Is Science a Religion?
by Richard Dawkins
Published in the Humanist, January/February 1997
|The 1996 Humanist of the Year asked this question in a speech
accepting the honor from the American Humanist Association.
|It is fashionable to wax apocalyptic about the
threat to humanity posed by the AIDS virus, "mad cow" disease, and
many others, but I think a case can be made that faith is one
of the world's great evils, comparable to the smallpox virus but
harder to eradicate.
|Faith, being belief that isn't based on
evidence, is the principal vice of any religion. And who, looking at
Northern Ireland or the Middle East, can be confident that the brain
virus of faith is not exceedingly dangerous? One of the stories told
to the young Muslim suicide bombers is that martyrdom is the quickest
way to heaven — and not just heaven but a special part of heaven
where they will receive their special reward of 72 virgin brides. It
occurs to me that our best hope may be to provide a kind of
"spiritual arms control": send in specially trained theologians to
deescalate the going rate in virgins.
|Given the dangers of faith — and considering
the accomplishments of reason and observation in the activity called
science — I find it ironic that, whenever I lecture publicly, there
always seems to be someone who comes forward and says, "Of course,
your science is just a religion like ours. Fundamentally, science
just comes down to faith, doesn't it?"
|Well, science is not religion and it doesn't
just come down to faith. Although it has many of religion's virtues,
it has none of its vices. Science is based upon verifiable evidence.
Religious faith not only lacks evidence, its independence from
evidence is its pride and joy, shouted from the rooftops. Why else
would Christians wax critical of doubting Thomas? The other apostles
are held up to us as exemplars of virtue because faith was enough for
them. Doubting Thomas, on the other hand, required evidence. Perhaps
he should be the patron saint of scientists.
|One reason I receive the comment about science
being a religion is because I believe in the fact of evolution. I
even believe in it with passionate conviction. To some, this may
superficially look like faith. But the evidence that makes me believe
in evolution is not only overwhelmingly strong; it is freely
available to anyone who takes the trouble to read up on it. Anyone
can study the same evidence that I have and presumably come to the
same conclusion. But if you have a belief that is based solely on
faith, I can't examine your reasons. You can retreat behind the
private wall of faith where I can't reach you.
|Now in practice, of course, individual
scientists do sometimes slip back into the vice of faith, and a few
may believe so single-mindedly in a favorite theory that they
occasionally falsify evidence. However, the fact that this sometimes
happens doesn't alter the principle that, when they do so, they do it
with shame and not with pride. The method of science is so designed
that it usually finds them out in the end.
|Science is actually one of the most moral, one
of the most honest disciplines around — because science would
completely collapse if it weren't for a scrupulous adherence to
honesty in the reporting of evidence. (As James Randi has pointed
out, this is one reason why scientists are so often fooled by
paranormal tricksters and why the debunking role is better played by
professional conjurors; scientists just don't anticipate deliberate
dishonesty as well.) There are other professions (no need to mention
lawyers specifically) in which falsifying evidence or at least
twisting it is precisely what people are paid for and get brownie
points for doing.
|Science, then, is free of the main vice of
religion, which is faith. But, as I pointed out, science does have
some of religion's virtues. Religion may aspire to provide its
followers with various benefits — among them explanation,
consolation, and uplift. Science, too, has something to offer in
|Humans have a great hunger for explanation. It
may be one of the main reasons why humanity so universally has
religion, since religions do aspire to provide explanations. We come
to our individual consciousness in a mysterious universe and long to
understand it. Most religions offer a cosmology and a biology, a
theory of life, a theory of origins, and reasons for existence. In
doing so, they demonstrate that religion is, in a sense, science;
it's just bad science. Don't fall for the argument that religion and
science operate on separate dimensions and are concerned with quite
separate sorts of questions. Religions have historically always
attempted to answer the questions that properly belong to science.
Thus religions should not be allowed now to retreat away from the
ground upon which they have traditionally attempted to fight. They do
offer both a cosmology and a biology; however, in both cases it is
|Consolation is harder for science to provide.
Unlike religion, science cannot offer the bereaved a glorious reunion
with their loved ones in the hereafter. Those wronged on this earth
cannot, on a scientific view, anticipate a sweet comeuppance for
their tormentors in a life to come. It could be argued that, if the
idea of an afterlife is an illusion (as I believe it is), the
consolation it offers is hollow. But that's not necessarily so; a
false belief can be just as comforting as a true one, provided the
believer never discovers its falsity. But if consolation comes that
cheap, science can weigh in with other cheap palliatives, such as
pain-killing drugs, whose comfort may or may not be illusory, but
they do work.
