THE debate about religion and science dates back centuries. The debate is not about a technical matter, but about two realms of knowledge — theological and scientific. There seems to be an epistemological clash of validity between the two, apparently with each claiming sway over human life.
Faith leaders or ulema, in general, boast of having a godly system, which is eternally true, free from error and change. They underplay the hand of man in the understanding, interpretation and application of religious dogmas. Religious leaders are known to oppose scientific developments that they interpret as opposing the key notions of religion due largely to the fear that these would undermine the faith of believers. They may do it with sincerity to religion, and presumably, to save believers from error.
Their tools to deny science are theological and based largely on discursive reason, and not necessarily empirical evidence. They do not always have at their disposal the modern tools of understanding religion, such as scientific history of religions, sociology, psychology, anthropology etc. Reza Aslan’s work God: a Human History is illuminating; it explores how the evolution of religious impulses has taken place in the history of humankind.
Scientists on the other hand, see science as a realm of knowledge strongly reliable, based on human reason and demonstrable empirical evidence. For them, it is a self-corrective and evolving project, modifying itself, and following new evidence through inductive experimentation. It is an approach to generating and judging knowledge.
The debate between religion and science leaves us with no common ground.
A religious mindset on the other hand, sees this changing nature of scientific discoveries as a weakness, boasting of perennial and unchanging ‘truths’. It prefers stability over change; it is dogma-based. In almost all religions, historically opposition to science and scientists has been proverbial, leading to prejudices against, and torture of, scientists, as they are seen as ‘perverted’ souls, hell-bent on defying religious dogmas. This happens often because they use theological criteria to judge science; it is exactly like scientists judging religion or spirituality based on their experimental approach.
The debate between religion and science, put simply, leaves us with no common ground. I, for one argue that the epistemological approaches (forms of knowing and their validity criteria) to both religion and science need to be treated differently as they require different ways of establishing (methodology) and judging (criteria of truth) knowledge and truth claims. We need to be sophisticated enough to see these differences so that we understand each through its own perspective, avoiding one criterion for judging both.
Each branch of science requires different methodologies to study it. Similarly, within religion each branch requires different methodologies of study such as law or spirituality, language or ritual.
Thus, when the ulema judge science using theology, they inevitably make the same mistake as those scientists who judge religion using the scientific method. So, it is necessary that we treat both of them differently, which means we do not downgrade either of them, but acknowledge the unique contribution of each to human welfare.
In my lectures and visits to international audiences, I am always asked by young people the fashionable question: ‘What contribution has religion made to human progress in the last 500 years?’ This is obviously done keeping the magnificent scientific contributions at the back of their mind. I argue, ‘What contributions could one expect from religion to make?’ Did we expect religion to make a technological revolution?
By nature, what science does can be seen and observed; but the transformation brought about by religion in the inner core of people is invisible. However, though exceptional civilisational achievements might have been possible thanks to scientists, it is impossible to ignore the religious ‘faith’ impulse within, and the spiritual inspiration behind for example, civilisational art and architectural marvels, and literary jewels. It is unfair to expect religion to bring, say, a super technological revolution. The major purpose of religion is to not to make technological advances, but to carry out ‘inner engineering’, and transformations, and make people virtuous.
In sum, let us avoid rejecting a scientific approach to solving human problems at the altar of religion; nor should we reject religion because it does not work like science. Let us celebrate both as they address different dimensions of human yearning equally. As the Quran (2:201), says, “...Our Lord! Give us good in this world and good in the Hereafter. ...”. So we seek the best of both religion and science. Let the ulema become a bridge between the two.
The writer is an educationist with an interest in the study of religion and philosophy.
Published in Dawn, July 26th, 2019