In the debate between science and religion, religious adherents and sympathizers often say that science has a faith of its own. The religious physicist Paul Davies says for example that “you [have] to have faith that the universe is governed by dependable, immutable, absolute, universal, mathematical laws of an unspecified origin.” Literary theorist Stanley Fish has written that science “requires faith too before it can have reasons.”
But to equate science with faith is just factually incorrect. Insofar as we might adopt the colloquial definition of faith as belief without empirical evidence (despite the fact that the universality of this definition has been thoroughly discredited in the academic study of religion), this is exactly the opposite of science. Science has achieved monumental successes precisely because it asks hard questions of itself and rigorously seeks to test and replicate its findings. In religion (or at least many popular varieties of American religion), to the contrary, having belief without evidence is regarded as a virtue.
This profound difference is why psychologist Paul Bloom opens an article in The Atlantic with this sentence: “[i]f you want to annoy a scientist, say that science isn’t so different from religion.” It annoys me, too. Religious believers are in this instance committing what is called the tu quoque (or in Michael Sherlock’s words, the “you too!”) fallacy. They’re essentially defending the unfounded nature of their beliefs by saying science is also unfounded. While technically there is a tiny bit of grey zone here, on a whole there is extremely little epistemological basis for conflating scientific methodology with religious faith.
There is, however, a similarity between the two phenomena that runs much deeper than mere knowing. It is that science has much the same power that religion does to compel us on an existential level. This leads us to form rich emotional attachments to the world of science. These attachments are so deep, powerful, and similar to what is often experienced in religion that I call them salvation.
The study of religion is ripe with abundant ways to interpret it. One of the most popular has been what is called the functionalist stance. Functionalism is traditionally understood as a set of sociological theories of religion, often best represented by the famous social scientist Émile Durkheim. According to Durkheim, religion exists in order to perform certain sociological functions such as bind a community in its shared values and facilitate cohesion and control. In the latter half of the twentieth century, many thinkers began expanding their functionalist views to include personal, psychological functions within their definitions. John Milton Yinger proposed in 1963 for example that the socialized self suffers problems that range from the biological to the political, and can find their remediation through religion; in 1982 Hans Mol argued that religion sacralizes an individual’s identity in order to compensate for existential anxiety. These and similar conceptions of religion in the field are by and large more sophisticated ways of saying that religion helps you feel better about stuff, an idea you can find floating in the air of any first and freshly naïve session of Religion 101.
I say naïve because scholars of religion well know that religion doesn’t just make you feel good. In fact, sometimes religion can make you feel really, really bad. For example: the primary lowland Maya deity was the fearsome male thunder god Chaak, and the dominant Toltec god was Quetzlcoatl (“feathered serpent”). They both required frequent and blood human sacrifice that involved opening the victim’s chest cavity with an obsidian knife and ripping out the beating heart (Atran 2004: 76). Richard Dawkins has made it abundantly clear to us in the West that our religions aren’t exactly a walk in the park with a gentle friend, either, as he famously (and accurately) called Yahweh “a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser” (2006: 51). Over the course of the last few thousand years Western religion may have shed much of its violence (as religions tend to do when their home cultures ratchet down the violence). But that doesn’t strip it of its terrors completely. I once babysat a six year old girl who cried every night because she was terrified she’d go to hell.
The reason we can be deeply attached to religion and tormented by it at the same time is that the functionalists have a good point, but are slightly off the mark. Religion, if it can be said to be about anything (like any human institution), is about power (Schaefer 2015). Specifically, it is about an existential kind of power. This power can tantalize us with its delights and promises, and it can also yoke us with its threats and terrors. I say existential power because there is a way in which religion taps into our most profound feelings and longings, rendering some of its compulsions unique. A community center may give you a deep sense of belonging, for example, but only a God can assure you this community is blessed by divine grace. A government may have the power to jail you if you rob a bank (a very real and significant power), but only a God has the power to condemn you to eternal punishment in the fiery bellows of hell.
What does this have to do with science? Science has existential power. Admittedly, it lacks a lot that many religions can boast of. There are no gods, no explicit promises, no sacred texts, and not even a hint of eternal punishment or reward. But it is compelling in many other ways. Science has dislodged religion’s primacy of authority in the West and in doing so has become the default way for secularists to make sense of the world. In doing so science has caused some people to feel liberated from the binds of religion and revel in precision and surety of empirical epistemology. It has inspired some to see the beauty of the world in new ways. It has provided secular bases for thinking about the future with positive, hopeful, and even grandiosely utopian vision. There are many ways in which science causes people to experience the same kinds of relief and solace (or despair and terror) as religion does.
