Science and Religion: A Love-Hate Relationship?

The God IssueFeatures
Artwork by: Alex Prosenickov

“Science without religion is lame; religion without science is blind.”

Einstein’s quote on science and religion is one of the most famous proverbs in history. But what does Einstein’s tantalizing quote actually imply? Einstein argues that science and religion are inseparable, yet even today, scientists argue over whether God is necessary to explain the mechanisms of the universe. Science uses reason to explain the world, whereas religion attributes the creation of reality to a supernatural force: God. Many scientists are not religious, simply because they believe that every physical phenomenon is explainable to the ordinary human senses. However, a handful of scientists are religious but only because they don’t interpret religion as a fact or absolute truth. Science provides a reason for everything, whereas religion claims God as the “creator” of the universe. Is science more reliable than religion? Or vice versa? Science might be capable of explaining the universe, but religion isn’t something that should be sacrificed for “reason.” Perhaps, as Einstein reasoned, science and religion are both necessary to maintain an advanced society throughout the 21st century.

The creation of science began with the Greeks, when astronomers were interested in tracking the movement of the planets, or “planetes” (wanderers), as the Greeks called them. Ancient astronomers often used mathematics to calculate distances between celestial objects. From this, the Ptolemaic, or geocentric, model of the universe was born. The Ptolemaic model is named after the Greek astronomer Ptolemy, who created a model of the Earth with the Sun and other planets orbiting it. His theory stated that the planets and the Sun revolved around the Earth, and beyond them lay the “realm of God.” This was the first incorporation of science and religion.

The merging of science and God continued even through the Enlightenment. One of the greatest physicists, Isaac Newton, once stated in his Principia Mathematica that God must be the explanation for the stability of the solar system. This was the first time, since Ptolemy, where a prominent scientist invoked God in order to explain the inexplicable natural phenomena. Does this mean that invoking God is a method of explaining what we can’t understand about the universe? In other words, if someone could not understand a complicated theory of science, would he or she be hiding ignorance by attesting that God was responsible for creating a phenomenon based on that bizarre theory? Most people don’t believe so, but the historical interactions between science and God shows that God often “substitutes” for inexplicable physical phenomena. In the late 1600s, the Dutch scientist Christian Huygens invoked God when he couldn’t explain why living organisms functioned in a certain way. Several other major scientists used God as a way to explain observations of reality that didn’t fit logically.

Religion has a long history, at least dating back to the Mesopotamians and Egyptians. Unlike science, religion has not only brought about discussions, but wars that have threatened humanity multiple times. One such example is the European Thirty Years’ War, which lasted from 1618 to 1648. This war was fought mainly because of the ongoing political and religious strife between the Protestants and Catholics. Prior to the war the Protestant Reformation had begun, and several philosophers of the time gravitated from Roman Catholicism to Protestantism. The Thirty Years’ War not only spurred conflict across Europe, but also divided the Holy Roman Empire (modern Germany and Austria), ultimately displacing millions of inhabitants who had originally lived there. This is a perfect example of the consequences of religious wars.

One major feud between science and religion manifested itself in Islam, in the period from 800 to 1100 CE. During this period, mathematics and science were of the utmost importance in the Muslim community; in fact, Baghdad, the capital of the Islamic Empire, was a host to several philosophers, mathematicians, and scientists who exchanged their thoughts and ideas. This 300-year period was the zenith of Islam’s history; science was at the forefront of their society. Once the religious imam (an Islamic priest) Hamid al-Ghazali entered the picture, Islam switched from a scientific to a purely religious empire. This is one of the few examples in history where religion “silently” rammed heads with science. Al-Ghazali argued that mathematics was the “work of the devil,” and that science should be deemed inappropriate for the members of the Islamic community. This deceptively innocent argument changed Islam forever.

A similar situation occurred during the late 1600s in Galileo’s famous recantation (confession). Several years after Galileo had published his discoveries about Jupiter’s four giant natural satellites or moons and Saturn’s rings, the Catholic Church immediately wanted to put a stop to his scientific career. Accordingly, the Church forced Galileo to confess that the Earth was the center of the universe, and that no such moons of Jupiter, or rings of Saturn, existed at all. Galileo was subsequently put under house arrest and was forbidden to publish any of his works related to science.

Despite the confrontations that religion and science have shared, not all historical cultures have shunned science. Several ancient peoples, such as the Egyptians and the Mayans, viewed science as an essential part of their cultures. The Egyptians built the Great Pyramids of Giza, not only for religious reasons, but also for a far more subtle scientific reason. If one could look at the Pyramids from bottom to top, he or she would observe a strange phenomenon. In one season out of the year the Orion Constellation lies directly overhead in the Egyptian skies. The person looking at the Pyramids from the bottom up would see, in effect, that the apices of the Pyramids exactly line up with the three stars of the Orion belt. This not only illustrates the Egyptians’ curiosity in the stars, but also their extremely advanced mathematics and measurement techniques. A similar situation also occurred with the Mayans in Mesoamerica. The Mayans constructed hundreds of temples, not only with religious significance, but also to track the movements of the Moon and Venus. These temples are another perfect example of religion and science working in harmony.

Can science and God coexist? Perhaps they can. If one is willing to believe in a personal God, and not allow their personal God to “intervene” in the progress and advances of the scientific frontier, they can not only consider themselves religious, but also scientifically “literate.” I am a Hindu, yet I don’t observe any apparent conflict between my religion and science. The Vedic Scriptures, the oldest texts pertaining to Hinduism, are a collection of manuscripts describing the creation of the universe to the creation of mankind. It is, in many aspects, analogous to the Bible. However, although they do owe the creation of the universe to Lord Vishnu, “king” of the gods, they do not in any way contribute or hinder my understanding of science, specifically regarding how the universe was created. I feel that my religious beliefs and my scientific knowledge are separate, and I don’t allow Hinduism to intervene in my acceptance of science. Part of the willingness to accept religion and science is the ability to interpret religious texts metaphorically, whereas scientific literature is factual and real. I am able to accept both religion and science by interpreting the Vedic scriptures as lessons of life, while accepting the scientific theory of the Big Bang as true.

The coexistence of science and religion, therefore, is dependent on a person’s willingness to accept both. This isn’t the case with everyone, as many people feel they must either choose science or religion. There are others in the world, however, who maintain a personal religious practice or belief in God and still pursue scientific progress. If people weren’t willing to believe both, science and religion would be like two bulls ramming their heads over and over. I believe that if individuals can accept both science and religion, they both can peacefully coexist without any conflict at all.