“Faith in science is a belief”

November 6, 2009 • 5:10 pm

by Greg Mayer

There’s an article up on New Statesman, by Sholto Byrnes, announcing “It’s official: faith in science is a belief“. The sub heading says “New legal ruling places it in the same category as religion”.   It sounds like some sort of legal victory for creationists, of the kind feared by Michael Ruse: to have science in general, and evolution in particular, regarded as a faith-based enterprise on a par with creationism is a traditional goal of creationists.  As Duane Gish put it “Evolution theory is no less religious nor more scientific than creation.” But is this what has happened? In a word, no. The wording of the headline may be just clever enough to exonerate Byrnes of the charge of inaccuracy, but it’s surely misleading.

What a UK court said is

A man has been told he can take his employer to tribunal on the grounds he was unfairly dismissed because of his views on climate change….

His solicitor, Shah Qureshi, said: “Essentially what the judgment says is that a belief in man-made climate change and the alleged resulting moral imperative is capable of being a philosophical belief and is therefore protected by the 2003 religion or belief regulations.”

So, what’s been ruled a “belief” is the “moral imperative” arising from climate change, and this is the “it” that’s been placed in the same category as religion. (Under, I might add, the rather odd-sounding, to a non-Britisher, “2003 religion or belief regulations.”  As an American, whose school lessons in British history tended to center on Magna Carta and the 1689 Bill of Rights, and whose political forefathers rebelled to protect their rights as Englishmen, it is curious to me how few rights Englishmen seem to have these days when it comes to speaking their minds about matters scientific and religious.)

Byrnes exacerbates the misleading nature of his headline by asking

But I wonder if this ruling is quite so useful to those who look to science and rationality as guides to their lives as it might on the surface appear.

Why would he think that anyone interested in science and rationality would support such a ruling, let alone find it useful?  The underlying dispute is not about the epistemological status of science, but the sacking of an executive who objected to his employer’s environmental policies: the court ruling, as the much more accurate Independent headline had it, was about “green beliefs”. While I sympathize with the employee’s views on global warming, it seems distinctly odd to me that a court should find these views religious in nature. But in any case, the ruling is not about what the New Statesman headline suggests.


Gish, D. 1985. Evolution: The Challenge of the Fossil Record. Creation- Life Publishers, El Cajon, CA. p. 23.

10 thoughts on ““Faith in science is a belief”

  1. The belief that there is a moral imperative to combat climate change is clearly a philosophical belief based on a mixture of scientifically-acquired knowledge and ethical reasoning. The tribunal member may have expressed things badly if he characterised the acceptance of climate science’s findings (not just how to respond to them) as itself a philosophical rather than a scientific matter, but that’s not clear. Either way it was a belief formed from rational inquiry, not from religious faith. In any event, the gist of the ruling is surely (a) correct and (b) innocuous.

    Critics of the decision seem to overlook that the British law gives certain protection to beliefs based on reason as well as to beliefs based on religious faith. Isn’t this a good thing? How does protecting a belief in the former category thereby transform into one in the latter?

    Whether, all things considered, the sacking was justified is another thing. It looks as if that hasn’t been ruled on yet.

  2. I don’t think it’s about freedom of speech in the usual sense.

    Freedom of speech, as we Millians understand it, is mainly about the government not being able to shut you up. It leaves open whether an employer must employ (or continue to employ) someone whose ideas and speech it disagrees with, and who may even undermine the employer’s goals. I don’t think an employer should have to employ such a person in all cases.

    For example, if I decided to run an atheist and secularist bookshop I’d be outraged if I had to employ an outspoken fundamentalist Christian. If I decided to run a consultancy service aimed at assisting social democratic organisations, I would be outraged if I had to employ an outspoken Ayn Randian libertarian, or an outspoken revolutionary communist if it comes to that, who used her free speech to attack the political positions my clients.

    However, I would defend fundamentalist Christians, Randian libertarians, or revolutionary communists if a government attempted to say that their speech would, in future, be censored. Let them say what they like as loudly as they like, and with no legal consequences … but if they do so they should not necessarily expect to be employed by an employer that has opposing goals or is committed to some opposing view.

    The question here isn’t free speech in the pure sense. It’s really about how far employers should be prevented from discriminating against potential or existing employees on the basis of their worldviews – religious or otherwise, rationally-based or otherwise. Most of us would think that employers should have some rights here, as in the examples I gave, but should also be subjected to some constraints.

    It might also vary with the nature of the employer and the position. For example, what might be acceptable expression of beliefs in opposition to the goals of the employer might be very different for a business executive from what it is for a university professor.

    I’m not that familiar with British labour law, but I expect it is fairly fine-tuned to try to give some reasonable rights to both employers and employees in such situations. As far as I can see, all this decision says is that, as a threshold issue, this guy’s moral and related beliefs come under the relevant Act and so get whatever degree of protection the Act provides. That sounds reasonable so far. Some of the commentators I’ve seen appear to be going overboard in what they read into it.

  3. The issue of religious beliefs and the workplace is in the news in the UK constantly at the moment. The four big cases I can think of recently are:

    A Muslim woman who wore a headscarf trying and failing to get a job as a hair stylist at numerous salons – she ended up sueing a small salon after the owner was stupid/ honest enough to say in the interview she wouldn’t employ a woman who covered her hair, as stylists were expected to have young, trendy hairstyles.

    A Christian registrar at a local council who claims she was forced out after refusing to conduct civil partnerships for same sex couples.

    A Christian woman who worked for British Airways insisting she had a right to wear a cross on a chain outside of her uniform and sueing the company. Bear in mind that BA has incredibly strict uniform rules – even requiring flight attendants to all wear the same shade of lipstick. The woman in question felt aggrieved, as employees of other religions were allowed exceptions – e.g. turbans, headscarves etc.

    A Muslim woman who was sacked (I think, or she may have quit) for refusing to wear revealing clothes in her job as a hostess at a sleazy bar. I honestly thought this story was a joke when I first read it, but it was true.

    On a rather cynical level, I would wonder if this guy is just chancing it, as people have managed to get big pay-outs where they can prove their were discriminated against on grounds of religion. The cases above have all had rather different results – the case with the registrar is ongoing and probably has the farthest reaching consequences – but this seems to be a ever growing problem and I can’t see any easy solution that balances the rights of employees and employers.

  4. As usual, equivocation is the problem. Some people do express “faith in science” as a belief that all questions will be answered by science, that all problems can be solved by science, etc.

    But an ideology that evidence is essential, and that only reliable evidence of the type that would be used in science counts, is an ideological belief, just as the belief that the world is inhabited by spirits and ghosts is an ideological belief.

    When “faith” means continuing to believe in someone or something in spite of apparent failures because of past evidence (like sticking by an otherwise reliable friend in spite of a small betrayal) that is one thing. When “faith” means ideology, that is another.

    People can have “faith in science” without science becoming a “faith.”

    1. “But an ideology that evidence is essential, and that only reliable evidence of the type that would be used in science counts, is an ideological belief,”

      That’s just being practical not ideological.

      1. Thanks for the link. I’m saying it’s practical in the sense that using evidence is relatively more reliable that other ways of allegedly knowing. I think there is an important distinction between a worldview and a reliable methodology.

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