The Relationship between Religion and Science
By: Ali Reza Amini Mohsen Javadi
There are three views regarding the relationship between religion and science as follows:
A. Science and religion are two opposing poles
Some imagine that science and religion are rivals and that if religion flourishes it will have an arbitrary effect on science and vice versa. Unfortunately, it cannot be denied that the improper attitude of the clergy—particularly during the Middle Ages—in dealing with science has strengthened the rationale behind this notion.
The basic assumption here is that religion, like empirical sciences, aims at discovering natural laws. However, in most cases the ever-changing scientific views are at odds with some immutable religious accounts especially about the natural world. The Christian Bible, according to the church leaders, supports the geocentric notion that the earth is the center of the universe, while science has acknowledged the sun as the center of the universe (solar system). As another example, religion endorses the theory of fixed creation of species while science allegedly talks about the evolution of species.
Those who enjoyed the utilities of science and considered them to be in conflict with religion denied the latter. It is said that whenever a person turns away from the true religion, another thing or a set of things will pose as “religion” though it may not explicitly assume the name “religion”. At our present period, some have replaced religion with science. The reason behind this is insufficient knowledge of the true religion and the reality of the world, which is marred with hundreds of mistakes.
B. Science and religion are two parallel lines that do not intersect each other
The contention of those who cannot agree with the setting aside of religion in the domain of life is that religion and science are two different and separate things and have their own specific yet different functions and utilities. As such, any contradiction between them is baseless. Contradiction between two things happens when they deal with a single subject and give different opinions about it. However, if the subject, goal and even method of one are different from that of the other, conflict between them will never happen. The basic assumption here is that the function of science is to explain natural events through observation and experiment in order to predict future events and gain supremacy over nature. In contrast, the function of religion is totally different and applicable somewhere else.
Carl Bart, a Protestant theologian, believed that theology and science dealt with basically different subjects. The subject of theology was the manifestation of God in Christ while that of science was the natural world. The Almighty God could only be known through His manifestation while nature was known through the human intellect.
Existentialist philosophers usually regard scientific knowledge as objective and impersonal and religious knowledge as profoundly personal and subjective. The subject of science is material objects and their roles and functions while the subject of religion is personal and moral realities.
Hermeneutists treat religion and science as two different linguistic games, each of which has been programmed for a specific goal. The goal of the scientific language is generally prediction and control while the language of religion is used for purposes like prayer and peace of mind.(Peterson, et al, ‘Aql va I‘tiqād Dīnī, p. 366).
In any case, those who believe in the basic distinction between religion and science—as well as the subject, method and goal of each of them—try to bring back again religion in the life of man after being sidetracked by those who believe in their conflicting nature and assign a role to it which is different from that of science.
C. Science and religion are complimentary
In recent years, some have claimed that it is possible for religion and science to have a single subject while each has its own goal or aim. They do not accept that the subject of one must be different from that of the other, arguing that in many cases, religion has also dealt with natural events. Having an identical subject does not bring about any conflict between them even though the religious explanation of a natural event may be quite different from the scientific explanation. For example, there may be two different explanations of an advertisement billboard posted at a library. One explanation may be concerned with the billboard’s quality and the like while the other explanation’s concern may be the intention of the billboard’s owner for displaying it. Both explanations pertain to one and the same thing but, since they have different goals, no contradiction between them arises. In fact, the explanations are complimentary.
Those who believe that science and religion are complimentary have asserted that whenever religion talks about the natural world, the purpose is to unravel the meaning and implications of natural events while science is concerned with the causes of natural events.
If we pay careful attention to these three views, one thing seems to be common in all of them and that is that religion does not talk about the causes of natural events. When religion discusses nature, it pertains to the significance and implications of real events—the main motive in any religious message is to highlight the meaning of events. For this reason, the Holy Qur’an considers events in the world as “signs” [āyāt] which show the power, knowledge and grace of God. It is said that the phenomena in the world are all “beauties” [jamalāt] which suggests that they are all linked to God and orient us back to Him—the origin of all beauty.
However, negligence of one important and fundamental point has led to a misunderstanding regarding the relationship between science and religion, and that point is that sometimes religion does actually discuss the causes of things and events—just as science does. Religion has mentioned the manner of the occurrence of rain, currents of rain, etc. Discussion of the meaning of events is not in conflict with examination of their causes. This is basically the distinctive feature of the religious worldview—to link meanings and ideals with events in the world and reflect them in the fundamental realities of the universe. It must not be overlooked, therefore, that some religious textual accounts do indeed have scientific relevance.
In such an interpretation of religion, there is the possibility of lack of harmony between a “religious account” and a “scientific finding”. In reply, it must be stated that there must always be a logical explanation for conflict between these two, and there are ways that harmony can be established. One way is to interpret religious texts as much as permissible so that they are understood in the proper context. Another method is to realize that scientific theories are mixed with speculation and need for further investigation. To pay heed to these two points is enough reason not to take these alleged contradictions between science and religion too seriously.
A more fundamental and important point is that the many contradictions between the Bible and science cannot be applied to the Qur’an. Perhaps, one of the reasons behind the occurrence of contradiction between science and religion in Christianity is the distortions [taḥrīf] made to the Bible and this blemish has not been able to taint the Qur’an with regard to science.
Many testimonies have been made and books written about the compatibility of the Qur’anic verses with scientific findings. It is clear that far from being based on realities, this alleged contradiction between science and religion derives from the conflict between religion and scientism, as well as the clash between science, and religious intransigence and narrow-mindedness. As such, belief in any sort of contradiction between religion and knowledge has no benefit except hindering scientific progress and undermining the credibility of religion, while perfect harmony and compatibility exists between the two.
All basic scientific presumptions have flourished and gained acceptance under the auspices of Islamic teachings and perhaps the following saying of Imām ‘Alī (‘a) points to this indisputable truth: “The life of knowledge lies on faith.”(Nahj al-Balāghah (Subḥī Ṣāliḥ), Sermon 156, p. 219).