I recently found myself unable to respond to the statement "But the big bang theory is just another creation myth!" during a science vs. religion argument. I found it very difficult to explain the difference between the big bang theory and creation myths without going through a crash course in Newtonian and then Relativistic mechanics.

This had me thinking of the following scenario: Consider a person who for various reasons never got a formal education beyond basic reading and writing. He/She doesn't know any science or math, and was never exposed to any scientific reasoning and experiments. She/He is however an open minded, level headed, and rational person (I've met more than one such person myself).

How would such a person differentiate science from religion? As far as he/she is concerned science has the exact same structure as religion:

  • A hard to understand scripture: Science treatises and journal papers.
  • An ordained clergy with a high entry barrier: Doctors, professors, scientists, etc...
  • Seemingly arbitrary injunctions against certain behaviors: "Don't smoke", "Don't pollute",....
  • Various metaphysical (from his/her perspective) claims about the world around us: The big bang, other galaxies, blackholes, quarks,...
  • Organizations which control and oversee doctrine: The FDA, The NIH, The NFS,...

From his/her perspective, all of these characteristics are no different than the way organized religion presents itself as being the source of truths about the world.

In particular if such a person were to heed the advice of the Kalama Sutra:

  • Do not go upon what has been acquired by repeated hearing (anussava),
  • nor upon tradition (paramparā),
  • nor upon rumor (itikirā),
  • nor upon what is in a scripture (piṭaka-sampadāna)
  • nor upon surmise (takka-hetu),
  • nor upon an axiom (naya-hetu),
  • nor upon specious reasoning (ākāra-parivitakka),
  • nor upon a bias towards a notion that has been pondered over (diṭṭhi-nijjhān-akkh-antiyā),
  • nor upon another's seeming ability (bhabba-rūpatāya),
  • nor upon the consideration, The monk is our teacher (samaṇo no garū) Kalamas, when you yourselves know: "These things are good; these things are not blamable; these things are praised by the wise; undertaken and observed, these things lead to benefit and happiness," enter on and abide in them.'

Following the Buddha's advice (ironically himself a religious figure), such a rational but uneducated person would have just as much reason to doubt the various results of scientists as to doubt the dogmas of organized religion.

  1. How would it be possible for such a person to distinguish scientific facts from religious dogma?
  2. How can we convince such a person of the validity of ideas like those of modern cosmology or evolutionary biology, without first having to teach them enough biology and physics to understand those concepts?
  • 20
    I daresay you can't. That's what education is for. That's why people are vulnerable to indoctrination when they're uneducated, and much less so when they take the effort to educate themselves. The uneducated person cannot tell much difference between science and religion. The educated person, however, can. It's through education we come to evaluate the claims of others, scientific or religious.
    – commando
    Commented Nov 19, 2015 at 18:57
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    Protip: the lay-explanation for why the big bang theory is more than "just another creation myth" is that it's corroborated by and compatible with all our empirical evidence and scientific method, while saying "the earth was made six thousand years ago" is in complete defiance of everything we take to be scientific. A young earth creationist is forced to reject the scientific method and, by extension, all the conclusions it has given us. A big bang theorist can say "I take this theory to be likely true because it is compatible with the rigorous methods of science".
    – commando
    Commented Nov 19, 2015 at 19:00
  • 8
    With science, you don't have to die to find out that you were wrong. Commented Nov 20, 2015 at 6:09
  • 9
    It's worth noting that "don't smoke" was a religious prohibition long before it was a scientific one, and "don't pollute" arguably dates all the way back to Old Testament times. Commented Nov 20, 2015 at 15:26
  • 8
    The problem is that it's not really possible to understand and object to an argument if you don't know the language in which it is argued. In the case of the "big bang theory", this is the language of mathematics, set amidst the context of data gathered through many years of experimentation. Without actually knowing this language and context, the most one can do is object to a shallow caricature of the theory. Granted, this goes both ways, whereby profound 'religious' philosophies can be readily discarded as meaningless upon a superficial analysis bereft of the context of faith.
    – Dan Bryant
    Commented Nov 20, 2015 at 18:15

11 Answers 11


Turn the is vs. ought problem on it head. Science, when it is being most scientific, only provides instrumental oughts; religion, when it is being most religious, provides only moral oughts.

Science can tell you that if you want to avoid X degrees of global warming you should (instrumentally) reduce carbon emissions by Y amount; but not whether the harm caused by limiting the use of carbon based fuels to improve the lot of people in the developing world offsets the long term harm to our descendent. Several of the examples in the OP illustrate that this is not a hard line, hence the "at its most scientific" disclaimer, but does provide a clear direction. If the response to "why shouldn't I smoke" is factual, rates of smoking related diseases for example, then you're claiming an instrumental ought that aligns with science. If instead the response is about the moral responsibility to maintain one's health, then the response is coming from somewhere other than science.

