“Religion … must go hand-in-hand with science”
– The Baha’i Writings
In this blog, I address the question of whether or not belief in God is valid in the age of science.
My approach to the issue is to divide the question into two parts, the first of which is to address whether or not science allows belief in higher realities. The next step is to determine if belief in higher realities is compatible with belief in God.
Some views by scientists who dismiss the validity of belief in God
Many people – a number of prominent scientist among them – believe that science and religion are not compatible.
Emile Durkheim (1858 – 1917), perhaps the most prominent French sociologist, wrote:
“The idea of God which seemed to be the sum total of religion a short while ago is now no more than a minor accident. It is a psychological phenomena … “
Max Mueller (1823 -1900), who popularized the comparative study of religion, believed that belief in God stemmed from feelings of awe inspired by natural phenomena: the sun, the moon, the stars, lightning, etc. Man ascribed supernatural qualities to them.
Edward Tylor (1832 – 1917), the most influential anthropologist of his day, viewed religion as beginning with animism – the primitive pre-scientific belief that everything – animate or inanimate – is inhabited by a spirit.
And a number of prominent physical scientists – the Noble prize winning physicist Steven Weinberg among them – believe religion to be based on ignorance and blind adherence to pre-scientific explanations of the nature of the world. Or, more cynically, they believe that religions are based on made-up stories used to obtain riches and power by leaders who know how to manipulate people’s hopes and fears, much in the same way that politicians manipulate their followers by evoking terrorism or advertisers stir up desires to buy by pressing psychological buttons.
Central to these views, and a host of others, is the conviction that religion MUST be due to something other than a valid belief in God and the dismissal of belief in God as totally untenable.
Is there such a thing as a higher reality?
If God exists, then there must be something higher than the ordinary reality studied by scientists and observed by us in our day-to-day activities. By higher realities, I mean things that are not the normal realities of our everyday world of experience: they transcend normal realities. An airplane is a normal reality of our experience – we can see it, touch it, fly in it. God is not.
If there are no higher realities than ordinary reality, then Durkheim, Mueller, Freud, Weinberg and Dawkins – to name a few – are right. Religion is merely a social-phenomena that happened to be around – to have the luck of good timing – when the world’s great cultures flowered in with religion at their core.
But if there are higher realities, we can then take the further step of inquiring whether or not belief in God – and religion as a response to that belief – is valid.
So, to the chase. Can we identify one or more higher realities?
The laws of nature as a higher reality
Consider the idea of the laws of nature, or the idea in the physical sciences that matter obeys mathematical laws.
Certainly, this is a belief in a higher reality, and one that is wholly valid from a scientific point of view. Of course, it is essential to any and all scientific investigations. Without the laws of nature, there could be no regular patterns of behavior to study, no mathematical laws – be they deterministic or statistical – to apply. According to current ideas about the laws of nature, all things are totally dependent on them for their existence. Without the laws of nature, nothing would exist.
The laws of nature cannot be seen. Nobody, for example, has seen the law of gravity. So, like God, they are invisible and unseen.
So, we find at the heart of any and all scientific understanding of the world the view that there are fixed laws of nature which hold absolute dominion over all created things. These laws are the higher reality of science.
[Note: Some might say that the laws of nature are inanimate – and therefore less than the complicated phenomena that leap into being through the fecundity of, say, biological processes. But, if this view is to be endorsed, then something else – the laws of evolution at play in biological systems – must be responsible. But those laws are not separate from the laws of nature.]
Intelligence as a higher reality
A higher reality that all are familiar with is intelligence – the mind, rationality, reason – and its products, science prominent among them. There are few scientists that would deny the existence of intelligence – at least their own intelligence – and most would agree that it is an essential component of the scientific process.
At the core of our valuation of intelligence is that it (a) has the power to search into the realities of things and to comprehend them, and (b) that it can use what it comprehends to create new and previously unknown realities.
For an example of (b) consider how our knowledge of the properties of light and electricity, combined with our command of materials science and telecommunication engineering, combined with our ability to manufacture small compact digital machines with built-in power sources, combined with our increasing command of the information processing sciences has led to the creation of a world-wide internet of unprecedented and unanticipated scope.
The capabilities of our minds clearly – and without a doubt – show the existence of a higher reality that transcends every day normal realities.
Certainly, there exist higher realities than normal realities, and we have identified (1) the laws of nature and intelligence and (2) the power of reason as two examples not rejected by science. Indeed, both are essential to science.
But the undoubted existence of these higher realities does not prove that belief in the existence of God is valid in light of modern science. That requires another step which we will describe in next week’s blog.
This is 3rd in a series of blogs on religion in the age of science by Stephen Friberg, a Bahá’í living in Mountain View, California. Stephen did extensive research in quantum optics in Japan before joining the semiconductor industry in Silicon Valley.