Science versus Religion

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By Salil Saroj

Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind.”- Albert Einstein

According to common perception, science and religion are world apart. Apparently, no doubt, science deals with things concrete, whereas religion is based upon abstract ideals. Science implies fact, religion involves faith. Religion is basically a matter of instinct and science that of reason. But these are the broad characteristics of science and religion which have meeting places also- and the first meeting place is the human mind which proves facts and starts believing in them and it is the mind alone which nurtures faith and reverence and believes in some higher entity. When one talks about two apparently divergent things, one has to keep in mind the complexity of human nature. It’s very complexity demands influences from antithetical ideas and makes their co-existence necessary as well as feasible-

“The mind in its place and in itself can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven.”

-John Milton, Paradise Lost

To use terms from the world of music, one can say that in the initial stages of human civilization human knowledge was of the “mono” type i.e. undifferentiated. The sort of complexity which has crept into the human world in modern time was lacking. Religion had scientific connotation also. During the Rig-Vedic period, the worshipping of gods and goddesses and the subsequent beginning of many religious customs and practices were inextricably woven with scientific purposes. For example, the common practice of offering Jal (water) to the Sun-God during sunrise. It is a fact that the first rays of the sun are beneficial to the eyes. The practice of fasting prescribed by religion as a mark of abstinence was also derived from the fact that it cultivates patience and will power (besides being good for physical well-being). Similarly the customs of “Havan” during a puja or a yajna had its significance in the fact that it purifies the atmosphere. But gradually during the later Vedic period with the increased influence of the priests and their tendency to misuse religion for their own mercenary considerations the scientific part of these practices got suppressed by superstitions and nameless fears.

“Man makes religion; religion does not make man. Religion is indeed man’s self-consciousness and self-awareness long as he has not found himself or has lost himself again. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creatures, the heart of a heartless world, just as it is the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.” Karl Marx

“In the beginning was the word, and the word was with God, and the word was God.”- Bible.

The God revealed in Christianity is a supreme being, His word is the ultimate truth, and His power is omnipotent. His followers worship Him and praise Him and live by His commandments.”

Since time immemorial religion has been there with the human beings as an integral part of their life and life-style. Unable to understand natural phenomenon even as awed by them, the human mind ascribed everything to a supernatural entity- omniscient and omnipotent. Wonder and instinct prompted humans to worship the unknown presence. Slowly, experience and widening thought processes eroded the sense of wonder and awe. The developments in modern science are a relatively recent phenomenon. It is significant to note that in Europe the major turning point both in the fields of humanities as well as sciences came into being through the Renaissance only after the Reformation in the 13th and 14th centuries. The developments in scientific inventions and the urge of individual freedom and quest for knowledge can be considered as a sort of sharp reaction to the suffocating atmosphere created by the misuse of religion. Somehow, it is to be seen, religion and religious practices have their inherent lack of ability to meet the growing aspirations of the people, to fall behind the fast changing world. It hankers after status-quo-ism and the tendency to keep people in compartments. Jonathan Swift once stated: “We have enough religion to make us hate, but not enough religion to make us love, one another.”

But actually the fault does not lie with religion. It is human failing that religion is not often considered as a matter of personal preference, but is sought to be imposed upon all the people.

“The role of a priest comes under a cloud all the time because one can learn science from the scientist, art from the artist but not religion from the priest.” And it was very correctly put up by the great psycho-analyst Sigmund Freud.

“Religion is an illusion and it derives its strength from the fact that it falls in with our instinctual desires.”

The general notion that science and religion represents two different worlds of materialism and spiritualism and that is why they remain in conflict is, however, not wholly correct.  Had science only to do materialism and religion with spiritualism, the conflict would perhaps not have risen. The problem starts when both encroach upon each other’s field. But as the horizons of human knowledge widen, the barriers to discussion start falling down. As civilizations advanced, philosophers and scientists attempted to explain the moving heavens in rational terms. Perhaps the, major contribution to the confrontation between science and religion came into being with the publication of “De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium” by Copernicus. Copernicus, against the general belief advocated by Ptolemy that the Sun moves around the earth, stated that it is the earth, which moves around the sun. This new theory upset the standard philosophical and religious belief of the medieval era. It not only meant the collapse of the concept of universe as described in the Bible, but also meant that man no longer occupied a central place in the universe. Man had been removed from his pedestal, and his home was reduced to but one of many planets. Goethe, the German philosopher, stated that the theory of Copernicus made “a great demand” upon mankind to accept the new facts. As he said: what became of our Eden, our world of innocence, piety and poetry – the conviction of poetic-religious faith?

