Science is empirical, open, evolving and objective, but is religion the opposite?
What are the differences between science and religion? This post focuses on four areas of difference between the two:
The empirical versus the supernatural
Open versus closed belief systems
Evolving versus absolute knowledge
Objectivity versus subjectivity
Before reading this post, you might like to refresh your knowledge of what they key features of science are by reading this post: Is sociology a science?
Science limits itself to the empirical, religion concerns itself with the supernatural
Science tends to concern itself with the natural or physical world – that which can be observed and measured. If it cannot be observed or measured empirically, then it is not scientific.
Scientific knowledge is gained primarily through the experimental method: a hypothesis is formulated and then experiments designed to test the hypothesis. Experiments use standardized procedures of data collection, so that other scientists can repeat the exact same experiment in the same way and verify the data and test the findings for themselves.
In contrast religion tends to concern itself with the spiritual world, many aspects of which cannot necessarily be observed and measured in a scientific extent. For example, knowledge in many religions comes ultimately from God, and belief in the existence of God cannot be verified empirically. Belief in God is a matter of faith.
Any knowledge claims made by religions which are not verifiable by empirical observations cannot be regarded as ‘scientific’.
‘Open’ verses ‘closed belief systems
Science is an ‘open belief system’ – the data collected by scientists are open to testing by others. Research findings can thus be criticized.
According to Popper, the process of scientists critically scrutinizing findings of other scientists is fundamental to the scientific method. He argued that scientists should attempt to ‘falsify’ already existing hypotheses by designing experiments deliberately to disprove them. It is this process which ensures that scientific knowledge is valid: its ability to withstand the critical scrutiny of peers.
In contrast, religions tend to have ‘closed belief systems’ – religious knowledge is generally regarded as sacred, and should be accepted as is, rather than challenged.
Evolving versus absolute knowledge systems
Scientific knowledge is cumulative…. it evolves through a process of scientists learning about, criticizing, and improving upon the experimental work of previous scientists.
Religious belief systems, at least those based firmly on religious texts or an idea of an absolute truth are not open to change or growth. Those who challenge such religious belief systems may well be subject to sanctions.
Objectivity and value-freedom versus subjectivity
Subjective, personal feelings should be kept out the scientific process. Scientific knowledge should not be influenced by the personal opinions or biases of the researchers who conduct the experiments which provide the data to generate scientific knowledge.
In contrast, knowledge in many religious traditions is a matter of personal faith and intimate spiritual experience. Many religious experiences, prayer, for example, are highly personal, and not meant to be replicated by others.
This is the lead into a brief article about the Sun’s waning influence over it’s readers – as the article points out that the paper ran an anti-Corbyn campaign, which it did, and some of the headlines and articles were shockingly one-sided:
However, I think the 28% figure above is a bit misleading. You only get this when you calculate in the low turnout by Sun readers, the lowest of all the readerships of the major newspapers, with a turnout of only 48%.
Of those who voted, 62%, or nearly 2/3rds of Sun readers voted for either the Tories or UKIP.’
The article then goes on to point out that the swing in this election was 16% points away from UKIP, 12% gain for the Tories, and 6% gain for Labour, meaning that above headline is at least somewhat misleading.
A few things to note here
While objectively true (only 28% of Sun readers did vote Tory, it’s true!), this is a good example of how sound bite snap-shot statements of stats do not actually give you an accurate picture of what’s going on. You need to know that 48% didn’t vote, and that of those who did vote, almost 2/3rds of them voted Tory! AND the swing was mainly away from UKIP.
This article shows you a good example of how subjective political biases in reporting can distort the objective statistical facts (of course there are problems with those too, more of that here) – Obviously there’s the example of the bias in The Sun itself, but there’s also bias in The Independent’s (sorry, the ‘Independent’) reporting of the bias in The Sun. The ‘Independent’ is a left wing newspaper, as the above snapshot on how its readers vote handily shows us, and so it leads with a story about how The Sun is waning in influence, the kind of thing its readers will want to hear as they’re currently caught up in Tory-turmoil rapture, suggestion this is biased reporting designed to appeal to people’s emotions.
