Why Science Is Better Than Religion

It has long been fashionable for smart people from liberal arts backgrounds (like my own) to equate science and religion. Such people are fond of saying things like, “Science is a religion, too,” “Science and religion are equally valid; they’re just two different ways of looking at the world,” and “Scientists don’t like to admit that they are, in their own way, just as irrational as religious people.” This attitude seems to come from a well-meaning resistance to the idea that some ways of looking at the world might have more value than others – an idea which may seem, though it is not, to be close to the idea that some races of people are better than others.
This line of thinking is hogwash. And it’s on my mind because tonight — at a lovely going-away party in Brooklyn Heights held by, and for, Mischa Frusztajer — a very smart person for whom I have tremendous respect made such a statement. (I won’t identify him, except to say that he is a very good guy and has read many more books than I have, including some in German, and that his name is Roger Berkowitz, and that he has written a very smart book called The Gift of Science: Leibniz and the Modern Legal Tradition.”) Roger said something to the effect of ‘Science and religion are essentially the same, because both start from unprovable assumptions. Scientists start from the assumption that the world may be rationally understood. That is an assumption, as Leibniz pointed out, that must be made; there is no ‘proving’ such a thing.”

Here is what I would have said, if I’d had a few more of my wits about me: “Actually, there is an enormous difference between saying, ‘Here is what I understand about the world, and if you follow these steps, you can test my statement for yourself, and see if I’m right,’ and saying, ‘Here is what I know to be true, because someone I never met wrote it in a book more than a thousand years ago. And by the way, it’s impossible for anyone to test these claims, ever. Still, if you don’t accept my interpretation of this ancient book, I will expect you to burn in Hell, and may even have to persecute and possibly kill you to make sure you get there soon.”

Science and religion are not the same. Science is a self-correcting method of learning about the world. Good scientists make no claims that cannot be tested by others. The same cannot be said of good clergy.

Even if one grants that both scientists and the religious begin with at least one untested assumption — the scientists, that the world may be comprehended; the religious, that God or a god or gods and/or goddesses communicated His or Her or Their desires to some people a long time ago, and expected the rest of us to believe and follow those people’s written accounts — look at what happens after those initial assumptions. Scientists test something, measure the results, continue to test it from various angles, and invite others to join them in those tests, to see what else may be learned. (By now, moreover, it should be obvious that the assumption that the world, if studied, may be rationally understood, has in fact been demonstrated. If it had not, people would never have reached the moon, to cite an obvious example; nor would we have conquered polio, nor have invented the computers on which words like this are written and read.)

The religious, on the other hand, do not test their writings over and over, nor do they invite others to do such testing. Instead of testing they insist, often violently, on the primacy of their particular writings over competing versions.

I can’t believe I have to explain this, but here goes: Insisting is not the same as testing. Insisting requires persuasion and power — sometimes the full weight of the state. Testing requires honesty and precision.
Imagine that your car breaks down in a strange town, and two men approach you to offer their help. One of them offers to study your car, and test various possibilities until he finds the source of the problem. The other insists that God has told his ancestors why cars break down, and that you’d better believe him, or your car will never run again. To which man will you listen?

If you’re smart, you’ll listen to the one who’s willing to actually study the car and test a number of possibilities. If you’re not as smart, you’ll listen to the one who sounds most confident or scares you the most, regardless of what he may know about cars.
And that, my friends, is why science is better than religion: It’s smarter, it’s humbler, and it doesn’t need to enforce its conclusions with a sword.

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