This blurring goes the other way too -- doing something merely to avoid hell (or gain heaven) can be an instrumental motivation for certain activities. However, in many religious communities, being motivated by just instrumental concerns is less than ideal, if not downright improper.

If you accept that there is an is vs. ought problem, and that oughts (and ises) exist, you can use that branching to separate out the two domains, maybe not crisply, but separate them none the less.

  • 2
    A testing case would be something like a religious belief that if a regular human sacrifice is skipped then the sun will never rise again. This is instrumental, and rather easy to assess as religion now that we know it to be false. Of course it's not based on direct observation if "not sacrificing" has never been tried. But the problem the questioner is concerned with, I think, is the immense amount of study required to assess whether or not a scientific statement like "reducing carbon by Y will prevent X temperature rise" is or is not soundly based at least indirectly on observation. Commented Nov 20, 2015 at 13:10
  • 3
    I love the simplicity of this answer and I'd suggest it points to a very deep truth about this ridiculous fake debate (religion vs. science) - simply that they are talking about different things.
    – CCarter
    Commented Nov 20, 2015 at 13:26
  • @SteveJessop I don't see a problem with calling proposition "P" scientific, in the sense of "falling within the domain of science" even if P is false (say, the bread pudding model of the atom) or currently insufficiently supported by the available evidence (various ideas in say cosmology) to warrant strong belief. I believe this approach provides a way to assess the "within the domain of science" question.
    – Dave
    Commented Nov 20, 2015 at 13:53
  • 1
    @SteveJessop I guess I would be more worried about the sun not rising the next day if I varied my behavior. Certainly an irreparable omission. What I am saying is that superstition can prevent people entirely from even thinking about something differently, let alone doing it differently. So, you cannot rationally convince a person who is not operating rationally. There is no common ground.
    – user16869
    Commented Nov 22, 2015 at 20:53
  • 4
    To me, this is based on a personal and narrow definition of religion, that is not really supported by any sources. Most religions make strong epistemic and metaphysical claims, and to say that 'pure' religion only provides moral oughts, without providing a reasoning for this assertion, is not very convincing. Commented Dec 15, 2015 at 8:56

First, I would say that many supporters of science are too proselytizing, too reluctant to admit the ambiguities and necessary limits of science. This merely harms their own case by opening them up the same skeptical attacks so easily employed against religion.

Second, I would observe that science and religion are by no means mutually exclusive. It is only where they offer mutually exclusive interpretations of the same phenomena that they become antagonistic. Such contradictory interpretations often mix metaphors, terminologies, causal agency, and levels of abstraction in ways that are quite superficial.

Third, one can explain the "enabling constraints" of science. Many people, even many scientists, do talk as if science revealed "absolute truths." It reveals conditional truths under the well-understood rules of induction and probability. Strictly speaking, science is a principled agnosticism. One can happily concede that science cannot "disprove" intelligent design. It is simply not compatible with the best evidence or other scientific findings. And it violates parsimony. But is it "true?" That is not a scientific question.

Having conceded this much, one can then describe science as a "practice" for arriving at a working consensus based on transparent, public rules of evidence. Here we introduce the usual list: falsifiability, confirmation of predictions, repeatability of experiments, mathematical description under some Hamiltonian, peer review.... and, too often neglected, the continuous confirmation of technologies. If one accepts a pragmatic view that these are methods of arriving not at indubitable "truth" but at justified, reliable beliefs and agreements, the contrast with religion is historically much more clear.

It is also well to admit that science has grey areas, lacunae, and boundary issues. But building some God-of-the-Gaps out of these is a pretty paltry sort of religion anyway. Specifically, the problems introduced by recent science, cosmology in particular, really do push physics towards metaphysics, and it is just as well to admit that. This is assumed to be a temporary situation. Here science can only say that "the math works." The untested theories are those that appear most consistent with the theories enjoying experimental confirmation.

If string theory or quantum gravity abandon the possibility of prediction and experimental confirmation, they hang in a metaphysical void, no longer science. If the devout can discover a series of prayers that reliably resurrects the dead and is repeatable, their deity is well on the way to scientific hypothesis. I tend to think the strength of science involves its "enabling constraints," the limits that scientists are often reluctant to admit. This offends those who see only an unwarranted explanatory hegemony instead of an ennobling explanatory constraint.

