It has become quite common, especially with the slippery, post-modern turn that lots of defenses of religion have taken in recent years, to characterize an empirical/scientific worldview and religious worldviews as mere differences in personal preference. They are different frameworks or different language games, as the Wittgensteinians put it, with alternate sets of rules of dialogue. But it’s a mistake to evaluate one in terms of another. It’s also a mistake to assume, as most atheists do, that one is better than another. They are dedicated to different domains, and are not incompatible.
A variation on this theme is the “they are all just systems of faith” response that is frequently made to atheists. Ultimately, a belief system cannot be grounded on anything other than personal choice, and once you’re in, they all proceed by faith. The empirical approach is just as guilty (virtuous?) of believing without evidence as religious approaches.
The point of the latter is always baffling. Suppose that all “belief systems” as they put it, are based on faith. Is that a defense of a religious perspective? Is the point that since we always have to have faith, it doesn’t matter which one you pick? Or a person is blameless for having faith since it’s inescapable? But surely no one, except someone deep in the grips of some bizarre post-modern ideology, thinks that there’s really no legitimate or reasonable grounds of preference. You don’t really think that the view that women should never be allowed to go out in public without a male-family escort or shouldn’t be allowed to drive really serves Muslims just as well, or just as legitimately as another approach. Sure, they are managing to limp along and it serves them in their own way to a point. But you don’t really think that there are no legitimate criteria by which we can differentiate.
At their cores, there is a fundamental difference between a religious ideology and the scientific method that cannot and should not be glossed over. And the difference reveals why the latter serves us vastly better. To a greater or lesser extent, depending on the religious tradition, we see this essential theme. The approach to the world is fundamentally authoritarian. The source—God, church, magical documents—gives us the “facts.” It issues the rules for behavior, a picture of humans’ place in the world, and it puts humanity into a subservient role. The institution is structured from the top down. As we expand our experience and investigate the world, insofar as that is allowed within the tradition, we are faced with the problem of incorporating new information into that high inertia system. The policy for the religious mind is this: given that my doctrine is true, how can we make all of the information we discover conform to it? How can that information be interpreted such that it corroborates, or is at least consistent with the doctrine? Ultimately, if those discoveries can’t be incorporated, co-opted, or adapted to fit with the immovable bedrock of religious belief, then it is the new information that has to be rejected. We can see the struggle between religious doctrine and what we’ve come to realize is true about the origins of life on earth in the evolution/religion conflict right now. The uneasy compromise that lots of people have reached is this: It appears that life on earth evolved, so given that God exists and God created life, then evolution must be the means by which he created it. Polling data shows that this is the most popular view in the middle, with smaller segments either denying that evolution happened altogether, or insisting that evolution was the entire means of development of life on earth.
When the tide of empirical evidence grows strong enough, or social and political necessary make it absolutely unavoidable, religious institutions will sometimes slowly shift their doctrines. But for the most part, the institutions have their roots deeply seated in the past and the inertia is massive. The resistance to change and the temptation to fight new ideas are powerful.
The scientific/empirical approach embodies a fundamentally different model of the relationship between world and knowledge, however. Here the policy is to make our model of what the world is conform to what we find in the world, not the other way around. There is no authority, no doctrine, no sacrosanct scriptures that are infallible and above all doubts. Given all of the empirical observations we have made and information that we have, what is mostly likely to be true about reality that would explain those observations. No doctrine or principle is true a priori or immune to being revised or overturned in light of new information. Here doubt, skepticism, criticism, revision, and defeasibility are the essential virtues. Here we make the most vigorous efforts to guard against our mistakes and our tendencies to lapse into authoritarianism and dogma. A claim is never true because it was said by someone, it’s well-justified to believe it because it’s the best, most predictive, description we have found. Once it reaches a certain level of justification, we can say with confidence that it is true. But if that gets overturned, then so be it. We must go where the empirical observations take us, no matter what we thought in the past.
So in a word, the profound difference between the two approaches comes down to doubt vs. dogma, skepticism vs. faith. Will we embrace the approach that enables us to expand and clarify our place in the universe as is indicated by our empirical observations, or will we abandon the self-correcting methods of science for authoritarian edicts, issued from sources that allege to know better than us and who demand uncritical obedience and acceptance. Will we swallow our doubts, have faith, and hide behind the false security of an imaginary daddy figure, or will we have the courage to follow inquiry where it takes us?