Knowing, Understanding and Belief: Essential Differences Between Religion and Science

Of all of the wedge strategies used against science and science education none is potentially as damaging, in my opinion, as the notion that science and religion are just competing belief structures. This is the simplest of the fairness doctrines that social conservatives use in this culture war. The implication of course is that it’s a simple matter of choice where one is as good as the other. At the same time, they work to tip the scales by trying to associate pure science with unseemly episodes in human history or portray it as eroding a social fabric that is not of this world. Why does this work? I think because to a certain extent it seems obvious and logical to most people. After all, one can believe in the tenants of science or the teachings of faith. What makes one better then the other, particularly when we are indoctrinated to believe that divinely-inspired morality is all that keeps us at bay. Unlike many, I happen to buy the fundamentalist notion that science and faith cannot co-exist for very long so I can understand their fears if not condone their tactics.

But after years of thought on the subject I must adamantly reject the premise of equality of belief. For science, unlike religion, is not a belief system but a true methodology. Science is a true methodology because its foundation is a belief in its own fallibility - not a false fallibility used to make humans feel inferior and compliant, but a true notion of the limits of observation, the biases of observers and their methods and ways to mitigate these effects in the search for real truth.

But as a simpler explanation I present the following: The implications of 3 words to the scientist vs the theologian - Knowing, Understanding, and Belief. These differences distinguish science from any other human approach to knowledge and in in my humble opinion make it clearly superior.

In many discussions of religion, knowing is a self-referential given. One knows the truth of religion because of the existence of works which claim to be the product of revealed truth. Not the revealed truth that comes from relentlessly peeling back the fabric of reality through cycles of hypotheses, experimentation, observation and reassessment (science) but their claim to truth comes from the claim itself. Justification to the claim is unnecessary because it is defended by a powerful entity shown in the same texts to not be a fan of explanation. Questioning is impolite, impious or just plain dangerous. Take Christianity for example, Doubting Thomas is portrayed not so much as a reasonable guy wanting to see extraordinary evidence of an extraordinary claim but rather as a less pious follower. ‘Blessed are those that have to see to believe but far better are those who just take our word for it over the generations’, - not the actual text but pretty close to the intent I fear. And what of poor Moses, who suffered for years as an agent of God, got punished for what happened while he was away getting the Ten Commandments and then is denied the promised land because he whacked a rock twice instead of once like he was told. My point is not to quibble with the Bible but merely to point out a couple of examples illustrating religion’s approach to squelching human curiosity - a critical requirement of science.

In religion, understanding is often portrayed as impossible or impious as the follower cannot reasonably expect to fathom the why or the how of the omnipotent. This paternalistic approach is mimicked in a million households each day where a child’s push back is answered with ‘because I said so’ backed by the power to enforce the edict - maybe not by an omnipotent force but one with sufficient force none the less. Knowing is unquestionable so there is no requirement or allowance for the formulation of new beliefs or questions. It is knowing in its least examined form.

No in religion, belief leaps over understanding to the knowing. Understanding, the foundation of science, is forever veiled behind the inscrutable face of the divine revealer. All that need be known has been revealed and understanding is beyond you anyway.

To the scientist, understanding is a vital step in the process of knowing. Science does not act in inscrutable ways beyond the understanding of men as many theologians would have us believe. No science acts according to principles, though often challenging, which are amenable to codification through iterative experimentation. In essence, science provides a method for proposing a belief and formulating a means to test the explanation required to express our understanding of how this belief is possible. Only when this belief (and its foundational understanding) has been subjected to rigorous testing can it hope to achieve the status of knowing. A status that is almost without exception understood to be tentative.

Knowing in science is never a process of ‘take our word for it’. Science always leaves a trail of intellectual bread crumbs that others may follow in order to gain understanding of how a particular belief became knowing. It may be difficult and technical and beyond the average person’s education, but it is always there. Relativity is not an understanding because Einstein said so but because he took the time to leave both formulae representing his understanding but also unambiguous predictions that could be tested and which had to be true in order for his beliefs to survive to the present day. These weren’t cryptic ‘and a nation will rise and fall and there will be a great war..’ kinds of predictions. No, for his understanding to be correct, there had to exist singularities in space with infinite gravity, a prediction which worried even he. And one which has now been observed.

Science dares us to pose new questions and seek new understandings. And it rewards us not with eternal torment for our temerity, but with a greater knowledge of the universe. That is about as cool as it gets.


Stacy said...

I think it's important to note however, that not all religions use ancient text literally - but use it as a guideline.

GearHedEd said...

Per Arthur C. Clarke's Third Law of Prediction ("Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic"), Science is majic that WORKS.

This is the main reason why the fundies complain about science; they see it as encroaching on their territory.

Michael Lockridge said...

An excellent response. I appreciate your careful reasoning before responding, and thoughtful assessment of the science/religion dichotomy.

The only fault I find is that the comparison is skewed. You compare a pure science with religion as expressed through faulty systems.

I do not contest that Christian principles have been perversely applied by people in power to justify, legitimize and support some pretty nasty social orders.

Indeed, the fundamentalist movement was intended to return to FUNDAMENTALS, and move away from perversions and false applications of Biblical truth.

Unfortunately, they became activists in a political structure, and adopted many of the political tools and techniques to apply the truth (as they saw it) to the world.

One might observe a similar development in the Islamic fundamentalist movement. An admirable initial intent with a disastrous result.

They became perverse, and unworthy of the truth on which they claimed to stand. Not everyone involved, of course, but the movements have become misdirected and unholy.

