I recently read a blog post which dwells on the perceived conflict between science and religion. While I cannot claim to be an expert in either, here are some thoughts.
Many believe that our belief in a higher power originated with the need to explain where we came from and what happens to us after we die. For a long time, natural disasters and epidemics were considered a wrath of God. Human beings thought that the only way to avoid or overcome them was to appease the Gods. It seems, as though, when the answers to life’s questions eluded us, we wanted to believe that it was the work of an unseen and unknown supreme being. It is something that we practice to this day when we say “God knows” to a question that we don’t know the answer to. Maybe, it is our desire to believe that there is some way to influence things that are beyond our control that made us believe in God; that if we are in the Almighty’s good graces, things will work in our favour.
But, soon, science came along. It provided rational explanations for the same things that were once attributed to a divine entity. The reasons for earthquakes, hurricanes and other phenomena were determined and we, even, found ways to predict and mitigate their deadly effects. Causes of life-threatening diseases were identified and cures for ailments were developed. Science went on to explain how all living organisms evolved over time to become what they are today.
Maybe, science answering questions, that were once attributed to God’s handiwork, created an impression that it was encroaching on religious territory. Because, for people furthering the cause of religion, the more that can be attributed to God, the better. This view, however, would mean trusting the unproven over the proven. Religion may have been the only answer once upon a time. But evidence and facts cannot be ignored.
How much a person believes in one over the other depends upon their own experiences with the two. It is akin to a child who favours one parent over another because that parent fulfils the child’s every wish. A person who has experienced first-hand the miracles of modern science will tend to favour it over religion. Take a woman who, after being childless for many years, conceives using IVF. For her, science is nothing short of a miracle and the doctor is no less than God. Whereas, a person for whom science offers no hope, will turn to faith as a last resort. Consider a man who is in the advanced stages of a terminal disease where, despite all its advances, modern medicine can only do so much. If he recovers, his faith in God is sealed. If not, religion offers, at least, some consolation in the idea of life after death.
Science is based on proven facts. It can tell you about the sun, the stars and the galaxies beyond our own, the highest mountains and the deepest oceans. But it has its limitations. As human beings evolved, our lives became about more than just survival. We began to search for meaning in our lives beyond who we were and what we did; a purpose beyond our mundane existence. Scientific theories cannot help here. For example, science does not have an answer for what happens after death beyond the decomposition of our bodies. And, as human beings, who care about life and want to believe that it does not end with death, these existential questions can be very troubling.
Our internal struggles and conflicts cannot be explained or resolved by science. Science cannot tell you what is right and what is wrong. That is a question of morality. While morality is not synonymous with religion, for many, religion acts as moral compass. Morality is an important part of religion and every religion has some guiding principles on how to live a righteous life. Religious scriptures elucidate the idea of an immortal soul and heaven and hell to keep their followers on the straight and narrow.
Another shortcoming of science is that it is difficult for most people to understand. Religion, on the contrary, has a very strong hold. So much so that people tend not to challenge things that they are asked to follow in the name of religion. In some instances, religion has been used to enforce practices that, over time, have proven to be rooted in science. It is possible that people observed benefits of such practices and decided to codify them in religion without knowing the scientific reasons at the time. Or, maybe, it was just easier to get people to follow them if they were associated with religion.
Religion can drive people to be good and do good. It can provide hope and strength like no other. But, at the same time, it can be used to exploit people and justify horrendous acts. No wonder, Karl Marx called it “the opium of the masses”. This makes a scientific approach to religion necessary. We need to question religion rather than accept it blindly. Because, when you challenge something, and it survives, your faith in it only grows stronger. It, also, makes it difficult for others to mislead you. It is easy to blame God when something bad happens when the fact is that most bad things are caused by the actions of men. We need to accept responsibility for our actions rather than blame a higher power for it.
Science and Religion both have a place in human lives. Their purposes do not conflict. Facts are universal while faith is personal. Science deals with the tangible while the intangible is the realm of religion. Science enables us to understand things in and around us. Religion, on the other hand, serves to help us on the journey to discovering ourselves.