Science as a Religion?

Post Author: Bill Pratt

I just finished reading a book called Evolution by Donald Prothero, a paleontologist.  The book’s main purpose is to chronicle the fossil evidence for the evolution of animal life.  Prothero, as an expert in this field, seems to do a reasonable job of this throughout the book, although every tenth sentence seems to be a dress down of creationist, religious fundamentalism (back to that point at the end).  Still, he is extremely knowledgeable about fossil evidence, no doubt.

One thing that bothered me about the end of the book, however, is Prothero’s wholehearted and devoted worship of science.  I can almost imagine him bowing at an altar, it’s so overdone.  Read on to see why.

At the very beginning of his volume, he gave me hope that he understood the limits of science when he explained, “Science helps us understand the natural world and the way it works, but it does not deal with the supernatural, and it does not make statements of what ought to be, as do morals and ethics. . . . When science tries to proscribe morals or ethics, it falters.”  Sounds good.

But then we fast-forward to the conclusion, literally the last 2 pages, where he quotes three of his favorite science prophets.  First we hear from the Prophet Michael Shermer, who testifies, “Darwin matters because evolution matters.  Evolution matters because science matters.  Science matters because it is the preeminent story of our age, an epic saga about who we are, where we came from, and where we are going.”  Science, it seems, is an epic saga.

Next Prothero quotes from the Gospel of the Prophet Carl Sagan: “The universe is all that is, or ever was, or ever will be.  Our contemplations of the cosmos stir us.  There’s a tingling in the spine, a catch in the voice, a faint sensation as if a distant memory of falling from a great height.  We know we are approaching the grandest of mysteries.”  Tingling in the spine?

And finally, a reading from the Book of Darwin, speaking on his theory of evolution.  “There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one.”  Evolution is full of grandeur.

After having heard from the Holy Trinity, I almost expected Prothero to burst into a hymn of science thanksgiving.  What place does all of this have in a book about fossils?  When all is said and done, Prothero is not just trying to teach about fossils; no, he is all about recruiting us to his religion, the religion of science.  After all, religions tell us who we are, where we came from, and where we are going.  This, according to Prophet Shermer, is what science does for us.

For Prothero, it seems that science is the answer to every question worth asking.  After 358 pages of berating religious fundamentalists, it turns out he is one, too.

  • Phillip

    Those crazy scientists. I don’t personally worship science but I do stand in amazement in all that it has accomplished. I agree with you that Prothero shouldn’t have put stuff like that in a book about fossils and evolution, just like Intelligence Design and Creationism have no place in a science classroom.

  • I don’t see anything wrong with including those comments in a book about Evolution (specifically the fossil record supporting it) and the lies told by creationists.

    The quote from Michael Shermer addresses evolution specifically and why he feels science is important – since the book is about evolution I don’t know how you can say this quote is out of place.

    The quote from Carl Sagan is about the natural world and our endeavor to understand it, which is also in line with the subject of the book. Prothero probably included the quote because he feels a similar sense of awe when he contemplates the natural world and he liked the way Sagan expressed it.

    The final quote from Darwin is taken from the most well-known book on evolution ever written, and is (yet again) on topic.

    I’m struggling to see why you have a problem with any of the quotes. You seem to be upset simply because Prothero included quotes that used slightly poetic language.

    Prothero never refers to them as “prophets,” says they should be worshiped, implies that they are infallible, or does anything else you would expect if he was trying to pass off science as a religion. By implying otherwise you are doing exactly what he accuses creationists of doing: “… routinely distort or deny the evidence, quote out of context, and do many other dishonest and unethical things-all in the name of pushing their crusade.”

    One final comment regarding your statement: “… religions tell us who we are, where we came from, and where we are going. This, according to Prophet Shermer, is what science does for us.” Religion doesn’t tell us any of those things, but multiple scientific fields of study have provided useful information and expanded our knowledge on all three subjects.

  • Bill Pratt

    I assumed it was obvious to readers that I was using literary license in my post. Obviously Prothero didn’t call anybody a prophet – that goes without saying. The point I was making still stands. People like Prothero cannot constrain themselves from making science and its results the answers to all of life’s questions. There is no humility with respect to what science can tell us. Instead of just relaying what the fossil record data is, Prothero feels compelled to reassure his readers that science can easily replace religion and the needs that religion fulfills in humans. If you read it from my perspective, it very much reads like an attempt at evangelization. I felt like Prothero was trying to convert me. Maybe you are already converted to the religion of science, and thus desensitized to its preachers.

  • What specifically is it about those quotes (all of which were on topic with the subject matter of the book) that makes them sound like evangelizing to you? I’ll restate my earlier observation, as it appears to remain true. “You seem to be upset simply because Prothero included quotes that used slightly poetic language.”

    Perhaps you think he should have kept the book as dry as possible, “just relaying what the fossil record data is” and leaving out any quotes (from himself or others) that helps relay the awe he feels when studying the natural world.

    Prothero never says science has the answers all of life’s questions or that it should replace religion. He does argue that creationists tend to take things out of context (which is what you are doing, again).

  • Bill Pratt

    The quotes are examples of over-the-top adulation for science. Did you read Shermer’s quote? “Science matters because it is the preeminent story of our age, an epic saga about who we are, where we came from, and where we are going.” Seriously? You don’t think this is a bit much? Or Sagan, claiming that “the universe is all that is, or ever was, or ever will be.” This is a metaphysical statement about ultimate reality, not a statement of science. It sounds quite religious to me. Compare it to, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.”

    I have been reading these kinds of quotes for years coming out of the mouths of atheists and agnostics. On the one hand, they want to say that they are merely unbiased and dispassionate, calmly and rationally following scientific evidence where it leads (unlike irrational religious folks), but then you’ll catch them making statements like those above. Those are not statements of science. They are statements of metaphysics and philosophy which sound very much like religious statements to me.

    I think the problem is that these guys (and it seems you as well) are not familiar enough with metaphysics, philosophy, and religion to know what they are when you see them. You make these kinds of statements without understanding what you’re doing. To you it’s just poetry. To me, these guys are making truth claims about ultimate reality. If Prothero is just being poetical and doesn’t really believe what Sagan, Shermer, and Darwin are saying about ultimate reality, he should say so. Otherwise, I am just taking him at his word.

  • Oh please! So now scientists aren’t allowed to enjoy their work or be passionate? Since when does being passionate and enjoying something equate with “religion?” I know you guys like to equate those concepts but not everybody does.

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