Science and religion

A few notes on an eternal dichotomy

23 AUGUST 2016,
Science and religion
Science and religion

Generally, science and religion are seen as two opposite, contrasting views of the world; and as such, this dichotomy has been the subject of a very large number of books and articles—so vast, that anyone may see a very confused picture. I believe that, in large part, this confusion is due to the lack of clarification between two basic concepts, which I will try to clarify here, following the track outlined in our recent book with Fritjof Capra and myself, The Systems view of Life [1].

The first source of confusion is about the difference between religion and spirituality. People like Albert Einstein, Erwin Schrödinger, Niels Bohr, just to quote a few of them, can certainly be considered spiritual scientists, but not religious or church-goers.

What is spirituality? Not easy to define, but it has, first of all, a series of “vertical” values--like the attitude of inner growth, the tendency of becoming one with the ominous of the universe, and the respect for a universal moral code. To that, I would add the “horizontal” values, like the respect (if not love) for the other, and for nature. Deep ecology is certainly a form of modern spirituality.

Now, all that spirituality does not need the belief in a transcendent God – it is spirituality and not religion. Actually, spirituality is the very essence of humankind, and comes prior to religion. And there is also no doubt that spirituality, defined broadly above, cannot be at odds with science. Actually it may form the ethical substrate of it.

Religion, in classic terms, is the institutionalization of spirituality principles into fixed rules and hierarchic structures - the churches, the priests, the table of sins and the possible punishment after death - an institution that notoriously entails the danger of becoming a temporal power and to slide into fundamentalism. And it is religion, mostly in the form of its stiff dogma and institutions, which can be at odds with science. The case of Galileo and Giordano Bruno are just two of the many sad events of this clash. (We will refer only to the Christian religion, but what we say here is valid for all monotheistic religions. A different situation can be with the religions, such as Buddhism or Taoism).

Once made, this qualification between religion and spirituality, there is the need for another point of clarification: this is at the level of the personal situation of the single scientist. Somebody can be a scientist, says a biologist, and at the same time he/she may possess a deep faith in God. Should then this person believe in the Bible, or reject it instead, in favour of the Darwinian evolution? This question can indeed be a burning one in the soul of a scientist. Let’s see then some of the science Authors who have dealt in the last years with this dichotomy.

One idea that has obtained much coverage and much acceptance is the one by Stephen J. Gould (Gould, 1999) known as the Non-Overlapping Magisteria (NOMA). Accordingly, there should be a clear demarcation between science and religion, as the Magisterium of natural sciences should deal with the interpretation of the functioning world based on natural laws, whereas the Magisterium of religion should deal with the spiritual and humanistic world—of course also maintaining a kind of dialogue and respect for each other. It sounds like common sense, easy to accept, and this is why this NOMA is relatively popular among scientists. But things are not so simple, and in fact this view is heavily contrasted by common experience.

Consider creationism and/or the intelligent design (ID), for example: with the fight of the ID people for eliminating the teaching of Darwinism from the public schools-mostly in the States. Here, clearly, there is a strong interference of religion and science. Or consider the interference of the Vatican with the research on staminal cells, contraceptives, genetic identity, end-of-life problems, the Big Bang, and the very definition of life and consciousness. We are witnessing daily an invasion of the religious thoughts into the “Magisterium” of sciences, with considerable political impact. Not to mention the sad examples of the past, with the trial of Galilei or the burning alive of philosophers like Giordano Bruno: something much more than interference! In addition to all this, NOMA does not work well at the personal level of the scientist who is also a believer, as we have mentioned above with the problem of Darwinism versus biblical creation. To accept both would correspond to a kind of schizophrenia, and one here may open the question, whether one can be a believer without accepting the mythological narrative of the Bible. Thus, NOMA is a nice idea, a theoretical base of principle, but it does not work.

