When I first heard the suggestion that religion is primitive science, I put it down to ignorance on the part of people who had not studied these things. Having not studied religion, they did not understand what our ancestors’ religious statements were really doing. But now I am older and grumpier, and much more suspicious, and I suspect that claim about religion being primitive science is kept alive for more nefarious reasons; to enable people who should know better, to insist that since religion is but primitive science, it can and should be replaced by physics, chemistry, biology, or cognitive neuroscience. That insistence is only reasonable on the view that they perform equivalent functions and seek to answer the same type of question. Claiming religion is primitive science assumes that religion and science perform similar functions and speak to similar concerns. For example, that they both ‘explain’ things.
If you start from a very generic definition of explanation, you can make that appear to work. You might say explanation means locating the phenomenon to be explained in a larger framework that makes sense of it. Newton located the phenomenon of falling bodies in a mathematical framework, and Hinduism locates the question of human nature in a framework formed by Yogic practice, disciplined meditation, and Upanishadic philosophy. While obviously true, that basically descriptive claim about common explanatory functions does not really tell us much. It is way too general. The more important question concerns the functions performed by doing those things. Is Newton’s mathematical formulation of falling bodies designed to perform the same kind of function as Yoga, meditation, and thinking about the world using categories from the Upanishads? I think probably not. To call them both ‘explanations’ is true, in that they both serve to make sense of the phenomena under consideration. But that very generic notion of explanation confuses more than it enlightens.
Claiming religion is primitive science assumes that religion and science perform similar functions and speak to similar concerns.
So I reject the common cliché that scientific ‘explanations’ are replacing religious ‘explanations.’ They are doing no such thing. The word ‘explanation’ is being used in radically different senses in these two references. Religions never were offering ‘explanations’ on the model of natural science. I don’t know any sacred text of any world religion that uses the word explanation, or uses a similar term with a science-like meaning.
Another case: Physics today offers a fiercely mathematical account of the first few micro-seconds of the universe’s existence, involving questions about how the most basic forces, symmetries, and constants, for example gravity, Planck’s constant, etc., might combine into the universe we know. One major unsolved problem at the time of this writing involves unifying General Relativity, which deals with large objects like planets and galaxies, and Quantum Mechanics, which deals with the smallest and most fundamental constituents of matter. One goal of research in contemporary physics is to construct a mathematical model harmonizing these two theories. Now, I think it is intuitively obvious that when the Hebrew Scriptures declared that “God created the heavens and the earth,” they were not seeking to unify General Relativity and Quantum Mechanics. They were not seeking to provide a mathematical model of the universe. They were affirming that the universe, whatever its physical, mathematical constitution, is dependent on a source beyond itself. They were not doing primitive physics. They were not doing physics at all. Only if I think that the Hebrew Scriptures’ declaration of God’s creativity or the Tibetan teaching about the cycles of the many worlds were designed to answer the questions that plague modern physicists, or that the complex mathematical formula of contemporary cosmology are designed to affirm the transcendental grounding of the universe, that is only if I think they are performing the same function, can I logically say that religion and science are primitive and advanced forms of the same field.
Another contested case: if I read the book of Genesis as though it were a biology textbook, seeking to answer questions about the biological drivers of the process of speciation, or to deny that there is a process of speciation, then I have made them appear to perform the same function. Then one could replace the other. But to read it that way, I have to think that the authors of the Hebrew Scriptures had in mind questions about the heritability of populations and the relationship of genotypes and phenotypes. Not likely! I don’t think they were seeking to answer the kinds of questions current biological theory struggles with. Rather I think they might have had in mind issues of moral responsibility; “the knowledge of good and evil,” as being central to the human condition. Biological theory and the book of Genesis address different questions. Their accounts perform radically different functions. One cannot do the job of the other.
Religions do not deal with the mathematical structure of fundamental physical entities nor do they depend on studies of population genetics. Rather they make claims about the ultimate (in the strongest possible sense of that word) source of time and space, and about humanity’s particular moral and spiritual nature. Therefore religion is not primitive physics or biology.
Featured image credit: Tiffany Education (center) by Ragesoss. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.