“The task of humanity…is to create a global civilization which embodies both the spiritual and material dimensions of existence.”
The Universal House of Justice
Jan 22, 2012. We don’t usually think of science as playing a role in religion. This is because – I think – we are so strongly influenced by the secular spirit of the age. Religion, we think, is about immaterial truths – morals, ethics, and related kinds of things. Science is concerned, we tend to think, with nature.
Stephen J. Gould – the science writer, paleontologist, and evolutionary biologist – argued this point in Rocks of Ages, his influential book on science and religion. Gould describes science and religion as two non-overlapping “magisteria,” one “our drive to understand the factual character of nature (the magisterium of science)” and the other “our need to define meaning in our lives and a moral basis for our actions (the magisterium of religion).” (For an insightful critique of Gould’s perspective, see Ursala Goodenough’s review of Rocks of Ages in the American Scientist.)
The Baha’i writings don’t endorse the clear distinction between science and religion that Gould postulates. My reasons for concluding this are that:
- Science and religion both draw on the same source – the intellect – for their understandings.
- Religion requires science, its methods, and its understandings it is to avoid straying into superstition and thus becoming a source of contention, disunity and various problems.
- The ends of religion – including those of being true to its own teachings, maintaining and organizing its activities, maintaining strong communities, and transforming the world – require a command of science, its techniques, and its means of seeking out truth.
Baha’i Perspectives on Why Religion Should use Science
Religion and Intellect
The Baha’i Writings describe our intellect as God’s greatest gift to humanity. According to`Abdu’l-Baha (as quoted in Paris Talks):
Intellect is, in truth, the most precious gift bestowed upon man by the Divine Bounty. …God gave this power to man that it might be used for the advancement of civilization, for the good of humanity, to increase love and concord and peace. …Study the sciences, acquire more and more knowledge.
Clearly, engaging in religion without using the intellect is to fail to use God’s most precious gift to man. Or, to put in another way, religion without science is like belief without thought. Again `Abdu’l-Baha:
We may think of science as one wing and religion as the other; a bird needs two wings for flight, one alone would be useless. Any religion that contradicts science or that is opposed to it, is only ignorance — for ignorance is the opposite of knowledge. Religion which consists only of rites and ceremonies of prejudice is not the truth. Let us earnestly endeavour to be the means of uniting religion and science. …Whatever the intelligence of man cannot understand, religion ought not to accept. Religion and science walk hand in hand, and any religion contrary to science is not the truth.
It follows that true religion and science are not in contradiction:
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. How can a man believe to be a fact that which science has proved to be impossible? If he believes in spite of his reason, it is rather ignorant superstition than faith. The true principles of all religions are in conformity with the teachings of science.
Religion Without Science
What happens when religion falls away from science?
A powerful statement of the Baha’i understanding of what happens is the “Fourth Principle – The Acceptance of the Relation Between Religion and Science,” again in Paris Talks. Speaking in 1911, `Abdu’l-Baha criticized all of the religions of the day as out of harmony with science and thus falling into superstitious practices and clinging to outward forms, not inward truths:
All religions of the present day have fallen into superstitious practices, out of harmony alike with the true principles of the teaching they represent and with the scientific discoveries of the time. Many religious leaders have grown to think that the importance of religion lies mainly in the adherence to a collection of certain dogmas and the practice of rites and ceremonies! Those whose souls they profess to cure are taught to believe likewise, and these cling tenaciously to the outward forms, confusing them with the inward truth.
When religion falls away from science, the result is “discord, hatred, and disunion” and leaders of thought understandably conclude that science and religion are in conflict with science:
Now, these forms and rituals differ in the various churches and amongst the different sects, and even contradict one another; giving rise to discord, hatred, and disunion. The outcome of all this dissension is the belief of many cultured men that religion and science are contradictory terms, that religion needs no powers of reflection, and should in no wise be regulated by science, but must of necessity be opposed, the one to the other.
The unfortunate effect of this is that science has drifted apart from religion, and religion has become a mere blind and more or less apathetic following of the precepts of certain religious teachers, who insist on their own favourite dogmas being accepted even when they are contrary to science. This is foolishness, for it is quite evident that science is the light, and, being so, religion truly so-called does not oppose knowledge.
`Abdu’l-Baha can very much sound like a new atheist condemning religion for being out of touch with science:
We are familiar with the phrases ‘Light and Darkness’, ‘Religion and Science’. But the religion which does not walk hand in hand with science is itself in the darkness of superstition and ignorance. Much of the discord and disunion of the world is created by these man-made oppositions and contradictions.
Look around and see how the world of today is drowned in superstition and outward forms!
Some worship the product of their own imagination: they make for themselves an imaginary God and adore this, when the creation of their finite minds cannot be the Infinite Mighty Maker of all things visible and invisible! Others worship the sun or trees, also stones! In past ages there were those who adored the sea, the clouds, and even clay!
Acknowledging the same problems that the new atheists attack, `Abdu’l-Baha then points out that “the strength and power of religion must not be doubted because of the incapacity of these persons to understand.”
Today, men have grown into such adoring attachment to outward forms and ceremonies that they dispute over this point of ritual or that particular practice, until one hears on all sides of wearisome arguments and unrest. There are individuals who have weak intellects and their powers of reasoning have not developed, but the strength and power of religion must not be doubted because of the incapacity of these persons to understand.
A small child cannot comprehend the laws that govern nature, but this is on account of the immature intellect of that child; when he is grown older and has been educated he too will understand the everlasting truths. A child does not grasp the fact that the earth revolves round the sun, but, when his intelligence is awakened, the fact is clear and plain to him.
It is impossible for religion to be contrary to science, even though some intellects are too weak or too immature to understand truth.
The solution is for science and religion to walk together:
If religion were in harmony with science and they walked together, much of the hatred and bitterness now bringing misery to the human race would be at an end.
Consider what it is that singles man out from among created beings, and makes of him a creature apart. Is it not his reasoning power, his intelligence? Shall he not make use of these in his study of religion? I say unto you: weigh carefully in the balance of reason and science everything that is presented to you as religion. If it passes this test, then accept it, for it is truth! If, however, it does not so conform, then reject it, for it is ignorance!
He urges us to put our beliefs in harmony with science:
God made religion and science to be the measure, as it were, of our understanding. Take heed that you neglect not such a wonderful power. Weigh all things in this balance.
Put all your beliefs into harmony with science; there can be no opposition, for truth is one. When religion, shorn of its superstitions, traditions, and unintelligent dogmas, shows its conformity with science, then will there be a great unifying, cleansing force in the world which will sweep before it all wars, disagreements, discords and struggles — and then will mankind be united in the power of the Love of God.
The Baha’i Writings, as the quotes above clearly show, demand that religion be brought into harmony with science. Failing to do so brings disaster. Doing so brings a “great unifying, cleansing force.” The Baha’i standards can seem impossibly high…but we can see clearly that they are the way to go.
Next week, we describe some aspects of how the worldwide Baha’i community is working to bring religion into harmony with science.
This is the 14th in a series of blogs on religion and science working together to create a global civilization. The author, Stephen Friberg, is a Bahá’í living in Mountain View, California. He did extensive research in quantum optics in Japan before joining the semiconductor industry in Silicon Valley.