Science Vs Religion: What Conflict?
Dr I J Singh
For a conflict that has no legs in my opinion, the perceived animosity between science and religion has unnecessarily occupied the best minds over many centuries.
I know that even today many discerning minds are busy ferreting out even the smallest conflict between what science tells us and what theology and traditional religion ask us to believe.
An obvious temptation is to parse religious writing and hold it to scientific test. Are the words and the models of reality they posit logical and reasonable? Are they verifiable? Are the logic and the theories internally consistent? Is it possible to reconcile the different models postulated by the various prophets of different religions?
Admittedly, there are many scientific theories and constructs that are impossible to observe or measure given the present state of our technology, but we can infer their existence and their truth by their properties and by experiments that can be replicated.
Are their similar mechanisms that demonstrate God, heaven, hell and many other postulates of the many religions of mankind? Do we even have a uniformly accepted, logically consistent definition of these terms, such as God, that are the fundamentals of organized religion? And if we can’t, how can we possibly maneuver our way through a debate with conflicting and exclusive premises?
Some, of course, doubt the bases of science because, to them, scientific conceptions are no more than hypotheses to be proven, discarded or amplified with additional evidence. To them truths are only to be found in their religious scriptural revelations.
I would suggest that since religious truths also appear to be at loggerheads with each other hence they, too, should be labeled as only tentatively held. (This is not to argue that there is not also a set of largely shared and universal values and practices that underlie the major religions of mankind.)
What many scholars do – and will continue to do – is to reinterpret the metaphoric language of their own favorite religion along lines that offer the least visible conflict with our current understanding of science, and thus offer a justification of one’s own brand of religious belief. And what cannot be easily reconciled is then conveniently rationalized as magic and mystery that underlie all religious truths. I confess that I, too, have done exactly this in the past1, 2.
Many scholars will do so perhaps in this compendium as well, and cite selective or incomplete citations from their favorite scripture to rationalize their own specific and limited view of reality. To me, that is merely proof of the adage that our choices in life are usually visceral and then we bring to bear what sense and intellect God has given us to justify the choices that we have made.
I do not intend to load this presentation with citations and references, not because few are available, but because I mean to frame the issue as I see it, not to bury it under the weight of a plethora of scholarly opinions.
I am gratified that there is minimal if any inconsistency between the steady march of science and the very clear logical worldview of Sikh teaching. But exploring that is not my purpose today. I leave that to others who have made such a case most persuasively and continue to do so.3, 4
For a carefully detailed construction of the rational vision of Sikh scriptural writing and its consistency with the march of science, I refer readers to Virk4 and Rawel Singh5, along with many other contributors to this volume.
Many good scholars will go a step further and label Sikhism a “scientific” religion.3 I wonder how suitable such an appellation is. Science demands that its theories be internally consistent, verifiable and replicable. And scientific theories are never dogmatically held, only tentatively embraced; they are modified, even jettisoned, if newer experimental data so warrant. Largely and ideally, they are testable, some matters, like evolution, might not be replicable; but they remain demonstrable.
Religious truths need to be internally consistent, logical, and not at conflict with reality as it continues to be unfolded to us by time and technology. But they are not testable, nor are they meant to be incomplete – to be modified or abandoned as nature unfolds its reality before us.
Then where starts the genesis of this so called conflict between science and religion?
It is indeed true that life was indeed much more mysterious eons ago when it started. Little of even the simplest things were understood, so much remained mysterious. And God to us then was – where he remains even today – where all mystery resided and originated.
This so called “conflict” between science and religion continues to arouse passions even today in the 21st century, even though by this time we would expect considerable enlightenment.
Clearly science and religion derive their worldview from very different perspectives and methodologies. Because of this major difference a conflict seemed natural and inevitable particularly in the nineteenth century6, 7. At least theoretically, historians and scientists now reject such a conflict and define an interconnection between the two. Starting with his early publication8 Ian Barbour has enunciated this thesis on the nexus between science and religion most persuasively. The Pew Foundation9 has compiled a compelling evidence of popular contemporary American cultural attitudes to science, religion and the perceived conflict between the two.