  • 17
    +1. A few months ago a person of the ones you mention in your first paragraph posted on FB, as a blow against religion, that religion was so unreasonable that parents had to train their kids since youth in order to believe. And I remember thinking at the time about all the years of training needed to get any non-superficial commanding of science. Commented Nov 20, 2015 at 5:50
  • 3
    There is nothing here that is answering the question.
    – ch7kor
    Commented Nov 20, 2015 at 14:52
  • 5
    It answers it quite well actually, simply put, one at that intellect would not be able to distinguish science from religion. For many of the theories that are presented in science, one would need to have faith that they exist as true and fact. The same applies for religion.
    – jemiloii
    Commented Nov 20, 2015 at 16:30
  • 1
    I was going to simply answer "the same way you differentiate between science and everything else: evidence", but this is a much more complete and well rounded answer. Thanks for writing it!
    – Chuck
    Commented Nov 20, 2015 at 18:47
  • 1
    I find this answer too quickly glosses over the fact that any claim needs to be falsifiable: and depending on how well cited it is the claim is considered "better". (IE we do not think that tomorrow gravity works the other way and we fall towards the sky, because we have shown time and again that the models of gravity stay correct, so it makes no sense to consider it wrong when you use the model).
    – paul23
    Commented Mar 19, 2019 at 1:21

You are right this is difficult, even for an educated person, as science is too vast for a single human being, and experiments may be difficult to replicate. We are told we have experimental proof that Higgs boson exists, but who can build its own LHC to check for himself ?

So we have to trust scientists and science books and it could be seen as no different than trusting a religious leader and religious book.

But there are differences:

  • When you discuss with scientists, they always explains you how much they don't know, while religion leaders give you "the truth".
  • Scientific paradigm can change over time. See how much discoveries have been done recently about the origin of human species. Religion books content is not supposed to change.
  • Everybody can do his own experiments and observations of nature. In religions, only a tiny number have mystic visions.

You don't trust blindly a few individual scientist. You trust the scientific community, knowing that they follows strict principles to ensure that their results are sound, that they values those among them that can show there is a flaw in a previous result.

  • 7
    "When you discuss with scientists, they always explains you how much they don't know, while religion leaders give you the truth." - not in all cases. I've seen several times that a humble priest said that we mere humans cannot undertand the whole truth, (of course, with himself included).
    – vsz
    Commented Nov 20, 2015 at 7:19
  • 4
    I was going to add a similar answer, but will +1 this instead. Another critical difference I wanted to mention is that anyone at all can observe the basic validity of the scientific method for themselves in that natural phenomenon follow repeated patterns which can be tested for validity. It needs no education to do this, and should be sufficient foundation to trust a scientist over a religious dogmatic.
    – Bob Tway
    Commented Nov 20, 2015 at 16:22
  • 2
    I would say that the differences are not so great between science and well-done theology. Science involves interpretation of experimental data, and theology involves the interpretation of divine revelation. 1) A theologian has the problem of determining what is revelation and what does it mean, and a good one admits there is a lot of uncertainty there. 2) At least in Catholic theology, doctrine "develops" over the centuries as we gain new insight of revelation. 3) Almost all religious believers have some level of religious experience, even if not a spectacular vision. Commented Oct 27, 2016 at 21:32

Perhaps an alternative would be to differentiate between a belief which is only valuable if it is true and a belief which still retains value even in the presence of inaccuracies. One requires the belief to be assumed (potentially axiomatically), while the other permits some freedom to not make that assumption.

For example, many find science to retain great value because, even if a claim of "X is true" turns out to be false, the statistical research exploring X retains value. Likewise, even though Newton's laws are "incorrect" according to modern relativity, they are "true enough" to be valuable in many human-scale activities.

Likewise, many find religion to retain great value in its ability to help humans understand right and wrong (to the best understanding of the religious individual, of course). Religion has been known to bring peace to the conflicted individual, even though some may question whether particular events described in the religion actually occurred as stated.

If you differentiate theories in this way, you may be able to find a reasonable differentiation between science and religion in that the retained value of science tends to be in the form of empirical statistical evidence, while religion tends to retain value in other forms. Whether such evidence is more retained value than that retained from religion is a more personal question, but I do find that the evidence does have an inherently different flavor.

  • 1
    Even then, the problem holds: Said uneducated person is told by scientists to conserve resources, while his town preacher says go forth and multiply, he has now immediate method of figuring out which belief has more value. Commented Nov 19, 2015 at 20:10
  • 1
    @AlexanderSKing Yes, he does. While I agree the problem still holds, I declare this is an answer anyway ;-) (Actually, I have been known to use the phrase "The Church of Science," which I coined to separate the part that relies on abductive leaps and the "truth" of scientific theories from the "hard science" observations, data, and statistical manipulation. I omitted it because its a term I invented, and you can imagine it is rather contentious amongst the true believers in science.)
    – Cort Ammon
    Commented Nov 19, 2015 at 20:48

Perhaps, it's a false dichotomy: Goethe, for example wrote in his diary of his travels in Italy:

Tonight I attended a meeting of the Academy of the Olympians...the motion proposed by the President was: which has been greater benefit to the Arts - Invention or Imitation? Not a bad idea, for if one treats the alternatives as exclusive, one can go on debating for centuries.

