The religious sometimes declare that atheism is just another new faith, which is completely illogical and wrong. There is, I would argue, a new religion. If we examine the structures of religion we can find remarkable similarities between it and a thoroughly modern phenomenon which claims to be the alternative.
There are two kinds of faith in any religion; the faith of the internal elite, that is to say, the clergy and hierarchy, and the faith of the common people unto which the elite preach. The former, having invested wholly in the doctrines of their chosen brand of faith, would have a deeper and more complete understanding of the intricacies of their chosen dogma. The latter, who support the former economically by fulfilling the practical necessities of society, possess less comprehensive knowledge of their religion simply due to the fact that they have other things to do with their time. This is one of the reasons why a priesthood would have evolved in the first place; most people simply don’t have the time to appease the gods, so they employ someone else to do it for them. As time went by, the common people became increasingly removed from their gods, the actions and incantations of the priesthood became more arcane, preserving traditions and rites utter in strange, long dead languages that the hoi polloi rarely understood. These masters of the mysterious separated themselves from society, built large establishments to suit their own purposes, into which the public might only grudgingly be allowed, and dressed in strange clothes so the masses could better identify them as being in a position of authority. They continued their studies, becoming ever more obscure and remote from the comprehension of the public they served such that the common people had a very slim grasp of what their priesthood actually did.
Essentially the same is true of science.
Do I hear you scoff? Have you raised a contentious eyebrow? Let me explain.
Science fulfils the role of religion in the modern world in several respects. Science is undoubtedly superior to religion and faith in that it provides tangible, repeatable, comprehensible results and answers. This, sadly, does not matter. When science first came to prominence it was heresy, fundamentally because it was new and unproven to the common man, and due to the fact that it challenged the established order. It gained credence over time as it proved to be far more reliable in producing answers, healing the sick, improving lives, and, regrettably, killing. We have reached a point where children can conduct experiments and learn about rudimentary science in school. Most people never progress beyond these basics, simply because they do not need to. The vast majority of people will never use algebra ever again, they will never contemplate the consequences of special relativity, and they will never need to recall the atomic numbers of elements from the periodic table. This is not due to any inability or lack of intelligence on their part; it is simply not useful information. Science has moved beyond these easily demonstrated facts, and on to far more complicated things. Science has become the purview of an elite, a dedicated cabal of researchers who have become removed from society. This was not by design on behalf of either party, but rather a consequence of necessity. Everyone cannot know everything. Specialist fields grow from the mainstream into obscurity.
The average person may own one or all of the following; a mobile phone, portable electronic music device, personal computer, television, car, or games console. The combustion engine is a concept that is fairly easy to grasp; the quantum mechanics used in the memory of the other electronic devices listed is not. Does anyone really know how each element in a plasma screen TV actually works? No. Nor do they care. This information is not necessary to use the device. A person will flick a switch and simply assume that a light will erupt from the ceiling of a room, not because they grasp the intricacies of the electromagnetic force, but rather due to the fact that they have paid their bills on time. They could care less if incandescent light appeared due to a consequence of electromagnetic resistance, the will of God, or constructive gremlins. It simply works, that is sufficient. The extremes of physics are barely plausible to the uninitiated; quantum mechanics, which allows electrons to pass through solid objects, is often counter-intuitive, and string theory sounds like magic. Religion ‘worked’ for a time where people’s needs were more simple, science works now. Most people don’t care why.
You might think I am being too broad or extreme in my comparison of science with religion. However, this lack of comprehension is increasingly visible. Alternative medicines and pseudo-religious lifestyles frequently claim to work on quantum principles or electromagnetism. Someone who has read and researched physics would sneer at such preposterous nonsense, and the cretins who peddle such wares. But people are convinced, and there seem to be more of them every day. The terminology of science has been set free in the world, and it is used by fraudsters to convince the credulous, who accept what they are told because the required knowledge is unavailable to them, is too complex to be understood without serious research, or is inconvenient. People place their faith in science to answer questions, just as they have in religion. They see scientists either as cartoon villains bent on destroying the world and God, or as disengaged academics who don’t know how the real world actually works. The backlash against of the ever-increasing complexity of science has led people either back into the arms of organised religion, or pseudo-scientific, naturalistic mumbo-jumbo.
We live in a world of escalating complexity. Science will become more and more removed from the understanding of the public at large. This would not really be an issue if we lived in world inhabited solely by rational people. The religious elite will argue with the educated echelons of the scientific community hoping to win over the masses to their respective cause. Science will argue accuracy, results, and material products, while religion will proclaim truth, revelation, and spiritual salvation. Most people will not care so long as their cars keep working, the lights remain on, and daemons do not walk the Earth. They expect science to find cures for diseases, reverse global warming, and make their lives more comfortable. They do not care how, they simply have faith that it will. If anyone believed that religion could achieve any of these goals better than science they would defend it. If magic did the trick, if it cured cancer, most people would be happy at that, and not require any further explanation. Science has become a new faith, an ill understood and obscure branch of learning with its own highly educated, and often detached, adherents who exist in a world not readily accessible to a confused and easily misled public. They ponder the meaning of life and the complexities of reality, the question the nature of the universe and our position in it. Which is not unlike what theologians have done for centuries, it’s just that scientists are better at it. Not that anyone really cares, they are too busy celebrating the cults of film and pop idols, joining fashionable sects of sports or online communities, and stimulating the economy by purchasing every spiritual or material fad that is revealed to us by the market as if it were the next messiah. Science makes no claim to be a faith, it does not desire to be bound by the dogma of religion, yet the reality is that, in the minds of masses, it may have essentially become tantamount to that which it opposes.