I’ve been thinking a lot about the remarkable resistance of a number of Christians to the reality of science. Evangelicals have been shown to be three times more likely to flout CDC guidelines on COVID preparedness. Evangelicals don’t want evolution taught in schools. Evangelicals want to ban abortion but don’t want to do any of the things that actually and effectively prevent abortions (provide birth control, non-abstinence-only sex ed, quality health care for all, dismantling the patriarchy). Evangelicals support Trump. It’s a group that seems insistent on sticking its head in the sand and insisting its desired (fantasy) world is the real world, the well-being of others be damned. (Harsh? Nope: true.)
And yet I can’t and won’t dismiss the value of personal religious beliefs. Studies have shown that people get great psychological and personal benefit from believing in a powerful, loving God. They are often happier and less anxious. I deeply appreciate the benefit individuals get from their religious beliefs, and want to protect that source of comfort for them. So I want to think well about how to properly understand and categorize both of them.
Science is how we know what problems exist. It’s how we know (the best way humans have developed to know) what possible solutions we can try. Science is how we know (as best humans can know) when our efforts are not working, why they’re not working, and when we need to change tactics. Science is not a belief system, but a way of knowing about the world. It’s the set of principles and protocols that we have developed in order to best understand and make predictions about the happenings in the world. Very few, if any, scientific discoveries are incontestable; that’s because science and scientists value and respect the process and the possibility of new information, understanding that ours is a world constantly changing.
Religion, by contrast, is not a way of knowing. Religion is a way of experiencing. It is the lens through which someone views the world, the lens through which she interprets what happens to her, the idea she uses to overlay her immediate sensory data to try to make sense of the chaos, cruelty, love, complexity, and richness of the world.
And important to note: religion is a deeply personal, individual way of experiencing. It is not something that can be fully shared with another; in fact, I wonder if it can even be meaningfully shared, in a deep sense. (I’m willing to be wrong about this.) The value of religion is always and wholly dependent on the individual who is considering or holding onto religion, and on understanding the impact religion has already had on that individual.
The value of science is in the collective. It’s in the testing, the retesting, the verification studies, the literature reviews, the pre-publication reviews, the rigorous care and critique the scientific community takes to examining what was done, if it was done right, and if the conclusions are reasonable. Do scientists get it right all the time? Of course not. But they work to improve and redo and reexamine. It’s the process that matters. It’s in the collective, the collective participating in the same trusted process, that we have access to deeper, broader, better, more precise ways of knowing about the world than we could ever have as individuals.
And there is a LOT we need to know (aka, a lot we need to scientifically study) in order to tackle so many of the concerns facing our generation. Impacts of capitalism on a developed country. Income inequality. Vaccine development. Climate change (the most dire existential threat to life as we have and may ever know). Only science can help us move forward and tackle real, sweeping, systemic solutions to these problems. Religion, due to what it is and its scope, simply cannot. It has other uses, to be sure. But it cannot provide the solutions we need for the existential threats facing our society and world today.
Religion can save individuals. Only science can save the world.