I mean, why treat the two - science and religion as exclusive? Stephen Gould did just that with his notion of non-overlapping magisteria; except, he means that they speak to different areas of human experience - and both valuable and truth-making; it's this sense that Badiou picked up with his notion of the separate truth-procedures of Art, Politics, Science and Love - and then they entangle each other through the discursive spirit of philosophy; Naess, the Norwegian philosopher - and who is analytically disposed - is engaged in something similar.

  • 3
    It might be a false dichotomy for some religious people, but here in the US there are increasing numbers of biblical literalists who don't get the non-overlapping magisteria concept. A related problem (that doesn't involve religion) is the so called anti Vaxxer movement, where the conflict is between science and pseudo-science. Commented Nov 19, 2015 at 21:15
  • Ok, but that seems a socio-political phenomenon, though of course important; whereas Gould is talking about - I think (it being a long time since I have read him), different realms of human experience Commented Nov 20, 2015 at 14:21
  • 3
    @AlexanderSKing - I don't think the New Atheists get "NOMA" either. Actually, I'm not sure why anyone does, if they pay attention to the logical extent of the spheres of inquiry (i.e. "everything measurable or perceivable, directly or indirectly", and "everything, whether perceivable or not"). There's certainly no clear dividing line.
    – Rex Kerr
    Commented Nov 22, 2015 at 1:54

An attempt to answer your question:

  1. How would be possible for such a person to distinguish scientific facts from religious dogma?

Knowledge gained through the scientific process allows to predict the future development of some aspect of reality - that's what makes it "scientific" and testable. This is also what makes science eventually useful in the day-to-day life and distinguishes it from other endeavors for knowledge.

E. g. the way a lever or a pulley works to lift objects is predicted by scientific laws, so is the speed with which an object hits the ground, the way a magnet and a coil produce electricity in a determined manner, etcetc. All of which can be put to use.

So an uneducated person could distinguish science from religion (or philosophy for that matter) by asking the "high priest" to demonstrate their "usefulness" by predicting some future development of their own experience in a reliable and useful fashion (which is what all of us are doing on a daily basis by making use of e. g. machines build on the top of scientific theories).

Once the uneducated person has established that science generates knowledge which can be used in this way, he or she can proceed to the not obviously useful aspects of science - e. g. motion of planets, cosmology and big bang - in the hope that the knowledge gained by studying those things will lead to breakthroughs in more practicable areas (e. g. quantum mechanics and its now practical applications in computer hardware, or the motion of planets and Newtons laws of mechanics).

  1. How can we convince such a person of the validity of ideas like those of modern cosmology or evolutionary biology, without first having to teach them enough biology and physics to understand those concepts?

See above. As far as I can tell the only way is to first go back to point 1 - make them accept and trust that the scientific method generates useful knowledge about the world outside of our head.

It is of course also important for the scientist to keep in mind that the scientific models we make to describe reality (e. g. big bang theory or evolutionary biology or Newtons mechanics) are nothing more than models and can and almost certainly will turn out to be nothing more but good approximations for the observed data at hand, and that they are ultimately fundamentally flawed descriptions of actual reality (Newtons mechanics is a good example for that).

In that sense big bang theory or evolutionary biology are not "gospel" but expected to be wrong and to be improved on. Maybe that is the another important difference to at least some religion (as mentioned by other answers before).

  • As someone who's religious, I'm not sure I'd agree that "science is testable, religion is not" - I think the distinction is in the nature of the test. For example, Christianity makes the claim that there is a thing called "original sin," and people who are Christian have tested that hypothesis against their experience and found that it fits the data. Commented Nov 20, 2015 at 13:20
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    @JamesKingsbery that's not a repeatable test. If I tested it against my experience as an atheist, then it would fail. It therefore fails a critical aspect of the scientific method and is not comparable to science.
    – Bob Tway
    Commented Nov 20, 2015 at 16:19
  • @MattThrower I concurr, you would still pass the tests as it's still repeatable. The test would have defined acts and listing them to be a sin. You don't need to believe in God to understand that lying is wrong. Though my main issue with this posting is that raymondkhessel is placing religion in a state that does not utilize science. Majority of religion is not against using modern technological advances. A high priest could easily say that God has revealed a new technology or allowed for a discovery.
    – jemiloii
    Commented Nov 20, 2015 at 16:35
  • Some ancient religions produced highly accurate calendars -> predictions. Of course one could say that part was science, but to them ancients it might not have been clear... Commented Jul 27, 2022 at 2:42

An uneducated but rational person can't distinguish between the two for precisely the reasons you stated. At that level, it is "just another religion". (I would not use the word "religion" quite that broadly, but "societally organized system of practices and beliefs" is quite a mouthful.)

