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Why religious people are not science-friendly

By Paul ~

The general nature of religious worldviews: Why religious believers are not science-friendly.

The debate between science and religion is a complex one, but I don’t want to focus on all the details. I want to explore the underlying reason why many religious believers have difficulty relating to scientific facts and explanations than religious ones. It is not mere stupidity, although many religious believers have displayed ignorance, but something deep. I am not saying that those deep reasons for being uncomfortable with scientific facts are a good reason to reject science (I think it is a bad reason to deny scientific facts), but rather I am trying to provide an insightful explanation to this problem.

Science, religion and perceptions of realityImage by Noel A. Tanner via Flickr
Many times, either religious people try to reconcile science with religion or they assert that science and religion are not reconcilable. The problem with this is that it is not really science as a whole that religions are having problem with, but specific theories and descriptions of the world that disturbs them. It is not only evolutionary theory and big bang theory that many religious have problems with, but other scientific understanding of the world such as the fact that neurobiology has no evidence for the “soul” or that the earth is more than 6000 years old. Many other scientific facts and theories contradict religious tenants about the cosmos which brings discomfort to many religious adherents. Despite this, there are many scientists in the United States that are religious, and accept scientific explanations. Other religious believers in Mainline Protestantism also accept scientific explanations since they interpret the bible allegorically.

The relation between science and religion become more complex not only in regards to natural science but also history and other social sciences. History, including modern biblical criticism, has shown that the bible is not necessarily a coherent text but a compilation of books written in different times, which inevitably lead each text to contradict each other. I will not go deep into biblical criticism, but I will say that the results of the scientific method in history and the archeology have not received favorable reception among religious conservatives. Even though the scientific method of history and archeology has successfully found evidence for other historical events, which religious believers are either indifferent to or receptive to, whenever it comes to finding contrary evidence against biblical “accounts” believers react with discomfort and disapproval.

Theologians have insisted in the separation between science and religion, but the separation is not always clear. Religion certainly deals with distinct norms, rituals, holidays, communities, etc. These aspects of religions do not really have much to do with explanations of the natural world, which is not necessarily in dispute with science. But the underpinning or foundational of religions are usually some kind of explanation of reality which human beings inhabit. Somehow these explanations are very much tied into justifying or rationalizing distinct customs, habits, norms, worship, etc than a sophisticated investigation of understanding the natural world. In this respect, religions do not necessarily investigate what the natural world is but have preconceptions about the world that are frameworks for human behavior, attitude, conventions, communities, etc; religious explanations are meant to regulate attitude and behavior of human beings.

While some religions are more metaphysical than others (by metaphysical I meant focusing on the fundamentals quality of reality), many of the metaphysical beliefs always have some relation to human behavior and attitudes. Religion, then, defines the world not only for its own sake but also to delineate the purpose of human actions. I am not saying that religion seeks to control people’s behavior in a totalitarian matter (although that does occur), but rather religions display a common human feat: that is to impose intelligible purpose on actions to justify them. We do this many times, in which we formulate or impose a purpose to meaningfully elucidate our behavior. The purpose is not always imposed by rationality but also by desires and motivation. In this sense religion tries to relate human actions to reality, by providing a belief system about reality that can prescribe a general way to impose a purpose to many human behaviors.

An example of this is that in Buddhism there is a metaphysical belief in the Karma/Rebirth. The belief in Karma basically states that there is a causal law about our actions in that consistent negative actions lead us to be reborn in the worse life, while positive actions will lead us to be reborn in a better life. But in the overall scheme any kind of existence leads to suffering, which we all need to transcend. The four noble truth and he eightfold path is prescribed unto human behaviors to achieve a certain state of mind in order to transcend karma. The metaphysical belief about the world (karma) is deeply connected to the prescription of the eightfold path and four noble truths. Likewise in Christianity, the world we inhabit is infested with sin and suffering, and our human nature is incapable of relating to the supreme ruler. The narrative of the fall, existence of God (including Jesus) is beliefs about the history of reality that relates to the human condition to the extent that it meaningfully prescribes certain norms and behavior. When the norms, behaviors, rituals, and customs that are prescribed are followed it becomes an identity for the believers; basically, you are what you do.

Science on the other hand describes the world for its own sake, but provides evidence to prove the description. The description is merely a hypothesis until there is sufficient evidence to support it. The description does not merely describe but also predicts the behavior of nature. In this sense science is impersonal and objective, indifferent to human behaviors. It does not seek to justify human behavior other than the act of scientific investigation and curiosity. Applied science, on the other hand, is not indifferent to the natural world but manipulates the principles of nature in order to develop technologies that maximize the efficiency of human actions. But this application does not seek to describe the natural world but uses the principles already described to benefit human actions.

With this basic difference between science and religion (and I say basic because the difference maybe more complex than it is) it seems that science has the kind of intellectual integrity to understand the world even if reality goes against human preconceptions. Religions on the other hand holds unto the preconceptions not just because it is believed to be true, but those preconceptions are the essence of the believer’s identity that normatively regulates behaviors and communal values. To simply introduce the scientific explanation of the world that is supported with overwhelming evidence cannot always appeal to the religious believer, because the mind of the religious believer is primarily focused on the narrative values of their identity which science by its very nature does not appeal to. That doesn’t mean that the believer is correct, but it is difficult for the believer to relate to scientific explanations since science only seeks to explain nature for its own sake rather than providing some kind of social-regulating values that religious myths and rituals can provide. That doesn’t mean that science can never convince religious believers to accept scientific facts, but it does explain why it is difficult for people to accept scientific facts because their minds are still in the pre-modern and pre-scientific era that emphasizes on explaining the world intelligibly to the extent that it also prescribes human values. Human beings have the tendency to look at nature through human eyes, and this means that the view of the world is anthropocentric in that nature is understood as justifying prescribed values through deities or other supernatural forces. Justifying prescribed values leads to justifying certain sense of identity important to the religious believes. In the world we inhabit, religions express the need to interpret the world meaningfully to the believers such that they can existentially inhabit the world. Science doesn’t seem to do that since it seeks to understand the world objectively, not in terms of existential and subjective terms. This isn’t necessarily bad for science, since it displays intellectual integrity to understand the world with an open and self-critical mind.

I am not defending religion, but rather explaining why it is difficult for religious believers in general to relate to scientific facts into their worldview. What I explained is that worldviews cannot be merely descriptive but must also be existentially prescriptive (e.g. “What should I do? What is the purpose of what I do?”), and this is something that religions emphasize. I am not saying that this is all what religion is, since religions are more complex to be explained that way. But I do believe that this is the fundamental and underlying reason why religions are attractive to religious believers. I do believe that we all need to try to understand the world in its own terms, not in human terms, to be intellectually honest. I do not think that by doing this we are destroying our motives to do anything in this world, because it’s quite obvious that our motives are not always related to impersonal facts about the world. Religions have consistently emphasized the notion that the way world is must justify prescribed human values that many religious people are under the false impression that they cannot live life if they find out that the world they believe they inhabit does not really exist but rather they live in a world indifferent to their actions.