Finally, surely the real headline should be just how many Sun voters didn’t show up to vote – this seems to be a case of the working classes dissociating themselves from the formal political process rather than not voting Tory? Or more thrilling is the increase from 0% to 1% of Sun Readers voting Green, an infinite increase…!
Finally, having said all of this, I actually think The Sun today has less influence over its readers, but the evidence here isn’t sufficient to come to such a conclusion.
What the article should have done to prove this more conclusively is to compare the paper’s 2015 election content to it’s readership’s voting behaviour, and then compared that to the 2017 relationship.
And doing that would require a more complex metholodogy which wouldn’t fit in with the newspaper’s publishing schedule.
What are the key aspects of the neoliberal subject?
Below is a brief summary of some of the key theorizing around and indicators of the successful neoliberal subject, drawn from Verdouw 2016 (1)
They are an entrepreneurial, competitive creature, forming a ‘company of one’ (Read 2009)
Freedom is defined as the freedom to choose market strategies (Browne 2005)
Practices are presented as freely chosen, responsibility is taken regardless of constraint (Brown 2005, Gill 2008)
They subscribe to a cultural trope of individual moral responsibility (Wacquant 2010)
They close off alternative moral possibilities (Whitehead and Crashaw 2014, Read 2009)
Their main goal is economic entrepreneurial freedom, more specifically independence, self-reliance, choice (to be realised through markets) and (financial) security
They tend to be materialistic
They perceive the self as a project, and themselves as a rational economic actors
problems are construed as ones with market solutions
They focus on profit and productivity
They emphasize self-responsibility, agency and initiative.
They value money generation. comfort, leisure and success
In terms of money boundaries they emphasise privatisation, dispersion and isolation
They define citizenship as self-care
If they Living in the shadow of financialised norm
They subscribe to the implausibility of social transformation
They only take Responsibility for family and small groups of friends
They are confident in self-identification with the future
They are never in the moment, they are future oriented
They have a clear, linear view of the future.
NB – There may well be some overlap with the points above, this is a starting point post to be refined over the long term.
According to McGuigan (2014, see 2 below) – the neoliberal self is comprised of the following characteristics:
A self which is subjected to compulsory individualisation and combines a freewheeling consumer sovereignty with enterprising business acumen; a self condemned to freedom and lonely responsibility. The individual is penalised harshly not only for personal failure but also for sheer bad luck in a highly competitive and relentlessly harsh social environment
A cool-capitalist way of life that does not appear to insist upon conformity and even permits a limited measure of bohemian posturing, personal experimentation and geographical exploration (‘the year out’, for instance).
Generational tension is a distinct feature of the neoliberal imaginary, including the rejection of ‘dinosaur’ attitudes concerning all sorts of matters cherished by an older generation. In this sense, the neoliberal self is connected to a generational structure of feeling, a selfhood counter-posed to the old social-democratic self. Concretely this will typically involve enthusiasm for the latest communications gadget.
The consumption aspect of the neoliberal self is the most obvious, involving the subjectivity cultivated by the cool seduction of promotional culture and acutely brand-aware commodity fetishism. Naomi Klein (2000) said most of what needs to be said about it at the turn of the Millennium.
‘Generation Debt’ – he doesn’t say much about this, but I’m guessing the neoliberal self is comfortable with debt. NB to my mind this contradicts fundamentally with ‘capital accumulation’.
Significant numbers work in the ‘creative industries’ in wealthier countries are caught in a ‘neoliberal trap’. The paradoxical life conditions of such professional-managerial groups have been written about by Andrew Ross (2009). Personal initiative and frantic networking in the precarious labour market of short-term contracts, where enterprising ‘creativity’ is at a premium
As Boltanski and Chiapello (1999/2005: 199) put it, for cadres instilled with ‘the new spirit of capitalism’, in effect, ‘Autonomy exchanged for security’.
