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Psychology of “Religion vs. Science” Debates

Donna requested (see comments) that I share my views on the “psychology of science and religion arguments.” I studied sciences at the university, and I have also taken courses in religious studies; nonetheless, I rarely watch science/religion debates because from what I have seen, both sides frequently act like fighters in a video game: They do not seem interested in understanding or learning, but only in defeating each other.

And in those debates where both sides do seem to understand each other, they nevertheless cherry-pick facts and statistics, oversimplify and distort their opponents’ views, and use subtle (and at times not so subtle) strategies—mockery, sarcasm, insults, etc. Again, the goal appears to be winning and nothing more.

Indeed, many debates are of such poor quality that if the same arguments were used in discussing anything other than “religion vs. science,” most educated people would neither watch nor participate in these debates.

So the question is, Why do such debates continue and why do they attract people’s attention?

Existential questions

Our world can be confusing. Many of us wonder:

  • What is the meaning of it all?
  • What is the ultimate purpose of life/universe?
  • What is the purpose of my life (why am I here)?
  • How should we live our lives?
  • Why do I suffer?
  • Who am I?

We may look to science for answers; however, science is not interested in (nor really capable of) answering such existential questions. What science does best is offer powerful theories (the Big Bang theory, evolution) that describe the material world and physical life.

What about religion? Religion is interested in answering these existential questions, but religion no longer holds the same authority it once did. In our modern world, religion has been relegated to the private sphere—to personal belief, not public truths.

So what are we left to do when existential questions about our identity and purpose in life have no certain answers? Some of us debate and fight, or watch people who do the same; we feel validated when our view of the world and ourselves wins the day. This makes us feel existentially secure.

Religion and science are human

Science and religion have much in common. They represent human beings’ attempts to understand themselves and the world around them. Indeed, for hundreds of years, science and religion had a much closer relationship than they do now, with the majority of scientists being religious (especially Christians and Muslims).

Individuals who take sides may be assuming that science and religion are like two big countries at war, countries engaged in a battle of good vs. evil, with the fate of the world depending on who wins. They forget that neither “side” can “rule the world.” The universe is far bigger and more complex than such black-and-white metaphors.

I believe one solution to getting past these debates is to see religion and science as human enterprises. So often we talk about religion and science as though they are alien forces that exist in some domain outside human life, but science is done by humans, and religion is practiced by humans too. That is why both can be (and have been) used for good and bad: Helping the poor and finding medical cures, but also justifying mass murder and building deadly weapons.

Concluding thoughts

Pitting the whole of science and religion against one another by oversimplifying and distorting them accomplishes little and may also push the other side to do the same (e.g., adopt fundamentalist views). This is particularly important because religion is tied with identity, so trying to prove some religion is wrong or bad can come across as trying to invalidate the identity of millions of people.

Whether you feel driven to prove science or religion is wrong, take some time and think why you feel so motivated to engage in this discussion. Perhaps the issue is a specific one (e.g., abortion, eugenics), but you are so outraged that you feel justified in attacking the whole of science or religion. Or perhaps you have mistaken correlation (or illusory correlation) for causation. In any case, by thinking about your motivation for the debate or your unwavering support of one side, you may learn more about yourself and what matters to you.

Psychology of “Religion vs. Science” Debates


Arash Emamzadeh

Arash Emamzadeh attended the University of British Columbia in Canada, where he studied genetics and psychology. He has also done graduate work in clinical psychology and neuropsychology in US. Arash maintains a personal psychology blog and a blog for Psychology Today. Arash has a wide range of intellectual and artistic interests; he also maintains a poetry blog.


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APA Reference
Emamzadeh, A. (2019). Psychology of “Religion vs. Science” Debates. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 23, 2019, from https://blogs.psychcentral.com/fearless/2019/07/385/

 

Last updated: 11 Jul 2019
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