At the heart of science is questioning and at the heart of any religion once it has lost sight of its roots and original purpose is not questioning. If religion and science had never opposed each other would they be known today by different names? Perhaps a word, currently above ‘syllables and sounds’ would be the description of our being, subsuming our essential reliance on both religion and science for successful survival and progress.
History decreed that priests and scientists at different times would find each other challenging and, thus, a popular dichotomy emerged, an antagonism and mutual mistrust still not resolved today. Nevill Mott, a Nobel Prize winning physicist talked of a ‘pre-scientific’ age but was there one? Archaeologists are constantly discovering more and more ancient signs of intelligent behaviour and if man has always been a distinct species with intelligence and free will then the application of those two must go right back to the earliest of times. Recorded scripture is only known to have existed for around five thousand years and man coped admirably without it for hundreds of thousands of years – learned about flora and fauna and survival in their environment, how to make tools and cook food and how to organise themselves. If most of that behaviour resulted from the accumulation of observations, comparing ideas and experiences and experimentation then perhaps science came before religion and not the other way round.
Carl Sagan has noted that ‘science is not only compatible with spirituality; it is a profound source of spirituality’. That brings us full circle to the idea that religion and science might not have had different labels if disagreement had not accrued. For pre-scriptural man religion and science were, indeed, united in purpose. Thus, it might be said mankind could not have experienced a ‘pre-scientific’ age or a ‘pre-spiritual’ age. Thus, comparisons were and are based, not on our understanding of religion, but on our understanding of scriptural religion as explained by its priests, which may only be a small part of the whole picture.
The problem with comparing religion and science is the fundamental different evolution each experiences. Religions, like so much in life, are subject to birth growth, maturity and disintegration, to be replaced by new birth. Thus, in simplistic terms, when Islam was reaching its maturity with libraries and universities, its scholars went in search of science, exploring the legacy of Greece. When their baton was taken up in Europe, its major church, now declining and entrenched, had become opposed to learning and saw scientific discoveries as a form of blasphemy. The overarching notion was that if God had not revealed it in the scriptures we did not need to know. Scientists became those who dared claim ‘Ignoramus’, meaning ‘we do not know’, and sought, by observation and experimentation, to find out. From the point of declaring ‘ignoramus’ science evolves not in a cyclical fashion, peaking and then declining, but in a linear fashion, each piece of science built on previous science. This diverse development model of each is a major cause of friction between them.
Science generally comes from several motivations including intelligent musing, insatiable
curiosity and urgent necessity. The resultant new knowledge from musing and curiosity may stay in a vacuum or may later serve a practical purpose or be a building block leading to a practical outcome. Scientific knowledge resulting from necessity is, on the other hand originated in its practical application.
The mind is generally focussed most easily on any science that changes the lives of those contemplating it and the greater the number of lives effected by scientific progress the more the focus is on the source of that science. The one event that fundamentally changed more people’s lives across all classes than any other was the industrial revolution which could be considered technical rather than scientific. However, technology is science and the only possible reason it is separated in our minds is snobbery. Universities and their scientists, like the church, distanced themselves from any activity seen as profit motivated. Prior to the industrial revolution all scientist were drawn from the wealthy elite who had access to education. Science, then, did not have a profit motive subsumed within it. It was, in the main, the result of musings and curiosity and very risky in the light of church opposition. Ironically, both Isaac Newton and Charles Darwin had their sights set on a career in the church.
Labels have limited value as evidenced by separately labelling science and religion, which at the outset were integral to life. Technology was then labelled as if it was something separate from science and then it was at first propounded that technology’s development had no spiritual connotations. I am not mindful that any of the ‘manifestations’ of God in their pronouncements ever made a distinction between science and religion. Baha’u’llah has said; ‘Tear ye asunder the veils of names and cleave ye their kingdom.’ (Gleanings CXXI) Yuval Noah Harari in his book ‘Sapiens’ talks of ‘modern science’ stemming from ‘ignoramus’ meaning ‘we don’t know’ but also included ‘what we know could be wrong’ and ‘no knowledge is sacred’.
