The Dialogue Between Science and Religion
During the European Black Plague epidemic of the Fourteenth Century, Pope Clement VI was sequestered in his house by his physicians. The outside world was not safe. Devils were about, invisible, winged agents of Satan, killing innocents and sinners alike. He survived after giant bonfires were lit around his house. The fires repelled the fleas, which were the transmission vectors of the bacteria. We have no idea if the priests knew or guessed that this would work. In an age of constant, unexplained death, a great number of cures had been tried, from washing oneself with urine to eating spoonfuls of crushed emeralds. The fires might have been just another attempt at prevention, born of desperation. Were they simply exhausted from praying and seeing no beneficial influence manifest itself? In any case, it worked. It is a perfect example of when to stop praying and pick up a microscope. (This is a joke; the microscope wouldn’t be invented for another two hundred and forty years.)
Conversely, science is nowadays encroaching into territory long held exclusively by religion. Studies into consciousness and death read like futuristic grimoires. Science and religion are converging, and if you de-invest yourself from any particular perspective, and step back a bit, you can see their conjunction.
–what is science?
Science is defined as “The study of the structure and behavior of the natural world through observation and experiment.” Its principle tool is the scientific method. Scientists employ a variety of instruments, such as microscopes, telescopes, and mass spectrometers.
–what is religion?
This is the definition given for religion: “The belief in and worship of a superhuman controlling power, especially a personal God or gods.” Its principle tool is prayer. The instruments of a priest include ritual, meditation, and invocation.
Can these definitions be exchanged?
At first blush they appear to be quite different, but we will see that they share much common ground. They both try to define the world, and explain the forces that cause things to happen. Where one sees only neutral physics, the other puts a personality, a prime mover. But both have answers to the question: “Daddy, why is the sky blue?”
–what is the value of science?
Knowledge. An understanding of the practical laws that govern nature, and a universal communication platform by which research may be shared and improved upon by anyone.
–what is the value of religion?
Solace. To believe that your emotional pleas do not go unheard by a cold dispassionate universe. To believe that when you die, you will be met by a benevolent and loving god.
–can these values be exchanged?
–yes, to a certain degree. The gods have always been a way for humans to view the world from a higher perspective, using not the honed instrument of reason, but the imperfect instrument of imagination. Before orbiting telescopes, before dark matter collectors and seismographs, there were the gods, our way to see the world from up high, or view a particular phenomenon more closely. Mythology is analyzation of nature. To see from up above the clouds (Zeus,) or deep beneath the sea (Poseidon,) or to explain how the sun appears to move across the sky (Helios.) Nowadays, we would use satellites, or submarines, or calculus. There is wind, so there must be a god of the wind, so we have defined a causality for the wind. But to say: "There is an entity that controls the wind" is to look no further for its nature. Since the advent of human supremacy on this planet, we have transferred our power into mythology. Scared of lightning? Forces beyond your control moving the world around you? Well, fear not. There is a man-or-woman-figure up there, hurling those bolts down upon those who have wronged the gods, or broken some societal law. It's a way of alleviating our fear. Would we feel as comforted by a great octopus beast changing springtime to summer? No. It must be an anthropomorphized entity, to give us something to latch onto.
So, here we see that science and religion do have a relationship, in that both seek to explain life, nature, and the cosmos.
Tensions arise, however, when religion makes physical claims about the world without any evidence to back them up. Scientists hate that. They are happy to be proved wrong. The scientific method (a precise, meticulous system of obtaining information about the natural world) seems designed to be a direct attack on faith. The two systems completely counteract each other.
Furthermore, some religious morals are in opposition to biological conditions, like homosexuality, which science may one day show is genetic. Those same morals have placed restrictions on controversial, yet highly beneficial, fields of scientific research, namely stem cells, which even in limited usage have proven to work wonders for human health.
Of course there are the darker days, when zealots denied the discoveries of great thinkers, and attacked them, though later they were all exonerated, pardoned, apologized to posthumously, and proven right.
There are harmonies of the two, however. For those who subscribe completely to each, each is a fulfilling system, satisfying their curiosity, or at least giving them a reliable tool with which to find the answers to their questions. In recent years, religion has even incorporated science into its studies, with facilities like the Vatican Observatory, and the cutting edge of science is sounding more like mysticism and magic.
