Religion and Science - Origins and Ends

Saturday, 7 December 2013

Most of the natural systems, most of which concern humans anyway, are inherently chaotic. What that means, in the words of Edward Lorenz, is that although the present does determine the future, but the approximate present does not approximately determine the future. Simply put, this means that even minute variations in the initial conditions may yield incredibly diverging outcomes; this is also known as the butterfly effect. This presents an interesting problem for the human mind. It knows that the future can be predicted, given that the present (with all its zillions of variables) is perfectly known, but achieving perfect knowledge is an unending pursuit, mythical even.

Science and Religion - Origins and Ends

Okay, I lost you at butterfly! What are we discussing here again?

Chaos and Conformity
Since the beginning of time, randomness has presented humans with great discomfort. Be it the sudden changes in weather, the migration of birds & animals, the seasonality of crops, sudden outbreak of disease, and many other such equally baffling natural phenomena, which have a direct bearing on our survival. And for the same length of time, humans have made consistent efforts to reduce that randomness by actively seeking to know more about their world and its inhabitants. This need to know is one of the most basic human needs. Humans seek knowledge to identify patterns in nature, to find conformity in apparent chaos. Conformity is comforting, knowledge of the future is comforting. Uncertainty is distressing, not knowing is uncomfortable. It has a psychological cost.

That sounds fair. So what about Religion and Science?

The Power of FaithWe’ve established that the need to know, the curiosity about not only our future, but also our past, is a basic human need. This need can only be satisfied by faith, i.e. by a belief in a body of ideas addressing those questions of past, present and future. That's why faith is such a powerful thing. It gives you assurance, a sense of comfort in this otherwise seemingly random world. Faith, therefore, is something that the human mind naturally strives for. The essence of every belief system is a pattern which predicts not only the future based on our present,  but also tells what was our past, which has led us to this present condition. Science and Religion, in that sense, have the same common origins. Both arise from that singular all pervasive need to know. Also, the ultimate objective of both is to attain knowledge of all that there is...that state of spiritual nirvana. The means of both may be different but the ends are quite the same.

You keep saying Religion and Science, but hasn't it always been Religion versus Science?

The Pseudoscience of Astronomy
The human civilization of today has been shaped by countless battles of seemingly conflicting ideas. It all starts with a belief in anything that gives us some ability to predict the future. Take for instance, the belief in astrology. Astrology is so popular because we humans have always liked to think of ourselves connected with the universe. We like to believe that the universe, and more specifically the positions of stars and planets at the exact moment of our birth have an almost direct bearing on our lives. You only need to take a look around, be it newspapers, TV or the internet, to see how popular astrology is. Our belief in astrology in early times was so strong that anything untoward was blamed on an unfavorable position of a planet or a star, explaining the origins of the word disaster, derived from Greek dus- + astron, meaning "bad star". Thus, astrology is/was a great system, all based on careful observations, record-keeping and memorization on the part of astrologers, and it did seem to explain the past and predict the future, partly at least.

Observations alone led to the belief that the Earth is at the centre of the universe. And why not? The Earth was a stable, solid surface and apparently all other “heavenly” bodies seemed to revolve around it each day. It seemed only natural to assume that. This Ptolemy's model seemed to explain most of the natural phenomena and worked well for that time. Copernicus, at long last tried to change that view in light of his new set of observations, but people had grown comfortable with the Earth being at the centre of everything. It seemed quite convenient too. People had faith in it. Copernicus was called a heretic and was ostracised. It was only much later that his observations gained credence in light of new evidence from later scientists like Johannes Kepler. But Kepler too was initially looking to find God's great plan for himself and his world, which led him to an obsessive pursuit of geometric patterns and the motions of "heavenly" bodies. The difference was that he was using the scientific method and hypotheses testing and gathered immense amounts of his own observations and other previously recorded data. And even though a lot of his hypotheses would explain a natural phenomenon almost entirely, but at times failed to explain some exceptions. It would have been convenient for him to ignore those observations as irrelevant, but he did not. It took him a lot of heart to discard his original views and hypothesis in light of new observations. But he persisted. It would have been tremendously frustrating. To test again and again his ideas and theories would have taken not only patience, but also a lot of courage. That's the scientific method. That's just the way it is. At the heart of science is the acceptance of uncomfortable facts, a preference for hard truths over your dearest illusions.

Scietific Space Exploration, Andromeda Galaxy
It all begins with a burning desire to know. Science, the word itself is derived from Latin sciens, the present participle stem of scire (meaning “to know”). Following up that desire with a curious heart and a rational brain is the next most important ingredient. Science is at the intersection of observation AND theory. One completes the other. Neither can alone explain or predict countless natural phenomena that we humans attempt to understand. It is by rigorous pursuit of hard facts combined with imaginative thinking that leads to scientific discoveries and inventions. Serendipity too only happens to the ones who are looking for it, and are ready to take notes when it happens! Curiosity is one of the most basic of human qualities. That alone has led to the dominance of the human species on this planet.