What sort of treatment was meted out of the followers of Copernicus system, Galileo and Bruno, by the religious authorities is well known to us.

Besides everything, the single-most important influence on Christian society and its religious beliefs has been that of Darwin and his origin of species. Giving a crushing blow to the Christian concept of man is the child of god; Darwin stated that man has actually evolved from the stages of apes to human beings. His theory brought religious belief and scientific temper into a direct conflict as never before Darwin’s famous theory of; “natural selection” as a reasonable explanation for the method of evolution put, as A.N. Whitehead in his celebrated book “ Science and the modern world” said,” religion on the defensive , and on a weak defensive.” Darwin’s work enabled us to see the position of the man and our present civilization in a true light. Man is not a finished product incapable of further progress. He has a long history behind him and it is not a history of a “fall” but of an ascent. The progress in science had its direct corollary in the dismantling of many baseless religious beliefs and superstitions. And so said swami Vivekananda: “Vedanta only preaches the principle and the method it leaves to you. Take your path; follow any prophet you like; but have only that method which suits your own nature, so that you will be sure to progress.”

Martin Luther King said: “Our scientific power has outrun our spiritual owner. We have guided missiles, and misguide men.”

Science has certainly influenced society by altering the religious thinking and attitude of the people. But science has its own limitations. It has broadened the human reach, it has made possible the things undreamt of, but somewhere along the line it has created a psychological void. Scientific inventions have created for everyman a little world for him. The communication gap is the “us” thing. Surrounded by electronic gadgets, moving in the throbbing car, man leads a prosaic life. And he feels the void. Can ignorance be the only reason for the use of many religious and spiritual “gurus”- fake or genuine? If that had been the case, one would not have found rich and poor, educated, half-educated and uneducated alike making a belief for the ashrams, giving donations and alms, going for pilgrimages etc. for many, it may be a matter of faith, for many a way of relinquishing their burden of sins even though remaining stepped in them-and for many just a matter of ritual because their fathers and grandfathers have been doing so for the reasons It reflects a sorry state of affairs that religion has come to be generally identified with only these manifestations of one’s religiosity- and science has to share the blame. It has to share the blame because though it has influenced human life tremendously, it has also, what Wordsworth said about the Industrial revolution “blunted the discriminating powers of the mind.” The discoveries of science and their application have created an atmosphere in which the baser elements of man’s nature has come to fore quite prominently. The growing materialism and consumerism have created two distinct classes of haves and have-nots, fostering social and class tension. And what is more alarming; the situation resembles what W.B. Yeats describes in the second Coming:

“The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.”

In the Indian context the spread of communalism is a case in point. Modern man has tried to develop science as his religion and finds that inadequate. Science has yet to find the solution to the question of “First cause”. Every question which evades solution in the material world comes under the purview of the spiritual. Scientific attitude can at best improve the lot of mankind but to preserve it one needs a religious attitude-al religion relates to life, and life of religion is to do good(Emanuel Sweden bury).

An attitude which has its basic tenets tolerance, universal love and brotherhood, the spirit of accommodations and respect for mankind as a whole. To say this is not to say that scientific temperament has nothing to do with the advancement of mankind because in science, all facts, no matter how trivial or banal, enjoy democratic equality as spelled by Mary McCarthy. If one develops scientific temper which has its basic tenets objectivity, impersonality, analysis and reason, many drawbacks can be overcome. So, the need of the hour is the cultivation of a sense of proportion between scientific temperament and a religious temperament. All human endeavours is directed towards achieving perfection, towards reaching, what Plato said, the “idea”. In that respect, whatever human beings do in various fields cannot be supposed to be totally contradictory and incompatible. The quest of truth is the concern of both science and religion. Science takes the path of analysis, facts, experiments and science becomes dangerous only when it imagines that it has reached its goal. (As said by George Bernard Shaw- the Doctor’s Dilemma); religion proceeds through enquiry and personal experience and rests ultimately on faith. Whether the matter is physical or metaphysical, whether the method is analytical or enquiring their aim is and should be towards battering life as a whole.

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