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Cara Santa Maria Headshot

Is Science Just a New Religion?

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Are we doing ourselves a disservice when we speak about our "belief" in evolution? Should we find a new way to talk about the "theories" that underlie our ideas? What about when we talk about the "design" of human anatomy? Why are we always finding ourselves on the defensive? Doesn't all of the natural evidence that the universe has to offer support the conclusions that scientists have drawn (and modified) over the past five centuries? I've had religious friends confront me about my passion for neuroscience, noting that my excitement often sounds suspiciously like religious fervor. And, very matter-of-factly, I must explain that there are two enormous differences between science and religion: doubt and faith.

Science is riddled with doubt, and religion is completely founded on faith. Rely on faith, and the scientific method falls apart. Insert doubt, and religious certainty quickly dwindles. Something tells me that the fundamentalist religious folks who want to add "creation-science" to state mandated science curricula don't really understand what the hell the word science actually means. Because let's face it, once intelligent design squeezes its way into the pages following evolution in our biology books, we might as well add astrology to our astrophysics lectures and toss some alchemy education into the chemistry lab.

So, what is science? Well, according to skeptic Michael Shermer, science is "a set of methods designed to describe and interpret observed or inferred phenomena, past or present, aimed at building a testable body of knowledge open to rejection or confirmation."

It is important to note that by definition, science is modifiable and falsifiable. This is what the scientific method depends upon. Every young scientist begins their education with a review of Thomas Kuhn's "paradigm shift," the idea that consensus among scientists periodically undergoes major changes when enough evidence is gathered to overthrow an existing view. This simply does not happen with religious dogma. The scientific paradigm shift is altogether antithetical to the concept of faith. That's why we scientists no longer talk about the ether or ectoplasm. Meanwhile, the majority of religious Americans prescribe to a belief system that originated prior to the Middle Ages, when bloodletting and exorcism were typical treatments for disease.

What is religion? It appears as though the answer is a resounding, "Hmmm, it's hard to say." Religious scholars and historians often disagree on a comprehensive definition of the term. Seemingly, religion is made up of some combination of belief in one or more deities, sacred, or supernatural beings, a faith-based worldview, worship, and ritual. Some people say that through religion, we human beings find a place in the universe, along with a purpose.

But does science not seek answers to the big questions, like why we are here and where we are going, without resorting to the supernatural? Nearly 86% of Americans consider themselves to be religious, and close to half of the people in this country think that evolution is baloney, voluntarily checking the box next to, "God created man pretty much in his present form at one time within the last 10,000 years." Such individuals choose to ignore mountains of rational, objective evidence so that they can take biblical parables as literal fact. This is not only an insult to the intelligence of the human species, but also to modern religion.

Science and religion do not have to be mutually exclusive, but science and creationism definitely are. Science is the study of the natural world. When individuals start quibbling about the supernatural, science goes out the window.

Almost all strict, academic scientists (myself included) would agree that if tomorrow, an experiment were devised that provided clear, repeatable evidence supporting divine intervention, our paradigm would need to be overhauled dramatically. What if tomorrow, fervent, fundamentalist Christians, for example, were provided evidence that the earth is 4.5 billion years old, or that hominids evolved from an earlier ape-like ancestor, or that...wait....

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