New ideas, in most societies, have always been resisted (with the exception of perhaps during the Renaissance). Science is about keeping that desire to know even in the face of that resistance. If one has a closed mind then every new scientific discovery is always a choice between either an uncomfortable truth or a convenient lie. And blind, unquestioning faith doesn't allow for reevaluation of conventional wisdom, and in that sense is closed minded. That's one of the major reasons why Religion and Science always seem to be in conflict.

Religion - Nataraj performing the Cosmic Dance
Religion on the other hand, and to be fair, is the most instinctive and perfect source of faith, which completely satisfies that human need to know. According to some estimates, there are approximately 4200 religions in the world. One of the common themes which run across most of the religions or belief systems is the legend of some individuals or a single individual who stumbled upon great truths in their inspiring quest for knowledge. As varied and difficult a task it may then seem to define the word religion, it is popularly defined as an organized collection of beliefs, cultural systems, and worldviews that relate humanity to an order of existence. Essentially, religions are great collections of ancient human wisdom which prescribe adherence to a particular set of beliefs and practices, the rationales for which are embedded deep into the immutable laws of that religion.

There are so many questions we humans relentlessly seek answers to. We wish to know about not only the future, but also the past. We want to know where we came from, how did we come to inhabit this planet, how did such an incredible diversity of plants and animals arise, and how did we happen to be the dominant species among them all. Moreover, we want to know what we are going through in the present too, what impact are we having on the world around us and vice versa. How are we one with the universe? We always have wanted to be aware of our cosmic connection. Both Science and Religion do a great job of telling their believers consistent and coherent stories that answer all of those existential questions of their minds, and give them psychological comfort and peace.

Finally, when we've made our peace with our past and our future, we think about the present. There too Religion and Science lay out a clear step-by-step protocol as to what we need to do to lead healthy, happy and satisfied lives. Also, they lay out the knowledge of what consequences we might have to face if we deviate from the scientific or the divine path. Again the ends are the same, the means maybe not so much. 

The Best of Both Worlds

Science and Religion - Need to be Accommodating and Open to each other
The passion to explore is at the heart of being human. You have to understand that our passion for learning is really a tool for our very survival. Science and Religion both aim to fulfil that same pristine need to know. The scientific method as well as the multiple religions of this world provide a structured belief system, which forms the foundation for faith in that system. If you take away a man's faith, what do you have left except for randomness? That’s a notion which is psychologically distressing and discomforting. Therefore, a mutual respect for all the belief systems and all the religions is really the true form of respect for that primitive and basic human need to know.

The scientific method has come into being relatively recently, while Religion has been around for millennia. As a result Science is still very young on that timescale and although science is a fast learner and inherently a self-correcting process, there are perhaps some things that both Science and Religion can learn from each other. Obviously, that would need an open mind and a desire to know. And I guess we don't need to worry too much about the latter.

Exploration is in our nature. In the words of the great astronomer Carl Sagan, “We began as wanderers and we are wanderers still. We make our world significant only by the courage of our questions and the depths of our answers.”

Do share with us your thoughts on Religion and Science here in comments.

© Jayant Rana, 2013
Image credit: / h.koppdelaney /  CC BY-ND; kennymatic / CC BY; jessleecuizon / CC BY; Remko van Dokkum / CC BY; Mr. T in DC / CC BY-ND; write_adam / CC BY-NC; Eddi van W. / CC BY-SA; The Flying Trilobite / CC BY-NC-ND


  1. Beautifully written. Carefully dissected. I do however find an issue with saying religion poses consistent and coherent answers to existential questions. In its most refined form, and by it I mean the scriptures that religion is based on, when you have successfully weeded out all the evil (read rape, genocide and loot) perpetrated or justified by the hero/messenger/god figures, then, it could be argued religion does any good. Otherwise I find it to be a self-indulgent attempt by man to justify why and how the universe owes them an explanation. It did do its good, arguably. But today, science and religion are at loggerheads.

    Most good people who are religious successfully justify the scriptures, at least to themselves. But if its put to the same scrutiny science is day in and day out, religion I am afraid to say, fails miserably.

    It is also not uncommon for people to correlate religion and morals. Not uncommon, but defintely untrue.

    Faith is a very tricky subject. Some understand that faith is not based on scientific truth (another brand of truth exists, they say). I, for one, find it more distressing to have faith based on human whims and fancies, than to be confused about why. It gives me the opportunity to know. And not just believe.

  2. Dear Sharan, glad you liked it. Thanks for sharing your views, I respect and appreciate them. What I mean by consistent and coherent is that for the faith to hold (in any belief system) the message has to be convincing enough to those who choose to believe in it. It is true I believe for both religion and science.
    Science and religion may continue to be at loggerheads, but they both ultimately arise from that ancient and basic need 'to know' and both aim to satisfy the same.

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