Can religious belief inform science? No. It’s a fake question.

Can religious belief inform science? No. It’s a fake question. July 2, 2019

A couple of thoughtful articles I read this week in The New York Times and Skeptic magazine—both titled “What Can Science Learn from Religion?”—reveal the fundamental problem with this question. And both arguments show how the discussion always gets corrupted.

science religion faith facts
Rendition of traditional Christian fish icon as science-endorsing rocketship. (Steve Rainwater, Flikr, CC BY-SA 2.0)

The question implies that science can learn something valuable about faith that could add to objective scientific knowledge.

However, it’s not possible for science to learn anything objectively useful from faith unless it has no essential connection whatsoever to religious belief’s supernatural, which is to say superstitious, foundations. Science is wholly evidence-based, so imaginary concepts are irrelevant to what it does. Scientific inquiry requires confirmable facts to fully entertain any idea.

And religion, except for how human beings materially manifest these beliefs (church buildings, holy books, sacred symbols, etc.), is fact-free, completely subjective.

Religion tries to co-opt reason

Since the Middle Ages, when the ancient, classical Greek secular ethos of religious doubt and philosophical rationality was resurrected in the West after a thousand-year dormancy, Christian theologians have been relentlessly working to imply that faith is, somehow, endorsed by reason.

It’s not, and never has been. The claim is a conceit.

The Times article argues that science could learn a lot from religion, while the Skeptic piece rejects that idea.

David DeSteno, the Times’ article’s author and a professor of psychology at Northeastern University, Boston, contends that science can learn much from faith traditions because they “offer a rich store of ideas about what human beings are like and how they can satisfy their deepest moral and social needs.”

DeSteno, as an academic who, according to the Skeptic article, studies how “emotions guide decisions and behaviors fundamental to social living,” appears more interested in the positive behaviors of believers based on their beliefs rather than the veracity of what they believe, which, for science, would be the essential question (if accessible).

The Skeptic piece, a rebuttal of DeSteno’s, is derived from communications between editor Michael Shermer and Harvard cognitive psychology professor and psychologist Steven Pinker, who, regarding the question of whether science can learn from religion, replied:

“I’m not sure exactly how you’re conceiving of the question. I assume you’re not referring to [religious] hypotheses such as that if a person accepts Jesus Christ as his savior he will be spared eternal torment in hell. … [that] would be difficult to test [scientifically], to put it mildly.”

So that’s the divide. As Pinker implies, for religious information to be remotely amenable to scientific inquiry—something that could be empirically learned—it must be testable, falsifiable. And only material facts are testable, not supernatural imaginings, except to determine that they aren’t objectively manifest in reality.

To this point, DeSteno argues that it is “hubristic to assume that religious thinkers who have grappled for centuries with the workings of the human mind have never discovered anything of interest to scientists studying human behavior.”

The point is …

But DeSteno is either being disingenuous or just missing the point. The point is that science is already investigating the behavior of Christian believers and how their beliefs may drive that but as an investigation into social-religious psychology not a back-door way to confirm that superstitions the faithful embrace might be true. The latter is untestable and irrelevant to the behavioral questions.

Pinker rejects DeSteno’s contention that religions perpetuate the wisdom of lessons learned over eons of belief in how human beings can exist in harmony, and that these lessons should be valuable to science.

“Well, some religions do, sometimes, but the vast majority of religious practices are not about ‘how we might all get along,’ but rather about how our tribe can keep in defectors, punish nonconformists, reinforce ecclesiastical, satisfy people’s curiosity about the world, and other rationales.”

Cultures of violence

He also pointed out that “traditional violence reduction techniques, like a culture of honor and blood revenge (as recommended by Yahweh [God]),” have rates of violent behavior “an order of magnitude or two higher” than secular rule-of-law and criminal-justice systems. Keep in mind that an “order of magnitude” is huge — 10 times at minimum.

Part of the disconnect, as Pinker notes, is that, “Science is not a moral system, whereas religion aims to be.” Oil and water. Yet, Pinker still spent quite a bit of energy debunking the untenable idea that science might objectively learn a thing or two from fantastic beliefs.

But the heart of the matter in what religion may have to offer science is that whereas science requires facts all religion can bring to the table are fantasies, powerful though they may be throughout mankind and history. So, if religion cannot offer some tangible proof of the existence of a supernatural realm and invisible beings to empirically investigate, science cannot help it—and, more to the point here, it cannot help science.

Therefore, when anyone raises the question, “What Can Science Learn from Religion?” think of it as an attempt to conflate fact with fancy to give faith an undeserved patina of rationality.

Unlike “fake news,” which is usually true, it’s a fake question.


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