They might get a little bit closer by noticing, "Hm, I have an iPhone6, and it works. Everyone seems to agree that the Science-Priests made that possible. Maybe there's something to it." But that just shows them that the Science-Priests are closer to the truth of things when it comes to making iPhone6s than are, say, Jesuits. (The Jesuits will probably not claim that the goal of life is to have better smartphones, anyway.)

The difference comes when the uneducated but rational (and skeptical) person starts to educate themselves, when they do have a crash course in relativity and cosmology. Because, uniquely, science (properly done) has exactly that rational and skeptical mode of thought suffused through it. When you trace it back (and you can say this, but one ought not believe it until one actually sees it happening), the justifications for belief are rooted in observations (of the world), not in opinions (of leaders and/or supposed deities).

That is the key difference: when you dig, you have answers rooted in objectively reproducible effects. You can come to your own opinion; you don't need someone to give it to you. So my response is: yeah, from a distance it's hard to tell the difference. You've got to dig into some details to realize just how well-supported the main findings of science are (and dig more to know when sociology and politics have interfered to such an extent that you ought not be so confident of the reported findings any more (and maybe more yet to know when science-religion conflicts are really a case of knowledge vs superstition, and when it's custom-of-group-A vs custom-of-group-B)).

There isn't, as far as I can tell, any shortcut. But at least there's a road to walk, and you don't have to go very far before you can tell that it's really well-lit.

  • So we can look under the lamppost instead of in the dark.
    – Scott Rowe
    Commented Oct 4, 2022 at 13:39

I'm not going to attempt to answer your question specifically ("How do you differentiate..."), but instead offer a couple of perspectives from the literature. It would probably be useful for you to read Feyerabend's Against Method (1975), since he is often comparing "Science" with other social activities, such as religion. One of his main points is that you cannot clearly separate "Science" from all other social activities, based on methodological criteria. He also notes, similarly to you, that "Science" sometimes share many features with religion, for instance in organization, barriers of entry, specialized language etc.

Feyerabend is also relevant to your question in another sense, since you are implictly implying that "Science" is a unified whole (since you are pitting "Science" against "Religion"), with a common method. Similarly, you are implying that "Religion" can be understood as a unified whole. The idea that "Science" doesn't have a unified method is maybe the most important message in "Against Method", and Feyerabend is instead suggesting that what we call "Science" is in reality a collection of different activities with different methods and traditions. Therefore, it is impossible to talk about the "Scientific method", and different scientific traditions should be evaluated and compared individually to other social activites and to other ways of obtaining knowledge.

Relevant quotes:

My answer to the first question ["What is science?", my addition] is that the wide divergence of individuals, schools, historical periods, entire sciences makes it extremely difficult to identify comprehensive principles either of method, or of fact. The word 'science' may be a single word - but there is no single entity that corresponds to that word. (Against method, p 238)


At this point some defenders of uniformity [Uniformity of Science, my addition] rise to a higher level. Science may be complex, they say, but it is still 'rational'. Now the word 'rational' can either be used as a collecting bag for a variety of procedures - this would be its nominalist interpretation - or it describes a general feature found in every single scientific action. I accept the first definition, but reject the second. In the second case rationality is either defined in a narrow way that excludes, say, the arts; then it also excludes large sections of the sciences. Or it is defined in a way that lets all of science survive; then it also applies to love-making, comedy and dogfights. There is no way of delimiting 'science' by something stronger and more coherent than a list. (Against method, p 246)

Note however that Feyerabend is not arguing against rationality, or against the fact that the sciences have increased our collective knowledge. Instead, he often highlights the many successes of the sciences. His main point (as I read him) is that scientific explanations or scientific fields should be evaluated on a case-by-case basis against other ways of obtaining knowledge. In a way, this is similar to the progressiveness that Lakatos is talking about, in his evaluation and comparison of different research programs (1970). The difference with Feyerabend is that he (seems to) suggest that the usefulness and "progressiveness" of scientific theories and results should be compared not only to other research programs (sensu Lakatos), but they should also be compared to other social activities of obtaining knowledge.


Feyerabend. 1975. Against method. New Left Books (here using Third edition from Verso)

Lakatos. 1970. Falsification and the methodology of scientific research programmes. In: Criticism and the Growth of Knowledge (eds: Lakatos & Musgrave). Cambridge University Press.