People subjected to uncertainty and unpredictability especially in so called ‘creative’ and allied careers, though not only there, must fashion the kind of self that can cope where trade-union representation has been eliminated or severely restricted. This kind of self is a neoliberal self, figuring a competitive individual who is exceptionally self-reliant and rather indifferent to the fact that his or her predicament is shared with others – and, therefore, incapable of organising as a group to do anything about it. Such a person must be ‘cool’ in the circumstances, selfishly resourceful and fit in order to survive under social-Darwinian conditions. Many simply fall by the wayside, exterminated by the croak-voiced Daleks of neoliberalism. However, the mass-media of communication hardly ever report upon the down-side of the neoliberal experience
Today, it is impossible to talk of an ideal self without mentioning the role of the celebrity, larger-than-life figures to be admired and maybe even emulated, in an old-fashioned term functional as role models of aspiration – ‘dressed-down cool capitalists like Bill Gates or “Ben and Jerry”’ (Budgen, 2000: 151), Steve Jobbs, and today Mark Zuckerberg.
Value Freedom in Social Research refers to the ability of the researcher to keep his or her own values (personal, political and religious) from interfering with the research process.
The idea that ‘facts’ should not be influenced by the researcher’s own beliefs is a central aspect of ‘science’ – and so when we say that Sociology can and should be value free this is essentially the same as saying that ‘Sociology can and should be scientific’.
Positivism and Value Freedom
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries Positivist Sociologists such as August Comte and Emile Durkheim regarded Sociology as a science and thus thought that social research could and should be value free, or scientific.
As illustrated in Durkheim’s study of Suicide (1899) – by doing quantitative research and uncovering macro-level social trends Sociologists can uncover the ‘laws of society’. Durkheim believed that one such law was that too high or too low levels of social integration and regulation would lead to an increasing suicide rate. Positivists believed that further research would be able to uncover how much of what types of integration caused the suicide rate to go up or down. We should be able to find out, for example, if a higher divorce rate has more impact on the suicide rate that the unemployment rate.
So at one level, Positivists believe that Sociology can be value free because they are uncovering the ‘objective’ laws of how social systems work – these laws exist independently of the researchers observing them. All the researcher is doing is uncovering ‘social facts’ that exist ‘out there’ in the world – facts that would exist irrespective of the person doing the observing.
Positivists argued that such value-free social research was crucial because the objective knowledge that scientific sociology revealed could be used to uncover the principles of a good, ordered, integrated society, principles which governments could then apply to improve society. Thus, research should aim to be scientific or value free because otherwise it is unlikely to be taken seriously or have an impact on social policy.
Being “value free” is sometime described as being objective: to uncover truths about the world, one must aspire to eliminate personal biases, a prior beliefs, and emotional and personal involvement, etc.
Identify the TWO methods you would use to achieve a high degree of objectivity. And explain why?
Is it possible to completely objective/value free?
‘Right Wing’ Perspectives on Value Freedom and Sociology
The New Right argue that sociology is not value free but rather left-wing propaganda.
In the 1970’s and 1980’s, Sociology came under attack for its ‘left-wing’ bias. Originally criticized for its inclusion in teacher training programmes, it was further suggested that teachers were indoctrinating their students with Marxist propaganda. David Marsland is particularly associated with the idea of Sociology as a destructive force in British society, exaggerating the defects of capitalism and ignoring its many benefits:
‘Sociology is the enemy within. It is an enemy that sows the seeds of bankruptcy and influences huge numbers of impressionable people… Sociologists are neglecting their responsibility for accurate, objective description and biasing their analyses of contemporary Britain to an enormous extent… huge numbers of people are being influenced by the biased one-sidedness of contemporary Sociology.’