Science challenges religion to legitimize itself within established principles. We can dig up cities from the bible but we can’t prove God was there. Religion challenges science to take great leaps in what it is looking for. Religion has set some goals for science, namely, where does consciousness come from? If it is not measurable within the physical brain, then what is its source? This is a real question at the forefront of research among some neuroscientists. It is hard to say that everything we are is contained within our bodies when that thing without which we would be considered animals is a mystery to us.
How can science and religion work together and strengthen one another?
A good place start to start in answering this question is looking at where they both answer the same questions, or attempt to. That shows their areas of specialty, where the most work has been done on the subject. So, let us examine some of these questions, to see how they are explained by the respective fields, and where they coincide and overlap.
What is the universe made of?
Science tells us that everything is a configuration of protons, neutrons, and electrons. Most of the physical world is made up of baryonic matter. There are extreme regions of unknown mass and energy, influencing the physical world, but we cannot directly detect these forces. We barely have a name for them: dark matter and dark energy.
Protons, neutrons, and electrons are subatomic particles. It is a combination of these that make up an atom. Atoms make up the world around you. Scientists can “create” subatomic particles under laboratory conditions, by shattering particles in supercolliders. Beneath the subatomic level is a layer of physics we are just now beginning to understand.
The Bible has difficulty exactly processing the question, but a prominent Christian answers website tries, filtering it through the topic: “Are we made of stardust?” This starts out promising, but ends up disappointing. The story of the Big Bang and its consummate hydrogen residue forming into stars which then explode and scatter their elements all over space, grouping back together over billions of years into stone and metal and skin cells, is repudiated with a disclaimer, provided by scripture. Genesis 1:16 states that the lights of heaven were made and set in the firmament to give light to the earth, which was already there. Scripture has the earth pre-dating the stars.
Hinduism again gives water existence before light (Rigveda 10:129.1-7) but no atmosphere or sky…this is ambiguous as it does not clearly define “liquid,” placing it in a void where darkness is swathed in darkness and god alone breathes by his own energy.
Judaism follows the cosmology of Genesis, as in the book of Bereishit, water existing first, being as we see later a part of the earth, then the famous “Let there be Light.”
The six days of creation from the Koran can be found discussed by serious Islamic scholars in ways ranging from trying to justify this timetable using relativity; to seeing an “Anthropomorphic Principle” in the attunement of the laws of physics in this universe, acknowledging the multiverse concept and using terms such as Divine Action at Quantum Level to explain God’s benevolent influence.
The Buddha’s comments on the origins of the cosmos are deflectory; he focused on the eternal destruction and re-creation of all worlds. This fits in with the Big Crunch theory of cosmology, wherein the universe expands, is destroyed in a trans-temporal moment of titanic metamorphosis, and is born again in another Big Bang. Six hundred years before Christianity, Buddhism understood that the heavens are not fixed, and a philosophy of that transience is a foundation of their teachings.
How did life begin?
This is the best question you can ask an evolutionary biologist, and the worst. Although some scientists still speculate over whether or not our planet generated the seed of our biology, the vast consensus is that life started as a delicate dance of chemicals which coalesced in the fertile womb of the ocean some billions of years ago, evolving through multitudinous shapes until it reached the form we bear today.
Genesis (Gen 9-12) says that immediately after creating the sea, God caused vegetation to be produced upon the land. From natural history we know that the ocean was a thriving biota for one hundred millions years before any plants came around. Perhaps the argument is that, to God, those eons seemed like a moment.
The Rigveda shares the “world-egg” creation myth with other cultures, as it mentions the source of the universe as a “golden embryo.” The god Brahma is also credited with creating the universe and propagating all life in it.
Allah said He created life from water and raised a protective canopy over the earth. That is comparable to abiogenesis and atmospheric formation.
What is consciousness?
