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Religion and Science Essays

Religion and Science

Religion, in essence, is a quest for God, it is a quest for the ultimate truth of the universe. Philosophy too is a quest for truth, and so is science. In fact, till the 17th century science used to be a part of philosophy. And religion too is generally closely associated with philosophy, especially in the East. The Eastern religions of Hinduism and Buddhism have deep philosophies underpinning them. While the Western religions, Judaism and Christianity, too may have philosophical or mystical components, these philosophies exist at the margins rather than at the core of the religion (Capra 19). The philosophies of the Western religions are more like apologetics defending the dogma of their religion rather than independent investigations of truth in their own right. Philosophy can be seen as the nexus between religion and science. Those religions that have a strong philosophical component tend to be compatible with science. And those religions that are based on dogma, whose philosophies appear to be rather an afterthought, tend to be opposed to science. In this essay we will examine one dogma-based religion of the West, Christianity, and one philosophy-based religion of the East, Hinduism, and shall argue that Christianity is not compatible with science while Hinduism is eminently so. Since the West discovered science and the West made enormous technological progress during the past several centuries, and that East did not, it is perhaps naïvely believed by many people that the Western religions are more compatible with science than the Eastern religions. However the truth is that, contrary to popular belief, the Eastern religions are fully compatible with science while Western religions are fundamentally antagonistic to the spirit of scientific inquiry.

Religions can be of two-types based on the purposes they serve. One type of religion could serve only to provide us solace and comfort, while the other type of religion serves to lead us toward the truth. The God of the former is just an illusion, as Freud emphasizes. The God of the latter is the God of science and philosophy too. The former appeals to emotion, while the latter appeals to reason. Either in the East or the West, religions practiced by the common people essentially thrive on their emotional appeal. So much so that it is normally difficult to believe that a religion could be based on a rational approach to the world. Hinduism as is popularly practiced by hundreds of millions of Hindus of India is as much a religion based on blind beliefs and childish fairytales as is Christianity or Islam. Yet Hinduism has a core component of philosophy called Vedanta, which is the essence and the glory of this ancient religion.

Typically, Hindus have a very high regard for their Vedantic philosophy, nonetheless hardly anyone has anything but the vaguest notion about what Vedanta is all about. Vedanta proclaims that the existence is one whole (Torwesten 8). Interestingly, the ultimate truth of Vedanta — called the Brahman — is officially the ultimate God of Hinduism too, but scarcely a handful of Hindus out of a thousand would have even heard about the name Brahman or have an inkling of what It is. Hinduism as is commonly practiced in India and elsewhere has not much to do with philosophy, it is nothing but a vibrant, elaborate mythology. Yet this kind of popular Hinduism is readily reconcilable with its philosophic core, which in turn can perfectly complement modern physics.

Oddly enough, Hinduism is reconcilable to philosophy not because it is amenable to some kind of explanations of a philosophical nature, but because it can be outright discarded by philosophy. That is to say, there exists a clear demarcation in Hinduism between religion based on emotional appeal and religion based on reason; Hinduism is both, and yet both of them are not mixed up.  Christianity is not compatible with science because it unnecessarily dabbles in philosophy and mixes them up both, this mix-up being called Christian theology. If only Christianity had the moral courage to accept its central myths for what they are, just emotionally-satisfying myths, as Hinduism does, it could have been more compatible with science, at least in a preliminary fashion. Hinduism does not have a theology, it has mythology and it has philosophy but no muddle in between. A subtle point here is that Hinduism may attach philosophy to mythology, but it does not attach mythology to philosophy, and so the integrity of its philosophy is preserved. Christianity, however, does it both ways, attaches philosophy to mythology and mythology to philosophy; any philosophical grounding that Christianity might have is thoroughly corrupted by the absorption of a whole pack of dogmatic elements into it. Therefore Christian philosophy has not been able to develop an affinity for science, though religion and science are essentially closely allied pursuits in general.

Hinduism, as mythology, is indifferent to science, and is therefore helpful to the pursuit of science via negativa, by not hindering or interfering with it. For example, if the Hindu mythology says that Brahma (not to be confused with the Absolute Brahman) created the world, and science says that the world came from the Big Bang, there is no contradiction between these two as they exist on different levels. Here the relationship between science and religion works in the same way as in the much simpler example of Shiva. One of the personal supreme Gods of Hinduism, Shiva is depicted as seated in the Himalayas, having his permanent abode in those icy mountains (Michaels, Harsav 11). Now, science says that Himalayas were not there before 60 million years ago, the mountain ranges only formed as the Indian subcontinent drifted across the ocean and collided with the Asian land mass, driven by plate tectonics. In this context, Hindu theologians would not ask where Shiva was before the Himalayas formed. Such a question would be silly and irrelevant, and there are no Hindu theologians as such in the first place to such questions. Also, Hinduism would not be in a crisis because explorers have by now passed by every nook and corner in the Himalayas and nobody ever stumbled on anything like Shiva’s abode in all that vast frozen landscape. The fact that Shiva and his consort Parvati were not located anywhere in the geographical Himalayas does not in any way affect Hinduism.  For millions who daily worship Shiva, the concern does not arise even remotely that the whole of Himalayas have been explored and Shiva’s abode was not found — so is Shiva real or not? We cannot argue with a devout Hindu that Shiva has not been spotted anywhere in the Himalayas (particularly, Mt. Kailash), and so the Lord God may be nothing more than a figment of imagination. Such an argument would appear childish and absurd to the Hindu (Subramanian, 41).

