Science Entails Practice; Likewise Religion

Religion and science are both practiced by humans, therefore they are not as unlike as many argue.  There is much overlap in the skills of emotions and of understanding required to practice either productively.  Both fall disappointingly short of realizing their ideals in practice.  Both are corrupted by the common human flaws.

Faith is one foundation of most religions.  All religions also involve practice.  It’s not so obvious how to master one’s anger and violent tendencies.  Selfishness is a persistent human trait.  And greed, and so on.  But practice tends toward perfection.  Not being a good person for some future reward, no.  I am talking about practicing behavior which will bring happiness to oneself and to others.  Christianity is in alignment with every major religion in placing the golden rule at it’s center.  Treat others as you yourself would be treated.  This simple guide defines a human technology which could actually prevent warfare and end torture.  It is a much more effective approach than simply being right-which is where science, or being reality-based, rears it arrogant head.

I stress arrogant, as opposed to confident in oneself as a result of disciplined practice of rationality.  For science entails practice as well.  No matter how deep one’s knowledge of the heuristic methods of science, acquiring the skills of a practicing scientist requires years of practice-as in religion, the acquired skills are never fully mastered.

Oops, did I call science arrogant?  And I was so wanting to be nice.  Sigh.  If it makes you rational ones feel better, pretending to have co-powers with god is rather breathtaking in its audacity, not to mention claiming to know the unknowable.  So let’s call it a tie.  Okay, go ahead, give religion the black mark on this one.  The over-riding point is that humans tend to be arrogant.  Add that one to the list of human afflictions.

So by their fruit you will know them.

Everyone who keeps on hearing these messages of mine and never puts them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on sand.

from Matthew 7

As to whether a person is a Christian or not, a scientist or not– that depends.  Categorization fails utterly to capture the complex ebb and flow of the human personality.  I would prefer to say that when one is practicing the tenets of either system, then one is behaving like a Christian or like a scientist.  When not practicing these tenets-for example, by yelling abusively at one’s partner or by letting one’s desire influence one’s conclusions, respectively-then a person is not much of a Christian or a scientist.  (By his fruits we know Scott Roeder not to be a Christian.)


Both religion and science offer tools for coping with an unpredictable, ever-changing world which ultimately brings death to the individual.  The greatest challenge to practicing both religion and science is to place something other than the individual self as one’s center.  My argument with scientists is always the same thing-if you are unable to notice when you are wrong, you are not practicing science very well no matter the support you have garnered for your reality stakes (staking the high ground of science and rationality while being, at times, dead wrong).

Being able and willing to notice when one is wrong, or even worse, uncertain, are crucial to both faith and understanding.  The scientist approaches uncertainty with organized data gathering and a structure for determining that which repeats predictably.  Specific expectations militate strongly against results which are in alignment with reality.  The extent to which the scientist can accept not knowing determines the extent to which his exploration is apt to yield accurate results.  This is not so different from the religious person, who responds to uncertainty by engaging with faith-an emotional state of suspended knowing.

Like the scientist, the religious person struggles to accept uncertainty; common individual failures in this struggle lead to the massive abuses of faith so rightly decried by critics of religion.  Since a very early age, I have understood that faith’s existence is predicated on uncertainty.  If one knows, it’s not faith.  This is the reason there is no room for faith in science:  the raison d’etre of science is knowing.  The raison d’etre of faith is to move gracefully through life in the face of a vast unknown.  No wonder the scientific-minded cling to knowing so desperately.  They are driven by the same common human emotions the vast majority of us share-being subject to whimsical fate is frightening.  And if either the scientist or the spiritualist claims their belief system prevents them from being afraid, either they have practiced their discipline to an extremely high level, or they are claiming premature mastery and are in denial as to their feelings.  Alas, this is also a common human behavior among all sorts of humans.

Not knowing is challenging.  It is one reason someone might kill.  Not knowing if another person is about to kill you could lead you to kill unwisely.  Many religious practices develop the individual character so as to lessen the chances that the unease of uncertainty drives one to kill.  So with anger and vengeance.  Science also assists in this struggle by offering a reliable path to finding what one does not yet know.  It helps with vengeance as well, for example, by causing the human to question the rationality of his behavior in terms of likely consequences.  Again, both religion and science assist in the human challenge of taking oneself out of the center so as to choose more wisely.

I think of the story whose lesson I remember, but not its cast of characters.  A towering figure in the history of biology is involved.  

At Harvard, a new graduate student.  His first assignment is to study a fish recently discovered.  The student looks at the fish and sees color, and shapes of scales, and where the eyes are.  In a few minutes he begins wondering what else he can record.  So he makes sketches and idly glances at the fish.  By the end of the 8-hour day, the student is bored silly.

Next day’s assignment?  Continue to study the fish.  He begins to settle into his work.

By the end of the third day of study, the student is continually discovering new information just by observing the details of the fish.  He would need weeks to make a satisfactory record.

