Science and Religion: Best Friends Forever

Image Credit: ESO/L. Calçada/Nick Risinger (skysurvey.org)

Last year, when NASA’s robotic rover, Curiosity, successfully made its way to our planetary neighbor, everyone celebrated. Unsurprisingly, on the Internet, some people tweaked: “Dear Religion, While you were debating what chicken sandwiches were okay to eat, I just landed on Mars. Sincerely, Your Pal Science.”

To be fair, Science and Religion have been taking jabs at each other for some centuries now.

When Galileo Galilei turned his telescope to the heavens, and discovered several moons in orbit around Jupiter, this didn’t quite make sense for the Church orthodoxy of his day. How could the Earth not be the center of creation, around which all of its cosmic spheres revolved?

Galileo asked the clergy to look through the telescope for themselves, but they declined. They already knew everything they needed from divinely revealed scripture. Therefore, anything not in accordance with their interpretation or understanding of the Holy Bible was heresy. In the case of Galileo – for his reliance on verifiable observation to explore our natural world – he was confined to house arrest for the remainder of his life.

A contemporary of Galileo, Giordano Bruno, took the notion further. When he looked up at the evening sky and considered its myriad pinpoints of light, he imagined them as faraway suns like our own, around which must circle other worlds such as ours. This was clearly not referenced in the Bible, and thus it was ever deepening heresy. For his supposed sacrilege, the Church ordered Bruno to be burned at the stake.

As it happens, of course, both Galileo and Bruno were right. In the past few years, observational studies such as those with the Kepler telescope, have confirmed that thousands of planets are orbiting around other stars. Extrapolating from these preliminary data, our Milky Way galaxy alone (among virtually innumerable galaxies in the observable universe) could be home to billions of habitable worlds.

In the Beginning

While Religion seems to languish in the past, Science is growing up fast. Every passing decade brings greater technological innovations and advances in our understanding of this glorious, mathematical structure that is our cosmos. At first, a younger, innocent Science was happy to correlate its newfound insights with a religious worldview. The natural laws of the world were the language by which God ordered the universe. Nowadays, however, Science no longer requires the comforting assurances of its early years. It has seemingly outgrown the need for a “God hypothesis.”

As far as Science is concerned – in its cautious, rigorous pursuit of truth – one’s perception of the divine has more to do with tickling some “God spot” of the brain than with any supranatural reality. People argue that Science and Religion, at best, represent “non-overlapping magisteria,” or domains, of human thought and authority. As Science continues to illuminate our understanding of reality, pushing back the boundaries of our ignorance, the province of Religion is reduced to a “God of the gaps.” That is, the gaps in our understanding are where religious dogma must retreat, beneath the bright lamp of scientific reason.

It is a reversal of roles from the days of Galileo. Scientists are weaving together a new creation story based in observation and experiment. They have become, de facto, the high priests lifting the veils of mystery shrouding our worldview. They are the arbiters and stewards of truth, shepherding the masses toward civilization, if not salvation.

Looking back over the shoulder of time, it appears that religious (or mytho-poetic) thought was the first stirrings of human imagination, as we tried to make sense of our world and our place within it. The inspiration to align ourselves with, and submit to, a higher (albeit invisible) dominion was born of our survival instinct. It is a practical desire, wanting to keep in the good graces of whatever powerful forces are ordering the world. Moreover, religion clarifies and strengthens the bonds of unity among different groups of people and widespread communities. It fulfills our psychological and social need for identity and belonging.

And so it has come to pass. Bound to the stake of empiricism, sacrificed on the altar of reason, Religion is being devoured in the rhetorical fire of modern day “free thinkers.”

The Twin Pillars

Unless you are an astronaut, dear reader, it almost goes without saying: You are on a planet. We take this for granted now. Our gorgeous blue marble of a world, careening through the void, is in orbit around an average yellow star. Our sun, in turn, spirals around the galaxy with hundreds of billions of other suns. The galaxy, itself, dances among a local cluster of galaxies. On and on, and on, seemingly out to infinity.

In the blink of the cosmic eye, humankind has crawled out from the darkness of its cave into a dawning awareness of its place within the universe. Gifted with intellect and imagination, unlike any other life on our planet, we have fathomed the smallest particles of physical reality and journeyed to other worlds. What kind of creatures are we, really, that we should have such perspective on our existence? What are the limits of our understanding, and of our ability to create? Clearly, there is something unique and remarkable about human beings.

Some people are wary of Religion, and others are suspicious of Science. Whereas physical fundamentalists cavil with a narrow conception of Religion and its role in society, religious fundamentalists, for their part, remain blithely ignorant of the scientific process and its insights. The two camps raise high their banners of certainty, loudly trumpeting their privileged access to truth, and dismissing each other out of hand. Yet, as Albert Einstein once observed: “Science without Religion is lame… and Religion without Science is blind.”

