The Relation between Science and Religion
Professor Seyyed Hossein Nasr
What is your definition of science and religion?
Science in answering these queries I have been asked to limit the meaning of the term science to the experimental ( and I presume the mathematical without which experimental science as understood today would not be possible), I shall limit my definition here to modern science, that is, the science which developed in the 16th and 17th centuries in Western Europe on the basis of Islamic and Greek science, but with a very different understanding of the nature of physical reality, epistemology and the relation between the cosmos and the Divine principle than what one finds in the traditional science of nature such as the Islamic.
As for religion, I understand by it revelations of Divine Origin that have led to established traditions which over the millennia have governed the life various segments of humanity. This definition therefore excludes general religious sentiment, recently established ''religions'' or modernized interpretations of religion resulting from even greater secularizations of cosmos, life and thought particularly in the modern West. My comments therefore refer to religion as traditionally understood.
Do you see any conflict between your definitions of these two concepts?
I see any conflict not only between my definitions but most of all between the two realities to which these concepts correspond of science as defined above and given exclusive right over nature as a result of which all knowledge of nature becomes limited to the scientific as is the case in the modern world.
Where do you think there may be a conflict between these two?
If science is accepted as a particular form of knowledge of an aspect of physical reality, then there would be no conflict in principle, but as soon as science is considered as the only legitimate knowledge of the world and what is worse all knowledge that is not scientific is either rejected or is relegated to the realm of poetry, sentiment, imagination, subjectivism and the like, then conflict is to be found with the religious view of reality in numerous domains, some of the most important of which are as follows:
a) from the religious point of view the origin of the universe is the Divine principle, the God of the Abrahamic religions, who transcends the domains of change and becoming. For science such a belief is irrelevant; that is why some scientists are theists, other monists, other agnostics and yet others atheists. These religious positions are irrelevant to their science.
b) for religion all authentic knowledge has its roots in the Divine Intellect and must ultimately lead to or be related to the Divine principle whereas modern science seeks to explain the working religion has access to revelation and intellection as well as to reason, and science other to only reason and sensual knowledge arrived epistemology and under no condition can be reduced to it.
c) According to the Abrahamic religions as well as Hinduism though some are silent on the both of which transcend the temporal sequence of events. Although modern cosmologists speak of the purely naturalistic and ''materialistic'' terms, a view which differs completely from the perspective of traditional cosmologies for which the coming forth and absorption of the cosmos are both in relation to higher orders of reality.
d) All traditional metaphysics and religious views of the cosmos are based on the hierarchy of being. The physical world is loWest level of reality above which stand the various levels of the psychic and spiritual worlds leading finally to the Divine Realm. Modern thought, as a result of the impact of modern science, has caused these levels to be reduced to a single psychophysical realm bringing about a reductionism which characterizes, if not the thought of great scientists themselves, then the general public's understanding of science. These days in Western culture, to understand anything is equated with reducing it to its material basis. While God is denied or made irrelevant to the scientific enterprise, the spirit is reduced to the psyche, the psyche to biological functions, biological functions to chemical ones, and chemistry to physics. While for religions existence itself and all values descents from above, from the source of all reality, in the prevalent scientific world - view and attempt is made to derive everything from below, from the original soup of molecules through that magical process called evolution as a result of which the greatest prophets and saints are simply the result of chance mutations and evolution of atoms and molecules which without and design but by pure accident have resulted in the paragons of human perfection.
e) For religions what appears as ''laws of nature'' are reflections of Divine wisdom and in the Abrahamic monotheism also the Divine will. Moreover, the cosmos is not only created by God, but is sustained by Him at every moment. His creative power makes possible the existence of the cosmos here and now and at every moment of cosmic history and His Will as well as powers and beings in higher realms of existence such as the angels, to use Quranic language, penetrate into and are active in the cosmos. This view is totally against determinism from below, that is, a quantitative determinism, which governs the scientific point of view on the macro-scale whatever interpretation might be given to quantum mechanical probabilities.
f) In all religions the laws which govern the cosmos are related to ethical laws as well as religion which should govern human actions. Words such as tao, rta, sunnat-Allah and nomos (namus) in the far Eastern Hinduism, Buddhism and Islam as well as traditional philosophy all point to the same reality. They all mean both ''laws of nature'' and principles or ethical human action. In total contrast, ''laws of nature'' as conceived by modern science have nothing whatsoever to do with ethics although many scientists are personally highly ethical people.
g) For modern science ''facts'' of nature are phenomena to be studied either mathematically or descriptively in them. They do not refer to a higher order of reality. For religion phenomena of nature are symbols, the ''signs of God'' (ayat Allah, vestigial Dei), symbols of a higher order of reality and gateway to that order.
What have been the grounds for the development of conflict between these two?
All the points mentioned above are grounds for conflict, but the basic ground for conflict comes from the fact that with the Scientific Revolution a new science was born which claimed itself to be the only legitimate science of nature, opposed not only to the religious and theological understanding of nature but also to the other types of sciences of nature such as the Hermetic, which had survived into the Renaissance, but which were soon relegated to realm of ''occult sciences'' and superstition.