Accurate observing of the universe is an acquired ability.  Skillful practice of science requires putting aside desires and biases, taking oneself out of the center.  The basic understandings of religion can assist in the ongoing process by teaching humility.  Humility is a ground for emotional comfort when the self is not at the center.  Emotional comfort promotes intellectual clarity.

Put simply, to practice either science or religion, a person must grow up.


Stepping back from the individual, let’s glance at how well religion and science remain true to their principles at the organizational level.  We have seen an epidemic of priests abusing boys; the church response has been glaringly at odds with Christian practice.  We have seen studies that 22% of drug trials are never published.  The excluded studies are predominantly negative.  “Nine conclusions were actually changed to favor new drugs, the researchers report.”  Oops, decisions are being made on the basis of profit rather than science.  It turns out that both scientists and Christians are humans.  Damned flawed, emotional, self-interested humans.

Now looking at the positive side, institutionalized science brings drugs to market which many of us rely on to have dramatic effect on the quality of our lives, or indeed, whether we are to live at all.  A scientist realized that physicians were bringing germs in from the morgue directly to the delivery room.  He was ostracized and ridiculed for his commitment to rational knowing.  When it was finally accepted, hand washing decreased infant mortality by an order of magnitude.  Are there any fruits of religion?  You bet.  Devout Christians in England could not reconcile their faith with the slave trade.  Appealing to the religious aspect of human nature, they fought an extended and disheartening battle until at long last they saw the abolition of the abhorrent practice.  Most churches actively engage in charitable works which improve the quality of life for many.

It appears to me that both religion and science, as practiced, reflect the common human strengths and flaws.  Both fall short of their ideals and both contribute to the happiness and well-being of the human race.


When Milarepa was a child, his uncle stole his family’s possessions and forced the entire family into servitude.  Milarepa’s mother encouraged him to exact revenge.  After acquiring the necessary skills, Milarepa killed most of his uncle’s family.

He soon regretted this act and sought guidance.  He found it in a religious teacher.  Marpa treated Milarepa harshly, but in time Milarepa learned to devote himself to his practices and his anger was calmed.  Many sought advice and guidance from the murderer who had become wise.  He became wise through the practice of religion.  The heart of his practice was to put self aside.

In closing, I will quote at length one of my favorite passages in the English language.  I love it because it is logical.  And because it skillfully addresses one of my burning concerns: Current events are a clarion call to more skillful application of compassion, empathy, and self-less commitment to the good of the human race, yet many of my trusted friends and allies in science and in reason are throwing out the spiritual baby with the religious bathwater.  In The Great Transformation:  the beginning of our religious traditions, Karen Armstrong takes a scholarly, not to say tedious, stroll through the origin of three religious traditions and the Greek understanding of ecstasy.  My tenacity in reading this book paid off in the last several pages, in which Ms. Armstrong skillfully argues what I have stutteringly claimed-humans make a mistake to dismiss the wisdom traditions.  In these times of fear, conflict, and confusion, religious wisdom offers part of what we need.

(The diary ends with this quotation.  If you have neither the time nor the inclination to read this, you can skip to the comments or move along to something you find interesting.)

In every single one of the religions of the Axial Age, individuals failed to measure up to their high ideals.  In all these faiths, people have fallen prey to exclusivity, cruelty, superstition, and even atrocity.  But at their core, the Axial faiths share an ideal of sympathy, respect, and universal concern.  The sages were all living in violent societies like our own.  What they created was a spiritual technology that utilized human energies to counter this aggression.  The most gifted of them realized that if you wanted to outlaw brutal, tyrannical behavior, it was no good simply issuing external directives.  As Ahuangzi pointed out, it was useless for Yan Hui even to attempt to reform the prince of Wei by preaching the noble principles of Confucianism, because this would not touch the subconscious bias in the ruler’s heart that led to his atrocious behavior.

When warfare and terror are rife in a society, this affects everything that people do.  The hatred and horror infiltrate their dreams, relationships, desires, and ambitions.  The Axial sages saw this happening to their own contemporaries and devised an education rooted in the deeper, less conscious levels of the self to help them overcome this.  The fact that they all came up with such profoundly similar solutions by so many different routes suggests that they had discovered something important about the way human beings worked.  Regardless of their theological “beliefs”–which, as we have seen, did not much concern the sages–they all concluded that if people made a disciplined effort to reeducate themselves, they would experience an enhancement of their humanity.  In one way or another, their programs were designed to eradicate the egotism that is largely responsible for our violence, and promoted the empathic spirituality of the Golden Rule.  This, they found, introduced people to a different dimension of human experience.  It gave them ekstasis, a “stepping out” from their habitual, self-bound consciousness that enabled them to apprehend a reality that they called “God,” nibbana, brahman, atman, or the Way.  It was not a question of discovering your belief in “God” first and then living a compassionate life.  The practice of disciplined sympathy would itself yield intimations of transcendence.  Human beings are probably conditioned to self-defense.  Ever since we lived in caves, we have been threatened by animal and human predators.  Even within our own communities and families, other people oppose our interests and damage our self-esteem, so we are perpetually poised–verbally, mentally, and physically–for counterattack and preemptive strike.  But if we methodically cultivated an entirely different mind-set, the sages discovered, we experienced an alternative state of consciousness.  The consistency with which the Axial sages–quite independently–returned to the Golden Rule may tell us something important about the structure of our nature.

