Why Religion Is Better Than Science

Actually, most of them aren’t. But a number of religions do at least one thing better than any science I’ve ever seen: They motivate their followers to go out of their way to show kindness to people not related to them. People they’ve never met: total strangers.

That is not to say that the sciences urge cruelty. Those who study biology, chemistry and physics are no more likely than those who live by faith to deliberately harm strangers. Indeed, they are far less likely to do so than a religious fanatic is to harm an infidel. A ‘biology fanatic’ may devote his days to observing killer whales, but doing so does not make him a murderer. Indeed, naturalists have been the first and most consistent protectors of non-human life. And anthropologists often perform the same function for endangered tribes of people, urging the rest of us to appreciate rather than destroy.

Still, ‘helping’ is not the primary motivation for an anthropologist the way it is for, say, a nun who devotes her life to feeding, educating and clothing the poor. Religions can inspire us to look for God or the Buddha or Krishna or Jesus or a Hebrew Scripture Angel in a deeply flawed, smelly human being, and some people claim they really do see God or the Buddha, etc., in the eyes of that suffering person. And they spend time with that stranger, and look into his or her eyes, and get to know him or her, and emerge from the encounter having made both that person and themselves and, by extension, the rest of us, a little happier. That’s glorious.

People who are not religious at all do this too, of course. Many atheists I know care deeply for people unrelated to them, and do their best to help. We do not need religions to teach us to be ethical.

What I’m saying is neither that people need religions to remind them to show compassion, nor that the study of science removes such compassion (although there’s some evidence that the study of economics has this effect — a study of undergraduate economics students revealed them to be, on average, less altruistic at the course’s end than they’d been at the beginning). Only that some religions are really good at motivating it — at nagging people to look more closely at the stranger, to see the stranger as less strange.

And in this respect, when it does this one very important thing, religion is better, in that moment, than science.

To this, some people would add the hope many religions offer for a better life after this one — reuniting with loved ones, etc. To me, though, that hope is counterbalanced by the fear many of those same religions implant — the fear that you and/or your loved ones will end up in Hell, or at least with much more pain than you already have. I’d much rather believe that my deceased loved ones never regained consciousness than imagine them in Hell, and I feel the same way about my own fate. So I think that one’s a wash.

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