Home »  Analysis

Should science and religion be in conflict?

Saturday, 8 February 2014 - 1:32pm IST | Agency: dna

Science and religion are two great intellectual creations of the human mind. The former is a systematic study of how nature works, and the latter is about human beings and their relation to nature. Religion also provides the rules for a moral code of conduct for humans with respect to each other and to the environment. Science educates us, religion makes us human. 

It is generally assumed that religion and science are (or ought to be) at loggerheads with each other, and that each should disapprove of the other’s existence or acceptability. 

Yet, the ultimate truth is that no nation has gone to war with another about whose laboratories or technologies are better. Human history is instead replete with wars over religion or the egos of kings. It is true that science has provided the tools for war and given a false or a short term sense of confidence to nations, but it has never, ever suggested war. So associating war with science is like associating horses with war – science has provided the wherewithal for more violent wars but never, ever demanded a war or subjugation of other people. That has been done in the name of God, and kings claiming to be agents of god generally driven by greed or a sense of personal glory.

Moreover, scientists may not be overtly religious, but by and large, they are very respectful and in awe of the beauty and elegance of nature and its workings. At best, they have provided the tools to tweak nature, and the material to do slightly more or something slightly different from what it would naturally do. But it is a rare scientist who will not appreciate nature or not be respectful of her creativity. 

In recent times, this association of science as something that simply discovers what nature has been doing has become increasingly obvious. Scientists have labelled their discoveries as an image of god (universal microwave background radiation) and to the God particle (a discovery of Higgs Boson). This appreciation and respect for nature is becoming more overt than covert. 

Driven by the sense that their country has been or may be wronged by a more powerful nation has certainly driven many scientists to work on providing their nation with better ways of defending itself in water, earth, and space. But against this localised over-emphasis on development of technologies of war, scientists have always demanded a more universal and open acceptability, and are far less sensitive to national boundaries or politics.

On the other hand is our belief in this Great Creator and Great Protector (and by reflection, the Great Dictator) – all a creation of one or a group of individuals. Fearing the unknown and recognising that the universe around us is far beyond our control, it is always tempting to invoke a more powerful being who is more in control – nay, the initiator – of many things that happen to us. After all, we look after livestock under our control, so imagining another higher being who looks after us is a natural extension of thought. This feature of god is universal, across all religions, big and small. As Voltaire once said, “If god did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him”.

This willingness to subjugate ourselves to a higher power provides a natural source of solace, comfort and, in case things go wrong – a target of blame. At the same time, the fear of god and his wrath has also guided people to more civilised behaviour. Very often, not finding any particular reason to be polite to others, the idea that he or she too is god’s creation whose favour we need, does drive us to be more civilised. If god had restricted his (or her) role to this, I think we all would have been better off for it. 

The problem comes when people get into competitive religiosity where they fight for their religion, die for it – do anything to live by its defined code of conduct. No religious book in its original format instructs one to destroy or convert non-believers. This invariably happens when some overzealous follower of the religion decides his (it is mostly a he) religion is better than others, and other people must convert to it, willingly or otherwise.  

This comes up because humans are too smart by half! Once having postulated the existence of god, other questions begin to arise. Who is he, what is his origin, how does he execute his will, how does he define himself and what are his ideas about humans. Then, a second level of questions arises. If nature is his creation, how was it created, what is man’s role in it, how much of his creation can be appropriated for our needs, and so on. Once these kinds of speculations arise, differences between religions crop up. 

These mundane differences – did god come from Mount Kailas or from Mount Sinai – are suddenly more important than the advice and guidance he gave us. Where the son of god walked, or where he went back to heaven become far more important than the message of goodwill and mutual respect he brought with him. The idea that we should take the minimal as per our needs from nature and live together in mutual peace in an environment of mutual respect becomes subordinate to the question of the language god spoke and who he spoke to first. 

Indeed all major religions are divided into mutually incompatible sections based on minor differences of opinion about what happened subsequent to the establishment of the religious order and how the followers behave. Typically, someone asks for a modification on the manner in which a particular rule is interpreted or how the subsequent history is interpreted and then all hell breaks loose.

One place, however, where all religions differ is in the role of the devil. The devil is the personification of all evil and all wrong. But if the whole world is god’s creation, where did the devil come in? Did he arise on his own and hence is an equal of god, or did god create him to test humans (if so, why all this testing at all) or is he a by-product of the human mind. How do you handle sin? After all, humans are frail and vulnerable to temptations. So, most religions go into a complex explanation of apology and denial about this aspect. Many also have complex interventions from god to help humans when their general moral degradation becomes unbearable – and then it is mixed with summary punishments and some gentle benevolence. Otherwise god would have to wipe out all of us.

The origin of the universe is one place where all religions agree – the creation of the universe is a mystery and the great one who created it finds us too insignificant to be bothered about us. So, typically, we are all served by the son of god, leaving the great god to do whatever he wishes.

An area where all religions are at unease is when it comes to eating meat. Everything from pure vegetarianism to the humane killing of animals in one way or another is suggested, and often the rituals required are extreme. 

But the true difference between religions is on specifying the manner in which we pay homage to gods. How do we ask for his benevolence, how do we ask for favours and how do we thank him for his favours. A surprising amount of energy, both physical and intellectual – has been spent on this, with no consensus amongst different followers.  And most wars are fought to ensure that one respects the correct son of god and pays respect to him in the correct manner – whatever correct means.

A poor scientist is simply bewildered by all this. To him or her all this seems irrelevant. For god’s sake, see how beautifully nature is organised. See how wonderfully it works with a handful of well-defined rules that are always obeyed under all conditions. This universality of nature’s axioms and its elegant interplay is all that the poor chap is preoccupied with. Exactly how to pay homage to god is not a question within his sight or in his landscape of ideas. After all, what he sees is that everywhere, nature sets up a set of rules and obeys them meticulously and ruthlessly – neither forgiving nor forgetting. 

We have never had an experiment where one had to say that while going from A to B, a miracle happened – that something that should not have happened as per the laws of science was seen to occur. Never. Everything that is happening is a matter of detail about how a specific set of predefined laws of nature work in a specific environment. Given the rules, one can occasionally isolate and manipulate a part of the environment to do his bidding, but that is such a small part of the vast elegant working of nature. The poor scientist only wants to know how nature works. To ask how a complex mechanism works is not to comment on the existence of a mechanic.


Dr Mayank Vahia is a scientist working at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research since 1979. His main fields of interest are high-energy astrophysics, mainly Cosmic Rays, X-rays and Gamma Rays. He is currently looking at the area of archeo-astronomy and learning about the way our ancestors saw the stars, and thereby developed intellectually. He has, in particular, been working on the Indus Valley Civilisation and taking a deeper look at their script.

Jump to comments

Recommended Content