Science & Religion: Before and Now

Science & Religion: Before and Now

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Both science and religion spring from the same inner urge to understand and unravel the mystery of the existence of a world with all its splendor, and of a mind that reflects, a heart that feels, and a spirit that experiences it all. Science and religion once went hand in hand: The same people who spoke of God spoke about the Universe. Statements about the divine and about the world came from the same source: the Vedas, the Bible, the Holy Qur’an, and such. Extolling the Divine and explaining the world were both in the scriptures and in the saying of sages.

With the rise of modern science, science began to elaborate worldviews which were at odds with long-held notions as to the nature and functioning of the physical world. Even more seriously, some of the findings of the modern scientific quest diverged from assertions in religious texts.  It was as if twins who had long lived and played together in the same arena were now drifting away because one of them had discovered a different ground to sport on. Or, perhaps it was like a married couple who discovered that they were too incompatible to stay together any longer, thus wrecking the harmony that had subsisted between them for long.

No matter how persuasive the fruits and format of science are, it is not very successful in responding to some of the deeper needs of the human condition, certainly not as effectively as traditional religions do. Moreover, the framework of religion is etched in the hearts and minds of most people. So, many capable and creative scientists were/are anchored to a faith, even if this sometimes means accepting logically inconsistent positions. As a result, though religion was often on the retreat on matters of explanation in the face of the growing power and prestige of science, it has continued to be very much part of civilized societies. Its hold on the human heart is quite strong, deriving from centuries of cultural conditioning or arising perhaps from some factor intrinsically human.

By the second half of the 20th century, a new movement emerged to initiate meaningful dialogues between science and religion. This initiative has blossomed into a scholarly discipline where investigators and commentators have been bringing insights on a variety of issues where science and religion might overlap. Many scientists are sympathetic to this, but a good many others are finding this renewed coziness unwarranted and unacceptable.

Some are motivated by a deep conviction that when explored with understanding, religious visions will prove to be not as naively unscientific as may seem to some at first blush. Others feel that society and civilization will suffer in the long run, if religion of whatever kind is eliminated altogether. Yet others hold that religion and science fall under very different categories. The old idea that the two must be treated on quite different planes was revived and expanded as the Non-Overlapping Magisteria, or NOMA perspective by the late Stephen Gould. Others go a step beyond and say that one of them (religion) is no magisterium (“domain of authority in teaching”) at all, and deserves to be relegated to the archives of ancient habits and mind-sets. Yet others argue that scientific knowledge itself is a grand façade: superficially attractive, but hollow within. Given the growing negative impacts of science-based technology, condemnation of science has become a popular theme; but this has potential for grave danger.

In the essays to follow, I will reflect on science and religion as two lofty expressions of the human spirit: religions are experientially meaningful commitments; science is a transcultural intellectually elevating enterprise.

I will try to bring out key elements in science and religion so as to emphasize what binds as human beings rather than to remind us of what divides.