Science vs Religion: Can they co-exist?

Galileo before the Holy Office, a 19th-century painting by Joseph-Nicolas Robert-Fleury

Last night, I recalled having a conversation with my mother as a 10–12 year old.

I asked her — what is religion? Why do they not teach it like science with experiments and proofs?

Her simple answer for my naive understanding was — what can be explained is science, what can’t is religion.

A few years down the line, I am not sure if the answer is that simple or that black and white. But the conversation did give me a small insight into the relationship between science and religion.

I personally think both aren’t that mutually exclusive. They pretty much co-exist and are based on different aspects of human experience. Although, their compatibility is highly dynamic and a matter of great debate.

Historical genesis of religion

Religion as a philosophy is as old as the human civilization itself. When man was perplexed by natural phenomena such rain and thunder, he proclaimed it to be the act of ‘Someone ‘Else’. That ‘Someone Else’ became ‘God’ and religion as its theory was born. For the next few thousand years, man would resort to religion to explain almost everything — spiritual and natural. In the process, religion was usurped by a few who became the ‘Church’.

Science though firmly associated with the post Renaissance period, did make sporadic appearances in earlier times. The genius Indian mathematician, Aryabhatta, for instance in 5th century AD gave an accurate value of the magical ‘pie number’, proved the Pythagoras Theorem and gave concrete hypothesis of a spherical earth. Nevertheless his work was quickly dismissed as chagrin then.

So what brought Science to the forefront?

As the mental faculties of man evolved, he became disenchanted with the ‘absolutist’ and ‘question-none’ approach of religion. He began searching for evidences for what religion preached, not in holy books but in real life. Thus emerged science as an alternate philosophy to study the physical and natural world through observations and experiments.

Early proponents of science presented it as complete opposite to religion; having the ability to answer ‘everything’ and with better ‘accuracy’. This caused great friction with the powerful ‘Church’ as marked by the iconic incident when Galileo was imprisoned for disapproving the theory of a stationary earth as propounded by the Church.

However, the following of science would eventually grow stronger and Industrial Revolution of 18th century Europe firmly stamped the authority of science. Though, any talks of mutual compatibility between the two were frowned upon at this point in time.

But how different or similar science and religion are?

At the most basic level, both are ways of knowing and understanding things. Although, as claimed by many, science differs in its ability to produce evidence. It tempts one to argue that religion too can gather evidences. They might just be of a different kind and from different sources like texts, personal faith. For some it is compelling enough to form a belief system, for others not. Is that so different from science?

While it is true that some evidences in science are more solid and reproducible under ‘simplified’ and ‘ideal’ lab conditions, they are anything but 100% true. We are still not sure if gravity works the way we believe it does. Its theoretical model is continuously being refined.

Less understood is that religion tends to operate similarly. The belief system of any religion too is re-examined and refined over time. But surely, few religions are more flexible and pro-active in this regard than others.

Just like scientific conferences, there are religious ones as well, where the new ‘findings’ are discussed and debated. To sum up in one line:

The dissimilarity between science and religion seems to be of degree and not kind.

For a moment, let’s move over the rhetorical, academic debate and explore the present times to get a practical view about the co-existence of science and religion. A quick question — what is common between the emergence of self-styled godmen, the nuisances of ISIS and in general religious unrest around the word? The answer is — resurgence of religion vis-à-vis science and the latter has a huge role in it.

For all the progress of science, man is still more or less unhappy, unsatisfied and surely lesser in peace than before. So he again resorts back to ‘religion’ to attain what is not provided by science. He is no more posing existential questions to both, instead simply picking one over the other to suit his needs.

However ironic it may sound, it has led to a beautiful co-existence of both, a far cry from earlier times. Godmen are as powerful as scientists and definitely beating them on the popularity charts. Science has created new means to be closer to religion. Now God is ‘available’ on the internet, on TV, on demand, for a price, whichever way you like. The ‘religious fraternity’ as whole too has mellowed it’s stand against science. The Christian Church accepting Darwin’s ‘Evolution Theory’ is a case in point.

To conclude, an impression has been created that science and religion are continuously at war. Surely science burst onto the philosophical scene to undermine the influence wielded by religion; however, with time both have learnt to co-exist. Like religion, limitations and inadequacies of science have helped their reconciliation.

The perfect knowledge still doesn’t exist and thus both operate in their own spheres. Until God himself walks down the earth to clear it for everyone, the “fundamental question” around the validity of religion would remain. But so is true for science. It is true only until proven otherwise. I would like to end by citing the fitting example of the late President of India APJ Abdul Kalam — a man of unmatched technical and scientific expertise, yet a devout religious man of utmost purity. Both these qualities reinforced his stature, never coming in conflict of each other.

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