  • 1
    @MoziburUllah Yes, you definitely should - its really good, and feels like essential reading in the philosophy of science. His views are controversial among many scientists (the few that have actually read him), but I really like the book (being a working scientist). And even if you dont agree with it fully, it still offers lots of useful perspectives and ideas. Commented Dec 14, 2015 at 13:47

The OP asked, "In particular if such a person were to heed the advice of the Kalama Sutra".

So, the same Kalama Sutta also tells the following reasons, for which the Kalamas should believe a given doctrine:

  • They're told to abandon (or adopt) principles "When you know for yourselves" that the doctrine is harmful (or beneficial)
  • And they should consider whether doctrine is:

    • "Blameworthy or blameless?"
    • "Criticized by the wise or praised by the wise?"
    • "Do they lead to welfare & to happiness, or not?"

The lead-in to the Sutta also describes the Dhamma (doctrine) as famous for being "admirable in the beginning, admirable in the middle, admirable in the end": which means that it's admirable when you start to learn it, admirable when you practice it, and still admirable when you have perfected it.

That principle (and the Kalama Sutta itself) is summarized here as follows:

2. Experiential Emphasis. Since wisdom or insight is the chief instrument of enlightenment, the Buddha always asked his disciples to follow him on the basis of their own understanding, not from obedience or unquestioning trust. He calls his Dhamma ehipassiko, which means "Come and see for yourself." He invites inquirers to investigate his teaching, to examine it in the light of their own reason and intelligence, and to gain confirmation of its truth for themselves. The Dhamma is said to be paccattam veditabbo viññuhi, "to be personally understood by the wise," and this requires intelligence and sustained inquiry.

Once the Buddha arrived at the town of a people called the Kalamas, who had been visited by many other ascetics. Each visiting teacher would praise his own doctrine to the sky and tear down the views of his rivals, and this left the Kalamas utterly confused. So when the Buddha arrived they came to him, explained their dilemma, and asked if he could offer some guidance.

The Buddha did not praise his own teaching and attack his rivals. Rather, he told them:

It is right for you to doubt; doubt has arisen in you about dubious matters. Come, Kalamas, do not rely on oral tradition, or on the lineage of teachers, or on holy scriptures, or on abstract logic. Do not place blind trust in impressive personalities or in venerated gurus, but examine the issue for yourselves. When you know for yourselves that something is unwholesome and harmful, then you should reject it. And when you know for yourselves that something is wholesome and beneficial, then you should accept it and put it into practice.

Some people prefer science over religion because they reckon science is more beneficial: it not only "works", but has practical beneficial consequences like modern medicine.

It's also practical in the sense that "it can be practised".

Perhaps you might be on thin ice, though, if you're getting in to a "religion versus science" argument? There was this 'joke' I heard once, while I was living in Toronto:

We have some good news, and some bad news: the good news is that Toronto compares favourably with New York; and that bad news is that Toronto is being compared with New York.

Are you making some kind of religion out of science?

Why are you taking, as the subject of your argument, what you yourself describe as "metaphysical" topics in science (cosmology and quantum mechanics)? If these don't "lead to welfare & happiness" (I studied them at university, and I'm not sure they do), why not choose other topics (scientific fields) which matter more, which have more practical/tangible/beneficial/knowable consequences?

Alternatively do you know the physics or history-of-physics (not "metaphysics") well enough, that you could explain to a clever 12-year-old (who is curious but uneducated) what experimental/experiential observations led people to develop theories like "Big Bang" etc.?


One must say, the presupposition behind the question can only ask: how best to convince people to join this emprise, that one was born into? The best answer is: Scientifically. Discover the most efficacious manner of changing the thinking of human being so that they join the splendid mission.


Why “presupposition”?

One could show that things actually work. That's the most convincing thing for reason in the ordinary sense, the most persuasive to folk thinking. But folk thinking is not science. It is merely reason or rationality. One can also dispel superstitions, or frauds. Though, already that is dubious, since scientific notions of causal efficacy blind one to other forms of efficacy, such a placebo effect. Or goals that are not about causal efficacy at all, and invisible to science. Modern science is not rational in any serious sense, despite its vulgar advertisement, it is simply efficacious. Rationality implies the so-called Ought. Science can not even show, on its own resources, that one Ought be into science. That would be a rational decision only if nature itself had a goal, it could be discerned scientifically, and then brought about through scientific means. But since science itself, on the modern notion, doesn't deal with Oughts, it can never do that.

Science is a religion insofar as it is a faith in a certain pursuit. Faith is intellectualized religion. Largely this is a christian thing, intellectualized religion. If one meets a buddhist the sense of what the world is is quite different, and has nothing to do with facts. Facts in the sense of is/ought is a western notion that is ultimately unsupportable and surely not testable. It’s simply an argument that was accepted as authoritative at a certain moment. Science, at bottom, is the power of the “it works”, human beings come into proximity of this power and begin to tell one another that they must blame themselves as obscurantists if they do not follow this pursuit, which they must anyway, because they have already been guided to it from birth. At one time it was a kind of decision, like Einstein's decision to pursue physics under the presupposition that god does not play dice. The direction of the search is thereby prefigured, in a more pressing way the power of the emprise of science acts on large swathes of humans in this way.