It is time to regard history with fresh eyes. The purported rivalry between Science and Religion is a false dichotomy, and a hindrance to the maturation of our species. The claims of Science and Religion must ultimately conform to the same reality – for truth, in the final analysis, is unified. And if truth is not amenable to reason, how can we hope to understand our experience or justify our belief?

According to the Baha’i Faith, the very purpose of Religion is to safeguard humanity and to ensure the progress of civilization. From Abraham to Jesus, from Buddha to Muhammad, each revelation infuses the world with renewed life and deepened capacity. The evolution of culture, the flourishing of arts and sciences, follows in the wake of this redemptive revelation.

It was only 50 years ago, with the advent of the space program, that we first glimpsed our planet as a whole. Some 130 years ago, the prophet-founder of the Baha’i Faith, Baha’u’llah, exhorted His followers to know and to live this truth: “The earth is but one country, and mankind its citizens.”

Truth is eternal in the past, eternal in the future. As humanity continues to mature, truth unfolds according to the needs of the time and place in which we find ourselves. Truth is revealed according to our capacity to understand. No one has a monopoly on truth. It is in the clash of differing perspectives that sparks of truth emerge. Science and Religion are not combatants, but compatriots in this enterprise. As such, we need more dialogue and less diatribe.

In the Baha’i writings, there is mention, once and again, of the “twin pillars” upholding civilization. This complementarity of influences has reference in many contexts. The world of existence, itself, is described as arising from the interaction of an active force and that which is its recipient, which are the same yet different. On another level, for society to be strong and healthy, the essential equality of women and men must be firmly established. As we deepen our understanding of our place (even purpose) in the universe, there is a necessary balance at work. Like two wings of one bird, moving together in harmony, Science and Religion can soar to such great heights.

One of the foundational principles of the Baha’i Faith is the independent investigation of truth. We are called to explore, discern and verify truth for ourselves; to weigh the human condition with our minds and hearts, our reason and faith, and to judge fairly.

Suffice to say, we should not judge Science or Religion by the standards current amongst us. Look through the telescopes of science and scripture for yourself, without prejudice or assumption. See with your own eyes and hear with your own ears, rather than through the lens of your neighbors, religious leaders, academic scholars, or some inherited worldview. Engage in experiments with truth. Wherever the data may lead, wherever the truth shall be found, your search will not be in vain.

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Discussion 4 Comments

  1. The author’s pen has the ring of professionalism. Is he-she a celebrated author or journalist?
    My congratulations as an amateur writer and observer of the Faith’s ultimate progress and its temporary Crisis vis-a-vis Declarations at least since 1985 when the “Promise of World Peace” appeared. What this last mentioned document and “Science and Religion – Best Friends Forever” share is an appreciation of the fundamental principles of the Baha’i Faith as the only cure in effecting the triumph of the Cause

    With a little more research and some attention to the Lord’s warnings vis-a-vis this generation’s failure to appreciate the harmony between religion and science the essay i m o will attain a definitive status. What the author might like to expand on is the slough of materialism society now endures and will continue to endure as a consequence of shunning true religion and slavishly attaching itself to science as though scientists are the arbiters of right and wrong . Two pillars exist in the Faith vis-a-vis the advancement of society – reward and punishment

    Speaking personally, I still don’t understand after two decades as an avowed member of our beloved Faith, why so few of the friends examine the Guardian’s stern warning nine years after the cessation of hostilities in the second world war or can name ‘the chief factor in precipitating the dire ordeals and world-shaking crises which must necessarily involve the burning of cities and the spread of terror and consternation in the hearts of men. Indeed ‘a fore-taste of the devastation which this consuming fire will wreak upon the world, and with which it will lay waste the cities of the nations participating in this tragic world engulfing contest has been afforded by the last World War…’ In juxtaposition with this little known or precisely revealed ultimate terror, which humanity can mitigate but not avoid, lies an antidote worthy of much consultation for it is, said ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, ‘the greatest virtue of the age’ and in Bahá’u’lláh’s view ‘the greatest instrument for promoting harmony and civilization’ and to cite the Universal House of Justice ‘necessitates the most urgent attention.’ (PWP) I am of course referring to the principle of an auxiliary international language which by definition merits attention along with equality of rights for men and women ant the author’s last mentioned – an independent investigation of truth

    Baha’i love

    Paul

  2. Great article. I couldn’t help notice one error, perhaps? In the first paragraph you say people “tweaked” do you mean tweeted or actually tweaked out?

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