|Uplift, however, is where science really comes
into its own. All the great religions have a place for awe, for
ecstatic transport at the wonder and beauty of creation. And it's
exactly this feeling of spine-shivering, breath-catching awe —
almost worship — this flooding of the chest with ecstatic wonder,
that modern science can provide. And it does so beyond the wildest
dreams of saints and mystics. The fact that the supernatural has no
place in our explanations, in our understanding of so much about the
universe and life, doesn't diminish the awe. Quite the contrary. The
merest glance through a microscope at the brain of an ant or through
a telescope at a long-ago galaxy of a billion worlds is enough to
render poky and parochial the very psalms of praise.
|Now, as I say, when it is put to me that science
or some particular part of science, like evolutionary theory, is just
a religion like any other, I usually deny it with indignation. But
I've begun to wonder whether perhaps that's the wrong tactic. Perhaps
the right tactic is to accept the charge gratefully and demand equal
time for science in religious education classes. And the more I think
about it, the more I realize that an excellent case could be made for
this. So I want to talk a little bit about religious education and
the place that science might play in it.
|I do feel very strongly about the way children
are brought up. I'm not entirely familiar with the way things are in
the United States, and what I say may have more relevance to the
United Kingdom, where there is state-obliged, legally-enforced
religious instruction for all children. That's unconstitutional in
the United States, but I presume that children are nevertheless given
religious instruction in whatever particular religion their parents
|Which brings me to my point about mental child
abuse. In a 1995 issue of the Independent, one of London's
leading newspapers, there was a photograph of a rather sweet and
touching scene. It was Christmas time, and the picture showed three
children dressed up as the three wise men for a nativity play. The
accompanying story described one child as a Muslim, one as a Hindu,
and one as a Christian. The supposedly sweet and touching point of
the story was that they were all taking part in this Nativity play.
|What is not sweet and touching is that these
children were all four years old. How can you possibly describe a
child of four as a Muslim or a Christian or a Hindu or a Jew? Would
you talk about a four-year-old economic monetarist? Would you talk
about a four-year-old neo-isolationist or a four-year-old liberal
Republican? There are opinions about the cosmos and the world that
children, once grown, will presumably be in a position to evaluate
for themselves. Religion is the one field in our culture about which
it is absolutely accepted, without question — without even noticing
how bizarre it is — that parents have a total and absolute say in
what their children are going to be, how their children are going to
be raised, what opinions their children are going to have about the
cosmos, about life, about existence. Do you see what I mean about
mental child abuse?
|Looking now at the various things that religious
education might be expected to accomplish, one of its aims could be
to encourage children to reflect upon the deep questions of
existence, to invite them to rise above the humdrum preoccupations of
ordinary life and think sub specie aeternitatis.
|Science can offer a vision of life and the
universe which, as I've already remarked, for humbling poetic
inspiration far outclasses any of the mutually contradictory faiths
and disappointingly recent traditions of the world's religions.
|For example, how could children in religious
education classes fail to be inspired if we could get across to them
some inkling of the age of the universe? Suppose that, at the moment
of Christ's death, the news of it had started traveling at the
maximum possible speed around the universe outwards from the earth.
How far would the terrible tidings have traveled by now? Following
the theory of special relativity, the answer is that the news could
not, under any circumstances whatever, have reached more that
one-fiftieth of the way across one galaxy — not one- thousandth of
the way to our nearest neighboring galaxy in the
100-million-galaxy-strong universe. The universe at large couldn't
possibly be anything other than indifferent to Christ, his birth, his
passion, and his death. Even such momentous news as the origin of
life on Earth could have traveled only across our little local
cluster of galaxies. Yet so ancient was that event on our earthly
time-scale that, if you span its age with your open arms, the whole
of human history, the whole of human culture, would fall in the dust
from your fingertip at a single stroke of a nail file.
|The argument from design, an important part of
the history of religion, wouldn't be ignored in my religious
education classes, needless to say. The children would look at the
spellbinding wonders of the living kingdoms and would consider
Darwinism alongside the creationist alternatives and make up their
own minds. I think the children would have no difficulty in making up
their minds the right way if presented with the evidence. What
worries me is not the question of equal time but that, as far as I
can see, children in the United Kingdom and the United States are
essentially given no time with evolution yet are taught
creationism (whether at school, in church, or at home).
|It would also be interesting to teach more than
one theory of creation. The dominant one in this culture happens to
be the Jewish creation myth, which is taken over from the Babylonian
creation myth. There are, of course, lots and lots of others, and
perhaps they should all be given equal time (except that wouldn't
leave much time for studying anything else). I understand that there
are Hindus who believe that the world was created in a cosmic butter
churn and Nigerian peoples who believe that the world was created by
God from the excrement of ants. Surely these stories have as much
right to equal time as the Judeo-Christian myth of Adam and Eve.
|So much for Genesis; now let's move on to the
prophets. Halley's Comet will return without fail in the year 2062.
