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Why there is no reason for religion and science to clash

But in the end there is a bigger inner threat to religion than scientism. It’s posed by those who discredit religion by the fundamentalism.

columns Updated: Mar 31, 2018 15:52 IST
The death of probably the world’s most famous cosmologist, Stephen Hawking, has re-opened the debate about the validity of religion. (REUTERS)

The death of probably the world’s most famous cosmologist, Stephen Hawking, has re-opened the debate about the validity of religion. To put it simply: has science disproved god? Hawking didn’t leave much room for god when he said we humans are “just an advanced breed of monkeys on a minor planet of a very average star.” But he did say we are special because we can understand the universe. Albert Einstein said: “The only incomprehensible thing about the universe is that it is comprehensible”. A Christian theologian I read recently maintained that this mystery left room for god. He quoted Pope John Paul II praising Einstein’s “eminent contribution to the progress of science.”

Scientism is the theory that the only proper way to answer questions including religious questions is to employ the methods of natural science. Belief in it is widespread and has certainly contributed to the decline of religious observation in the West. But in spite of the efforts of some ardent atheist scientist like Richard Dawkins, science has not made religion intellectually disreputable. In Hawking’s own university, the study of religion is flourishing. The Master of Hawking’s own College, Trinity Hall, is an Anglican priest and the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, is the Master of another college. Francis Collins who leads the Human Genome project is a Christian. In a lecture he gave at St Stephen’s College, Delhi, the scientist and theologian David Gosling said: “Most of the galaxy of brilliant Hindu scientists who distinguished themselves in the late 19th and early 20th centuries were struck by similarities between certain scientific ideas, which resembled ancient Hindu notions.” Many of the successors of that galaxy see no clash between Hinduism and science.

I would suggest that there would be no reason for religion and science to clash if they kept to their own domains. Going back to Einstein again he said: “Representatives of science have often made an attempt to arrive at fundamental judgements with respect to values and ends on the basis of scientific methods and in this way have set themselves in opposition to religion. These conflicts have all sprung from fatal errors.” Of course this does not mean that science does not influence religion, that, for example, it doesn’t often show that literal interpretations of certain stories in scriptures are incredible, that they are myths not history. Myths of course are not lies, as is commonly believed, but symbols of realities. But then science should stop short there because the interpretation of myth lies in the domain of religion. Ceylonese Tamil philosopher and metaphysicist Ananda Coomaraswamy put it much better than I can: “[the] real conflict between science and religion is impossible: the conflicts are always of certain scientists ignorant of spiritual philosophy with fundamentalists who maintain that the truth of their myth is historical.”

Why should we worry if scientism has led to the decline of religion in parts of the world when so many seem happy to believe that god is dead, killed by science? One reason is that scientism’s threat to religion has created a fundamentalist religious backlash throughout the world. Another reason is that the spiritual reality enshrined in religious myths is lost to so many. Many say today it doesn’t matter because I can be spiritual without being religious. They forget that the common experience of god, which lies at the heart of the mysticism of all religions, was experienced by religious mystics. Historically religion has provided individuals with a moral code to live by, a purpose to live for, and a society to live within. Those who welcome the loss of religions influence on public life might recall the history of four nations who banished god: Revolutionary France, Nazi Germany, Stalin’s Russia and Mao’s China.

But in the end there is a bigger inner threat to religion than scientism. It’s posed by those who discredit religion by the fundamentalism. I believe religion is still intellectually respectable provided it is saved from those who proclaim it loudest, just as I believe in science provided scientists don’t go beyond their domain.

The views expressed are personal

First Published: Mar 31, 2018 15:51 IST