When discussing religion with believers, I often encounter the accusation that science is just another religion, complete with dogma, blind faith, etc. This is a misguided idea. Science is set apart from religion in that it is verifiable by everyday experience. It is also fluid in the sense that scientific facts are falsifiable and theories are subject to change according to the most current observations. Religion, on the other hand is static and considered infallible. Believers are expected to have faith not just in the absence of supporting evidence, but also when the evidence blatantly contradicts the religious tenets.
Someone who considers the validity of any scientific principle has the benefit of being able to verify the claim to their satisfaction. Anyone can retrace the logical steps of any successful theory or repeat any successful experiment and see the results for themselves, but this is not always practical. Because scientific theories and experiments have the tendency to be too complicated and labor intensive for the average person to experience for themselves, many people do take scientific principles on faith alone.
But what is the nature of that faith? I have faith that if I jump off of the side of the cliff, I will fall down and probably be killed. This faith is not blind, it is established from prior evidence—my daily experience with gravity, that one time I threw a rock off of a cliff and watched it bounce violently down, and stories I have heard of tragedies involving bodies and cliffs. I haven’t personally experienced falling off of a cliff, so I do have to have faith regarding the end result, but it isn’t a great degree of faith. It would take a lot more faith to believe that when I jumped off of the cliff I would be miraculously unharmed, that there would be some sort of divine intervention, like a host of angles sent to protect me.
Similarly a person unfamiliar with physics and math would have to take it on faith that the Theory of General Relativity explains that gravity is the result of a curve in space-time. There is a compromise to be made here. Even though it is counter intuitive and confusing, anyone can open a book or two and learn about the theory along with its proofs. They can learn that many physicists and mathematicians have repeated and confirmed Einstein’s calculations. They can also learn that the effects of General Relativity can be viewed during a solar eclipse when a straight beam of light coming from a distant star appears to curve as space itself curves due to the mass of the sun. They can learn that the theory even has practical implications, for example the fact that we have to account for the principles of General Relativity when coordinating signals to and from satellites in space. Suddenly something that was taken on faith alone, that was considered abstract and beyond comprehension, becomes something understandable and something that makes sense logically.
I personally find this second-hand evidence sufficient proof for General Relativity because it follows a logical progression. I am satisfied with the observations of others because of the structure and nature of the scientific process. In order for a theory to be accepted as the scientific consensus it must pass the rigors of peer-review. This means that I can be assured that something like General Relativity isn’t just accepted by a few scientists, but by the vast majority of the scientific world. Virtually everyone who is able to understand Einstein’s calculations agrees with them. But I don’t have to be satisfied with the observations of others. I could get a PhD in physics and learn how to do the calculations myself.
When someone goes around touting their belief in Relativity, Big Bang Cosmology, or the Theory of Evolution by Natural Selection without fully grasping the evidence for these phenomena, they are taking a leap of faith and are indeed no better off then their religious counterparts. The difference between religion and science is that, where science is concerned, nothing has to or should be taken on faith.
Co-written by orDover and cross-posted at The Art of Skepticism