My definition of religion is the acceptance of claims on faith, i.e. without evidence.To which commenter Publius responded:
I would make that "without scientific evidence." There are other forms of evidence - testimonial, personal knowledge, etc.My knee-jerk reaction to this was to say that there is no distinction between "scientific" and "non-scientific" evidence. Evidence is evidence. You don't get to cherry-pick. This is exactly the problem with young-earth creationists and lunar landing conspiracy theorists: they cherry-pick the evidence that supports their worldview and ignore the rest.
And then it suddenly occurred to me that I was actually making Publius's point for him. It is not that religious people accept things with no evidence. If everything is evidence and you don't get to cherry-pick, then holy texts and other people's beliefs are evidence. The question is: evidence of what? To me, holy texts and religious beliefs are evidence of human creativity and/or gullibility, but to a religious person they are evidence of God. So there is a difference there, but pinning down exactly what that difference is turns out to be quite a bit more subtle than I suspected. I'm still not sure I have it quite figured out.
Just to lay to rest the idea I'm imagining that there is a difference, let me lay out one very stark example. Consider the theory that the Bible is the Word of God, which is to say, a privileged communication from the omniscient and omnipotent Creator of the universe. Well, the Bible says this:
And all things, whatsoever ye shall ask in prayer, believing, ye shall receive. (Matthew 21:22)This sounds to me like a testable prediction: if you ask for something in prayer, and you believe, then you will receive what you ask for. This is an unrestricted offer. It applies to "all things" and "whatsoever ye shall ask." So let's give it a whirl: God, I wish for a pony.
[Wait, wait wait...]
Hm. No pony.
Well, duh, of course there's no pony. That's exactly what the theory predicts. The offer has a catch. To get what you ask for in prayer you have to believe, and I don't. So that was not a fair test.
OK, so to conduct this experiment I have to find a believer to ask God for a pony on my behalf. But then I will encounter another hitch: no believer will agree to conduct this experiment because "Thou shalt not tempt the Lord" (Luke 4:12) and asking for a pony seems a bit frivolous.
So let's try something non-frivolous: how about asking for the lost limbs of the victims of the Boston Marathon bomb to be restored. That seems like a noble enough request. Surely I can find a believer somewhere willing to make this request of God, if not on my behalf, then on behalf of the victims? In fact, surely some believer somewhere has actually made this request already without my having to prompt them? And if not this request, then for some other victim of some other malicious attack or accident that resulted in the loss of a limb?
And yet, in all of recorded history there has never been a case of an amputated limb being restored. That is rather curious. It seems to me that there are only three possibilities:
1. No believer has ever asked for this.
2. There is some reason that limbs are off-limits.
3. Matthew 21:22 is wrong.
The difference between religion and science, it seems to me, is that science will unhesitatingly choose option 3 as the most likely, whereas religion will resist that conclusion with all its might. Religion will twist and squirm and invent elaborate excuses, anything to avoid saying, "Yeah, there's something wrong with our holy text."
Science, by way of contrast, has no problem saying, "Yeah, there's something wrong with that theory." In fact, it's woven into the weft and warp of the scientific process. The very foundation of science is the recognition that the vast majority of theories are wrong, so it is entirely expected that any particular theory is wrong. In fact, there is hardly any sport in finding a wrong theory. The tricky part is finding a right theory because only a tiny minority of theories are right.
This is not to say that science-as-practiced by fallible humans always embraces correction immediately. New theories often meet with initial resistance, but there is a sound reason for this: most theories are wrong, so given a random theory and no other information, the odds are very good that it's wrong. The current set of accepted theories at any given time have already undergone some very strict scrutiny and filtering. So the odds of a new theory being better than an old one is, a priori, very low. And the odds get lower with every new improvement because science converges on truth. Not always monotonically, but it does converge.
One of the starkest differences between science and religion is their respective attitudes towards scripture and scholarship. Religions hold scripture and scholars in very high regard. Science does not. The closest thing science has to scriptures is the writings of great scientists, but hardly anyone actually reads those except historians of science. Newton is the closest thing science has to a saint, but no one reads the Principia. You will occasionally hear a "great scientist" cited as an authority, as in, "Einstein teaches us that the speed of light is the same in all reference frames." But this is wrong. It is not Einstein that teaches us this, it is nature by way of experiments. Einstein was just the first to tell the most parsimonious story.
So the difference between science and religion, it seems to me, is something like this: in science, at the end of the day, after all the transients caused by politics and human foibles have settled (and they always do), the experimental data wins. In religion, it doesn't. In religion, something else, like scripture or other people's beliefs or striving for "goodness", can trump the data.
You can see this reflected in some of the core arguments advanced for Christianity, which amount to something like: if the Resurrection didn't really happen, the consequences would be horrible. Therefore, the resurrection must have happened. It's not data that supports the conclusion, it's the horribleness of the consequences if the conclusion were not true.
The same can be said for science, by the way, because at the core of the belief that experiment is the ultimate arbiter of truth is a fear of the consequences if this were not the case. If God really exists, then we are at the mercy of a higher power that we cannot control even if we can come to fully understand it. Science offers power through the gift of prophecy, but very little guidance on how best to use it. So some people are understandably scared of having that power. Others are scared of giving it up. Welcome to the burdens of being human.