In the popular mind, however, the conflict still continues to survive and thrive. The experience of Galileo in sixteenth century Rome and the 1925 Scopes Monkey Trial in America10 are potent reminders of how convoluted and slow progress is.
What then to believe? Science that changes by the day or religion that speaks of universal and eternal truths. The gulf is wide, and the debate seems endless and eternal.
Not so long ago, the New York Times highlighted a public school teacher in Florida. He is now required to teach the findings of evolutionary theory. Why? Because little over a year ago, in February 2008, the Florida Department of Education adopted a requirement that evolution be taught, because it is, as the department stated “the organizing principle of life science.” His dilemma: how to present the ideas of evolution without undermining the religious faith of his own and his students.
What he is trying to do is not just to address a lack in information that a few hours of lectures and labs might fill but to bridge an ideological divide. Establishing meaningful communication across such an abyss is never easy, whether it exists in politics, religions or matters of the heart.
I believe that our present troubles begin with too literal – I would label it too unimaginative – a rendering of the Old Testament and its chapter on Genesis, along with the role of an unfathomable God in our existence.
Our understanding of the nature of God lies at the root of our problem. Keep in mind that humanity worldwide has created an anthropomorphic God, very much in the human image, with a fixed address somewhere out there in outer space. We need to look for God in our inner space, not in outer space.
I think to reason thus is to create a trap for ourselves. Why? Because science and religion are not inimical to each other; they are complimentary. If they compliment each other (complete each other) then it follows that, like two sides of a coin, they deal with different set of realities, different questions and very different objective.
Science seeks to discern, discover and categorize order in nature or what we call creation. So scientific laws, in fact, deal with statements of probability. A particular hypothesis is likely to be true (not rejected!) based on the available evidence. The door is never shut on new evidence. Many things that we know today were unknown yesterday. For example, such a basic fact as the number of chromosomes was a matter of some dispute less than 70 years ago. Details of cell structure were unknown, as was the role of DNA.
However, and it is critical that we understand this simple truth, how we put to use the discoveries of science and technology is a question that is independent of the discovery itself.
There is no morality inherent in technology. The morality comes from how we define the ethics to justify its usage. To search for morality in technology is to place a burden on it that it is not equipped to handle. It would be a misuse of technology. This is not the purpose and the objective of science.
Religion, on the other hand, is misused when we try to explain or justify scientific theories and hypotheses based on religious constructs. Religion speaks to our sense of self and how it is constructed. From this flows a body of knowledge that we call ethics; thus societies and nations are constructed.
To read and unearth scientific factoids from the Bible (Genesis), or Guru Granth, or any other scripture is a disservice to it and a misuse of religion.
To take Sikh teaching as an example, I personally find it an absolutely mindless exercise when we explore as literal truths when Guru Granth speaks of 8.4 million species. It would not bother me one bit, nor would it diminish Guru Nanak an iota, if someday science tells us that the exact number is more or less than that. Similarly, the Founder-Gurus would not be enhanced one whit if the number turns out to be exactly true.
It seems to me that the writings of gurbani use the language of allegory and metaphors and have to be interpreted in the context of time and culture. In the common vernacular of the time (norma loquendi) this expression merely speaks of a large almost incomprehensible number – much as we might say “a gazillion” in the colloquial idiom of today.
I apply similar interpretations of language, context and culture to explore concepts of satjug, duapar, tretaa and kaljug11 that come to us from ancient Indian philosophic traditions and are heavily incorporated into the Indic religions. Hinduism, for instance, uses these terms very much literally in creating a construct of time and its steady march forward from creation. Sikhism, on the other hand, uses these terms as powerful metaphors for the state of our mind12.
The ideas of Creation, Creationism and Evolution, for instance, saddle us with similar issues of interpretation. Sometimes scholars interpret the lines from Guru Granth (“Keeta pasaao eko kuvaau; tis tay hoay lakh dariaao”) to mean that the universe was created with a single command of God and from it evolved millions of streams13. This, they contend, stands in stark contradiction of Darwin and his model of evolution (5).
