Following the period of the Enlightenment when scientific and evidence-based rational thought was seen to be increasingly replacing religion in explaining the world, one might have predicted that religion would one day be displaced by science. However, in the twenty-first century, while science has gained in influence and knowledge, it would be wrong to say that religion has been displaced, as it still plays an important role. In addition, in an increasingly postmodern world, many individuals are seeking sources of spirituality through new religious movements, while for fundamentalists religion is as relevant today as at any time in the past.
Therefore the debate surrounding religion and science is one of fluctuating beliefs. Comte saw the growth of scientific explanation as a feature of modernity. And today its achievements in many basic features of daily life such as, transport, communication and economic productivity has raised our standard of living. Also its achievements in medicine have eradicated fatal diseases. This success has led to a widespread faith in science. However even though science has gained respect by increasing our standard of living with its achievements it has created its own manufactured risks.Improved technology through science has led to weapons of mass destruction which historically have created thousands of deaths.
As well as that disturbing factor, pollution is causing serious global warming increasing extreme weather patterns which is also causing thousands of deaths on a yearly basis. Yet whether they are ‘good’ or ‘bad’ effects of science the fact is that it enables us to explain the world in a way that religious belief systems cannot do, shows that science has a large influence on society today. Popper defends science by saying it is a ‘open belief system’.This is where scientist’s theories are open to scrutiny by others.
Science is governed by the principle of ‘falsification’, whereby scientists set out to try and falsify existing theories this therefore creates the truth. For example for centuries it was believed that the sun revolved around the earth until Copernicus demonstrated this was false. Merton agreed with Popper and believed that science has a set of norms that makes science more influential in society today; he calls them ‘CUDOS’.* Communism: Scientific knowledge is not private and it must be shared otherwise it cannot grow. Universalism: Falsification of knowledge is judged universally and not by a particular race or sex etc.
* Disinterestedness: Discovering knowledge for its own sake not yourself. * Organised Scepticism: No knowledge claim is regarded as ‘sacred’ or the ‘truth’. These ‘CUDOS’ norms give science an advantage over religion as only truthful and factual theories are produced.
To add to this religion may seem less influential in society today as it’s seen as a closed belief system. Robin Horton says that religion makes knowledge claims that cannot be successfully overturned.Whenever its fundamental beliefs are threatened, a closed belief system has several ‘get out clauses’ that reinforce the system and prevent it from being disproved. An extreme example would be the Azande people who have accepted the systems basic beliefs of witchcraft and they cannot challenge it.
The Azande are not influenced by science or religion. Therefore this disagrees with Comte’s evolution of thought belief. His theory is culturally biased as those who have not been affected by western modernisation have not been influenced by science or religion.Therefore science and religion are not the main ideological influence in some parts of society today. On the other hand Polanyi believes that science is not an open belief system but a closed one. Science only builds up knowledge with theories that go with the paradigm. Wacky ideas that don’t share similar norms and values are discarded as false. An example of this would be Velikovsky book of ‘worlds in collision’ in which he put forward a new theory on the origins of the earth.
It went against the fundamental assumptions of science and the scientific community was far from open about discussing his theory.He was ridiculed out of his profession. Then why should science by the main ideological influence in society today when science is not open to discuss theories, this shows that it can be a closed belief system. But Kuhn explains that, when enough respected scientists challenge the paradigm, there is scientific revolution.
This therefore shows that when a new theory is backed up by enough people with the right evidence then change can occur. Interpretivist sociologists have developed Kuhn’s ideas further They argue that all knowledge is socially constructed.It is created by social groups using the resources available to them. In the case of science, their ‘scientific facts’ are a product of shared theories or paradigms that tell them what they should expect to see. Therefore science and religion both have the same amount of ideological influence in society today as neither are the full truth and just both are socially constructed metanarratives. Globally, the religious influence is still very strong with billions of people identifying with the major religions as well as superstitious beliefs in many less developed countries, such as Voodoo.The functionalist perspective highlights how religion performs many important functions that science is simply incapable of doing.
In addition, Max Weber stated that religions will always have a hold over the population as long as the ‘big questions’ need to be answered: What is the meaning of life? What existed before the universe? What happens after death? However, scientists argue that science has steadily replaced — often correcting — previous religious explanations. An example of this would be Darwin’s theory of evolution that has replaced the religious account of creation.Therefore showing how science today is becoming more influential as they are starting to answer some of the ‘big questions’. Nonetheless, creationism is still taught in several states of the USA and many faith schools across the world. These fundamentalist groups such as the New Christian Right have influence in America. They have 60 TV channels in and 400 colleges.
But this evidence can be evaluated as the TV channels are not always watched and the 400 colleges seems like a large number but with a population of 313 million, 400 colleges is a small percentage in America.When assessing the strength and influence of religion it is necessary to find out its impact as a belief system. However, measuring this is can be problematic. On the one hand, public participation in the form of religious membership, attendance, baptism and religious setting for marriage all show a significant decline in the past 50 years. This implies that religion has lost its importance to and influence on many people and supports the secularisation argument.
However, while public participation has declined, privately people still express spirituality summed up with Davie’s phrase ‘believing without belonging’.For example, around three-quarters of British adults still claim to ‘believe in God’. Many even engage in all kinds of irrational superstitions such as crossing fingers and not walking on pavement cracks these examples of superstition challenge the scientific influence on our society today. Steve Bruce supports the argument that religion has been displaced by science in this contemporary society. As a major supporter of the secularisation thesis he sees the role and influence of religion in significant decline.Bruce disagrees with Davies and says people cannot be influenced by religion that much with figures as low as 6% of the adult population attending church on a Sunday. The American sociologist Peter Berger, approaching the same subject matter but from a different position, suggests that religion has lost its role as providing a ‘sacred canopy’ sheltering and protecting all of us against events in life that we cannot understand. In a media-saturated postmodern society, with increasingly fragmented ideas and beliefs, religion has lost its role of providing theodicy to supply answers to the big questions in life.
However, religion is still important to many people and some postmodern theorists see this continued attachment to religion as a logical response to the superficiality of a society that no longer has any depth, being obsessed by materialism and consumerism. Other postmodernists, such as Jean Lyotard, refuses to accept science and ideology as meta-narrative. Science is just another meta-narrative that falsely claims to possess the truth. Marxists would say it’s just another way of thinking that is used to dominate people.Others argue that the validity of science has also been discredited by the falsification of evidence and some scientists are seen as serving the interests of their paymasters e. g.
Governments. However, scientists would nonetheless point to the significant contribution of research and growing acceptance of scientific explanation in a technological society. In conclusion, it is unclear that religion has been displaced by science in society today.
This is due to the problematic nature of measuring religious influence, despite the growing influence of science and rational thinking.Science and religion can be viewed as competing ideologies in society. While ideas of secularisation support the growth of influence of science, the debates surrounding globalisation, beliefs in postmodern society and fundamentalism all support the continued influence of religion. But I personally believe that Bruce’s argument of secularisation shows people are no longer being influenced by religion leaving a gap in the market for science to step in and take the main ideological influence in society today.