The Confluence of Religion and Science
By Hasan Zillur Rahim
Forget Samuel Huntingtons Clash of Civilizations theory: Clash of Religion
and Science now occupies center stage as evolutionists and intelligent design
proponents (IDers) bitterly contend the origin of life, spawning legal fights
over high school biology curricula in Pennsylvania,
Religion pitted against science and vice versa has always garnered unusual media and literary attention (Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code, for instance) but we should keep the proper perspective.
The Church imprisoned Galileo in the seventeenth century for daring to suggest that the earth was a mere player in the cosmic drama, and not its prima donna as theologians had thought. Two centuries later, Darwin published The Origin of Species (1859) in which he proposed that evolution and natural selection could account for the biological diversity of the living world, including us, precipitating a fierce clash between faith and reason.
Muslims too experienced their share of this conflict. In the 9th century,
advocates of reason led by the Mutazalites clashed with the dogmatic Kharajites
and, as Muslims historians often darkly summarize, effectively closed the doors
of ijtihad. The debateӔ between al-Ghazali
representing tradition and mysticism and ibn Rushd representing science and
reason in the
We have traveled a long way since then, however, and although there have been
more ambushes and skirmishes between religion and science, there have also been
advances in our thinking. Many of us now view the two as being complementary
rather than contradictory. Science deals with factual aspects of the natural
world and religion with the transcendent questions of meaning and purpose. One
deals with the how, the other with the why. The
There will, of course, always be scientists who view religion as an albatross
around civilization's neck, and theologians who rail at science as the new God
that has driven meaning from life. There will always be reductionists who claim
that life and its mysteries can all be explained by the laws of physics and
scriptural literalists who insist that the earth is
But they are a minority. There are many more theologians representing
different faiths, for example, who find in the theory of evolution evidence of
God's glorious self-disclosure, and many scientists whose research leads them to
ask the deeper questions of life why are we here, why do we suffer, what makes
our existence meaningful - that lie outside the realm of
Intelligent design proponents say that life on earth is
֓irreducibly complex to have
been created by random genetic mutation and, therefore, Darwin's theory must be
balanced by the recognition of an intelligence beyond its scope. The IDers are
coy in not directly calling this
But people of faith do not need gaps in Darwins theory to experience the
Divine; their longing for the Divine is intrinsic and is what gives meaning to
their lives. By the same token, the IDers should realize that theirs is not a
scientifically-testable theory since it does not meet the criteria of
observation, measurement, experimentation and testing. It has no place in a
It is disheartening to see dire predictions in the media about a return to the Dark Ages because of the supposedly high percentage of mindshare the IDers have captured, or religion becoming obsolete because of the dizzying successes of scientists in genetics and other fields.
We can ignore these predictions. Instead, we should be thinking more creatively about how religion and science relate to, and reinforce, each other.
A provocative question to consider is this: Is coexistence the last word in the relationship between religion and science, or can the two interact in mysterious and unexpected ways?
If the past is prologue, then lessons from Islamic history may help frame an
answer. From the eighth through the fifteenth centuries, Muslim scientists
In our times, this scientific-spiritual quest animates many Muslim scientists but one who stands out is the cosmologist Abd-al-Haqq Bruno Guiderdoni, a director of research at the Paris institute of astrophysics and the director of the Islamic Institute for Advanced Studies. Guiderdonis main interest is galaxy formation and evolution. Exploring the universe is, in his words, ғan act of worship. (It is remarkable how so many of the leading cosmologists of the world of different faiths are also amateur theologians!) A passionate advocate of the global dialogue between science and religion, Guiderdoni finds inspiration for his quest for truth in the Quran: In the creation of the heavens and the earth, and in the alternation of night and day, there are signs for people of understanding (3:190).
An article written almost four decades ago in the IBM journal. I think by
physicist Charles Townes also provides insights into the evolving nature of
Townes's idea caused a renewed stir after he won the Templeton Prize for
Progress toward Research or Discoveries about Spiritual Realities in March
But Townes also tempered his speculation: Perhaps by the time this convergence occurs, science will have been through a number of revolutions as striking as those which have occurred in the last century, and taken on a character not readily recognizable by scientists of today. Perhaps our religious understanding will also have seen progress and change. But converge they must, and through this should come new strength for both.
Convergence does not mean a magical fusion of faith and reason; it means, as
Townes implied, a symbiosis that can enrich our practical, intellectual and
ethical lives. Such a confluence may, for instance, inspire fresh views on
issues like stem-cell research or church-state separation and deepen our
understanding of how love, justice, cruelty and forgiveness shape human
The unexplored region between religion and science beckons people with open minds seeking spiritual and scientific truths. Is it not possible that wildflowers of insight will bloom if this tough but promising terrain is nurtured with humor and humility?
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