Biblical or Delphic prophecies don't begin to aspire to such
accuracy; astrologers and Nostradamians dare not commit themselves to
factual prognostications but, rather, disguise their charlatanry in a
smokescreen of vagueness. When comets have appeared in the past,
they've often been taken as portents of disaster. Astrology has
played an important part in various religious traditions, including
Hinduism. The three wise men I mentioned earlier were said to have
been led to the cradle of Jesus by a star. We might ask the children
by what physical route do they imagine the alleged stellar influence
on human affairs could travel.
|Incidentally, there was a shocking program on
the BBC radio around Christmas 1995 featuring an astronomer, a
bishop, and a journalist who were sent off on an assignment to
retrace the steps of the three wise men. Well, you could understand
the participation of the bishop and the journalist (who happened to
be a religious writer), but the astronomer was a supposedly
respectable astronomy writer, and yet she went along with this! All
along the route, she talked about the portents of when Saturn and
Jupiter were in the ascendant up Uranus or whatever it was. She
doesn't actually believe in astrology, but one of the problems is
that our culture has been taught to become tolerant of it, vaguely
amused by it — so much so that even scientific people who don't
believe in astrology sort of think it's a bit of harmless fun. I take
astrology very seriously indeed: I think it's deeply pernicious
because it undermines rationality, and I should like to see campaigns
|When the religious education class turns to
ethics, I don't think science actually has a lot to say, and I would
replace it with rational moral philosophy. Do the children think
there are absolute standards of right and wrong? And if so, where do
they come from? Can you make up good working principles of right and
wrong, like "do as you would be done by" and "the greatest good for
the greatest number" (whatever that is supposed to mean)? It's a
rewarding question, whatever your personal morality, to ask as an
evolutionist where morals come from; by what route has the human
brain gained its tendency to have ethics and morals, a feeling of
right and wrong?
|Should we value human life above all other life?
Is there a rigid wall to be built around the species Homo
sapiens, or should we talk about whether there are other species
which are entitled to our humanistic sympathies? Should we, for
example, follow the right-to-life lobby, which is wholly preoccupied
with human life, and value the life of a human fetus with the
faculties of a worm over the life of a thinking and feeling
chimpanzee? What is the basis of this fence that we erect around
Homo sapiens — even around a small piece of fetal tissue?
(Not a very sound evolutionary idea when you think about it.) When,
in our evolutionary descent from our common ancestor with
chimpanzees, did the fence suddenly rear itself up?
|Well, moving on, then, from morals to last
things, to eschatology, we know from the second law of thermodynamics
that all complexity, all life, all laughter, all sorrow, is hell bent
on leveling itself out into cold nothingness in the end. They — and
we — can never be more then temporary, local buckings of the great
universal slide into the abyss of uniformity.
|We know that the universe is expanding and will
probably expand forever, although it's possible it may contract
again. We know that, whatever happens to the universe, the sun will
engulf the earth in about 60 million centuries from now.
|Time itself began at a certain moment, and time
may end at a certain moment — or it may not. Time may come locally
to an end in miniature crunches called black holes. The laws of the
universe seem to be true all over the universe. Why is this? Might
the laws change in these crunches? To be really speculative, time
could begin again with new laws of physics, new physical constants.
And it has even been suggested that there could be many universes,
each one isolated so completely that, for it, the others don't exist.
Then again, there might be a Darwinian selection among universes.
|So science could give a good account of itself
in religious education. But it wouldn't be enough. I believe that
some familiarity with the King James version of the Bible is
important for anyone wanting to understand the allusions that appear
in English literature. Together with the Book of Common Prayer, the
Bible gets 58 pages in the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations.
Only Shakespeare has more. I do think that not having any kind of
biblical education is unfortunate if children want to read English
literature and understand the provenance of phrases like "through a
glass darkly," "all flesh is as grass," "the race is not to the
swift," "crying in the wilderness," "reaping the whirlwind," "amid
the alien corn," "Eyeless in Gaza," "Job's comforters," and "the
|I want to return now to the charge that science
is just a faith. The more extreme version of that charge — and one
that I often encounter as both a scientist and a rationalist — is an
accusation of zealotry and bigotry in scientists themselves as great
as that found in religious people. Sometimes there may be a little
bit of justice in this accusation; but as zealous bigots, we
scientists are mere amateurs at the game. We're content to
argue with those who disagree with us. We don't kill them.
|But I would want to deny even the lesser charge
of purely verbal zealotry. There is a very, very important difference
between feeling strongly, even passionately, about something because
we have thought about and examined the evidence for it on the one
hand, and feeling strongly about something because it has been
internally revealed to us, or internally revealed to somebody else in
history and subsequently hallowed by tradition. There's all the
difference in the world between a belief that one is prepared to
defend by quoting evidence and logic and a belief that is supported
by nothing more than tradition, authority, or revelation.
|Richard Dawkins is Charles Simonyi Professor of the Public
Understanding of Science at Oxford University. His books include
The Selfish Gene, The Blind Watchmaker, River Out of Eden,
and, most recently, Climbing Mount Improbable. This article is
adapted from his speech in acceptance of the 1996 Humanist of the
Year Award from the American Humanist Association.