Science-Religion Interface: New Initiatives

Science-Religion Interface: New Initiatives

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In the second half of the twentieth century, science-religion dialogues became a possibility in the West, and are slowly spreading elsewhere also.  In 1953, the Institute on Religion in an Age of Science (IRAS) was established [13].  Zygon, a journal devoted to scholarly discussions on science and religion, was initiated at about the same time [14].  A number of significant works seeking harmony between science and religion have been appearing for decades now.  Thoughtful commentators from all traditions spoke of ways in which science and religion may be synthesized.  Swami Ranganathananda wrote: “The combination of Vedanta – the scientific approach to the ‘within’ of nature – and modern Science – the scientific approach to the ‘without’ of nature – constitutes the complete education for fulfillment for all humanity today [15].”  Ian Barbour’s Issues in Science and Religion [16] brought the topics together in a cogent and systematic way, and this led to academic courses dealing with the subject.  Another influential writer in the field in the English-speaking world is Arthur Peacock who argued, in his Creation and the World of Science17 that both science and religion are efforts to “depict reality” in “metaphorical language with the use of models.”  He recognizes that, as with scientific theories, the models in theology should also be regarded as provisional, and be subject to modification in the light of new situations.

Many more such books have appeared in recent years.  The Metanexus Institute, which is dedicated to an exploration of issues relating to science and religion was established in the 1990s [18], is perhaps the most international of several similar institutions.

 Notwithstanding all these efforts, there is still considerable resistance on the part of many practicing scientists and teachers of science, both at the school and at the university level, to any effort that might lead one to imagine that there are many things in common between science and religion.  The major hurdle in building bridges between science and religion lies in the fact that whereas there is only one international recognized scientific establishment, there are a great many religions with a great many sects, and not all of these speak with a single voice.

 The ancients knew it all

First (at least in the Western Christian world where modern science began), the religious establishment tried to impede the propagation of scientific worldviews which contradict religions doctrines.  Then, it began to concede that some scientific views were valid, after all.  Next, there was a phase where science and theology tried to co-exist and even complement each other, then emerged a movement which tries to show that some of the insights and results of modern science lie implicit in the sacred writings of the past.  Today, a plethora of extrapolations of science are cropping up whose goal is to re-establish worldviews of the pre-modern-science era.  Many popular books, TV specials, magazine articles, and conference papers are declaring that the ancients were not as much in the dark as Francis Bacon and company had imagined in the 17th century; that, if anything, the ancients, through intuition and revelation, pretty much summed up the essence of twentieth century physics and cosmology: from the strange physics of vacuums to the spectacular cosmology of the Big Bang.  Their authors content that, if properly interpreted, the core ideas of modern science may be unraveled from ancient aphorisms: Hebrew, Sanskrit, Arabic, or Pali, depending on the religious affiliation of the interpreter.  Invariably, it is only after modern science makes a discovery that it is re-detected in ancient works: never before.

Consider, for example Schroeder’s The Science of God [19].  The author is convinced that the six-day creation reported in the Book of Genesis can, by an ingenious mathematical transformation, and by suitably interpreting gravitational potentials and general relativity, be expanded to the 16 billion years or so of cosmic age, as suggested by current cosmology.  The author has no hesitation in declaring: “With the insights of Einstein, we have discovered in the six days of Genesis the billions of years during which the universe developed.”

A Hindu version of this thesis may be seen in a book on Vedic Physics which traces the scientific origin of Hinduism [20].  According to this author, the Purusha Suktamof the Rig Veda is actually a coded version of elementary particle physics.  His probing into the hymns has convinced him that the ancient texts are actually speaking about bosons and fermions when they mention domesticated and wild animals, and that information about quarks and the octet model is implicit in that ancient work.  The author has no hesitation in declaring: “With the insights of Einstein, we have discovered in the six days of Genesis the billions of years during which the universe developed.”  He informs the reader that “the Vedic sages had discovered the subtle nature of reality,” and goes on to explain that “Once we understand that the Rigveda is a book of particle physics and cosmology, then it becomes clear by reading the scriptures following the Vedas that this ancient science was gradually forgotten over time.”

