Science vs religion: Is scientific thinking different to religious thinking? Is it better?

June 26th, 2018

Science has been one of the success stories of the past few hundred years

Through science we know more about the world. We can predict outcomes like weather, the paths of space rockets and the prognosis for cancers. And we can treat many sicknesses, travel all over the world, communicate to virtually anyone anywhere and blast a city with a nuclear bomb.

And so for many people science holds the answers, while religions no longer help.

What are the differences between scientific and religious thinking, and the ways science and religion can assist us in life?

Most of the ideas in this post, and the quotes, come from social scientist Connor Wood, who specialises in the sociology of religion.

The success of science

Science views the universe as a causally closed system. That is, to do science we assume that regular laws control what happens in the world. And results show that these assumptions work.

So if we understand the laws, we can predict outcomes and generally control unfavourable outcomes to solve problems.

Are you sick? Medical science can diagnose the problem, give you a prognosis and offer a treatment. Not always, but often. And we can hope that advances in medical science will allow us to treat even more illnesses in the future.

The success of science has given many of us a mentality that problem are amenable to solutions. Climate change is a big issue, but we can solve it with science and technology. Likewise we can feed the hungry in our world, if only science ruled rather than politics and greed.

Many of us feel that the scientific method of forming opinions (hypotheses) and then testing them against evidence and modifying them as required is the best, or only valid way to think, and may try to apply this thinking into all of life.

Between the idea, and the reality, falls the shadow

However it isn’t always quite that straightforward or appropriate.

1. Some problems can’t be solved

If a loved one dies, we feel grief, sometimes we feel it deeply. In some circumstances, for example suicide, or if we feel responsible in some way, the grief may be almost unbearable.

Science has an answer to human suffering – we can medicate the suffering person so the pain is dulled. But nevertheless, the loved one is gone, and that problem can’t be solved.

We may try to deal with the grief via drugs and alcohol, we may try to avoid situations that bring the person to mind, but these responses don’t actually deal with the grief.

So, for example, we have ever improving drugs and therapies to address depression and suicide, and yet rates of suicide and the occurrence of depression are still rising in most first world countries. The scientific/medical approach of “controlling” this problem doesn’t seem to be working.

2. We can’t treat people like causal systems

Science may assume that the world is a causally closed system, and that the human brain is causally determined, but most of us can’t treat our fellow human beings that way. Psychologists tell us that to function in society, we must maintain a belief in freewill.

So most of us believe and act as if people have inherent worth and value. As if people are able to choose and are responsible for their choices. Yet neuroscience provides no objective basis for thinking these things are actually true.

So in these very personal ways, scientific thinking can be isolated from life.

3. Science only knows what it can measure

Many people believe in God, and many other things which go along with that belief. But causally closed science means that “no truly scientific picture of the world will ever include spirits, souls, God, answered prayers, or an afterlife.”

So scientific thinking isn’t able to take these things into account, whether they are true or not. So while many scientists are also believers, many other scientists feel it is impossible to believe in the supernatural in this scientific age.

Nevertheless, people keep on believing in God and the supernatural, and some believers think this all illustrates limitations in science.

So again, scientific thinking can be isolated from life as many people experience it.

4. It is hard to change our cognitive models

Charles Darwin once noted a “curious and lamentable loss of the higher aesthetic tastes”, such as appreciation of poetry, Shakespeare and music. “My mind seems to have become a kind of machine for grinding general laws out of large collections of facts” he wrote.

I’m not sure if many people have experienced what Darwin reported. But scientific thinking requires certain discipline and focus, and it isn’t always easy to switch off modes of thinking. So we may well carry scientific thinking into other areas of life where it may be less appropriate, and may even inhibit our appreciation of those areas.

Religious thinking is more personal

Taking a broad definition of religion, it has a quite different aim to science. Whereas science’s “main aims are prediction and control of the natural world …. religious life has goals such as making sense of one’s personal life within a narrative framework that enhances meaning and creates community”.

So religious thinking is more personal. It sees people in quite a different way. Connor Wood says:

“Evolutionary theory treats the human mind as a natural entity assembled by natural selection. Most forms of religious thought treat it as a spiritual agency — that is, as a character in a story about the world. Characters have goals, hopes, and agendas, while purely natural entities are just physical processes, slowly and mechanically working themselves out. These views about the nature of the human person are simply not easily compatible.”

Thus science and religion lead to different cultures and different approaches to life.

“Science produces a culture of people who are focused on taking the world apart, finding physical causes for things, and solving technical problems. Religion produces a culture of people who care more about the personal and the social dimensions of reality, following social norms, caring for the in-group, and making sense of suffering.”

Religious thinking isn’t so good at solving natural world problems, like science can do, but it is able to adddress questions of meaning and deal with suffering. “But the religious claim is that, despite all these good things that science affords, the basic predicament of life does not and will not change – we are temporary, flitting creatures, living out precarious lives in a world wracked by pain.”

So a personal or religious approach to life and the world can accept suffering, sometimes even embrace it, and transcend it. It can explain and resolve suffering, meaning and life in more personal ways. It can offer people personal resources to work their way through suffering and grief, and offer hope that there are better times ahead. So much so that many medical experts believe that spirituality and religion should form a part of medical treatment.

Religion provides a basis for treating people as beings endowed with value and purpose.

A story or a system?

In summary, Connor Wood says that scientific thinking tends to lead us to see the world as an interlocking system of causal events, whereas religious thinking tends to lead us to think of the world as a story about people and purposes. One view is more mechanical and rejects teleology (i.e. purpose); the other is more personal and offers purpose.

Of course things are not black and white. Some scientists are religious, most people can think in both ways. But it is likely that each of us will value one or the other more, and so be more likely to see the world in either mechanical or personal terms.

Do we need both ways of thinking?

So it seems that there are major differences in thinking scientifically and religiously. Both seem to offer something useful. If we see people as having inherent worth, and human emotions and sense of purpose as being important, we will likely conclude that we need both ways of looking at the world.

The obvious question is whether the mode of thinking that Connor Wood calls “religious” can be achieved and sustained without the support of a supernatural belief system. Can we simply see it as personal thinking, and hold it in parallel with scientific thinking?

We might also wonder which came first. Does our natural mode of thinking determine whether we will be scientific, religious, or both, or do our choices determine which mode we will be most comfortable with?

I’ll look at these questions in follow-up posts.

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