According to Abdul’-Baha, no religion is ‘sacred’ either. It, too, has responsibilities and as he pointed out, ‘Divine religion is not a cause for discord and disagreement. If religion becomes the source of antagonism and strife, the absence of religion is to be preferred. Religion is meant to be the quickening life of the body politic; if it be the cause of death to humanity, its non-existence would be a blessing and benefit to man’. (‘Foundations for World Unity’). In Paris in 1911 he had stressed, ‘There is no contradiction between true religion and science. When a religion is opposed to science it becomes mere superstition: that which is contrary to knowledge is ignorance.’(Paris Talks)
The Baha’i religion focuses on unity in all realms, religious, political, intellectual and social. The reality of these cannot have lines between them other than imaginary ones drawn up by people with the power and authority to invent such boundaries for self-seeking purposes. Equally a person cannot have lines created between their spiritual, physical and intellectual life. Every aspect of a person’s existence is a united whole. Any label cannot have firm edges in the same way that the Atlantic Ocean and Pacific Ocean are one body of water and the border between them only exists in the mind. It is possible to devote much time arguing about where the boundary lies exactly but it is pointless because there is no boundary. Science and religion are one and the same thing unless they are badly executed. Thus, science can say on occasion to religion, ‘you are getting it wrong’ and religion can sometimes say the same to science. Abdu’l-Baha has assured us that, ‘from the clash of opinion comes the spark of truth’.(Selections from the Writings of Abdu’l-Baha 44)
Abdu’l-Baha used two words, true and divine, to distinguish sensible religion from dysfunctional religion. The current disagreements between established religions’elaborate priesthood and scientists derives from Yuval Noah Harari’s implication that religions claimed we know all we need to know and we get our knowledge from God while scientist objected to this closed mind – leading to the likes of Richard Dawkins going to great lengths to prove all religion is myth.
The type of ‘religious’ dogma that disturbs scientists includes banning teaching evolution across much of the United States, Jehovah Witnesses refusing blood transfusions and birth control issues and its relationship to over-population in poor areas and the spread of HIV/Aids. (It may also include a Saudi Arabian priest justifying women not driving cars because it would damage their ovaries – which is only true if they insist on driving Hillman Imps)
When a serious ethical issue arises from scientific work it is not just the religious world that calls for debate. Atheists, humanists and agnostics of all persuasion also enter the consultation due to a shared sense of what is right and acceptable in our current society. Some of those consulting from an established and traditional religious position can be hamstrung by cherished and ancient dogmas.
In explaining ‘divine’ Abdu’l-Baha has said, ‘the divine teachings are intended to create a bond of unity in the human world and establish the foundations of love and fellowship among mankind.’ Many see the dichotomy between science and religion pivoting on scientific empiricism. In other words, proving what it propounds. Religious teachings, on the other hand, can be seen by scientists as advice in an unproven vacuum. The call now is to ‘know’ rather than ‘believe’. Imagine a room full of representatives of different religions. In their minds there are barriers between them. If suddenly, as one, they decided to just focus on their religion’s Golden Rule they would discover it’s the same – do unto others as you would have them do unto you – the imagined barriers would melt away. A scientist in their midst contemplating that science’s golden rule is discover and invent for others what you would want to have discovered and invented for you would realise, too, they are all now bound together and united by one motive, to serve others. Everything else in life is interesting but, ultimately, does not matter.
Two recent events brought home the ‘empiricism’ of religious ideas. If an event changes a person’s life that experience can now be labelled ‘knowledge’. Volkswagen Car Company, one of the world’s largest, discovered that honesty is, indeed, the best policy. Commentators are running out of noughts to estimate the financial loss the company will eventually face through dishonesty but the loss of trust and goodwill can never be calculated. A wake up call to everyone pushing the boundaries of honesty. A second event hitting the news concerned a hedge fund manager acquiring a pharmaceutical company and raising the price of Daraprim, a drug used for the last sixty two years against parasitic infections, from $13.50 to $750. He obviously had his own justification but, by and large, the rest of the world disagreed with that.
Unless people are professionally involved in science or religion, it is likely that knowledge of its differences will come through the media, originally newspapers and then radio and television. If the media is predominantly commercial, as is increasingly the case around the world, this news will be filtered to us through the media’s bias stance and so we may not have an accurate understanding of what is important. An example is ‘climate change’. However, media commentators point out that the audience for any ‘news’ media is now dwarfed by participants in social media and people gaining information from the internet. Thus, while only a few people could have had their letters printed in newspapers or got through to the switchboard at radio stations to rail against Martin Shkreli’s transparent greed, millions took to social media to condemn this action.
Social Media has enabled billions to participate in opinion giving and, ultimately, shape it. Those billions, in one way or another have had their lives shaped by the principles of religion but are free to voice their personal ‘sensible’ morality without the shackles of ancient religious affiliation. For this reason increasing numbers of people describe themselves as ‘spiritual but not religious’. Is this development and the importance of empiricism in morality leading to a science of reason?