The easy answer is, we don’t know. Consciousness is that vast gulf between cognition and intelligence. It’s what we use to distinguish ourselves from lesser creatures. One theory is that consciousness is generated by a great multitude of synapses connecting simultaneously. This would seem to mean that the complexity of the brain is a major factor. But simulations of brain models do not spontaneously generate mind. It is clearly present, but not measurable with our current abilities. It’s that elusive thing which you cannot prove but you know exists. It is where our sense of self comes from. Consciousness research is the cutting edge of neuroscience. It is a field that has passed from being a fringe concept to a place of prominence and serious work.
Christianity talks about spirit-consciousness, saying that the spirit is your inner self. Your soul is the source of mind, will, and emotions. Equally nebulous, the soul shares with the reality of consciousness an elusive definition. Undetectable, but undeniable. This is where science and religion touch, and a good place to admit that they are probably talking about the same thing.
Hindu psychology recognizes three states of mind: The subconscious, the conscious, and the superconscious. This is very much in line with our present understanding.
Islam again goes deep, scholars using the concept of the biopsychosocial being as apart from the spiritual being, and regarding thought as part of quantum and mass energy.
Is there life after death?
This is overwhelmingly the wheelhouse of religion. Ask any priest about the afterlife, and he will extol upon the subject with the alacrity of a Tolkien scholar illustrating the finer points of Middle-Earth geopolitics. It is a fully realized world, this heaven and hell, every detail vivid and sacrosanct. In this area religion has done vastly more work than science, but is it valid? Let’s take the obvious example, the ancient Egyptians, who built their entire society upon the afterlife, a society that survived stolidly intact for three thousand years. In that time, what research was conducted? What could have possibly been done, given the tools of the time? We are given the results of their divinations, not the mechanism of divination itself. They haven’t shown their work, to use an expression from math class. Of course we are not privy to the secrets of the ancients. But the meditations of priests will never be accepted as scientific evidence. So, where religion surpasses in literature, it lacks in legitimacy.
A recent study showed that during an average “peaceful” death scenario, the mind goes through a period of decline, then emits a burst of neural activity consistent with an aware, even metacognitive state, then brain death. That’s as far as science goes, because it’s as far as we can measure.
Some fields of potentially promising scientific research have been ignored for a long time because of the stigma associating them with religion, in the same way that some archaeological endeavors have been deemed laughable because they set out to prove bible stories true. Try writing a grant proposal with the words “life after death” on the front page, and watch the money fly right past you on its way to something more practical (and profitable.)
What is the meaning of life?
Science doesn’t really do meaning. It will explain the how but not the why. This is for the simple purpose that there is no evidence of a why. We can show why an animal developed a particular trait, to adapt to a certain feature of its environment. But we see no supernatural power directing events. It makes for a lonely, but fascinating, universe. If this life is all we have, then the implied message seems to be, don’t forfeit this world for the one after. The assurity that there is no continuance to existence seems to be an inference that we should make our time in this world as meaningful as possible.
Christianity believes that the purpose of life is to attain salvation by the grace of God and intercession of Christ. Being forgiven of your sins leads you to a relationship with the Lord.
Judaism aims to elevate this world, preparing it for the higher world to come. This metaphysical structure is largely dependant upon a messiah figure. You get closer to the God of Israel by studying and obeying the Torah.
Islam loves to worship Allah by recognition of His signs and wonders in the world. You can do this every day of your life by practicing the teachings of the Holy Qur'an.
Buddhists accept life’s ever-present suffering and pleasure. This acceptance leads to a certain peace. Detaching one’s self from material and non-material things, so as to mitigate that suffering, is a goal of practical Buddhism.
Some people believe nothing this complex can exist without meaning. The appreciation of beauty creates its own romantic relationship with the universe. Was Shakespeare merely a biological construct? How can thoughts so insightful as his, so instructive of human nature have derived from nothing more than blood and organs. How is the music of Beethoven exaltation of the soul, if there is no such thing as the soul? Those who look for something greater behind these inspirations are comparable to those who say the pyramids must have been built by aliens. They can’t give the credit to the people of Earth. Maybe humans are the only superhuman force that has ever existed. The ever-expanding horizon of human potential is the greatest wonder of the world.
Are we alone in the universe?