Likewise, in a book entitled The Unifying Theory of Everything [21], Muhammed Asadi shows how the mysteries of modern physics are encoded in the Holy Koran.  Modestly describing the work that led to the writing of his book as the most important discovery of the modern era, the author claims to present the holy book of his tradition as a “falsifiable scientific theory.”  He quotes from the Koran and from famous modern physicists to establish to his satisfaction, like his counterparts in the sister religious traditions of the human family, that the Koran speaks about the Big Bang theory, symmetry breaking, the expanding universe, black holes, string theory, and the Big Crunch.  Asadi goes on to explain that the Koran “provides a detailed map of quasars and their location within a galaxy.  He sees proof of this in the following sura of the Holy Qur’an (24:25):

“Allah is the Light of the heavens and the earth.  The example of His Light is as a Niche wherein is a Lamp: the Lamp enclosed in Glass: the glass as if it were a brilliant star: Lit from a blessed Tree, (as) an olive, neither of the east nor of the west, whose fuel is luminous even though no fire touches it: Light upon Light!  Allah guides whom He will to His Light: Allah sets forth parables for humankind. Indeed Allah has knowledge of all things.”

Buddhism is another world religion whose protagonists have also seen modern physics in its ancient wisdom.  Buddhist apologist Buddhadasa P. Kirthisinghe edited a work entitled Buddhism and Science [22] in which it is declared that certain ancient Pali texts embody information on spiral nebulas, quasars, black holes, and more.  Such assertions, impressive as they may be to the scientifically uninitiated, betray a lack of understanding of what these astronomical entities are, how they have come to be recognized, and so forth.

It would be rash to conclude from all this that only the major religions knew about quantum mechanics.  William S. Lyon, writing in an internet forum [23], states that “Shamans can effect change in local reality through spirit helpers working at the quantum level.”  He explains further that the so-called ritual rules are in fact the rules of quantum mechanics.  “Once you understand these new findings of physics,” he explains like similar enthusiasts from other traditions, “what shamans do in a ceremony appears rational.”

References and Notes

[13] This organization was formed by a group of scientists and theologians who subscribed to the view that while religion provides meaningful worldviews and an ethical framework, its leaders would be much enriched by scientific knowledge.  Their hope was to engender positive relationships between science and religion.  IRAS was formally established on November 9, 1954, after the participants had met at a conference the previous summer onStar Island,NH.

[14]  Zygon: Journal of Religion and Science is a scholarly journal whose goal is “to reunite the split team” of value and knowledge, of religion and science.  This journal for science-religion dialogue began in 1966, i.e. forty years ago.  The name is derived from the Greek ζυγόν (zygon) which means a yoke.  Incidentally the Greek is cognate with the Sanskrit word yoga which also means a union.

[15] Swami Ranganathananda, Eternal Values for a Changing Society, 1958.

[16] Barbour, Ian, Englewoods Cliffs, Issues in Science and Religion, Prentice-Hall, 1966.

[17] Peacocke, Arthus, Creation and the World of Science,  OUP, 1979.

[18] What used to be known as the PhiladelphiaCenterfor Religion and Science became the Metanexus Institute under the directorship of William Grassie, its founder.  Its goal is to foster constructive engagement between science and religion.  Aside from funding Local Societies Initiatives in more than scores of countries, it also “hosts an online magazine and discussion forum with over 180,000 monthly page views and 7000 regular subscribers in 57 different countries.”

[19] Schroeder, Gerald L., The science of God: the convergence of scientific and biblical wisdom, Free Press, 1997.

[20] Roy, Raja Ram Mohan, Vedic physics: Scientific origin of Hinduism,Toronto: Golden Egg Publishing, 1999.

[21] Asadi, Muhammed A., The Unifying theory of everything (Writer’s Club Press), 2000.

[22] Kirthisinghe, P, Buddhism and Science,Delhi, MLBD, 2000.