The Confluence of Religion and Science

The Confluence of Religion and Science

by Hasan Zillur Rahim

Forget Samuel Huntingtons Clash of Civilizations theory: Clash of Religion and Science now occupies center stage as evolutionists and intelligent design proponents (IDers) bitterly contend the origin of life, spawning legal fights over high school biology curricula in Pennsylvania, Kansa, Ohio and other states.

Religion pitted against science and vice versa has always garnered unusual media and literary attention (Dan BrownԒs The Da Vinci Code, for instance) but we should keep the proper perspective.

The Church imprisoned Galileo in the seventeenth century for daring to suggest that the earth was a mere player in the cosmic drama, and not its prima donna as theologians had thought. Two centuries later, Darwin published The Origin of Species (1859) in which he proposed that evolution and natural selection could account for the biological diversity of the living world, including us, precipitating a fierce clash between faith and reason.

Muslims too experienced their share of this conflict. In the 9th century, advocates of reason led by the Mutazalites clashed with the dogmatic Kharajites and, as Muslims historians often darkly summarize, effectively closed the doors of ijtihad. The debateӔ between al-Ghazali representing tradition and mysticism and ibn Rushd representing science and reason in the 12th century was also a turning point in which it was mostly Ghazalis views that held sway for years to come.

We have traveled a long way since then, however, and although there have been more ambushes and skirmishes between religion and science, there have also been advances in our thinking. Many of us now view the two as being complementary rather than contradictory. Science deals with factual aspects
of the natural world and religion with the transcendent questions of meaning and purpose. One deals with the ғhow, the other with the ԓwhy. The empirical nature of science contrasts with ԓbelief in the unseen nature of religion and yet most people, including many scientists and theologians, agree that both can work in concert to enrich our material and spiritual lives.

There will, of course, always be scientists who view religion as an albatross around civilizationԒs neck, and theologians who rail at science as the new God that has driven meaning from life. There will always be reductionists who claim that life and its mysteries can all be explained by the laws of physics and scriptural literalists who insist that the earth is a few thousand years old. Some scientists will assert that an atheistic view of life is our only choice as a consequence of what they consider to be the all-encompassing reality of Darwins theory, while certain religious leaders are so enamored of their certitude that they do not shy away from pronouncing who will go to heaven and who are destined for hell.

But they are a minority. There are many more theologians representing different faiths, for example, who find in the theory of evolution evidence of GodҒs glorious self-disclosure, and many scientists whose research leads them to ask the deeper questions of life why are we here, why do we suffer, what makes our existence meaningful - that lie outside the realm of science.

Intelligent design proponents say that life on earth is irreducibly complex to have been created by random genetic mutation and, therefore, DarwinԒs theory must be balanced by the recognition of an intelligence beyond its scope. The IDers are coy in not directly calling this intelligence God for fear of being labeled fundamentalists.

But people of faith do not need gaps in Darwins theory to experience the Divine; their longing for the Divine is intrinsic and is what gives meaning to their lives. By the same token, the IDers should realize that theirs is not a scientifically-testable theory since it does not meet the criteria of observation, measurement, experimentation and testing. It has no place in a biology classroom, although it can be part of a religious or philosophy curriculum. Pleading acceptance by the scientific community on the basis of ignorance and ғgaps in knowledge benefits neither science nor religion.

It is disheartening to see dire predictions in the media about a return to the Dark Ages because of the supposedly high percentage of mindshare the IDers have captured, or religion becoming obsolete because of the dizzying successes of scientists in genetics and other fields.

We can ignore these predictions. Instead, we should be thinking more creatively about how religion and science relate to, and reinforce, each other.

A provocative question to consider is this: Is coexistence the last word in the relationship between religion and science, or can the two interact in mysterious and unexpected ways?

If the past is prologue, then lessons from Islamic history may help frame an answer. From the eighth through the fifteenth centuries, Muslim scientists made discoveries based on challenges posed by religious observances. Determining the proper time of day to offer the five daily prayers, calculating the precise direction toward the kiblah, and predicting the visibility of the crescent moon to mark the beginning and end of lunar months led to the discovery of spherical trigonometry and algebra and significant advances in astronomy. Muslim scientists constructed astrolabes and observatories, emphasizing observations and experiments by which to test theories and their predictive powers. Science became a spiritual quest for them, a way of seeing traces of GodԒs handiwork in the universe. (A telling example is that of the astronomer, mathematician and poet Ulugh Beg (1349-1449). Considered a genius, he established an observatory at Samarkand and with astounding accuracy charted the course of more than 1000 stars over a period 18 years. Unfortunately, he was murdered by his son who felt that his secular interest in science betrayed the spirit of Islam!)

In our times, this scientific-spiritual quest animates many Muslim scientists but one who stands out is the cosmologist Abd-al-Haqq Bruno Guiderdoni, a director of research at the Paris institute of astrophysics and the director of the Islamic Institute for Advanced Studies. Guiderdonis main interest is galaxy formation and evolution. Exploring the universe is, in his words, ғan act of worship. (It is remarkable how so many of the leading cosmologists of the world of different faiths are also amateur theologians!) A passionate advocate of the global dialogue between science and religion, Guiderdoni finds inspiration for his quest for truth in the Quran: In the creation of the heavens and the earth, and in the alternation of night and day, there are signs for people of understanding (3:190).

An article written almost four decades ago in the IBM journal Think by physicist Charles Townes also provides insights into the evolving nature of religion-science relationship. After building the case that the two shared fundamental similarities - revelation in one is epiphany in another, for instance - Townes concluded that the two will eventually converge. I believe, he wrote in 1966 in The Convergence of Science and Religion, this confluence is inevitable. For they both represent mans efforts to understand his universe and must ultimately be dealing with the same substance.

Towness idea caused a renewed stir after he won the Templeton Prize for ғProgress toward Research or Discoveries about Spiritual Realities in March this year. A devout Christian, he is also one of the greatest scientists of the twentieth-century, winning the Nobel Prize in physics in 1964 for inventing the maser and the laser.

But Townes also tempered his speculation: “Perhaps by the time this convergence occurs, science will have been through a number of revolutions as striking as those which have occurred in the last century, and taken on a character not readily recognizable by scientists of today. Perhaps our religious understanding will also have seen progress and change. But converge they must, and through this should come new strength for both.

Convergence does not mean a magical fusion of faith and reason; it means, as Townes implied, a symbiosis that can enrich our practical, intellectual and ethical lives. Such a confluence may, for instance, inspire fresh views on issues like stem-cell research or church-state separation and deepen our understanding of how love, justice, cruelty and forgiveness shape human affairs. It may force us to rethink our ideas of predictable and random events in a scientific context, thereby uncovering if there was indeed something to Einstein’s intuitive objections to the probabilistic foundation of quantum mechanics when he said, God does not play dice with the universe and God is subtle but He is not malicious.”

The unexplored region between religion and science beckons people with open minds seeking spiritual and scientific truths. Is it not possible that wildflowers of insight will bloom if this tough but promising terrain is nurtured with humor and humility?

 


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