Faith in Science and in Religion

Faith in Science and in Religion

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Not recognizing the difference between intelligibility faith and religious faith leads to statements like: “Whereas religions normally make a clear statement on their articles of faith, science introduces its assumptions more surreptitiously.” Contrary to what is implied here, science does not try to sneak into anybody’s territory surreptitiously. It just marches on, with its triumphs and errors, letting the rest of the world benefit from and be enriched by its fruits, or discard it as per one’s taste and talent, inviting all, but compelling no one to accept its findings.

It is sometimes said that one cannot or should not compartmentalize religion and science. Thus, physicist-priest John Polkinghorne stated: “… I want to hold together my scientific and my religious insights and experiences. I want to hold them together, as far as I am able, without dishonesty and without compartmentalism.. I don’t want to be a priest on Sunday and a physicist on Monday. I want to be both on both days.” The practicability of this project depends on what one means by holding together. To most people, it would be difficult to bring one’s faculty for s-doubt in the presence of a sacred altar during the performance of a ritual, and equally hard to bring in one’s r-faith while doing a scientific experiment or elaborating a scientific theory. As long as it is recognized that skeptical doubt and religious faith are reserved for different categories of experience, it is certainly possible to ignore or keep aside one mental state while being engaged in another. In other words, what is important is to take into account the contexts appropriately. To be religious and scientific is certainly possible, for it does not mean that one has to bring into action both skeptical doubt and religious faith simultaneously in all contexts. The same person may be able to do a complex calculation and paint a beautiful scenery, but not at the same time. It is not like watching a movie and eating popcorn.

This recognition resolves what may seem like a paradox to some: namely, that profound and creative scientific minds can also be religious. Johannes Kepler and Isaac Newton were mystically religious, Galileo Galilei and Augustin Cauchy were deeply Catholic, James Clerk Maxwell and Michael Faraday were personally religious, Srinivasa Ramanujan and Chandrasekhara Raman were traditionally religious, to name only a few. There are many other instances of great scientists acknowledging the existence of a supreme principle undergirding the world. Weinberg explains this by saying that “religious skepticism is not a prejudice that governed science from the beginning, but a lesson that has been learned through centuries of experience in the study of nature [73]. But the idea that scientists have finally awakened to the truth as against the clouded visions of their ancestors does not explain why Max Planck and Albert Einstein, Werner Heisenberg and John Polkinghorne still were (are) religious.

The paradox is cleared up if we distinguish between different types of faith discussed above. Intelligibility faith is indispensable for the practice of science, and religious faith is quite unnecessary for science. At the same time, religious faith is also quite neutral in its impact in the context of scientific research. The oft-quoted faith of scientists is quite different from religious faith when they are doing science. For many, but certainly not for all scientific thinkers, the existence of a superior intelligence instigating and guiding the phenomenal world suggests itself as a persuasive possibility, or even as a deep-felt conviction. They are led to this belief on the basis of their global vision of a universe governed by precise and inexorable laws. But this is very different from religious faith in a God or His messenger(s) with specific historical attributes and regional significance such as traditional religions proclaim.

Unlike scientists of past centuries, most modern scientists, when they speak as scientists about God, refer to a deity in generic terms, rather than with a name that is particular to a religion. It is important to distinguish this trans-religious, non-anthropomorphic, mathematically sophisticated entity from the r-faith of traditional religions.

One must also distinguish between science as an enterprise and religion as an experience, and recognize that skeptical faith goads us to further research, whereas r-faith can give us inner peace. Every scientist who works hard on a theory has full q-faith in its correctness though it is as yet only partially established, but this is very different from a committed Christian’s r-faith in Christ as the Savior or a devout Hindu’s religious faith in Vishnu or in the law of karma. Skeptical faith often comes from suspicion or deep reflection. In religion, as John Calvin pointed out, “faith is the principal work of the Holy Spirit,” or its equivalent.