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Does Science Require Just as much Faith as Religion?

This question has been in my mind for a while, and when I set out to write this post I thought I had my answer. I’m Catholic, though not devoutly so, and I also respect and understand science. I had started to believe that, especially when you get into high-level topics, science is just as inaccessible to the average person as religion. So, doesn’t science require faith? Faith in both the scientists themselves, and the theories and laws we’ve all been taught?

Physicist Stephen Hawking recently released The Grand Design, a discussion of the beginning of the universe, which he wrote with fellow physicist Leonard Mlodinow. The authors have caused a bit of a stir by their assertion that a god or supreme being is not necessary for the creation of this universe, or any other. They posit that the laws and theories of science as we know it allow for universe creation to, for lack of a better term, just happen. It’s difficult for me to address this new argument, because I don’t understand many of the theories, including M-theory, they are talking about. So, I have to go simpler.

Most of us learned about the Big Bang theory in school. Does any layperson actually understand it? Or did we just believe it because scientists, who are smarter and more in-tune with the universe than we, told us so? There is nothing I or anyone else I know have ever seen that would allow us to believe that the Big Bang happened. In other words, it’s impossible to prove, in the decidedly non-scientific way that many of us go about making decisions. But, don’t we all just take the Big Bang at face value? If so, why?

Even if the Big Bang were true, what happened before the Big Bang? Some scientists think that the creation of our universe was caused by the collapse of the previous one. (Of course, I still want to know what came before that.) Still, it appears that the Big Bang, while still being just a theory, is taken as true by scientists, who then conduct research of increasing complexity to explain and support it.

How is this different than religion? After all, the farther back in the universe’s history you go, the more obtuse and theoretical the science becomes. How can anything, much less an entire universe, come out of nothing? Applying both my observational knowledge, as well as what I’ve learned in the past, I don’t understand the creation of the universe. I remember learning the law of conservation: matter cannot be created or destroyed. (Apparently this law doesn’t always apply, and in trying to understand its exceptions, my brain broke a little bit and I had to back off.)

How, too, do we reconcile the fact that clergy were the scientists for a long time? (Did you know the Big Bang was proposed by a Roman Catholic priest?) The Catholic Church has long been a proponent of the Big Bang theory, as it lines up well with the Biblical story of creation out of nothing.

Even Albert Einstein, who most people consider to be one of the most important scientific minds of the modern age, described himself as religious when asked point-blank by a non-religious person. His words in the quote below get at what I’ve been struggling to articulate for several hundred words now.

Try and penetrate with our limited means the secrets of nature and you will find that, behind all the discernible concatenations, there remains something subtle, intangible and inexplicable. Veneration for this force beyond anything that we can comprehend is my religion. To that extent I am, in point of fact, religious. (Source)

All we want, as intellectual beings, is to understand the universe. Religion has, for millennia, sought to explain everything about our world to those who have struggled to understand it. Religion and science walked hand in hand, for better and for worse, for centuries. Today, both still exist, and while they don’t always conflict, their followers often do.

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2 replies on “Does Science Require Just as much Faith as Religion?”

In a word, no. Science is based on a system known as empirical evidence. This system is able to be tested and explained. Results must be conclusive and repeatable in order to be accepted. Religion is based on a system of faith. This equates to “because it says so in our book/ because god speaks to me and says so”. Which is basically the fallacy of argument from authority. You cannot test or repeat miracles or anything supernatural. This is another major difference between science and religion- science deals with the natural world and Religion deals with the supernatural.

“Most of us learned about the Big Bang theory in school. Does any layperson actually understand it? Or did we just believe it because scientists, who are smarter and more in-tune with the universe than we, told us so? There is nothing I or anyone else I know have ever seen that”
This is a logical fallacy known as “argument from ignorance”. So because you don’t understand it, you equate it with religious mythology and dogma? You should instead take a class dealing with the big bang because I guarantee you, if your teacher is worth their salt, they will make you understand. To answer your question, yes, many lay people do understand the big bang theory. Going back to what i think: Or buy a book directed toward laypeople on the subject. Hawking is an amazing writer and scientist, but yes- he can be dry and over the heads of many (including me at times, but i look stuff up, or ask around to figure it out). It takes effort to understand science- but it is also doable and well worth the effort. I recommend Simon Singh’s book, The Big Bang. He’s funny and a bit easier to follow than other writers.
Another major difference between science and religion is that scientific understanding is accessible and encouraged. Traditionally, Catholicism was only to be understood by the exclusive literate clergy and not by the masses. This is why traditional mass is in Latin. Also, very rarely do you see the pope make a prolonged effort to explain the rationality behind his decrees- yet you see many scientists go on popular television(see: the daily show, NOVA) to try to make findings more understandable. (Note: Neil Degrasse Tyson is adorable. http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/nature/how-smart-dogs.html) There are also many wonderful scientist bloggers that try to make science more understandable. I love Dr. Isis’ “On becoming a domestic and laboratory goddess”.

