Monday, April 10, 2006

Oct. 7, '05

Religion and Science: Coexistence or Convergence?

Forget Samuel Huntington’s “Clash of Civilizations” theory: “Clash of Religion and Science” has moved to 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, Kansas, Ohio and other states. Focus, instead, on the evolving relationship between religion and science and how theologians and scientists from around the world are striving toward common ground. It promises to be not only more rewarding but also more entertaining.

True, religion and science have been ancient adversaries. 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, this effectively closed the doors of ijtihad. The “debate” 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 Ghazali’s views that held sway for years to come.

Although there have been more ambushes and skirmishes, there have also been advances in our thinking. Many of us now view religion and science 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 “how,” the other with the “why.” The empirical nature of science contrasts with “belief 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.

But we must be wary of pitfalls. There will always be scientists who view religion as an albatross around civilization’s neck, and theologians who rail at science as the new God that has driven meaning from life. There will 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 biologists assert that an atheistic view of life is our only choice because of their belief in the all-encompassing reality of Darwin’s 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.

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

It is against this "cross-disciplinary" context that the religion-science dialogue should be framed. Many organizations are doing precisely that, and a popular annual conference called "Science and the Spiritual Quest" that attracts the world's leading scientists and theologians underscores this growing trend.

Intelligent design proponents say that life on earth is “irreducibly complex” to have been created by random genetic mutation and, therefore, Darwin’s theory must be balanced by the recognition of an “intelligence” beyond its scope.

But people of faith do not need “gaps” in Darwin’s 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 “gaps” in knowledge benefits neither science nor religion.

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 more 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 God’s 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. Guiderdoni’s main interest is galaxy formation and evolution. Exploring the universe is, in his words, “an 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 man’s efforts to understand his universe and must ultimately be dealing with the same substance.”

But Townes 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.”

Townes’s idea caused a renewed stir after he won the Templeton Prize for “Progress 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.

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 and deepen our understanding of how love, justice, suffering and forgiveness shape human affairs. It may force us to rethink our ideas of “predictable” and “random” events, revealing 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.”
We can ignore the media's predictions about a return to the Dark Ages because of the supposedly high percentage of mindshares IDers have captured, or religion becoming obsolete because of the successes of scientists in genetics and other fields.

Rather, we should be thinking more creatively about how religion and science relate to, and reinforce, each other and actively promote the compelling forces bringing scientists and theologians of all persuasions toward a more holistic view of life in these troubled times. In the unexplored, overlapping region between religion and science, is it not possible that wildflowers of insight will bloom if nurtured with humility and humor?

No comments: