On Authority and the Pragmatics of Science and Religion

In my previous essay, we began to examine science and religion from both a historical perspective (they were not always regarded as separate disciplines, but later did split apart: why?) and a conceptual perspective (there are four conceptual ways of relating science and religion: conflict, independence, dialogue, and integration). The essay ended by noting that believing that science and religion are in conflict is only one of these four ways of thinking about how science and religion might be related.

After I wrote those thoughts, someone pointed out to me a quotation from Stephan Hawking that was posted on Facebook in honor of his recent birthday on January 8. Here is what the quotation said: "There is a fundamental difference between religion, which is based on authority, [and] science, which is based on observation and reason. Science will win, because it works."

Now, there is much I respect and admire about Stephen Hawking, but I must confess that I am distressed that he seems to misunderstand religion. But this quotation reflects a common misunderstanding. It is a long and complicated story why it is that so many people think of religion and science in these terms, but the point is that just because a lot of people try to draw the distinction this way does not mean that this distinction is true.

Let us first consider the issue of authority. Let us look first at science. Insofar as you believe the findings of science, why? It is highly likely that you do not test those findings experimentally yourself. Instead, you accept them on the authority of scientists. Even if you yourself are a scientist, you believe a lot more about science than what you have observed and reasoned through on your own. Most of what we believe, we believe on the basis of trusted authorities.

You may want to respond that you have better reason to trust scientists than theologians, because scientists work from observation and reason and presumably theologians do not (this latter point is actually highly questionable and we will come back to it). It may come as a surprise, however, to learn that most of our scientific knowledge is based on inductive reasoning rather than deductive reasoning and thus can potentially be refuted at any moment by disconfirming evidence. Still, there are good reasons to generally trust observation and reason. And so there are also good reasons to trust the authority of those who employ observation and reason to determine what counts as knowledge. Nevertheless, we are still accepting scientific knowledge on the basis of authority.

Now, let us consider religious knowledge. I would like to argue two probably controversial points: (1) insofar as religious people accept religious knowledge on authority, they are as justified in doing so as those who respect science are justified in accepting scientific knowledge on authority; (2) many (perhaps most) religious people don't accept religious knowledge just on the basis of authority. Let me make this second point even more controversial: we are in fact more likely to justify our religious beliefs through our own experience and reasoning than we are to justify our scientific beliefs!

I promised to argue for these claims, and so I shall. To defend my first point, just as we trust scientific authorities because scientific claims are justified through observation and reason, so too can we trust religious authorities because their knowledge claims are justified through observation and reason as well! The "reason" part might be more obvious and less controversial, because we all know that theologians have come up with proofs for the existence of God. We also know that these proofs are said to be controversial -- some even think they all have been refuted. In fact, none have been refuted: the worst that can be said of them is that maybe none of them are decisive. But I pointed out above that even scientific findings are only inductively justified, and so the score so far is even: both science and religion have good rational justification, but neither can be said to be conclusively proved through reason alone.

The second part of my defense for my first claim is to say that religious authorities also rely on observation or experience to justify religious claims. This point blends with my second claim above, as well. I know that this point is controversial, and I will need a new essay to discuss it thoroughly. For now, and as a prelude to that further discussion, let me end this essay with a reflection on the very final phrase of the Hawking quotation: "Science will win, because it works."

Science works, and presumably religion doesn't work. What does this mean? If our scientific theories are well-confirmed, we can use them to make accurate predictions and to build impressive technologies. In short, we believe that science works because it makes us better able to predict and control physical reality.

But is it true that religion doesn't work? By analogy, its "working" would mean that if our religious beliefs are well-confirmed, we can use them successfully in our lives as well. To what uses would we want to put religious beliefs? Much of religion is about how to understand the meaning of our lives and how to live life well. Some well-accepted religious teachings across all religious traditions are claims such as: it is good to take care of yourself, to take care of each other, to try to live in harmony with each other and with the natural world. It is good to stay in touch with ultimate reality, to try to be our best, to take responsibility for our actions, to endure our suffering nobly, transforming it into compassion, and to try to make the world a better place. Does religion "work"? If following this guidance results in a fulfilling, meaningful life and generally has a positive effect on the world, then I think it is fair to say "yes, religion works."