When taken in context, these lines speak to me of the richness and creativity of nature, not of a God micromanaging his creation and our existence.
Our problem in the interpretation of such divine poetry arises when we take a further step into the unknown and ‘invent’ or adopt the simplistic idea of God that may have been Judeo-Christian , but certainly now dominates the practice of most believers of most religions. This is the idea of an anthropomorphic Creator, micromanaging creation, somewhat akin to a potter or a sculptor in his workshop, spending his day fashioning ashtrays and cups. Such a God is not what Sikhism talks about.
Stephen Jay Gould14 and Frances Collins, eminent scientists both that I cite in the essay (2), take the middle ground. We have seen the electrifying debates between two very fine scientists, the atheist Richard Dawkins, who is a biologist and Francis Collins, the genome pioneer who believes in God, that have dominated the conversation in this area over the last decade15. The main thrust of evolution is its mechanism - Natural Selection - and that remains a matter of continuing scientific exploration.
Ultimately, our problem lies in mixing of religion and science. The two remain complementary but different from each other. Science speaks of the rules of nature - of Chemistry, Biology, Physics and Mathematics. The technology of science tells me how to build a house or a nuclear bomb, but it does not tell me why I should build either or what use I should put it to.
For these and other questions like why I am here, who am I, and how to fashion a life, I need to probe religious values and ethics. Mapping the human genome is a scientific achievement, what use we put that information to requires ethical exploration and parsing. Using such knowledge to attack disease would be ethical; to construct human clones would not be.
Scientific findings are free of ethical implications. How we arrive at such findings and what use we put them to can and do have ethical implications. The distinction is critical to how and when both religion and science serve us. This is where religion and science intersect.
Science and religion remain two sides of the same true coin of reality. How can one side have any value without the other; how can one diminish the other?
Science can explain atomic energy and even free it for us. How we use or misuse it lies outside the domain of science but in that of religion and ethics.
Science tells us what is, religion tells us how to rejoice in it, what to make of it and how and how not to use it.
1 Singh I.J. 2001 Science & Religion: Creation, Creationism and Related Issues. Pages 11-17. In The Sikh Way: A Pilgrims Progress. The Centennial Foundation, Guelph, Canada.
2 Singh I.J. 2006 Tracking Evolution and Intelligent Design. Pages 121-126. In The World According to Sikhi. The Centennial Foundation, Guelph, Canada.
3 Chahal, Devinder Singh 2008 Nankian Philosophy: Basics for humanity 382 pages. Singh Brothers, Amritsar (India)
4 Virk, H.S. 2008 Scientific Vision in Sri Guru Granth Sahib. Pages 18-23. In Preceptor Eternal: Guru Granth Sahib (Editor: Gurmukh Singh). MGOnlineco.uk.
5 Singh, Rawel 2008 The Religion versus Science Debate: Need to update the religion of reference. Sadhsangat.com
6 Draper, John William 1874 History of the Conflict of Religion & Science. New York, Appleton.
7 White, Andrew Dixon 1896. A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology of Christendom. Online at Gutenberg text file.
8 Barbour, Ian G. 1988. A, “Ways of relating science and theology” In Physics, philosophy, and theology: a common quest for understanding (Editors: Robert Russell, William Stieger & George Coyne). Vatican City and Notre Dame Press.
9 Pewresearch.org 2009
10 Scopes Monkey Trial 1925. The New York Times, May 26.
11 Singh, I.J 2008 Mumbo Jumbo. Sikhchic.com
12 Guru Granth Sahib “Kaljug rath aggan ka koorh aggay rathvaho” Page 470; “Satjugg sub santokh sareera,” Page 445.
13 Guru Granth Sahib “Keeta pasaao eko kavao” Page 3
14 Gould, Stephen Jay 1997. Non-overlapping magisteria. Natural History, 106; 16-22
15 God vs. Science “A spirited debate between atheist biologist Richard Dawkins and Christian geneticist Francis Collins.” Time magazine, November 13, 2006