Science-Religion Interface: Introduction

Introduction

Most serious scientists spend the good part of their waking hours amidst papers and preprints, equations and equipments, talking about graphs and data, arguing about ideas and theories, and writing grant proposals. But if they browse in bookstores or glance in the book review sections of journals, they cannot escape a fascinating phenomenon in the scientific landscape: books proclaiming the extra-rational implications of science are proliferating. Some of the titles, like The God Experiment, The Science of God, and Physics of Immortality, would have been unimaginable a few decades ago. Religion and mysticism are inching their way back into the arena of science whence, some thought, they had been gradually weeded out during the past two centuries. Some see this is a re-affirmation of truth and goodness after a period of defeat or dormancy, while in the view of others, this is like the return with a vengeance of microbes and fire ants after sustained efforts at eliminating them with antibiotics and pesticides.1

People who hope that science would eradicate religion from human culture must recall that from Kepler and Galileo on, practically all scientists have had a religious side: after all, except when they encounter sects or religions of a different shade, religions have generally had many, if not only, civilizing impacts. Isaac Newton believed in a personal God, explicitly calling himself His servant. Leonhard Eller was deeply religious, and so were Augustine Cauchy, Michael Faraday, and countless others devoted to scientific pursuits. In our own times, scientists like Sir John Eccles (biologist), Charles Townes (physicists), and Christian Anfinsen (Chemist), all Nobelists, were avowed theists. This does not prove that God exists, but that highly creative and intelligent scientists can subscribe to belief in God. Indeed, no reflecting scientist can be immune to the awe and majesty of the physical world, nor insensitive to the deep mystery underlying life and consciousness.

From faith to conflict

But experiencing religious feelings is not the same thing as taking revered texts as treatises on physics, biology, or cosmology. In truth, it turns out in many instances that the picture arrived at by collective and extensive inquiries, fortified by countless instruments and carefully erected conceptual tools, explicitly contradicts many accounts in the holy books as to how the world began and behaves, or how life emerged on earth. But science neither proves nor disproves the existence of a cosmic intelligence, consciousness, or power.

Since its inception in the 17th century, modern science has unraveled not only the laws of planetary motion and the electromagnetic nature of light, but matters pertaining to comets and stars, to geology and biology, and myriad other aspects of the physical universe. The Copernican theory of a heliocentric universe caused conflicts with religion, but the theory of gravitation did not.  The wave nature of light did not perturb religious institutions, by the interpretation of fossils did. The laws of electromagnetism were not opposed by established religion, butDarwin’s theory of evolution was. What is clear from all these instances is that there is a fundamental difference between scientific results that have no implication to the human condition or presence, and those that do have. It is mainly in the latter cases that science and religion come into conflict.

Furthermore, such conflicts arise only in societies and cultures where scientists and theologians interact. Up until recently, only Western European and American societies were of this kind. But gradually this situation is spreading elsewhere also. In places where theologians simply attend to the spiritual needs of the faithful, and don’t talk natural phenomena or the nature of physical reality, the two institutions usually co-exist in happy harmony.

Footnotes

1. The virulence of some very good modern thinkers/scientists against religion may strike some people as unduly harsh.

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