Science is not beyond such criticisms, either. At its essence science does seek truth, or at least a true perspective on what is being observed. In its pure form, science is most admirable.

Science has been often called into the service of less truthful social orders.

Consider the application of science in the courtrooms of our own country. The ongoing contentions of the tobacco industry could serve as one of the most blatant examples.

Science is not always, perhaps even not often, pure in application.

Science suffers from the same diseases that religion and other belief systems experience when exposed to the real world.

I have not contended that religious belief systems necessarily stand above scientific systems of belief. I cannot even imagine having sufficient knowledge and perspective to offer such a judgment!

Still, I contend that science IS a belief system. It is adopted by the believer for the same personal reasons that any other believer adopts their belief system.

I am afraid that my thoughts are running down a path that will require considerable time for contemplation, and I will close my comment now.

Again, thank you for your serious consideration in response. Your blog is proving to be a valuable part of my life.


Harvey said...


"Still, I contend that science IS a belief system. It is adopted by the believer for the same personal reasons that any other believer adopts their belief system."

The obvious difference between science and religion is that if one chooses to accept science there are extensive, repeatable, and confirmatory observations to support that "belief", whereas religion has no such support. If we use Christianity as an obvious example, there is essentially only scripture to "support" its allegations (or theories, if you will). Scripture itself demands "belief" without support or reproducibility.
The reasons why anyone "adopts" either religion or science are irrelevant to whatever "truth" they may perceive. Any person in the world can "adopt" science, simply by learning enough about it to either see that it makes sense or finding an opportunity to "test" its hypotheses for him/herself. "Adopting" any religion demands suspension of any attention to evidence or rigorous proof in favor of "faith" or blind belief. regardless of whether or not one is Christian, areligious, or has never had any contact whatsoever with religious writings of any kind.

Michael Lockridge said...

Harvey, I can see that you have little regard for the concept of faith, equating it with "blind belief." That would, indeed, make faith based systems of belief unattractive.

I long to respond, but do not see how to do so with respect to the idea of "comment." I already tend to go too long. Nor do I wish to do you the disservice of trite bumper sticker comments.

That would be as disrespectful as bunching centuries of thoughtful literature into a small concept such as "blind belief."

I will think on this and try to get my thoughts together in my own blog, Philosophy On Purpose. I see you are one of my two followers, so when I do get my thoughts together you will have opportunity to see them.

I have enjoyed the interactions here. It is good to keep the mind sharp.


Harvey said...


How you can contend that "faith" is not, by definition, "blind" is hard for me to understand. Since one must "believe" tnat he has experienced being "born again" (as an example of faith) without any external support or "proof" other than his belief, I cannot see how this is any way similar to "adopting" scientific facts, most (but certainly not all) of which cn be either observed personally or have been subjected to reproducible observations by others. The key word here is "reproducible", since affirmation by others of similar born again experiences does not equate with scientific documentation.
I do not belittle the long history and widespread belief expressed by millions of Christians (for example)throughout history, since as more or less an agnostic I have come to see the strongest argument I can find for the existance of God is that every Human culture has seen fit to create one. I simply cannot see equating religious "belief" with acceptance of scientific proof, especially since religion by its very nature neither requires or wants "proof".

Pliny-the-in-Between said...

Actually the example of the tobacco industry is an excellent example of my point,

In 1953 one of my surgical mentors attended the national thoracic society meeting. At that time ~ 90% of the thoracic surgeons smoked. The first papers warning of a correlation between smoking and lung cancer came out that year to be followed by more supportive research. In 4 years less than 10% of the surgeons at the meeting smoked and many began to recommend that thire patients stop as well.

these studies were published and circulated by scientists.

The problems that started next were not the fault of science but rather examples of the corruption of our government, the impotence of the media and corporate greed. Due to powerful lobbying and support from tobacco producing states representatives, it took years to get the message out and the public warned. Not the fault of science or scientists. The media presented the story but in a pattern similar to how they distort the discussion of evolution and climate change today, the media presented the story from both sides creating the impression that the there was controversy within the legitimate scientific community (ie not from tobacco company owned technicians creating sham reports of distorting the facts.) The tobacco industry just lied - that's not the fault of science.

As for the courts juries, uneducated in science partly due to the efforts of those who oppose public education, make decisions based upon ignorance and emotion not science. science can't be blamed for court room theatrics (hello OJ!)

Stacy said...

What ... you think OJ did it?? ....;-) (/snark)

Harvey said...


When I entered medical school in 1960, 85% of my class were smokers (including me). When we finished in 1964, only 15% were still smoking. It has always concerned me how long it took for the incontroverible evidence of the relationship between cigarette smoke and Lung cancer, laryngeal and oral cavity cancer (my specialty), bladder cancer, and its overwhelming association with emphysema and chronic lung disease to "filter" (pardon the pun) through to public awareness and public policy. The incidence of all these tobacco related diseases have only just started to decline with the slowing in the rate of teenage smoking. What a tragedy that our governement (and all the rest of the world) could not get past the "beliefs" of tobacco lobbies that this relationship was "unproven" on purely financial grounds!

Pliny-the-in-Between said...

I agree with you Harvey. The problem with science to a certain extent is the same problem that parents often face - we get to be the downer boy's that are charged with the thankless task of 'taking all the fun out of something". Match that with the fact that we are products of evolution where long-term planning in the biological sense is no more than one or two seasons and it's probably more amazing that we make any headway at all.