Faith & reason

To understand the difference between religion, ideology, philosophy and science, it is important to first distinguish between two fundamentally different approaches towards the interpretation and analysis of information : faith & reason.


Wikipedia uses the following definition :

Faith is confidence or trust in a person or thing; or the observance of an obligation from loyalty; or fidelity to a person, promise, engagement; or a belief not based on proof; or it may refer to a particular system of religious belief, such as in which faith is confidence based on some degree of warrant.

Faith is typically a subconscious process, that works through emotion. It is typically driven by processes at the instinctive or intuitive level that one is not consciously aware of.

Depending on who you talk to, being faithful is either considered a good thing or a bad thing :

I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen: not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.

― C.S. Lewis

Faith: not wanting to know what is true.

— Friedrich Nietzsche

When we blindly adopt a religion, a political system, a literary dogma, we become automatons. We cease to grow.

— Anais Nin


Wikipedia uses the following definition :

Reason is the capacity for consciously making sense of things, applying logic, establishing and verifying facts, and changing or justifying practices, institutions, and beliefs based on new or existing information. [...] The concept of reason is sometimes referred to as rationality.

Reason is a conscious process, that may or may not take emotions into account (albeit at a conscious level).

Some would argue that reason is higher than faith and that a great capacity for reason eliminates the need for faith :

The way to see by Faith is to shut the Eye of Reason.

— Benjamin Franklin

We may define ‘faith’ as the firm belief in something for which there is no evidence. Where there is evidence, no one speaks of "faith." We do not speak of faith that two and two are four or that the earth is round. We only speak of faith when we wish to substitute emotion for evidence.

— Bertrand Russell

All our knowledge begins with the senses, proceeds then to the understanding, and ends with reason. There is nothing higher than reason.

— Immanuel Kant

Others would argue that faith and reason are complementary. They would argue that faith can (and should) be used wherever reason does not provide us with answers :

Faith consists in believing when it is beyond the power of reason to believe.

— Voltaire

Reason is our Soules left hand, Faith is her right, …

— John Donne

Faith certainly tells us what the senses do not, but not the contrary of what they see; it is above, not against them.

— Blaise Pascal

Religion, ideology, philosophy, science & pseudoscience

Religion, ideology, philosophy and science are different but related approaches to understanding the universe around us. Herebelow, I try to explain the difference, as well as the difference between what qualifies as science and what qualifies as pseudoscience.


Religions are humanity's first approach to understanding the universe. They typically start with a charismatic guru-type figure, like Zoroaster, Moses, Gautama Buddha, Jesus Christ, Muhammad, Joseph Smith and Bahá'u'lláh. Typically, these individuals were known for their great wisdom and were responsible for a major social overhaul that improved the lives of thousands (if not millions) of people in just one generation.

By becoming known as "saviors" during an era of great despair, subsequent generations started relying on words of their "savior", which was usually first past orally and later past in written form. Because it helped them survive and/or achieve social status, the words of the "savior" defined how people lived their lives.

Some religions allow for constant interpretation and re-interpretation of the words of the "savior". A typicaly example would be Judaism, where generations upon generations of rabbis have added their own interpretations of Judaic law to refine it or modify is for more "modern" times. As such, the original 10 commandments of Moses evolved into the 613 mitzvot, first mentioned in a sermon by 3rd century Rabbi Simlai, recorded in Talmud Makkot 23b. And even then, Judaic lore kept evolving with each generation of rabbis, with the most traditional form of European Judaism drawing heavily on the 16th century Lurianic Kabbalah.

Other religions allow little interpretation. One of the more extreme examples are Biblical literalists, who consider every word of the Bible as the literal word of the Christian God. Biblical literalism is mostly popular among Evangelical Christians, which is rather unpopular in Europe but very strong in the US. According to a 2011 Gallup survey reports, about 33% of the American population belongs in this category.

By heavily relying on the "revelations" of one or more charismatic figure, religions are meta-frameworks strongly rooted in faith. However, they can and often do involve reason to refine and update those revelations for later generations.

The "savior" upon which a religion is grounded can be deified by followers of that religion, but this isn't the care per se. Not all religions involve a "savior" figure that "supernatural" powers are attributed to.


Like religions, ideologies typically start with a charismatic guru-type figure : think of Karl Marx, Adolf Hitler, Mao Zedong or Kim Il-sung. Like religions, ideologies draw heavily on the words of those charismatic leaders. And like religions, ideologies are strongly rooted in faith.

