Monday, July 13, 2015

Science vs Religion

In a social group that I am part of, we had a science vs religion debate. Here are a few points that were raised.
  • Humans can use science just as much as religion to spew venom.
  • Religion causes more harm than good. However, we can't attribute all the ills done in the name of religion, to it. If not for religion, in most cases people would just use another tool.
  • Science is the perpetrator of more ills now, than religion.
The assertion seemed to be that science and religion are equally good or bad. I wanted to address that here.

Firstly, let me acknowledge that yes, we can use science for good and bad. The fruits of science, the nuclear bomb for instance, are a testament to how science can be wielded to cause evil. Yes, religion can also be wielded for good (e.g., religious charities) and bad (e.g., crusades, 9/11).

Secondly, there are political aspects to religious wars. Human greed for power and wealth is certainly a cause. However, religion does not get a free pass.

I'd think these are not controversial points.

What I take issue with is equating science with religion as if to say they are equally good or bad. The suggestion seems to be that, somehow one justifies or exonerates the other. This is a fallacious argument. Even if science were purely evil, religion does not get a free pass. If religion is bad, if it causes evil, we should try to reform it or get rid of it. One does not justify the other.

The comparison between science and religion is also an invalid one. The argument against religion is not just that it causes evil. The argument against religion is multi-pronged.

  1. The primary argument is that it makes fallacious claims about this universe. It makes assertions that cannot be demonstrated or justified. It is demonstrably false (e.g., the claim that prayer works) or unfalsifiable (e.g., god cannot be tested, god does not interfere in this universe).
  2. Even when religious beliefs and dogmatic requirements are well intentioned, and they often are, the baggage they come with taints then. We do not need bad reasons to do good. And to reiterate, bad reasons come with bad baggage. An example - catholic charities in Africa do much good. Yet they refuse to side with condoms and birth control and are culpable for exacerbating the spread of HIV and AIDS.
  3. We can do good, we can be charitable, we can love our neighbors, all without needing a religious dogma mandating that we do. The Scandinavian countries are a testament to this.

In short, religion is false and unnecessary for a healthy society. The more we reform religion to shed its baggage and its fallacious claims, the more it looks like, well, humanism and atheism.

Now let's turn to science. The knowledge of the universe that science gives us can indeed be used for good and bad. However, the similarity with religion ends there. Without the rise of modern science, we would be left behind in the middle ages or worse the stone age. Are we arguing that we are better off staying in the middle ages?

Science itself is a tool and is neutral. Science does not have a mind of its own. It does not force or coerce us to do good or evil. What it is used for is entirely in the hands of the one wielding it.

Science, unlike religion, is a tool for better understanding the universe. It is not false. While it is often wrong, it is self correcting. Again, unlike religion.

Science is why the society we live in has made progress, to a great extent conquered disease, and eradicated famine.

If we remove religion and religious dogma from our lives, we still can live healthy, peaceful, ethical and happy lives. We can live without fear and superstition.

If on the other hand, we remove science, we cannot overcome disease and poverty. Our evolving ethics is informed by science (e.g., homosexuality is a natural human expression and is not harmful) and we are all better off thanks to that.

In other words, science is nothing like religion and the comparison just does not hold. We need one; we need to move away from the other.

  1. I have made a series of assertions in this post without rigorously defending then so that this post is not too long. But I believe each of these are quite defensible.
  2. The term religion is used quite broadly to include belief systems that refer to the supernatural.