church and one in the classroom, but both are just as unlikely or inscrutable. After all, how does this effect real day-to-day life?

Religion has the advantage of tradition and that it does impact (albeit occasionally) their lives in a more visible way. Science is often understood in terms of technology--most of which is hidden--and in the form of the high-paying jobs that "may exist" in the future. Eventually, if proponents of science education do not change their tone and tactics, these decision-makers will eventually elect to just teach both views because it is simply easier.

Also, we live in a postmodern world, like it or not. In the modern era, science was king and empirical evidence was privileged over philosophical conclusions. This has changed. Most people are accustomed to considering competing ideas and weighing the "pros and cons" of both based on what they believe is true. Decision-makers will have no trouble presenting both and letting students decide for themselves.


Science and religion are conceptually similar. They both seek to explain the world, through an ill-defined ideology, in which their participants exist. However, they are functionally dissimilar because of potential empirical falsification. In short, religion seeks truth from which to identify laws. Science seeks to identify laws from which to garner truth. Because of empirical falsification, science is not a religion within the context of a science classroom.

Still, they do seem similar to outsiders. This must be taken into account for advocates of science if they truly want to keep science out of the classroom. Pejorative attacks will only harm their cause. This is the classic emic/etic debate. Of course there are identifiable differences when one is in one camp or the other but, from the outside looking in, decision-makers will have difficulty in seeing just what the big fight is all about.

-Safari Bob