This is existential power. When positively valenced, this is salvation. Salvation in this sense is the real thing that science and religion have in common. Consider some examples:
In 1998 cellular biologist Ursula Goodenough published a book called The Sacred Depths of Nature, which is nowadays a bit of a cult classic among spiritually-interested science lovers. In the book, she describes how existentially terrifying science was when she first encountered it. Prior to enrolling in college physics, she had experienced nature easily and innocently, with “joy and thanksgiving” (1998: xxvii). But when on a camping trip after enrolling in physics class, Goodenough looked at the night sky and felt “overwhelmed with terror.” The scientific account of nature “ruined” the night sky; she recounts weeping into her pillow, the “long slow tears of adolescent despair.” She wallowed in poignant nihilism and experienced what she describes as a bleak emptiness whenever she contemplated the workings of nature. Goodenough has somewhat famously said that nihilism “lurks in the infinite and the infinitesimal” (1998: 18). By this she meant that becoming acquainted both with the 13.7 billion light-years span across the universe and also the microscopic minutiae of cellular biology made it hard for her to feel like anything matters.
But there was something about science’s power that kept Goodenough hooked. Rather than run from its lurking nihilism, she became a professional (and world-class) biologist, eventually meeting with the Dalai Lama to discuss biology. Decades after her experiences of terror and nihilism, she published the Sacred Depths, which is a twelve chapter exploration of twelve different scientific concepts that—once causing terror for Goodenough—now bring her great solace and joy.
The chapter on death is particularly poignant and has stuck with me ever since I first encountered it fifteen years ago. Goodenough says to us: death is hard to face. It’s final. But we have to understand the scientific origin of death. Because the truth is that death isn’t inherent to all life. Some life never dies. Single-celled organisms—which were for a very long time the only organisms on Earth—simply split in two when they reproduce. Multi-celled organisms, however, can’t do that; they have reproductive cells that split in two, but the rest of their cells must die for this process to happen. Death evolved precisely in order to give multi-cellular organisms the ability to live. Scientifically speaking, then, says Goodenough, death is the price for the gift of life. Without death, we could not live. This is a beautiful, maybe even salvific idea. It certainly is for Goodenough, for whom science is an extraordinary locus of existential power.
The famous entomologist and biodiversity advocate E. O. Wilson was born into a Southern Baptist home in 1929. For the first fourteen years of his life he lived in a sense a dual set of commitments. On one hand, he ardently believed in salvation through Jesus Christ. On the other hand, Wilson found a deeply spiritual home in nature when his parents divorced and his world was upended at just seven years old. He spent the entirety of his childhood bouncing between different boarding homes around Alabama and Florida, attending fourteen different public schools in eleven years. Wilson feared socializing and found human interaction reason to be cautious. Fortunately for Wilson the outdoors was a world full of enchantments and wonder. A nomadic existence made nature his “companion of choice” (1995: 52). The outdoors were the only part of his world he could hold rock steady, and he grew to love them deeply.
So even while Wilson had a Christian faith that promised him salvation in Christ and eternal life in heaven, the real home, he was already beginning to believe, was here on earth. When Wilson went to get baptized, he reports that “something cracked.” He doesn’t say what this was, but in the years following his break with the church, he increasingly turned to science as a source of meaning. It was an epistemology that could make sense of his world in a way that felt right. Science said that humans were natural beings, designed to live on the surface of the Earth in relationship with the rest of the world’s creatures.
Nowadays Wilson constantly writes about nature in terms of homecoming. It is, he says, the “world that gave rise to our species, and the home to which we can safely return” (2006: 148). Humans have made an especially serious mistake of abstracting ourselves away from nature, building concrete urban landscapes, and dreaming of a final reality up in the clouds. Religion takes us away from nature; science, on the other hand, embeds us within it.
