Science and Religion: Compared
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Last updated 9 Jul 2018
Most people would argue that science and religion are fundamentally different, perhaps presenting them as polar opposites: “knowledge” based on faith vs “knowledge” based on evidence. However, some sociologists suggest that they are more similar than they first appear.
What is Science?
There is no universally agreed definition of science. In sociological discourse it is generally understood to be value-free, objective, unbiased and rigorous; based on empirical evidence and facts, tested by experiments, rather than being based on faith. Something based on knowledge rather than belief.
The key differences between science and religion can be summarised as:
- Open belief system
- Subject to falsification and testing
- Independent of state/government
- Closed belief system
- Accepted on blind faith
- Often closely linked to the state
However, in evaluation to the view that they are so different, Thomas Kuhn points out that science operates within a paradigm.
What he means by this is that there is a set of assumptions about the world which new scientific theories and discoveries have to fit into. When scientists propose theories that do not fit into the existing paradigm it is not accepted unless there is sufficient evidence for a paradigm shift. The researchers engaging in “radical science” are rejected from the scientific community, not unlike heretics questioning religious dogma.
So, for example, any new scientific discoveries today need to fit into a paradigm that accepts that theories such as evolution or gravity are true. If a new theory were to shake the foundations of such firmly accepted truths, it would be rejected as unscientific. This is not so different from a religious institution rejecting the existence of fossils because it undermined the creation story in the Bible.
So perhaps science is not such an open belief system as is suggested. Similarly, although it takes time, some religious organisations have changed their position on certain issues (e.g. allowing women to become priests, changing attitudes towards sexual orientation, etc.) so religion is not always as closed as it is presented.
Similarly, science is not necessarily as objective as many sociologists might like to argue. Not only is science conducted within a paradigm that is very resistant to challenge, it is also dependent on funding from various sources, including corporate funding. As such, scientific research is often conducted with a view to reach a particular outcome that will assist the sale of a particular product. For example, scientists funded by oil companies have often been those to reach conclusions questioning the extent of man-made climate change.
Furthermore, although in the UK there is still an official state role for the Church of England, for the most part religion in western liberal democracies is no longer as closely linked with government as it once was. However, there often are government scientists and scientific advice – on health issues for example - is often pushed quite forcefully by the state and through the law. So religion is more independent than is often presented, and science less so.