However, if a discrepancy of similar magnitude were to occur in Christianity, suppose one day it should be conclusively proven that the historical Jesus never existed, the Christian religion would crumble or at least it would find itself in a terrible existential crisis. Hinduism is not concerned with history, geography, biology and so on, and to a large extent even with astronomy though Hinduism is strongly associated with Hindu astrology — and therefore it does not obstruct these sciences, it allows them to grow and develop as they would in the natural course of things. Christianity, on the contrary, perceives the development of any of a number of major sciences as a threat to its integrity. The scientific approach as such goes against the way of Christianity, a dogma-based religion that makes philosophy subservient to itself. Christianity would best thrive in the kind of social milieu that was present in the Dark Ages. Or, even if technology had to develop in order to make human life less insufferable, Christianity would have liked to make science too subservient to itself. And the Church did indeed try to tame science in the way it tamed philosophy.

In the early decades of the first millennium, the rise of Christianity originally meant death to both philosophy and science. And while technology did not disappear, it stagnated and its level of sophistication significantly deteriorated over time. This was the height of Dark Ages in Europe. The amazing thing about this period is that people actually forgot that there ever existed a flourishing civilization in Ancient Greece and the study of philosophy flowered in it. People did not know anything about Aristotle, Plato, Socrates, Pythagoras and a host of other such great Greek philosophers. The legacy of Greece was pushed into oblivion, probably very deliberately, by the Church. And in all probability, even the names of the great Greek philosophers were completely forgotten in Europe and Turkey, the seat of the Byzantine Empire. If only these conditions persisted, the Church could have continued to rule for thousands of years and would have presided over the destiny of mankind.

However, philosophy and science are natural impulses of the human intellect. They can arise anywhere spontaneously if even a little leeway is given to them. During the later centuries of the first millennium, the scientific spirit was rekindled in the Islamic societies in the Middle East, and an exciting new intellectual revolution was taking place. It was a fantastic age of intellectual exuberance in Baghdad and other centers of learning of the regions, but unfortunately this movement was short-lived — owing to a fatal flaw embedded in its very heart. Great minds of that era committed a basic mistake of mixing up Islamic dogma, which has nothing to do with philosophy, with philosophy. Averroes (Ibn-Rushd), for example, was a theologian, philosopher, scientist, mathematician, astronomer, and so on, all in one, as were many other geniuses of the time — despite the fact that philosophy/science and Islamic theology were fundamentally incompatible with each other. These people did not have the courage to discard Islamic religious influences altogether and to continue the pursuit science and philosophy with rigorous intellectual honesty. Doing science and theology at the same time is akin to pressing the accelerator and the brake of a car at the same time, it would cause tremendous confusion that would lead nowhere. The intellectual revolution that surged in the Islamic empire ended all too soon. However these people left an enduring legacy: the translations of the works of Aristotle and other Greek philosophers.

The Islamic empire was connected to Ancient Greece via Alexandria. When Christianity was expanding in its influence in Europe, the library of Alexandria stood as the last bastion of science and philosophy in the Western world. It was eventually destroyed. The final ransacking of this great sacred temple of knowledge happened in the hands of Islamic hordes. They looted and burnt down the library, because it was believed that the Koran was the only book that needed to be studied. Some of the most precious works preserved in the library of Alexandria were thus randomly scattered all over the Islamic world. Meanwhile, the Abbasid Caliph Al Mamun (rule 813-833) rose to power in Baghdad. He was a staunch believer but still had a liberal, rationalist orientation of mind. Al-Mamun searched for knowledge, and tried to secure the copies of the original works from wherever he could (Gaston). He collected and restored the works of Plato, Aristotle, Hippocrates, Galen, Euclid, Ptolemy and others — the sum of human knowledge at that time sadly languishing in decrepitude. And so a scientific and cultural movement was underway, which could have led very soon to Renaissance had it not been for the excessive importance given to Koran during this cultural bloom. Baghdad could have been another Athens if it stood true to the spirit of philosophical and scientific inquiry, but it did not. Islamic culture subsequently slipped into perpetual nescience, but the works of the Greeks now translated into Arabic ended up in Spain, Europe. Once again the Greeks quickly sparked an intellectual ferment.