Some religions acknowledge aliens, others don’t. Prevalent among most is the presence of angels, or at least higher beings, comparable to aliens, especially though the lens of Bronze Age mythology. Christianity for example is full of angels and devils, completely separate beings from humans. Science tells us that we do not know of any aliens, for sure, but the probability is that there are a great number of other intelligent life forms out there.
It seems that the major obstacle between science and religion is the fact that all of the major religions in the world began over a thousand years ago, when science as we know it today didn’t even exist. They do not incorporate modern principles of physics into their teachings, so they are at constant odds with progress, and it is very easy to ridicule them as being naive and ignorant. If a new religion sprang up, would that even be an issue?
The O.T.O. (Ordo Templi Orientis) is a religion founded in the early 20th century by man who traveled the world, studying with numerous enlightened figures. Their motto has always been “Our method is Science, our aim is Religion.” If you attempt to join them today, they strongly recommend that any aspirant be educated in basic psychology, chemistry, and physics, so that they may properly process and interpret any religious experiences they might have.
Einstein famously said: "I want to know what god is thinking." But what does this mean, practically? To know the mind of god is to understand all connections, to see meaning in trivial events, to feel part of a whole. Is an understanding of the laws of physics knowledge of the mind of god? The work Einstein was doing would illuminate the details of the cosmos, to describe the invisible attractive force of gravity with an equation, to give personality to the rumbles of the earth. Religion attempts this to a certain degree, to find a cause behind the effect. And, if that effect is somehow beneficial or harmful to you directly (a drought, for instance,) to have some kind of influence over that effect. Science seeks the same, with new tools. With patience, and the process of elimination. Priests would divine the will of the spirits who held sway over all creation. Now scientists do the same, but they don't covet that knowledge as a powerful secret. They publish.
Are scientists the new priests? A man goes to a priest, three thousand years ago, and says: "My first two children were stillborn. My wife and I need a healthy child to help with the farm." The priest will tell the man of a prescribed mechanism for resolution of this problem. Sacrifice an animal, on a certain day, at a certain time. Bury a part of the animal under your bed. Have your wife eat this other part of its body. Copulate under a crescent moon. Some of these things may not have any relation to physicality; others might. The same man visiting a fertility specialist will go home with another prescribed mechanism. Take these pills. Have your wife eat these foods. Both are an answer given the knowledge of the times. We need that figure, in our society, that wise problem solver, to appeal to when nature has confounded us.
Science can prove god is real. or, alternately, disprove that. Science should be the greatest tool of religion. It could have been embraced from the very beginning as an instrument to measure the effect of god's will in the world. But the cosmology of the most powerful western religion at the time did not coincide with what was seen through a telescope. So these revelations were shunned, their prophets persecuted. If the cosmology had lined up, would they have incorporated it? Think of five hundred years of church-backed science, all the resources of the Vatican pouring into space exploration. Religious control of a field that is so considered to be the proprietary aegis of science, is, to some, a disconcerting prospect for the modern world. But at least the technology would be there. Instead, the church embarked upon a fumbling, cruel relationship with science, suppressing certain teachings for centuries, then finally acknowledging them. They say that if the library of Alexandria hadn't burned, we'd have cured cancer and be living on Mars by now. Well, if the wealth of western religion during the Renaissance had been put towards scientific advancement, imagine what the world would look like nowadays.
Can science and religion live in harmony?
The immediately forthcoming answer is yes, they can, so long as they each stay within their respective boundaries. If religion governs only the perpetually unknowable, and science is the realm of the meticulously well known, then they occupy their own distinct place. But this is an unlikely eventuality. Science has a way of crossing over boundaries, of exploring and defining previously incomprehensible things. It is the unstoppable force meeting the immovable object. Science says: “I will work until I understand this” and religion says “You will never understand this.” Something has got to give, and unless our civilization is destroyed, and rebuilt by people who love superstition and fear truth, religion’s defense mechanism of denial will fall by the wayside as just another failed countermeasure against progress. Religion needs to use science to establish some legitimacy in the world. Just one scientifically proven aspect of spirituality could lend credibility to all its other claims. Then the words miracle and revelation might take on fresh, modern meanings.
The complete picture of the world encompasses both science and religion, the physical and the spiritual. Let us find a common ground, and perhaps we shall find there the advent of a new philosophy.