It is therefore little wonder that Wilson was the grand architect and early vocal advocate behind what is now celebrated as the “epic of evolution”: the scientific story of the cosmos—or, in Wilson’s words, myth—that is “as intrinsically ennobling as any religious epic” (1998: 225). A part of this evolutionary epic is Wilson’s idea of biophilia—the notion that humans have an in-born affinity for other lifeforms. Nowadays there are dozens of authors and scientists who spend their careers advocating for the replacement of religious myths with the epic of evolution. This is all thanks to Wilson, who was so profoundly saved—or compelled—by the proximity of science to Nature that his career has been characterized by these mythic attempts (among others) to explain the rightful place of humans as planted firmly upon the soft loam of the Earth.
In 2009, public intellectual and infamous New Atheist Sam Harris published a book called The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values. In this book, Harris argued that morality should be considered an “undeveloped branch of science” (2010: 4). Science, Harris is certain, “will gradually encompass all of life’s deepest questions” and ultimately lead to a robust “science of human flourishing” because it promises a method with which we can figure out what it takes to feel and behave well (7). In 2014 he published another booked titled Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality without Religion. In this book he argues that spirituality should be practiced in a scientific manner. In doing so, Harris exhibits what is now commonly called scientism: the enfolding of many diverse realms of life into science. Both morality and spirituality should be scientific, he says. Harris’s scientism is supposedly driven by logic. But it is also deeply felt
For anyone who’s looking with the right lens, Sam Harris wears the salvation he experiences in science on his sleeve. He reveres science and deploys it in such a way so as to sort political problems, moral dilemmas, questions of value, and spiritual needs. It does nearly everything for him—a function which is best characterized by its universal ability to clearly order and disambiguate the world. Harris enfolds morality and spirituality into science because science provides clear and unambiguous answers to complex and usually unanswerable questions.
Our culture is shot through with deeply embedded uncertainties and ambiguities: from the pervasiveness of relativism and postmodernism to the threats of globalization, environmental crises, and pathological corruption in and distrust of governance, we are all at risk of being swallowed by chaos. Scholars the world over have identified the need for order as key to our psychological and existential functioning. In the words of sociologist Anthony Giddens, “chaos lurks” in the modern world (1991: 36). It makes sense that Harris finds science so compelling, and that it saves him so deeply. Science provides Harris with a way to neatly sort his world, provide clear answers, and put him on the one true path to moral and spiritual enlightenment.
So I circle back to our initial hypothesis. Is science a religion? It’s not. But is there any way in which science could be said to be like religion, or to share certain qualities with religion? Yes, just not in the way we usually think, since science isn’t about faith. The answer is that science has existential power. Science can provide you salvation. Or it can torment you with existential despair. Science informs the way we make sense of and relate to our existence, so it can be deeply and powerfully felt, especially in the right circumstances.
We would be absolutely remiss to think of science’s relationship with religion as one that is simply comparable because of “faith.” We would be absolutely correct on the other hand to detect deep functional similarities between the two, as they both have the power to snag our existential interest, compel us this way and that, and either heal or destroy.
This is important for understanding the modern tension between religion and science. The two are deeply embattled against one another because they are both (secularists as well as religionists) so emotionally bound to their preferred epistemology. We tend to think this is a battle of minds. Who has the correct epistemology? Who knows the world better? Who is right, and who is wrong? But in reality, it is also a battle of heart, spirit, emotional dependence, and existential sanity. Some people in our society love science, as Goodenough, Wilson, and Harris do. And some people hate science, as many of their religious counterparts do. The reason everyone has differently flavored intense feelings about science is that it has existential power.
At the core of this insight about the nature of science is actually an insight about who we are as a species. It’s not that religion and science need to be defined in specific ways—although they do—but rather that we need to understand how humans get wrapped up in them in the first place. We are all just human, coping with our humanness the best we know how.
We as a species are deeply compulsive, existentially hungry animals. We are programmed by our biology to experience suffering and seek remediation, and we are conditioned by our environments to take salvation where we can find it. At the end of the day, we are all just human, and all just trying desperately to keep it together in the context of our own histories.
It’s not fair to inveigh against someone on the other side of the aisle just because they grew up in an environment that predisposed them to be compelled by a different kind of power than you. For some of us religion has leveraged its existential powers over us from a young age; for others, science has allured and tantalized us with its promises of empirical clarity and bare spirituality. But we are all of us compelled, and we’d be foolish to ever forget the potency of the existential qualities not just of religion but also of science. It is not self-righteousness but humility that we must carry in our hearts. And it is not anger but compassion, forgiveness, and mercy that we must lavish on the other side. We are all of us yoked to the things which save us.
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