Science and Faith have one thing in common: Both are driven by the quest for an answer to existential questions. But that’s where the similarities end. It’s a totally different story when it comes to how they find their answers.
In simplified terms, science-based reasoning employs empirical evidence, while faith relies on anecdotal evidence – and faith. In other words: An individual that has a scientific approach will study the facts and adjust their own theories and beliefs accordingly. In contrast, an individual trusting in faith will adjust the facts to fit into their beliefs. Psychologists call this phenomenon Confirmation Bias.
This infographic illustrates confirmation bias
By the way: Contrary to popular opinion, Einstein wasn’t that religious
This a popular trope used by people trying to reconcile science with faith, an argument I often encounter. The claim being that Albert Einstein believed in God and was a religious person. Which is quite convenient, isn’t it?
The thing is: Einstein was neither a theist nor an atheist. He found the notion of a personal God to be childish. And he was quite angry how religious people abused his opinions:
It was, of course, a lie what you read about my religious convictions, a lie which is being systematically repeated. I do not believe in a personal God and I have never denied this but have expressed it clearly. If something is in me which can be called religious then it is the unbounded admiration for the structure of the world so far as our science can reveal it.
– Albert Einstein, letter to an atheist (1954), quoted in Albert Einstein: The Human Side, edited by Helen Dukas & Banesh Hoffman.
He was also very adamant about the subject of prayers:
Scientific research is based on the idea that everything that takes place is determined by laws of nature, and therefore this holds for the action of people. For this reason, a research scientist will hardly be inclined to believe that events could be influenced by a prayer, i.e. by a wish addressed to a Supernatural Being.
– Albert Einstein, 1936, responding to a child who wrote and asked if scientists pray; quoted in: Albert Einstein: The Human Side, edited by Helen Dukas & Banesh Hoffmann.
And he supported science-based reasoning, without losing an awe in the light of the wonders of the world:
Scientific research can reduce superstition by encouraging people to think and view things in terms of cause and effect. Certain it is that a conviction, akin to religious feeling, of the rationality and intelligibility of the world lies behind all scientific work of a higher order.
– Albert Einstein, 1929, in a cable to Rabbi Herbert S. Goldstein
Fun fact: people cherry-picking Einstein quotes to fit the Albert-Einstein-Was-A-Theist-Trope is a perfect example for confirmation bias.
Why is this important?
Sure, science is not immune to error. Also, it is constantly evolving. But that’s the whole point of science-based reasoning: To find out and know more, even if it comes at the cost of being proven wrong.
Science is not static, it’s on the move, it wants to reach a higher level. Religious people, in general, like to stick to what they know. Change is not welcome, especially if it contradicts current knowledge.
Confirmation bias doesn’t only apply to religious groups: extreme right-wing politics, for example Donald Trump and his supporters, as well as pseudosciences like alternative medicine or the anti-vaxxer movement, may exhibit traits akin to a religious belief. Studies that contradict their mindset are dismissed as “big pharma-induced” and “bought”. Individuals that produce evidence other than the accepted standpoint are branded as having “drunk the kool-aid” and may be even blocked in their Facebook groups. Anecdotes by close friends or obscure blog articles with questionable source material are viewed as evidence. That’s why such movements are basically religions – or even Cults.
Case in point: There is ample proof vaccines don’t cause autism and Andrew Wakefield was wrong (apart from the fact that his data range was far too small to prove anything). But the Anti-Vaxx movement is undeterred by this detail. Ignoring the overwhelming evidence contradicting their stance, they cling to that one faulty study that seemingly confirms their belief.
It’s important to be a skeptic. But when you’re critical of everything outside of your peer group and filter bubble, when you’re dismissive of everything mainstream, you’ve come full circle. You’re a Cult.
That’s the major difference between science-based reasoning and faith: scientists who prove their peers wrong may get a Nobel prize. Their religious contemporaries, on the other hand, would be branded as heretics, apostates or, if they’re really out of luck, burned at the stake.