Although Greek philosophy and the Church dogma are absolutely antithetical, in the 13th century Thomas Aquinas somehow managed to amalgamate Aristotle into the Christian doctrine, and as strange as it may seem, Aristotle became the Church’s official philosopher. Philosophy became effectively subservient to superstitious dogma. A few centuries further on, as a direct consequence of the transmission of the Arabic translations of Greek philosophy into Europe, the Age of Renaissance commenced and empirical science evolved. The Church once again tried to make the emerging science subservient to its dogma, but this time it failed.

In AD 1600 the Church was still all powerful; it could humiliate, torture and burn Giordano Bruno at the stake for claiming that there would be other intelligent life forms in other planets spread across the universe. However, just a couple of decades later, it could not repeat its performance with Galileo, simply because Galileo was not merely talking and arguing and deducing like all the philosophers before him did — he had a telescope, he could show things to people directly. The Church tried to domesticate Galileo, but it could not. And so, the Catholic Church could not stem the rising tide of modern science which would soon sweep across the world.

In the twentieth century, seeing that all opposition to science is futile, the Catholic stance became increasingly tolerant and accommodative toward science. The Church could do this by separating philosophy from mythology, or by rendering its philosophy very loose and elastic. Things came to a full circle recently when the Vatican accepted that intelligent life forms could exist on other planets in the universe (Associated Press). The Catholic religion is becoming increasingly compatible with science because it is increasingly willing to release its hold on philosophy, humbled like an old wise man. But this is not the case with Protestantism; like a brash, stubborn teenager it seeks to accommodate science, philosophy and everything into its ridiculous dogmatic framework. For example, it cannot let the biological theory of evolution go on its own way, because that would contradict the Bible’s exclusive claim to Truth (Berra 6).

Protestantism is currently involved in a bitter, protracted battle against science. Protestant Christianity is not only not compatible with science, it is rabidly inimical to scientific thinking, and in the near future, it could become the nemesis of science and bring about another long episode of Dark Ages in human history, if it had its way (Jesus Camp). Today, we are witnessing a faceoff between Christianity and Science. Only one of them is likely to survive in the future. Considering the astronomical proportions of the innate stupidity of men, it is very likely that religion will utterly vanquish science once again, just as it happened in the 11th and 12th century in the Islamic world. Over the past four centuries, from the time of Galileo and Newton, the world has seen light. But maybe the brief spell of light is over, and dark clouds hovering at the horizon appear to be rushing in to fill the skies.

However, in the rare event that science triumphs, Protestant Christianity either has to become tame like Catholicism is, or it has to simply disappear. This does not mean, though, that there would not be or cannot be a strong presence of religion in an age of science. Science is not intrinsically incompatible with a belief in God. Newton believed in the Christian God, Einstein believed in a mystical God, and even during the Age of Reason in the 18th century, a person like Voltaire who vehemently opposed the Church all his life was nevertheless a strong believer in God. The belief in God simply implies that there is a presence of deep order in the things of this world, that things do not exist randomly in any which way they like; and science too is based on a very similar premise that there is a complex and intricate order in this world, and this order has to be explored. Science in fact is more incompatible with atheism than with theism. What science needs is a rational religion.

Religions like Hinduism are perfectly compatible with science. Hinduism, as mythology, does not care about science, has no need to oppose science and so offers no resistance to the growth of science. This kind of religion is suitable for the masses who depend on religion to receive emotional succor. However, this is a minor consideration. The important thing is that Vedanta and modern physics are highly complementary to each other. This was recognized way back in 1930’s by quantum pioneers like Erwin Schrodinger. Any religion that does not present overt opposition to science can be considered compatible with science. But Hinduism goes much further. It supports, encourages and inspires scientific thinking. Science is a search for the unity of existence; this unity, order, and oneness in existence is denoted in the non-dualistic Hindu philosophy of Advaita Vedanta by the name of Brahman.

Research Log:

I stumbled upon and went through 1970’s cult classic Fritjof Capra’s Tao of Physics a few years ago. This book provoked my interest in Eastern religions, especially Hinduism and Buddhism. I am particularly intrigued by such an uncanny correlation between some of the sayings of Hindu and Buddhist philosophies and the findings of modern physics. And I have a fairly good idea of the history of the Catholic Church’s oppression and persecution in the medieval times, the witch hunts, the burnings at stake and so on. My interest in Christianity’s dark past began when I watched the movie Joan of Arc on the TV.  Tao of Physics and many other books of 70’s and 80’s in the same vein made me develop a fascination for quantum mechanics and modern physics. Therefore, among the choice of questions presented for this assignment, I picked up the task of comparing “two religious traditions in order to determine which one is or has been more congenial to scientific inquiry.” Because of my previous knowledge in this area, I started with the assumption that Hinduism is congenial to science and Christianity is not, which became my working thesis. With my library research I had only to brush up my knowledge and corroborate my opinions so that I could write an academic paper and be sure of what I am speaking. I knew that I was not going to find anything radically new through my research, it was needed only to organize my thoughts and make a coherent presentation.

