Science is a Bit Like Religion. Am I Still an Atheist?

Elitsa Petkova.

Religion: (1): commitment or devotion to religious faith or observance; (2) a cause, principle, or system of beliefs held to with ardour and faith

Atheism: the doctrine that there is no deity

Agnostic: one who is not committed to believing in either the existence or the nonexistence of God or a god

The relationship between religion and science is not an easy one to describe. John Polkinghorne categorised the interactions between the two disciplines as conflicts, independence, dialogue where they overlap, and integration of both into a field. It is easy to see the origins of the first two points. Science relies on experiments and empirical data, while religion is intrinsically based on faith in statements that cannot be proven or disproven experimentally.

I’d like to focus on the overlap and integration of these two seemingly irreconcilable disciplines. Scientists strive to be disinterested and objective, but as hard as we try, we cannot completely escape the search for symmetry, meaningful results, and even the bias involved in choosing what experiments to conduct and in what way. Science strives to expand humanity’s knowledge.

Religion has set doctrines that cannot be changed and preserve its theological principles through time. The static nature of this dogma isn’t necessarily the opposite of the progress we’re used to associating with science. The Christian church, for example, preserved the use of Latin and made copies of texts as they wore out. During the Ottoman rule in the Balkans, it was the institution of the church that helped preserve language and cultural heritage for nations that had lost their freedom.

It is not difficult to see that while science has the clear goal of progressing our understanding of the world, religion has had a role in preserving knowledge, philosophy, and cultural heritage over the centuries. The two do not form a clear-cut dichotomy.

Asking ‘Is climate change real?’ and ‘Do you believe in man-made climate change?’ is the same to me. The phrase ‘scientifically proven’ is a favourite when it comes to debates and discussions. People take comfort in facts: 2+2 is 4 and climate change is happening. There is, however, a fundamental difference in the way these two statements are derived. Mathematics is a form of deductive reasoning, which means it moves from general to particular cases. Sciences are inductive. They take particular cases and use them to form a conclusion for the more general premise.

‘But studies have shown…’ I can hear you protesting. According to research by the University of Ottawa, as of 2009 there are 2.5 million scientific papers published each year. Assuming an average length of 5,000 words per paper and top reading speed of 2,000 words per minute, it’s a back-of-the-envelope calculation that it would take 4 thousand days to read all of them, let alone do any of the research. We cannot always read every single paper on the topic and re-evaluate every single experiment conducted in the field. We believe the inductive conclusions drawn by science because they are the hypothesis backed by evidence so far.

This realisation seemed strange to me at first; counter-intuitive. Science is always applauded as objective, unbiased… scientific. A simplified dichotomy is that science and religion are the two ends of the spectrum and it is seen as unusual for a scientist to keep their religious beliefs. The more I thought about it, the more natural it seemed that my atheism would be complemented by a belief in the ability of science to explain the world around me. Science is a sort of faith: in the curiosity and aptness for learning of the human race.

It is an easy assumption to make that most scientists are not religious. After all, why would someone who tests hypotheses experimentally want to willingly believe empirically unprovable (or undisprovable) claims about the existence of a deity? As a physics undergraduate I feel the need to include some statistics. There aren’t many studies on the religious affiliation of academic staff, most likely because of the personal nature of the matter, much like statistics on sexual orientation.

The Religion among Academic Scientists survey (RAAS) collected information from scientists at 21 research universities in the USA about their religious beliefs, behaviour, and upbringing. While this is not a worldwide data sample, it is worthwhile to note some statistics derived from it. While the average for ‘no religion at 16’ overall was 14% (with Biology, Economics, and Physics above average), that percentage jumps to an average of 51% (with Biology, ‘Other’, and Physics above average) for current religious affiliation. This is, of course, only one study with a small number of respondents (1768 entries suitable for the analysis in Fig.1), but it does show some interesting variation between academic specialty.

Another study on the subject of religion among academics carried out by Elaine H. Eklund and Christopher P. Scheitle, found that 52% of scientists would describe themselves as not religious, compared to 14% of the general population. The paper uses data from the RAAS questionnaire and a survey based on questions from the General Social Survey. While scientists show a lesser degree of religious affiliation than the general populace, there wasn’t found to be any significant statistical relationship between religious belief and whether the participant came from a natural or social science background.


Figure 1. Plot based on raw data from The Association of Religion Data Archives. Columns with different hatching patterns represent the different academic specialties as indicated in the questionnaire, while the different colours on the stacked bars reflect the religious affiliation of the respondents at 16 and at present time. As is to be expected, a larger fraction of participants that grew up in religious households have remained religious, and vice versa: a larger fraction of participants that grew up in households which didn’t deem religion important have remained not religious. There is no significant difference across disciplines in the distribution of religious belief at 16 and at present.

While there isn’t a definitive way to study whether religious beliefs affect a person’s ability to debate or reason, there have been studies that explore the ways faith and critical thinking interact. In 2012, Will M. Gervais and Ara Norenzayan published a paper in Science that analysed how the encouragement of analytical thinking reduces theological beliefs. Participants were given different cognitive stimuli: paintings, word rearrangement puzzles, or information printed with different fonts (difficult to read fonts encourage more analytical thinking). In each case one group had a stimulus that evoked logical thinking and the other – a neutral one. In all cases the participants whose reasoning was prompted reported weaker religious beliefs in a subsequent questionnaire. The experiment suggests that critical thinking may override intuition and thus the tendency to believe in the divine. Of course, logical thinking is just one component that contributes to personality and beliefs, but this study does show how reasoning and intuition can influence religiousness on even a very short timescale.

Science and religion are two intrinsic parts of human history. It is easy to assign them to opposite ends of a spectrum. But one doesn’t have to necessarily either be logical or superstitious, although the two types of thinking have been shown to contrast each other.

Science helps us confirm or deny instances of a hypothesis and so we cannot achieve absolute proof. Religion asks for faith without absolute proof. The inductive nature of scientific conclusions allows for a comparison to be made between the two. Science can be likened to religion in a sense. Whereas theologies place a transcendental being at the centre of their doctrines, my view is that science is a trust in the collective experimental knowledge of humanity. It is a way of thinking which stops us from having to reinvent the wheel every day but still asks if round is the optimal shape for that wheel.

Studies referenced:

The Religion among Academic Scientists survey (RAAS), the Association of Religion Data Archives, May-June 2005

Religion among Academic Scientists: Distinctions, Disciplines, and Demographics, Elaine Howard Ecklund, Christopher P. Scheitle

Analytic Thinking Promotes Religious Disbelief, Will M. Gervais, Ara Norenzayan, Science  27 Apr 2012: Vol. 336, Issue 6080, pp. 493-496

Science is a Bit Like Religion. Am I Still an Atheist?

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