Science without the Enlightenment?
On the Role of the Enlightenment in Science-Religion Dialogues
1. In most confrontations between science and religion, differing and/or opposing contentions on specific issues have related to the explanations of (i) natural phenomena; (ii) the origin of the world; (iii) the origin of the human family/species and its related cultural attributes (language, art, belief-systems, etc.). The pictures painted by the physical sciences on these issues have been by and large different from those of practically all the sacred books of the world.
2. There is another (related) sphere of thought and reflection which too has had a powerful impact on the foundations of traditional religions: The results and world views ensuing from historical, anthropological, and archaeological research. Impetus for the application of the empirical & theory-building investigative methodology of post-Copernican science to these matters received a considerable boost from the framework of 18th century Enlightenment. These inquiries called into question some of the long-cherished assertions in sacred books regarding the birth of this prophet or the miracle of that saint, the authorship of the Book of Genesis or the veracity of a global deluge, and any number of other ancient reports/tales that had acquired historical validity by virtue of the weight of unquestioning centuries.
3. When one began to investigate the historical Jesus and Moses, and examine the dates and events in the books of the Testaments, Old and New, one unwittingly began to pull out the rug from under the feet of implicit faith and consensual acceptance of the revealed word. For it turns out that when societies, value-systems and world-views are analyzed in historical (rather than in God-given) terms, many long-cherished convictions (such as the notion of a chosen race, the superiority of a particular caste, the sacredness of a language, the corporeal transportation of a religious figure to high heavens, the subservience of women, etc.) begin to sound untenable. Thus, the Enlightenment was as much a factor in challenging some of the bases of traditional religions as the discovery of the geocentric error.
4. It is important to recognize the role of the Enlightenment in the evolution of religion and theology because ancient world views, myths, and miracle-mongering, and similar elements of the pre-Enlightenment mind-set still persist in people and (religious) systems that have been untouched by the Enlightenment. As long as historical inquiry, based on dispassionate scientific methodology, is kept at a distance, there is not likely to be any confrontation between science and religion: which incidentally explains why such conflicts have occurred only in some regions of the Christian West, and not (yet) elsewhere.
5. Indeed, it is the recognition of this fact that prompts some religious leaders in some parts of the world (and in practically every tradition) to decry the corrupting influences of modernism and to proclaim the hallowedness of their own particular faith-system. This phenomenon may be observed in every theological context where the defenders of the system avoid or resist objective historical inquiry in what they regard as the supernatural sources of their religious system.
6. At the same time, much ethical chaos and the social turmoil have resulted from the weakening of the spiritual, consolatory, meaningful, and hope-giving dimensions of religion. Then too, there have arisen a great many difficult-to-manage ill-effects of technology. All these are interpreted as inevitable consequences of corrupt (Western) scientific/technological civilization. The articulators of such cultural-xenophobia are often unaware of, and seldom mention, the intellectual emancipation that has ensued from the Enlightenment.
7. Within the Western cultural matrix too, as a reaction to (i) the environmental horrors wrought by reckless technology, (ii) the intellectual arrogance reflected in the claims of some scientific investigators; and (iii) the political oppression and exploitation engendered by technological power and scientific know-how, some thoughtful commentators have been questioning the validity and hegemony of science and Enlightenment in the global arena. While the negative and not-so-commendable consequences of science and technology should not be ignored, careful consideration of pre-modern-scientific and pre-Enlightenment world views and behaviors (such as still persist in certain pockets in the world) should cool any enthusiasm for calls to a return to the good-old-days. As Ogden Nash reminded us,
The good old days, the good old days,
we all so fondly speak of:
Which, if they ever came back again,
no one can stand a week of.
8. Perhaps the most significant and valuable impact of the Enlightenment in the context of religion is that it has fostered the evolution of religion and theology. Enlightened theologians have been carefully sifting the nuggets of wisdom and meaningful spiritual underpinnings implicit in all religions from the obscurantist clouds and explanatory naivete that too are part of humanity’s religious lore. Those who succeed in incorporating the results of science and the visions of the Enlightenment make up the reformed or neo varieties of the religions, while those who are unwilling or unable to participate in this dynamic course of religious/cultural evolution constitute the staunch supporters of unbending fundamentalist orthodoxy in all religious traditions.
9. Whether religions are based on transcendental truths, on revealed visions, on human psychology, on genetic coding, or whatever, its seems to be a fact of observation that religious experience of one kind or another is helpful, if not necessary, for the sanity of individuals and of societies. Given this, we have at least two options: either we may be traditionally religious (i.e. perform the prescribed rites and rituals, partake in the glorious music, accept the doctrinal dimensions with reverence, pray to the prescribed God, etc.) in certain contexts, and be secular and scientific in others. [This is the mode among many neo-Hindus.] Or, scientifically informed religious leaders/theologians may intelligently interpret, modify and reformulate the doctrinal bases of the religion to lead and guide their flock in enlightened ways. [This is more common in certain sectors of the Judeo-Christian tradition.]
10. In any context, we may hope and wish that humanity continue in its path of enlightenment without losing the precious and indispensable elements in its traditional religions.