In the not-really-all-that-distant past, certain members of the group that were known as the logical positivists vocalized the notion that we could do away with religion and replace it with science and/or logic. There have been a not insignificant number of others within the Western intellectual tradition who hold views opposed to faith-based perspectives and have suggested much the same thing, either explicitly or by implication. After all, if they hold the belief that Zeus was simply an early pre-scientific attempt to explain natural phenomena that are more correctly explained by scientific theories, it would seem to follow that such theistic explanations have been made obsolete by scientific investigations in the areas of physics and meteorology. And if the Big Bang theory and evolutionary biology provide us with correct explanations for our origins, it would seem to follow that a demiurge who created the universe (whether from the primal chaos or ex nihilo) would be an unnecessary component of our belief systems, to be quickly removed with a bit of shaving cream and the ever-sharp Razor left to us by Ockham. We might as well just stick with science because we don’t need all that ritual mixed in with our methodology.
So we observe that religion (whether in the form of Taoism, Buddhism, Jainism, Hinduism, Judaism, Islam, or Christianity) provides us with an explanation of our origins and our basic nature, that it provides us with a community of people who hold similar beliefs, that it provides us with a methodology for improving ourselves and our quality of life. We observe that religion generally makes a distinction between a person living the dedicated religious life (as well as special communities and institutions for them) and those who are “laypeople” and are understood as such even though their knowledge and/or strength of character might be equal to those in the dedicated religious role. We observe that religions often have competing views within that religion’s adherents as to how the religion should be understood and practiced. We observe that religions often hold sway in the educational systems of the societies in which they are practiced. We observe that there are often disputes among the members of the religion as to which members are the true practicioners of the religion based on specific beliefs they do or do not hold or practices they do or do not partake in. We observe that religion provides us with a means of coping with the world around us by giving us a means of making decisions based on its stated creeds. We observe that religion has basic unproven assumptions on which are based all its other propositions.
We then note that science can fulfill all these functions of religion. We have physics and biology to provide us with an explanation of our origins and nature. We have a distinction between scientists and laypeople that is often adhered to despite many “laypeople” being quite well-educated and capable of investigating issues competently. We have various scientific organizations to provide scientists with special communities and institutions for them. We have plenty of clubs and organizations aimed at increasing interest in science. Science has a highly privileged place in our educational system, along with its supporting subjects such as mathematics and logic. Science has competing views within its adherents as to how it should be understood (scientific realism, instrumentalism) and as to how it should be practiced (positivist, Popperian, Bayesian). We observe that there are disputes as to who the true scientists are (psychologists? historians? librarians? astrologists? what are their methods?) and how we determine whether or not to include them in the social privilege that comes with being given the official stamp of science. We observe that many rely upon the latest scientific study to cope with life (what does scientific research say about transfats or carbon emissions or bacterial infections?) because science gives them a means of decision-making based on its findings. We observe that science has basic unproven assumptions (e.g. induction) upon which all other propositions rest.
In fact, science seems perfectly equipped to provide all the common functions of religion. Of course, it leads us to wonder…if a thing has all the mechanisms and functions of a clock, ain’t it a fair bet that it’s essentially a clock regardless of our calling it a timepiece? Interestingly, most religions don’t initially have an awareness of themselves as religions. For example, Buddhism was known simply as Dharma (truth). Islam sees itself as an expression of a true faith that has existed from the beginning, not merely as a religion like all the others.
I have to consider that if we can use a thing to functionally relace another thing in all important respects, it belongs to the same class of things, and in that light I must admit that science appears to be a religion. It’s an admission I make reluctantly, because if I am to be consistent in my views (which include not privileging any religion in our educational system) I must face the fact that I need to reduce my level of support for science in education to the same level of support that I have for religious education.
A larger problem is that using science as a replacement for religion would seem to be self-defeating. What’s the point of replacing religion with something that does all the same key things as a religion if we have a problem with religion? It’s not as if we would go buy a shiny new watch because of our general rejection of watch-like objects. Personally, I don’t have any particular objections to religion, so this last problem is not all that problematic for me. But for those who reject religion in favor of science, it might be a troubling hypothesis.