Often religious people will say, "Science is just another sort of religion." This is wrong. Science is science. Religion is religion.
Yet that saying also is right in a way. Neither science nor religion exists in the same fashion as stars, rocks, water, and flowers do.
Those things existed before modern humans, Homo sapiens, came along. They also exist now. And if we humans disappear from Earth, almost certainly all of those things will remain.
As Yuval Noah Harari, a historian, says in his fascinating book, "Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind," certain entities exist only in the minds of people. Like, science and religion; quantum theory and God; the periodic table and angels.
All of these things spring from human imagination. If we didn't exist, neither would they. The natural world would keep on doing its thing, but there wouldn't be anyone using terms like quantum theory, God, periodic table, angels.
Understand: I'm not claiming that science and religion are equally valid imagined stories. Science deals with entities that actually do exist outside of the human mind, whereas God, angels, and other imagined supernatural entities don't.
But I found Harari's discussion of the stories we tell ourselves to be one of the best explanations of this sort that I've ever read. I've included some fairly lengthy excerpts from his book below.
These stories, notably including those told by religions, bind us Homo sapiens together. We're the only species that speaks about things that don't exist. While this might seem to put us at an evolutionary disadvantage, actually it is a big reason for the dominance of our species.
So even though God is produced by human imagination, there is tremendous power in the belief that God does exist as an objectively real entity. Harari points out that the same is true of money: it only is as real as the human belief in it, yet money also has enormous power.
Here's the Harari quotations.
Yet the truly unique feature of our language is not its ability to transmit information about men and lions. Rather, it's the ability to transmit information about things that do not exist at all. As far as we know, only Sapiens can talk about entire kinds of entities that they have never seen, touched or smelled.
Legends, myths, gods and religions appeared for the first time with the Cognitive Revolution. Many animals and human species could previously say, "Careful! A lion!." Thanks to the Cognitive Revolution, Homo sapiens acquired the ability to say, "The lion is the guardian spirit of our tribe." This ability to speak about fictions is the most unique feature of Sapiens language.
It's relatively easy to agree that only Homo sapiens can speak about things that don't really exist, and believe six impossible things before breakfast. You could never convince a monkey to give you a banana by promising him limitless bananas after death in monkey heaven. But why is it important? After all, fiction can be dangerously misleading or distracting. People who go to the forest looking for fairies and unicorns would seem to have less chance of survival than people who go looking for mushrooms and deer. And if you spend hours praying to non-existing guardian spirits, aren't you wasting precious time, time better spent foraging, fighting, and fornicating?
But fiction has enabled us not merely to imagine things, but to do so collectively. We can weave common myths such as the biblical creation story, the Dreamtime myths of Aboriginal Australians, and the nationalist myths of modern states.
Such myths give Sapiens the unprecedented ability to cooperate flexibly in large numbers. Ants and bees can also work together in huge numbers, but they do so in a very rigid manner and only with close relatives. Wolves and chimpanzees cooperate far more flexibly than ants, but they can do so only with small numbers of other individuals that they know intimately. Sapiens can cooperate in extremely flexible ways with countless numbers of strangers. That's why Sapiens rule the world, whereas ants eat our leftovers and chimps are locked up in zoos and research laboratories.
...Any large-scale human cooperation -- whether a modern state, a medieval church, an ancient city or an archaic tribe -- is rooted in common myths that exist only in people's collective imagination. Churches are rooted in common religious myths. Two Catholics who have never met can nevertheless go together on crusade or pool funds to build a hospital because they both believe that God was incarnated in human flesh and allowed Himself to be crucified to redeem our sins.
States are rooted in common national myths. Two Serbs who have never met might risk their lives to save one another because both believe in the existence of the Serbian nation, the Serbian homeland and the Serbian flag. Judicial systems are rooted in common legal myths. Two lawyers who have never met can nevertheless combine efforts to defend a complete stranger because they both believe in the existence of laws, justice, human rights -- and the money paid out in fees.
Yet none of these things exists outside the stories that people invent and tell one another. There are no gods in the universe, no nations, no money, no human rights, no laws, and no justice outside the common imagination of human beings.
...Telling effective stories is not easy. The difficulty lies not in telling the story, but in convincing everyone else to believe it. Much of history revolves around this question: how does one convince millions of people to believe particular stories about gods, or nations, or limited liability companies? Yet when it succeeds, it gives Sapiens immense power, because it enables millions of strangers to cooperate and work towards common goals. Just try to imagine how difficult it would have been to create states, or churches, or legal systems if we could speak only about things that really exist, such as rivers, trees, and lions.
...Over the years, people have woven an incredibly complex network of stories. Within this network, fictions such as Peugeot not only exist, but also accumulate immense power. The kinds of things that people create through this network of stories are known in academic circles as "fictions," "social constructs," or "imagined realities." An imagined reality is not a lie. I lie when I say that there is a lion near the river when I know perfectly well that there is no lion there.
...Unlike lying, an imagined reality is something that everyone believes in, and as long as this communal belief persists, the imagined reality exerts force in the world.
The sculptor from the Stadel Cave may sincerely have believed in the existence of the lion-man guardian spirit. Some sorcerers are charlatans, but most sincerely believe in the existence of gods and demons. Most millionaires sincerely believe in the existence of money and limited liability companies. Most human-rights activists sincerely believe in the existence of human rights. No one was lying when, in 2011, the UN demanded that the Libyan government respect the human rights of its citizens, even though the UN, Libya and human rights are all figments of our fertile imagination.
Ever since the Cognitive Revolution, Sapiens have thus been living in a dual reality. On the one hand, the objective reality of rivers, trees and lions; and on the other hand, the imagined reality of gods, nations and corporations. As time went by, the imagined reality became ever more powerful, so that today the very survival of rivers, trees and lions depends on the grace of imagined entities such as the United States and Google.