If you want to annoy a scientist, say that science isn’t so different from religion. When Ben Carson was challenged about his claim that Darwin was encouraged by the devil, he replied, “I’m not going to denigrate you because of your faith, and you shouldn’t denigrate me for mine.” When the literary theorist Stanley Fish chastised atheists such as Richard Dawkins, he wrote, “Science requires faith too before it can have reasons,” and described those who don't accept evolution as belonging to “a different faith community.”
Scientists are annoyed by these statements because they suggest that science and religion share a certain epistemological status. And, indeed, many humanists and theologians insist that there are multiple ways of knowing, and that religious narratives exist alongside scientific ones, and can even supersede them.
It is true that scientists take certain things on faith. It is also true that religious narratives might speak to human needs that scientific theories can’t hope to satisfy.
And yet, scientific practices—observation and experiment; the development of falsifiable hypotheses; the relentless questioning of established views—have proven uniquely powerful in revealing the surprising, underlying structure of the world we live in, including subatomic particles, the role of germs in the spread of disease, and the neural basis of mental life.
Religion has no equivalent record of discovering hidden truths.
So why do so many people believe otherwise? It turns out that while science and religion are as different as can be, folk science and folk religion share deep properties. Most of us carry in our heads a hodgepodge of scientific views and religious views, and they often feel the same—because they are learned, understood, and mentally encoded in similar ways.
In the first article that I ever published for The Atlantic, I argued that many religious beliefs arise from universal modes of thought that have evolved for reasoning about the social world. We are sensitive to signs of agency, which explains the animism that grounds the original religions of the world. We are naturally prone to infer intelligent design when we see complex structure, which makes creationism more appealing that natural selection. We are intuitive dualists, and so the idea of an immaterial soul just makes sense—or at least more sense than the notion that our minds are the products of our physical brains.
I’ve continued to develop this theory with my students at Yale, doing experiments with children and atheists and adults across a range of cultures, and I still think that it is correct. But I’ve also come to see how incomplete this perspective is.
There are many religious views that are not the product of common-sense ways of seeing the world. Consider the story of Adam and Eve, or the virgin birth of Christ, or Muhammad ascending to heaven on a winged horse. These are not the product of innate biases. They are learned, and, more surprisingly, they are learned in a special way.
To come to accept such religious narratives is not like learning that grass is green or that stoves can be hot; it is not like picking up stereotypes or customs or social rules. Instead, these narratives are acquired through the testimony of others, from parents or peers or religious authorities. Accepting them requires a leap of faith, but not a theological leap of faith. Rather, a leap in the mundane sense that you must trust the people who are testifying to their truth.
Many religious narratives are believed without even being understood. People will often assert religious claims with confidence—there exists a God, he listens to my prayers, I will go to Heaven when I die—but with little understanding, or even interest, in the details. The sociologist Alan Wolfe observes that “evangelical believers are sometimes hard pressed to explain exactly what, doctrinally speaking, their faith is,” and goes on to note that “These are people who believe, often passionately, in God, even if they cannot tell others all that much about the God in which they believe.”
People defer to authorities not just to the truth of the religious beliefs, but their meaning as well. In a recent article, the philosopher Neil Van Leeuwen calls these sorts of mental states “credences,” and he notes that they have a moral component. We believe that we should accept them, and that others—at least those who belong to our family and community—should accept them as well.
None of this is special to religion. Researchers have studied those who have strong opinions about political issues and found that they often literally don’t know what they are talking about. Many people who take positions on cap and trade, for instance, have no idea what cap and trade is. Similarly, many of those who will insist that America spends too much, or too little, on foreign aid, often don’t know how much actually is spent, as either an absolute amount or proportion of GDP. These political positions are also credences, and one who holds them is just like someone who insists that the Ten Commandments should be the bedrock of morality, but can’t list more than three or four of them.
Many scientific views endorsed by non-specialists are credences as well. Some people reading this will say they believe in natural selection, but not all will be able to explain how natural selection works. (As an example, how does this theory explain the evolution of the eye?) It turns out that those who assert the truth of natural selection are often unable to define it, or, worse, have it confused with some long-rejected pre-Darwinian notion that animals naturally improve over time.
There are exceptions, of course. There are those who can talk your ear off about cap and trade, and can delve into the minutiae of selfish gene theory and group selection. And there are people of faith who can justify their views with powerful arguments.
But much of what’s in our heads are credences, not beliefs we can justify—and there’s nothing wrong with this. Life is too brief; there is too much to know and not enough time. We need epistemological shortcuts.
Given my day job, I know something about psychology and associated sciences, but if you press me on the details of climate change, or the evidence about vaccines and autism, I’m at a loss. I believe that global warming is a serious problem and that vaccines do not cause autism, but this is not because I have studied these issues myself.
It is because I trust the scientists.
Most of those who insist that the Earth is 6000 years old and that global warming is a liberal fraud and that vaccines destroy children’s brains would also be at a loss to defend these views. Like me, they defer, just to different authorities.
This equivalence might lead to a relativist conclusion—you have your faith; I have mine. You believe weird things on faith (virgin birth, winged horse); I believe weird things on faith (invisible particles, Big Bang), and neither of us fully understands what we’re really talking about. But there is a critical difference. Some sorts of deference are better than others.
It’s better to get a cancer diagnosis from a radiologist than from a Ouija Board. It’s better to learn about the age of the universe from an astrophysicist than from a Rabbi. The New England Journal of Medicine is a more reliable source about vaccines than the actress Jenny McCarthy. These preferences are not ideological. We’re not talking about Fox News versus The Nation. They are rational, because the methods of science are demonstrably superior at getting at truths about the natural world.
I don’t want to fetishize science. Sociologists and philosophers deserve a lot of credit in reminding us that scientific practice is permeated by groupthink, bias, and financial, political, and personal motivations. The physicist Richard Feynman once wrote that the essence of science was “bending over backwards to prove ourselves wrong.” But he was talking about the collective cultural activity of science, not scientists as individuals, most of whom prefer to be proven right, and who are highly biased to see the evidence in whatever light most favors their preferred theory.
But science as an institution behaves differently than particular scientists. Science establishes conditions where rational argument is able to flourish, where ideas can be tested against the world, and where individuals can work together to surpass their individual limitations. Science is not just one “faith community” among many. It has earned its epistemological stripes. And when the stakes are high, as they are with climate change and vaccines, we should appreciate its special status.