Capra, Fritjof. “Tao of Physics by. An Exploration of the Parallels between Modern Physics and Eastern Mysticism.” Boston, MA : Shambala Publications, 1975

This book is of course my first choice. Although people in the West began to appreciate the deep insights of Eastern philosophies from the days of Schopenhauer and Emerson in the 19th century, and although many of the legendary scientists that formulated the fundamentals of quantum mechanics and atomic physics were not only aware but were influenced by the Eastern thought, it was not until this book came into the market in the mid 1970’s that people at large that the strange discoveries of modern science were foreshadowed long ago in ancient Eastern philosophies. “We shall see how the two foundations of twentieth-century physics – quantum theory and relativity theory – both force us to see the world very much in the way a Hindu, Buddhist or Taoist sees it…,” says Capra in the introduction of the book (p.18).

Torwesten, Hans. “Vedanta: Heart of Hinduism.” New York : Grove Press, 1991
This book is a concise exposition of Advaita Vedanta. I had to refer to this book to reinforce my familiarity with Vedanta.

Ewing, Heidi, Rachel Grady, Jesus Camp. Documentary, 2006.
I had to watch this video to understand how the pernicious influence of Protestant fundamentalism is spreading across America. The documentary shows the process of indoctrination of children during an evangelical Christianity summer camp. ‘We are engaged today in a culture war,’ says the voice of an evangelist among the radio snippets played at the beginning of the film. It is a rather accurate description. But this is not just a culture war, the fundamentalist movement is essentially at war against science and civilization.

Freud, Sigmund. “The Future of an Illusion.” The Complete  Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud. Vol. 21. 1968. http://www.adolphus.nl/xcrpts/xcfreudill.html
I had to read a bit of Freud to confirm my view all the religions practiced by masses are what I thought they were, basically pure nonsense. In his books The Future of an Illusion and Civilization and Its Discontents, Freud equates religion to delusion and illusion. In the former book, an “illusion” is merely seen as a false belief or hope that fulfills some wishful thinking. In the latter book, Freud expands the scope of the word “illusion” to encompass all kinds of inner experiences, and not just beliefs, that could be in sharp contrast with external reality, of which religious experience is one.
The religions of mankind must be classed among the mass-delusions of this kind. No one, needless to say, who shares a delusion ever recognizes it as such.

Indeed it would be very wise to adopt a skeptical view toward religions. But the beauty of Eastern mysticism, and much of the lesser-known Western mysticism too in fact, is that they go far beyond Freud.

After doing some amount of preliminary research I still had to learn a lot about India and Hinduism which were not available in books. For this I approached my chat friends from India.

Works Cited

Associated Press. Vatican: It’s OK to Believe in Aliens. 13 May, 2008. 08 May 2010. <http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/24598508/ >

Berra, Tim M. “Evolution and the Myth of Creationism.” Stanford, CA : Stanford University Press, 1990

Capra, Fritjof. “Tao of Physics by. An Exploration of the Parallels between Modern Physics and Eastern Mysticism.” Boston, MA : Shambala Publications, 1975

Jesus Camp. Video Documentary, 2006.

Freud, Sigmund. “The Future of an Illusion.” The Complete  Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud. Vol. 21. 1968. http://www.adolphus.nl/xcrpts/xcfreudill.html

Gaston Wiet. “Baghdad: Metropolis of the Abbasid Caliphate.” Norman, OK : University of Oklahoma Press, 1971. Available on the net. 08 May  2010 <http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/med/wiet.html>

Michaels, Axel, Barbara Harshav. “Hinduism: Past and Present.” Princeton, NJ  : Princeton University Press, 2004

Subramanian, V. K. “The Upanishads and the Bible.” New Delhi : Abhinav Publications, 2002

APA format of sources mentioned in the Log:

Capra, F. (1975). Tao of Physics by. An Exploration of the Parallels between Modern Physics and Eastern Mysticism. Boston, MA : Shambala Publications.

Subramanian, V. K. (2002). The Upanishads and the Bible. New Delhi : Abhinav Publications,

Freud, S. (1968) The Future of an Illusion. The Complete  Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud. Vol. 21. Retrieved 08 May 2010 from http://www.adolphus.nl/xcrpts/xcfreudill.html

Jesus Camp. Video Documentary, 2006.


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