In ‘Bias against Business’, Marsland suggests that many Sociology textbooks ignore the central features of capitalist economies Concentrating on job dissatisfaction and alienation:
‘Its treatment of work is consistently negative, focussing almost entirely on its pathologies – alienation, exploitation and inequality. It underestimates the high levels of job satisfaction which empirical research has consistently identified. It de-emphasises the enormous value for individual people and for society as a whole, in the way of increased standards of living and enhanced quality of life work provides. It neglects for the most part to inform students about the oppressive direction of labour of all sorts of socialist societies, or to keep them in mind of the multiple benefits of a free competitive labour market. It treats the need for economic incentives with contempt.’
Feminism – Sociology is biased against women
Feminists are critical of the ‘value-free’ scientific claims of ‘malestream’ Sociology, arguing that it is at best sex blind and at worst sexist, serving as an ideological justification for the subordination of women. Anne Oakley (1974) claims that ‘Sociology reduces women to a side issue from the start.’ While Sociology claims to put forward a detached and impartial view of reality, in fact it presents the perspective of men.
Feminist responses to the male bias in Sociology have been varied; on the one hand there are those who think that this bias can be corrected simply by carrying out more studies on women; a more radical view (arguing along the same lines of Becker’s ‘Whose Side are We On’) suggests that what is needed is a Sociology for women by women; that feminists should be concerned with developing a sociological knowledge which is specifically by and about women:
‘A feminist Sociology is one that is for women, not just or necessarily about women, and one that challenges and confronts the male supremacy which institutionalizes women’s inequality. The defining characteristic of feminism is the view that women’s subordination must be questioned and challenged… feminism starts from the view that women are oppressed and that their oppression is primary’. (Abbott & Wallace 1990).
Interpretivism – sociology cannot and should not be value free
There are three main Interpretivist Criticisms of ‘Positivist’ Sociology – from Gomm, Becker and Gouldner:
Gomm argues that ‘a value free Sociology is impossible… the very idea is unsociological’.He argues that Sociologists react to political, economic and social events – and what is seen as a political or social ‘issue’, a social ‘problem’ is dependent on the power of different groups to define and shape reality – to define what is worthy of research. Consequently, it is just as important to look at what sociologists do not investigate as what they do – Sociologists are not necessarily immune to ideological hegemony.
Gomm argues that social research always has social and moral implications. Therefore Sociology inevitably has a political nature. For the sociologists to attempt to divorce him/herself from the consequences of his/her research findings is simply an evasion of responsibility. Gomm further suggests that when the sociologist attempts to divorce himself from his own values to be scientific, to become a ‘professional sociologist’ he is merely adopting another set of values – not miraculously becoming ‘value free’ – what Positivists call value freedom often involves an unwitting-commitment to the values of the establishment.
‘The truth is, of course, not that values have actually disappeared from the social sciences, rather that the social scientist has become so identified with the going values of the establishment that it seems as if values have disappeared.’
Gouldner, along similar lines to Gomm,argues that it is impossible to be free from various forms of value judgment in the social sciences. Those who claim to be value free are merely gutless non-academics with few moral scruples who have sold out to the establishment in return for a pleasant university lifestyle.
Gouldner suggests that the principle of value freedom has dehumanised sociologists: ‘Smugly sure of itself and bereft of a sense of common humanity.’ He claims that sociologists have betrayed themselves and Sociology to gain social and academic respectability; confusing moral neutrality with moral indifference, not caring about the ways in which their research is used.
Howard Becker, in ‘Whose side are we on?’ takes this argument to its logical conclusion arguing that since all knowledge is political, serving some interests at the expense of others, the task for the sociologist is simply to choose sides; to decide which interests sociological knowledge should serve. Becker argues that Sociology should side with the disadvantaged.
Signposting and Related Posts
This topic is a core aspect of the social theories part of ‘theory and methods’ within A-level sociology.