This leads me to another fundamental difference between science and religion. Science does not try to govern our liberties or daily lives, where as religion does. Also,there really is no such thing as a sincere scientific “follower” or zealot. No scientist has ever attempted to prohibit condom use in HIV-ridden Uganda. No person who likes science would blindly accept and try to enforce such a decree.
Science and religion are just 2 different things. One does not worship any element of science.
“The idea that God is an oversized white male with a flowing beard who sits in the sky and tallies the fall of every sparrow is ludicrous. But if by God one means the set of physical laws that govern the universe, then clearly there is such a God. This God is emotionally unsatisfying… it does not make much sense to pray to the law of gravity.”[Carl Sagan]

“Still, it appears that the Big Bang, while still being just a theory, is taken as true by scientists, who then conduct research of increasing complexity to explain and support it.”
Seriously? Do you have any idea how science works? Why don’t you google the scientific method. You’ll find that conclusions are reached AFTER evidence is examined. Scientists don’t reach a conclusion and then collect evidence to support it. Also, you should look up scientific theory. You don’t seem to be clear on that definition at all. (Hint: there are 2 definitions of theory and they are not interchangeable.)

“How can anything, much less an entire universe, come out of nothing? ”
NO. You’re trying to apply biblical mythology and it doesn’t work that way. Scientists don’t claim the universe came from nothing- You cite yourself, in THIS VERY ESSAY that scientists think this universe came from the collapse of a previous one.

“How, too, do we reconcile the fact that clergy were the scientists for a long time? ”
Easily. For some time in history, the clergy were of the few elite fortunate enough to be educated and given resources to do research.

“The Catholic Church has long been a proponent of the Big Bang theory, as it lines up well with the Biblical story of creation out of nothing.”
The Catholic church has backed off of science’s ass, after “Galileo-gate”, it has realized that when it comes to science, it is best to sit down, shut up and not impede progress.(see Heliocentrism) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Galileo_Galilei
In general, Catholics are way more science-friendly than their protestant brothers, who have museums showing animatronic human children riding dinosaurs. To be clear, I am making generalizations and NOT stereotyping all Catholics as knowledgeable in science and all protestants as young earth creationists. As far as our universe being created out of nothing, see above.

“Even Albert Einstein, who most people consider to be one of the most important scientific minds of the modern age, described himself as religious when asked point-blank by a non-religious person”

Albert Einstein is commonly misquoted in this way. This is what happens when you go quote-mining and don’t bother to actually dig deeper for context. Albert Einstein is self-described as being cosmically religious.
“I do not believe in a personal God and I have never denied this but have expressed it clearly. If something is in me which can be called religious then it is the unbounded admiration for the structure of the world so far as our science can reveal it.” (Albert Einstein, 1954)

“I believe in Spinoza’s God who reveals himself in the orderly harmony of what exists, not in a God who concerns himself with the fates and actions of human beings.” (Albert Einstein)
http://www.amazon.com/Einstein-Cosmic-Religion-Opinions-Aphorisms/dp/0486470105

“All we want, as intellectual beings, is to understand the universe. Religion has, for millennia, sought to explain everything about our world to those who have struggled to understand it.”
Though science and religion both look at the same questions regarding the universe- they seek to answer those questions in very different ways. Religion has all of its answers from old holy texts and looks for evidence to support the answers it already has. Religion is fixated on being “right”.
Science, as stated above looks for evidence, tests the evidence and then draws conclusions that can be changed if new, reliable evidence comes later. Science is fixated with being accurate.

“Is it fair to be suspicious of an entire profession because of a few bad apples? There are at least two important differences, it seems to me. First, no one doubts that science actually works, whatever mistaken and fraudulent claim may from time to time be offered. But whether there are any miraculous cures from faith-healing, beyond the body’s own ability to cure itself, is very much at issue. Secondly, the expose’ of fraud and error in science is made almost exclusively by science. But the exposure of fraud and error in faith-healing is almost never done by other faith-healers.” [Carl Sagan, The Demon-Haunted World: Science As a Candle in the Dark]

“In science it often happens that scientists say, ‘You know that’s a really good argument; my position is mistaken,’ and then they actually change their minds and you never hear that old view from them again. They really do it. It doesn’t happen as often as it should, because scientists are human and change is sometimes painful. But it happens every day. I cannot recall the last time something like that happened in politics or religion.” [Carl Sagan, 1987 CSICOP keynote address]

I had one of those illuminating college lectures once where the professor said something along the lines of: Science is just the new religion. Religion promises this horizon that you’ll never get to (the concept of heaven) until you’re dead. Science promises a horizon you’ll never live to see (evolution, global warming, etc). You need to have a certain amount of faith in both.

It was a very formative moment in my intellectual development.

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