Another well known scientist – another biologist - who dealt with the question of God is Richard Dawkins (the author of The Selfish Gene). Already, the title of his book sets his working program: The God Delusion [2], which came after his first book on the subject, The Devil’s Chaplain [3]. Using his stance of “temporarily agnosticism”, for him the existence or non-existence of God becomes a scientific hypothesis which can be dealt with as any other scientific hypothesis. He recognizes that there is no way to demonstrate the non-existence of God, however he develops arguments based on probability and common sense, concluding that the idea of God is highly improbable.

All this is reminiscent of the well known position of the philosopher Bertrand Russell, who also utilized probabilistic arguments, using his famous metaphor of the orbiting tea-pot. In 1958 he was writing (in Garvey, 2010):

I ought to call myself an agnostic; but, for all practical purposes, I am an atheist. I do not think the existence of the Christian God any more probable than the existence of the Gods of Olympus or Valhalla. To take another illustration: nobody can prove that there is not between the Earth and Mars a china teapot revolving in an elliptical orbit, but nobody thinks this sufficiently likely to be taken into account in practice. I think the Christian God just as unlikely.

Another one who would like to demonstrate the non-existence of God by way of scientific rational thinking, is the celebrated physicist and cosmologist Stephen Hawking. In his A Short History of Time [4], he writes: “So long as the universe had a beginning, we could suppose it had a creator. But if the universe is really completely self-contained, having no boundary or edge, it would have neither beginning nor end: it would simply be. What place, then, for a creator? Thus, as soon as the physicist will show that there was no Big Bang, that all comes from the fluctuations of the vacuum, then the notion of a creator God would disappear. All very simple!

A different approach is taken by another physicist and cosmologist, Mani Bhaumik, who tried to conjugate physics with eastern traditions, in search of what he calls the “source”—the origin of creation. He believes to have found this source in the synergism between quantum fields and consciousness, supporting his claim of scientists like Schrödinger, Wheeler, David Bohm and Feynman.

On similar lines is another well known physicist and cosmologist, Paul Davies, in his book The Mind of God [5]. Paul Davies had previously written another book God and The New Physics [6]. Another well known author, who instead clearly equates God with the creativity of the universe, is Stuart Kauffman [7].

With these kind of metaphors, we are, however, back into a generic spirituality, and not a faith-based religion. The religious believer sees instead the world’s laws and life as the creation of God. However, if he/she is also a scientist, he/she may accept the view, that God, after the creation, left these laws to operate in peace by themselves: and that the man, the scientists, who has to discover how these laws have led to the structures of life, as well to the structure of the cosmos. Thus, in these scientists, from the one side there is the narrative of how matter condensed into life (science), and from the other, there is the richness of the religious tradition, which can accompany and complement this escalation. This is the dialogue of mutual tolerance and respect, and one which does not claim to dissolve the dichotomy, but can foster a dialectic interplay which is instructive to the scientist as well as to the religious leader.

[1] Capra, F., and Luisi, P.L., The systems view of life, Cambridge Univ. Press, 2014
[2] Dawkins R., 2006, The God Delusion, Bantam Press, U.K.
[3] Dawkins, R., 2003, A Devil’s Chaplain, Houghton Mifflin
[4] Hawking, S., 1988, A brief History of Time, New York, Bantam
Pievani, T., 2011, La vita inaspettata, Cortina Publ., Milano
[5] Davies, P., 1992, The Mind of God: The Scientific Basis for a Rational World, Touchstone Books
[6] Davies, P., 1983, God and the new physics, Touchstone books
[7] Kauffman, S., 2008, Reinventing the sacred - a new view of science, reason, and religion, Basic Books

Gould S.J., 1999, Rocks of Ages: science and religion in the fullness of life, New York, Ballantine
Harris, S., 2004, The end of faith, W.W. Norton and company
Garvey, B. (2010), Absence of evidence, evidence of absence, and the atheist’s teapot, Ars Disputandi, 10: 9–22
Bhaumik, M., 2005, Code name God - The spiritual odyssey of a man of science, Penguin Books