From the side of religion there also occurred in Renaissance Europe the very significant event of the loss of the sapient and dimensions of Western Christianity within mainstream religious thought with the result that there remained only a literalism and an anti-intellectual tendency which was defenseless before the challenges of modern science. There remained no sapient and metaphysical school accepted by the mainstream churches which could integrate modern science into a more universal metaphysical framework. Those who did show interest in such matters were soon marginalized and became known as occultists, there being a few exceptions such as the German proponents of Nature philosophy. But even in their case, they were not associated in an effective manner with institutional religion in the West.
What has been the role of religion in the development of science in the West?
Before the Scientific Revolution science in the West was cultivated in monasteries and universities most of which were religious institutions. With the Scientific Revolution many of these universities were transformed to become centers for the propagation of science while newly founded academies such as that of Lincei in Italy and Royal Society in England, which became great patrons of science, had many members from the religious community. There also came into being Catholic orders such as the Jesuit which propagated modern science. The impetus for the growth of science did not; however, come from the Church, but after the trial of Galileo Christianity did not oppose the development of science either except in certain cases where specific theological or ethical were involved. In the West, from the 17th century onward religion receded for the most part before the ever expanding claims of science and left the cosmos to science to explore without any appreciable religious opposition. Rather, in many cases there was encouragement from religious circles and some of the leading scientists were not only religious, but also member of religious orders of priests and ministers.
Can we have a religious science?
Of some time in the West many have sought to separate these domains as a way of creating peace and harmony between science and religion. The traditional sciences of the cosmos, whether Islamic, Indian or Chinese were sciences and at the same time religious in the sense defined above as were the Babylonian and Egyptian sciences. Even early Greek science was ''religious'' before religion, science and philosophy parted ways in the classical period of Greed thought. Something of ''religious science'' remained, however, in antiquity as can be seen in Pythagoreans which refused to separate the qualitative aspect of numbers and figures from the purely quantitative. Even Aristotelian natural philosophy has a ''religious'' dimension. Hence, the ease with which it was integrated into the Islamic and later Jewish and Christian world-views.
As for modern science, to the extent that it deals with and aspect of reality, it possesses significance beyond the physical realm and has a ''religious'' dimension. Modern science has, however, set a limit upon itself which from delving into the religious significance of its findings and in facts it has no right whatever to do so. Metaphysicians and theologians (who may also be scientists) can, however, draw attention to the religious significance of what has been ascertained by modern science and of course not those of materialistic philosophical assumptions which are at first accepted as hypotheses and end up by being taken as facts.
Can science dispense with religion?
Modern science, and not necessarily individual scientists, has already dispensed with religion and the truths of religion are irrelevant to its functioning. That is why in fact, if not integrated in into a higher from of knowledge, the consequences of the spread of the scientific world-view including scientism and modern technology will end up by destroying the spiritual and ethical values of human society and ultimately the physical existence of society itself. There is no way to derive a workable ethics for the majority of people from modern science while scientism made unreal those very structures of reality, both divine and human, upon which religious has always been based. Many scientists would love to pursue their science in an ethical context while remaining oblivious to the effect of the scientific the very foundation of the religious ethics upon which all human society have been based until now, but it is unlikely that such scientists will be able to do so in the distant future.
Can one separate the domains activity of science and religion completely?
For some time in the West many have sought to separate these domains as a way of creating peace and harmony between science and religion. In reality, however, such a separation is not possible because science claims for itself exclusivity of knowledge of the natural realm including the human body and now to an even greater degree the human psyche, while integral religion must also preserve its right to know the world of nature in an ultimate way. The activities of science and religion and their claims are therefore bound to collide and cannot be separated completely unless religion is relegated to an ever greater degree to the status of a subjective and private affair, having little to do with the objective world. This in fact is precisely what has happened in the West in recent centuries where in the mainstream culture religious knowledge is for the most part denied an objective status. But this event has itself led in our times to non-mainstream currents of religion seeking to re-discover the religious significance of nature including the human body.
The ideal situation would be to have authentic metaphysical knowledge, including the knowledge of the Divine principle and all its levels of manifestation, as the framework for both science and religion, understood in the ordinary sense of the term, so that the two would share common principles. Such a situation has existed in traditional Islam as well as in other traditions. Without these principles there is no way to create harmony between a science of cosmos that is impervious to the Divine Origin of the universe, the presence of God in His creation, the higher levels of being, the sacredness of life and eschatological realities and religion which is precisely based upon those realities. In such a situation separation of domains means simply an even greater ghettoazation of religion and its expulsion from the realm of nature and the world which surrounds man in his daily life. The result for most people is the turning of the realities with which religion deals into fantasy, day dreaming and unreality as can be seen so clearly in the modern world.
If there is any hope for an accord between science and religion, it is in situating science where it belongs, as a science of nature capable of knowledge of a particular dimension of physical reality and competent in allowing man to gain mastery over it, but not the only science of even the physical realm to say nothing of the higher orders of reality which are by definitions beyond its reach. There is no possibility of harmony between science and religion power of religion and limitations set upon its domain of knowledge in the destruction of human society. This is an act for claim to totality is destroying, despite its many successes, what makes human existence possible, are to a large extent responsible, as are those men and women of religion who fail to understand the challenge of modern science to the religion who fail to understand the challenge of modern science to the religious view of existence and cannot therefore provide an adequate response.