So what's the difference between religions and ideologies? Some might argue that the only real difference between both, is that ideologies are secular. Ideologies do not presume the existence of magic or divine authority. Ideologies do not usually presume any correlation with supernatural.

However, this distinction is rather arbitrary and there are many shades of grey. For example, Hitler believed to be divinely inspired and the way Kim Il-sung is venerated and mythologised in North-Korea today can hardly be distinguished from the way Jesus or Muḥammad are venerated in their respective religion. So ideology could be just be the initial phase that every religion passes before it becomes a religion.


Philosophy is different from religion in the sense that it is not so much rooted in faith as it is in reason. While philosophy neither excludes nor requires faith, philosophy is an approach to understanding that focuses on reason.

While philosophy still approaches many charismatic figures from the past as authorative figures, those figures aren't given the same dogmatic treatment given to the charismatic founders of religious movements. Men like Aristotle, Kant or Stirner are treated more as sources of inspiration rather than authorities that are not to be questioned. This, in turn, makes philosophy more open to dissenting views and data that contradicts dearly held views.

Consistent logic is the very foundation of all philosophy.


Science takes the approach of philosophy a step further by rejecting all faith as a valid approach to the establishment of truth. Where philosophy only requires consistent logic, science adds to these requirements the need for empirical evidence and interpretation in accordance with the scientific method.

A claim is not scientific if it is not (1) supported by a consistent and logical interpretation in accordance with the scientific method, (2) either explicitly suggested or at least supported by empirical evidence as well as (3) consistent with the body of evidence established in accorandance with the first two principes.

If a scientist makes a claim that happens to be consistent with the first two principes but not with the third, he must first point out errors in the the body of evidence established in accorandance with the first two principes and correct those errors in a manner so his new claim is no longer incompatible with the third principle. By these means, science is self-correcting, which allows for the scientific body of evidence to be gradually improved.


It is important to distinguish science from pseudoscience, which involves any claim, belief, or practice presented as scientific, but which does not adhere to the scientific method. A field, practice, or body of knowledge can reasonably be called pseudoscientific when it is presented as consistent with the norms of scientific research, but it demonstrably fails to meet these norms.

To put it differently : pseudoscience is the disguise of ideology, religion or plain nonsense as science. Pseudoscience can be fringe, but it doesn't need to per se. Pseudoscience can be totally mainstream and it's possible for a claim to be both pseudoscientific and for it to be supported by the majority of the population.

For a claim to be pseudoscientific, it neither needs to be unpopular nor false. All it takes for a claim to be pseudoscientific, is for it not to adhere to the three principles (see above) that scientific claims need to adhere to. As a consequence, pseudoscience isn't always obvious to distinguish from real science, even by scientists.

Peer review is a popular mechanism scientists used to distinguish actual science from pseudoscience, but it is a flawed mechanism, because a lot of modern science involves a highly detailed and highly technical expertise only a few people in the world possess. As a consequence, many scientists actually lack the knowledgeto qualify as the peers of the (pseudo)scientists whoes work they're expected to judge. Also, the purposeful falsification of data often isn't obvious to detect without repeating the exact same experiments. For both reasons, some pseudoscience manages to succesfully pass for actual science even among scientists.

With pseudoscience passing for science, it should not surprise anyone that the lines between religion and science aren't obvious to everyone. However, it should be noted that any any actual science ( = purged from pseudoscientific claims) is totally distinct from religion due to its total lack of reliance on faith whatsoever.


Let's go back to your question :

  1. How would it be possible for such a person to distinguish scientific facts from religious dogma?
  2. How can we convince such a person of the validity of ideas like those of modern cosmology or evolutionary biology, without first having to teach them enough biology and physics to understand those concepts?

I'm not sure you can, because - whether driven by religion or ideology - most people are not even capable of developing a worldview not guided by whatever faith they've developed during their upbringing :

Few people are capable of expressing with equanimity opinions which differ from the prejudices of their social environment. Most people are not even capable of forming such opinions.

— Albert Einstein

Note, however, that the Dalai Lama doesn't seem to qualify as "most people" :

If science discovers new facts that are not unifiable with Buddhism, Buddhism will need to be changed appropriately

— Tenzin Gyatso, 14th Dalai Lama

  • "Science takes the approach of philosophy a step further by rejecting all faith as a valid approach to the establishment of truth" - as someone who is staunchly pro-science and anti-religion, I find myself disagreeing with this. Scientifically minded people have faith in the sense of trusting people. That faith is indeed very different from the kind of faith you find in religions, but scientifically minded approaches to "what do I believe to be true?" absolutely involve trusting authorities for most people.
    – TKoL
    Commented Feb 13 at 11:58

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