Home Back

Does a “religion of science” exist?

Daniel J. Castellano

May 6, 2004


            Competition between science and Christianity was not widely perceived until around 1750, when philosophes constructed a historical worldview, described at length by Peter Gay,[1] in which a millennium of Christian “superstition” would be superseded by an age of enlightened philosophic inquiry where social norms would be informed by the laws of nature.  This rationalistic enterprise, at first the dream of radicals, would find more mainstream acceptance in the late nineteenth century.  The “religion of science,” if it may be so called, exists to the extent that it imposes moral norms on society, for religio, in the Roman sense, refers to moral scruples and ritual observance.  A religion of science presumes to establish behavioral norms in accordance with nature, rather than accept those handed down from one’s ancestors or from a divine source.  It is only when science assumes this normative role, as opposed to merely giving cosmological explanations, that it truly adopts the form of religion.  In this view, social Darwinism, Freudianism, and evolutionary anthropology might be considered religions of science.

            Most traditional Christians have seen no contradiction between the exclusivist claims of their religion and the practice of methodological naturalism, at least since the late nineteenth century.  Reluctance to invoke supernatural agency does not mitigate divine action, since Christians acknowledge God’s complete power over natural agents and foreknowledge of natural events.  Agnostic scientists such as Huxley have upheld metaphysical naturalism, the belief that all agents are natural agents, as a basis of scientific inquiry.  This philosophical assertion is empirically unverifiable, though that does not make metaphysical naturalism a religion, unless we define religion as irrational or unverifiable belief, which is not religion but its caricature.

            Although metaphysical naturalism by itself does not constitute a religion, it is a basic principle for constructing the cosmogony of a religion of science.  For religious norms, if they are not to be completely arbitrary, must derive their authority at least in part from some accompanying cosmology.  Metaphysical naturalism is for the religion of science what revelation is for Christian religion.  Attempts to construct a naturalistic or rational basis of morality have invariably assumed metaphysical naturalism.  Thus Einstein can only admit a pantheistic God, while Freud will not allow even this.  A transcendent God would introduce non-natural agencies into the universe, unless it is the indifferent God of Aristotle.

            While these rationalistic moral schemes do not seem to have much direct popular appeal, there is evidence that these ideas may have influence among the educated classes.  Ronald Numbers cites statistics showing a widespread lack of belief in a personal God among scientists, particularly those in the life and social sciences.[2] It is precisely among those sciences that pretend to have social relevance in establishing behavioral norms where the science of religion would be expected to predominate.  Psychology fulfills a dual role of explaining human behavior phenomenologically and defining mental health normatively, both without reference to any authority outside itself.  Biologists and anthropologists often conflate the behavior of evolutionary ancestors with what is “natural” in a normative sense.  For example, a 2003 study in Nature about the practice of “fairness” by capuchin monkeys purported to show evidence of an “evolutionary basis” for human social practices.[3]  Others may take the extreme position that the absence of teleology in nature renders all social norms arbitrary.

            Regardless of the particulars of the many possible religions of science, they all share a common conviction that scientists should assume some or all of the cultural authority previously assigned to clergy.  As Richard Lewontin has commented,[4] most educated people are ignoramuses outside their own profession (the “mediocre intellectuals” described by José Ortega y Gassett as a necessary consequence of specialization), and thus, contrary to rationalist rhetoric, in practice have created a religion based on human authority. 

The historical development of this phenomenon of a scientific priesthood allows us to follow a parallel development in the history of Christianity.  In the Galileo controversy, both sides admitted that a traditional literal interpretation of Scripture ought not to be amended unless there is some clear and irrefutable philosophical proof that requires such an amendment.  Galileo believed he had found such a proof, whereas his opponents held his arguments were inconclusive.  With the ascent of the Baconian method, arguments by empirical induction were considered sufficient to merit re-examination of doctrines.  By the early nineteenth century, few Englishmen saw Biblical literalism as an obstacle to Baconian scientific inquiry.  One of the most striking aspects of the response to Darwinism is the fact that most Christian biologists were willing to accept a theory that appeared to seriously contradict the received Christian cosmology, even though it was a speculative hypothesis attached to a likely, if not strongly probable, theory.  The burden of proof had been substantially lowered for Darwin in comparison to Galileo, or even Lamarck.  Around the same time, the extremely speculative higher criticism of the Bible gained credence in the English-speaking world, even when some of these theories were based on little more than educated guesswork and rudimentary archaeology. 

Today a scientific theory does not even need to be probable in order to be preferred to theological tradition.  The wildly speculative theories of the universe’s origins, artificial intelligence, and other philosophically and theologically dubious propositions need only be asserted to be taken seriously, since in most cases only a few specialists can understand them on a technical level.  If, as Lewontin argues, scientists have not delivered enough in the biomedical field to merit widespread expectations that someday “science” will discover the secret of immortality,[5] we must account for the reverence of science by other means. 

One possibility is an increased confidence in human ability, so that one will trust fallible human authority over a putative divine authority.  Yet this transfer of authority is possible only as one increasingly doubts divine authority.  As John Cardinal Newman observed, the mere fact of inquiring whether a doctrine is true is evidence of having already lost faith in that doctrine.  Despite repeated claims of a religious revival in America, Joel Shuman and Keith Meador have shown[6] that the nature of “religiosity” or “spirituality” is increasingly divorced from the idea of being constrained by moral scruples, or religio.  Whatever the reasons for the decline of religious faith, be they economic, social, political, or educational, the fact of the decline over the last two centuries seems uncontestable, and is obscured only when we dilute the definition of religion.  If we require that religion should act as an external constraint on behavior, rather than as a self-imposed lifestyle choice, then we must acknowledge that traditional religion has ceded much of its moral authority to the state and other secular institutions, as well as to the individual.

To the extent that scientists are sources of cultural authority, in that their cosmologies are used to formulate theories about how people ought to behave, “science” may be considered a religion.  Einstein made explicit moral prescriptions based on his understanding of nature, and Spencer thought he found liberal principles enshrined in Darwinism.  Freud saw morality itself as a compromise between primal urges and unconsciously self-imposed taboos.  This more radical position might be called an anti-religion, since it could be interpreted in a way that would undermine any sort of morality.  The common denominator among these systems is the belief that study of the natural world tells us not only what we are, but what we ought to be, sometimes by equating the two through the double meaning of “natural.”

[1] Peter Gay. The Enlightenment: An Interpretation, Vol. 1 (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1966).

[2] The reference is to James H. Leuba’s 1914 and 1933 surveys of leading scientists, of whom 52.7% and 68% respectively expressed “disbelief” in “a God in intellectual and affective communication with humankind.”

[3] SF Brosnan and FBM De Waal. “Monkeys Reject Unequal Pay,” Nature (2003), 425:297-299.

[4] Richard Lewontin. “Billions and Billions of Demons,” The New York Review (Jan. 4, 1997), 44:28-32.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Joel James Shuman and Keith G. Meador. Heal Thyself: Spirituality, Medicine and the Distortion of Christianity.

© 2005 Daniel J. Castellano. All rights reserved. http://www.arcaneknowledge.org