If, for example, every time we were tempted to say something hostile about a colleague, a sibling, or an enemy country, we considered how we would feel if such a remark were made about us–and refrained–we would, in that moment, have gone beyond ourselves.  It would be a moment of transcendence.  If such an attitude became habitual, people could live in a state of constant ekstasis, not because they were caught up in an exotic trance but because they would be living beyond the confines of egotism.  The Axial programs all promoted this attitude.


The Axial sages put the abandonment of selfishness and the spirituality of compassion at the top of their agenda.  For them, religion was the Golden Rule.  They concentrated on what people were supposed to transcend from–their greed, egotism, hatred, and violence. What they were going to transcend to was not an easily defined place or person, but a state of beatitude that was inconceivable to the unenlightened person, who was still trapped in the toils of the ego principle.  If people concentrated on what they hoped to transcend to and became dogmatic about it, they could develop inquisitorial stridency that was, in Buddhist terminology, “unskillful.”


…many Christians could not imagine religion without their conventional beliefs.  This is absolutely fine, because these dogmas often express a profound spiritual truth.  The test is simple:  if people’s beliefs–secular or religious–make them belligerent, intolerant,and unkind about other people’s faith, they are not “skillful.”  If, however, their convictions impel them to act compassionately and to honor the stranger, then they are good, helpful, and sound.  This is the test of true religiosity in every single one of the major traditions.

Instead of jettisoning religious doctrines, we should look for their spiritual core.  A religious teaching is never simply a statement of objective fact:  it is a program for action.


Centuries of institutional, political, and intellectual development have tended to obscure the importance of compassion in religion.


…First, there must be self-criticism.  Instead of simply lambasting the “other side,” people must examine their own behavior.

Second, we should follow the example of the Axial sages and take practical, effective action.  When they confronted aggression in their own traditions, they did not pretend it was not there but worked vigorously to change their religion, rewriting and reorganizing their rituals and scriptures in order to eliminate the violence that had accumulated over the years.


Today extremists have distorted the Axial traditions by accentuating the belligerent elements that have evolved over the centuries at the expense of those that speak of compassion and respect for the sacred rights of others.


Suffering shatters neat, rationalistic theology. Ezekiel’s terrifying, confusing vision was very different from the more streamlined ideology of the Deuteronomists.  Auschwitz, Bosnia, and the destruction of the World Trade Center revealed the darkness of the human heart. [We can add Guantanamo and abu ghraib.]  Today, we are living in a tragic world where, as the Greeks knew, there can be no simple answers:  the genre of tragedy demands that we learn to see things from other people’s point of view.  If religion is to bring light to our broken world, we need, as Mencius suggested, to go in search of the lost heart, the spirit of compassion that lies at the core of all our traditions.


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    • geomoo on June 3, 2009 at 7:05 am

    I hope it’s interesting enough.  Thanks for reading.  (Or skimming.)

    These issues have been on my mind for a long time.  Tonight I realized that the key element is in stressing the practice of religion as opposed to the idea of faith so criticized by rationalists.  If you follow dkos, you’ll realize that this is somewhat a response to a debate over there.  I’ll probably publish there tomorrow.

  1. Not quite true: Science is certainly concerned with a reduction in uncertainty; I don’t think it logically claims the removal of uncertainty.  That’s one reason why p values are reported.  What might have happened by chance?  Also, things are disproved, not proved.  Competing ideas are merely eliminated.  So, the logic is always that one ‘might be wrong.’

    • halef on June 3, 2009 at 9:56 am

    I agree with Compound F that science proceeds on Popperian principles:  Theories are proposed, then put to the test.  The useful survive, the false are (eventually) discarded.

    What many non-scientist believers in science fail to appreciate is how many holes even the “valid” theories still have.  That does not make them less true, less useful, less valuable or less scientific.  As I understand it, the only scientific theory without holes (that have been identified so far) is quantum mechanics, and that is so illogical, unsettling and downright crazy that it’s (for me) closer to faith than Aristotelian science.

    In a chat group on science (evolution) vs. creationism, my wife – while opposing creationism – got into a major battle with some scientistic exponents, who claimed that evolution was “true”.  It’s not.  It’s simply a theory.  I deride creationism not because it’s wrong, but because it’s not science.  I find evolution a persuasive explanation not because it’s sold to me as true by people in white lab coats and fancy letters by their names, but because its proponents are willing to persuade me.  I accept that there are holes, but I observe that they are being filled as we go along.  Maybe one of those holes will eventually lead to a much better, overarching theory – like black body radiation and the double-slit experiment did for physics.  But until then evolution remains persuasive.

    • kj on June 3, 2009 at 2:30 pm

    not a scientist and don’t play one on the tubes, but i know of few scientists pretty well.  (as in, very well)

    interesting read, but i think this would be their response:

    the raison d’etre of science is questioning.

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