Monday, May 16, 2011

On Science and Religion

Opening readings:

O SON OF SPIRIT! The best beloved of all things in My sight is Justice; turn not away therefrom if thou desirest Me, and neglect it not that I may confide in thee. By its aid thou shalt see with thine own eyes and not through the eyes of others, and shalt know of thine own knowledge and not through the knowledge of thy neighbor. Ponder this in thy heart; how it behooveth thee to be. Verily justice is My gift to thee and the sign of My loving-kindness. Set it then before thine eyes.

All men have been created to carry forward an ever-advancing civilization. The Almighty beareth Me witness: To act like the beasts of the field is unworthy of man. Those virtues that befit his dignity are forbearance, mercy, compassion and loving-kindness towards all the peoples and kindreds of the earth.

Scientific knowledge is the highest attainment upon the human plane, for science is the discoverer of realities. It is of two kinds: material and spiritual. Material science is the investigation of natural phenomena; divine science is the discovery and realization of spiritual verities. The world of humanity must acquire both. A bird has two wings; it cannot fly with one.

I do not feel obliged to believe that the same God who has endowed us with sense, reason, and intellect has intended us to forgo their use.

Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind.

How can it be that mathematics, being after all a product of human thought which is independent of experience, is so admirably appropriate to the objects of reality?

Some of you who have served on the Board of Chaplains with me have heard me say that the topic of science and religion is my favorite topic. Today I’d like to share with you a little bit about how this has defined my journey of faith. But I would also invite you to consider a simple proposition: the vitality of our civilization will depend on these two great knowledge systems working in concert rather than fighting each other.

When I was in eighth grade at a Catholic school, I was given a poor grade, the equivalent of a D, in religion by a parish priest who had been brought in to teach us the fundamentals of Catholic doctrine. He claimed to my parents that I had not completed the homework assignments. I believe the real reason was that I was asking questions – quite skeptical questions – in class that were a challenge to the dogmas he was teaching us. It became clear that I had questions to which the Church had not given answers that made sense. For example, why would a just and loving God hold us blameworthy for the sins an ancestor had committed? Why would He reveal Himself exclusively to one particular tribe out of the whole world?

This priest had clearly showed an opposition to critical inquiry when it comes to spiritual questions. The reaction against this as I progressed into my high school years was to categorically reject religion as intrinsically superstitious, and to embrace reason as the ultimate arbiter of truth. This ethic was best expressed by Bertrand Russell, who stated that “a habit of basing convictions upon evidence, and of giving to them only that degree of certainty which the evidence warrants, would, if it became general, cure most of the ills from which the world is suffering.”

Of course, as my experience of the world and of the scientific method expanded, I realized that reason cannot by itself provide values. Even Euclidean geometry, which is the most rigorously logical thing you’ll ever encounter, starts with postulates, which are unproven assumptions. There is no way to prove through reason alone that a society rooted in compassion is better than one based on harsh social Darwinism. You need to start out with some basic moral postulates that accord with our experience of the universe we live in.

So what kind of universe do we live in? One whose physical constants are finely tuned to mandate intelligent life, to allow for the existence of beings who ask questions about purpose, who yearn for transcendence, who find the mere satisfaction of survival needs unsatisfying. A universe that is described by exquisite mathematical laws. This brought me to the conclusion that consciousness is not an artifact resulting from the firing of neurons or the buzzing of particles; if anything, it’s the other way around. Mind or Spirit is the cause; matter and energy are the effects.

This leads, of course, to the question of purpose. I ultimately came to the conclusion that when the religions of the world are shorn of superstitious accretions, they reveal a unity of purpose. They enable us to fulfill the greatest commandment of love, but also to carry forward an ever-advancing civilization based on forbearance, compassion, and the other virtues Baha’u’llah mentions in the opening quotes. From my Catholic upbringing, my journey brings me full circle. I love Jesus Christ because He suffered on the cross to set me free from the grip of sin. I also love the Buddha because He taught me that we make ourselves unhappy by craving those transient things that don’t really satisfy the human spirit. I love the Prophet Muhammad as a great peacemaker and one who elevated the status of women. I see no conflict of loyalties here.

That’s my personal journey, how my scientific self reconciles with being a person of faith. I want to return to the proposition that reconciling science and religion is important for our civilization. As a society, we are now embroiled in shouting matches. The great issues that require insightful discussion are instead reduced to slogans and sound bites. Disagreement degenerates into rancor. Partisan ideologies inspire a blind loyalty that has a life of its own, and becomes the greatest obstacle to solving our problems.

This is why the dialogue between science and religion is so important. We need the greatest commandment and the Golden Rule. We also need to listen to each other, to investigate reality in a spirit of fair mindedness, to be willing to test our ideas. Only then can we build an enlightened civilization.

Closing readings:

The virtues of humanity are many but science is the most noble of them all. The distinction which man enjoys above and beyond the station of the animal is due to this paramount virtue. It is a bestowal of God; it is not material, it is divine. Science is an effulgence of the Sun of Reality, the power of investigating and discovering the verities of the universe, the means by which man finds a pathway to God.

Religion is not intended to arouse enmity and hatred nor to become the source of tyranny and injustice. Should it prove to be the cause of hostility, discord and the alienation of mankind, assuredly the absence of religion would be preferable.

Religion must conform to reason and be in accord with the conclusions of science. For religion, reason and science are realities; therefore, these three, being realities, must conform and be reconciled. A question or principle which is religious in its nature must be sanctioned by science. Science must declare it to be valid, and reason must confirm it in order that it may inspire confidence. If religious teaching, however, be at variance with science and reason, it is unquestionably superstition. The Lord of mankind has bestowed upon us the faculty of reason whereby we may discern the realities of things. How then can man rightfully accept any proposition which is not in conformity with the processes of reason and the principles of science? Assuredly such a course cannot inspire man with confidence and real belief.

Brian Aull
Baha'i Chaplain