Lecture II: The Religion of Science


Thursday, November 20, 2003, 4:30pm to 6:00pm


Lowell Lecture Hall, Kirkland & Oxford Streets

Speaker: Richard Dawkins, Charles Simonyi Chair of Public Understanding of Science,Oxford University

Summary by Kyla Ebels Duggan, Edmond J. Safra Graduate Fellow in Ethics

Opening his second Tanner lecture, Professor Richard Dawkins invoked his late friend and colleague, Carl Sagan. He voiced Sagan's claim that religious thought fails to recognize the grandeur of the universe that science exposes, and that as a result religious believers worship a "small god." With this thought as a backdrop, Dawkins turned to his main theme of the night, the question of whether and how science might itself be like a religion. At the center of his concern was the accusation of "scientism," a term that he suggested was applied derogatorily to describe a faith in the omnipotence of scientific methods.

Dawkins advanced a qualified denial of the charge of scientism. On the one hand he repudiated the claim that science functions like a religion. But on the other he held that scientific and religious thought have enough in common to allow them to stand in real disagreement, fueling an ongoing debate between them.

Arguing that science was not a religion, Dawkins first granted that there is a "mystic feeling" that is common among scientists. He quoted Darwin's profession about the scientific enterprise that "there is grandeur in this view of life," and compared this to similar sentiments expressed by other scientists including Stephen Hawking and Albert Einstein. This feeling of awe and wonder had, Dawkins suggested, once been the exclusive province of religion. But no more. Advancing scientific understanding of the world has for some time inspired this same awe. But Dawkins suggested that this apparent commonality between the two enterprises was insufficient to place science in a category with religion. He exhorted the audience to distinguish carefully between what he called "Einsteinian religion" which involved no more than this reaction of wonder and admiration upon comprehending the structure of the world, and a more traditional "supernatural religion." Although many scientists speak in religious metaphors, he suggested that their audience is wrong to interpret this in traditional, supernatural terms. So Dawkins quoted from Einstein's writing to demonstrate that when he said such things as "Science without religion is lame; religion without science is blind," he meant nothing more by "religion" than faith in the possibility of the rationality of the laws that govern the universe. Dawkins declared that he avoids calling himself religious on the grounds that this confuses people who assume that what is meant is a commitment to traditional supernatural religion.

Dawkins opened discussion of the second part of his thesis with the assertion that science now provides authoritative answers to many questions traditionally addressed by religion – questions in cosmology and biology, for example. As a result, Dawkins believes, today's most sophisticated theologians have toned down their traditional claims. He claimed that enlightened religious thinkers hold that religion and science are not in conflict with one another, because they answer different sorts of questions. In this view, each of these human endeavors has its own separate sphere, its own domain. Questions about morality and practical guidance for life belong to the domain of religion, which cedes explanatory questions to science. The slogan for this view could be that science answers "how" questions, while religion answers "why" questions.

Dawkins is dissatisfied with this view. Science does answer some "why" questions, including questions about the purposes of things. Those it does not answer may simply be unanswerable. The questions "what is the purpose of a light bulb?," "what is the purpose of a firefly's light,?" and "what is the purpose of the sun?" all look like the same sort of question superficially, but are importantly different. The first invites an answer in terms of the intentions of those who make and use light bulbs. The second is a question in evolutionary biology. The scientist can provide answers to both of these. The third question is not of the sort that science answers, but this does not trouble Dawkin's scientist, for he denies that this question is meaningful at all.

Following on this, Dawkins wondered whether there were any deep, important questions that science was incapable of answering. He supposed that there might be, citing as an example the question of what determined the fundamental constants of physics. But, he claimed, such gaps in scientific explanation should provide no comfort to theologians who wished to claim a distinctive sphere of competence for religion. For if any area of study were to deliver answers to these questions – questions Dawkins labeled "the deep questions of existence" – it would be science, not religion.

Further discrediting the possibility that science and religion might coexist peacefully is the problem that religion does not stay off of science's turf. Rather, religious authorities and laity routinely make claims that are within science's sphere of competence, claims about empirical events. For example, though the pope has endorsed the theory of evolution, he also teaches – and his adherents believe – that Jesus had no human father, that Mary, the mother of Jesus, was taken bodily from the earth into heaven, and that many other miraculous events have occurred. Dawkins worried that these" scientific" claims are what attract people to religion. If religious organizations were to jettison all such claims, their congregations would vanish.

Finally, Dawkins held up for contrast the differing epistemic standards of science and religion. With respect to science he suggested that though disagreement among scientists exists, all agree about what it would take to settle this disagreement: evidence. Believing in accord with the evidence is the sole epistemic standard for the responsible scientist. If some particular scientist believes on other grounds this is an anomaly and an embarrassment. By contrast, religious believers routinely and openly base their commitments on four other purported sources of knowledge: tradition, authority, faith, and revelation.

In summary, Dawkins concluded, science is not a religion. Rather, it is more than a religion. It has all the virtues that religion once had, but none of the vices it continues to have. He avowed that we can reach this striking conclusion even without appeal to science's obvious usefulness. The wonder that understanding of the scientific description of the nature of the universe inspires is alone enough for it to claim religion's traditional place in the human quest for understanding and meaning.

See also: Ethics