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Why Science isn't, "Just Another Religion."
Definitions and Utilities
This is an oft repeated claim from the Christian apologists, who should know better than to employ such casuistry. In the liberal zeal towards pluralism, we let world orientations based on revelations to be placed on an equally legitimate footing as ones based on observation and logic. This is not the case. All religions indeed do sit atop the same shelf, as it were, because they have several unifying characteristics. They are practiced as if an absolute code of conduct was revealed by the creator of the universe, they all make claims to certainty on questions upon which they have no evidence, and they all are supposedly unalterable.
Of course in religion's collision with modernity plus the echoes of enlightenment thought, it has had to give a lot of ground and even apologize formally as Pope John Paul II did during his papacy. Even, "biblical literalists," have to disregard most of the prohibitions in the Pentateuch that carry the penalty of stoning. Adherence to such barbarism is no longer allowed in the developed world. But it would be inappropriate to neglect to mention the centuries during which some of these peccadilloes and even imaginary crimes did carry the penalty of torture and death and wee carried out. In many parts of the world no progress has been made on this front whatsoever.
Let's consider the definition of religion;
Belief in and reverence for a supernatural power or powers regarded as creator and governor of the universe.
A personal or institutionalized system grounded in such belief and worship.
The life or condition of a person in a religious order.
This is from dictionary.com. Such an institution provides a framework upon which to claim to know certain things about the world, our place in it, and the purpose of life. This framework invariably produces the wrong answers to these questions but it is still an epistemic matrix upon which to order one's life and actions.
Now leaving aside all the, "revealed, " doctrine concerning god's law peppered throughout our good books that had to be dropped just as a prerequisite for a modern society, to hold the remainder as inerrant, is not just intellectually dishonest, but it commits you to some very stupid ideas; such as a belief in a young earth, the rejection of evolution, an endorsement of the connection shared between stem cells and souls, homosexuality as immoral behavior, and certainties about the afterlife, etc.
Not only is no there no evidence for any of these positions there as very good, hard won scientific evidence that contradicts most of them.
This is where the slight of hand is pulled that equates science as just another method of knowing things about the world and how to act in the world and hence simply another religion. Let's look at the definition of science, again from dictionary.com;
The observation, identification, description, experimental investigation, and theoretical explanation of phenomena.
Such activities restricted to a class of natural phenomena.
Such activities applied to an object of inquiry or study.
The mistake made here (done often as a gesture of goodwill allowing the secular and the religious to disagree amicably) is allowing that religion and science be approximated as euqally legitamite ways to view the world. Science is actually the only why in which we know anything about the world. I use the term science loosely to include all natural philosophies such as history, sociology, philosophy, each discipline with it's own stringent burden of proofs.
As such, religions do not deserve a place on the top shelf with science as just another equally plausible perspective on the world.
What's the Difference?
The chief difference is one of adaptability. Science can change and indeed must to proceed, religion does and cannot on the other hand, biased on an a priori claim. That a priori claim is that the guide to life it offers was recommended by the creator of the world, this leaves very little incentive for an ongoing conversation about the nature of reality and how to live within it. The nature of reality is already known and to even consider that the evidence with which we are confronted every day dashes these claims is heresy.
Science by definition, has no truly absolute truths. It always leaves some crevice of a possibility for mistake even on it's most well established facts, or theories (these words are synonymous at least in the physical sciences). Gravity, Atoms, Electromagnetism, Evolution, Relativity, Heliocentricity, Quantum; These are all accepted as scientific truth and allow scientists to make predictions and conduct experiments within the physical world that produce expected results. But, even though there is no chance of these theories being overturned, the important thing is that they are falsifiable. Something most religious claims rarely are. And scientists are open to the idea of them being overturned should the evidence present itself. This is because the only goal in science is to understand what is true and observable. Religion spends more time engineering a backwardly engineered footing for itself already decided claims.
Now can a life be based on what's true and observable, absolutely. But this does not make it a religious life. I act within the world in ways that directly result from scientific discovery. I can help protect the right's of homosexuals because I know it is natural because science has discovered it occurs in nature at the same rate as it does in humans. I can supports stem cell research because I have been informed by science that a 3-day old blastocyst is a collection of a mere 150 cells, undifferentiated and without anything resembling a nervous system. And I can live life like it's all i'm going to get, because neuroscience strongly suggests that consciousness is predicated on a working physical brain.
But this is not akin to a religious rationale for living. Even the most liberal of the religious, if they are truly religious, commit themselves to at least one claim or so that is totally unsupportable (admittedly, this brand of religion doesn't do much harm.) To say that science is a religion is to say that science is static, unalterable and without evidence. These are three word that are absolutely antithetical to both the spirit and the letter of the scientific enterprise.
The very fact that it is an enterprise; that it's something that one does within the world as a means of discovering new and better way to live within the world makes science an insufficient basis on which to completely orient one's life. One can be a scientific skeptic and a sociopath, a nihilist, or a fascist. Science as such does not claim to provide a complete way of life. It is popularly believed to be morally neutral (although Sam Harris makes a very interesting case that this is an illusion) and leaves us an existential freedom to act creatively in life that would have made Victor Frankl grin (although a theist, he was also a scientist).
Nothing is ever asserted on insufficient evidence, for the scientific materialist, and though this may sometimes cause some suffering as an act of omission i think the scales are weighed mightily toward the suffering caused as an act of religious commission.
Awe and the Numinous
It is some how supposed that science is without it's aesthetics and some how actually strips and reduces the meanings of phenomena which foll within it's domain of knowledge. This is merely a point of propaganda. Understanding the workings of the universe diminishes it in no way, in fact in reviewing the memoirs of those who knew it best, their understanding only left them in further awe. Because I accept that what I project as myself is only the product of neural pathways, does that diminish my appreciation of my faculties? Of course not.
Again science falls short of providing a full ontological framework. A scientist may have a penchant for Monet, or a soft spot for Vivaldi, or a love of Dickens. Rationality and materialism do not diminish the Aesthetic sensibilities any more than knowledge of a recipe ruins a tasty dish.