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The Confluence of Religion and Science

By Dr.Hasan Zillur Rahim

Posted Oct 7, 2005

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,
Kansa, Ohio and other states.

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

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 debate between al-Ghazali representing
tradition and mysticism and ibn Rushd representing science and reason in the
12th century was also a turning point in which it was mostly Ghazalis views
that held sway for years to come.

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
empirical nature of science contrasts with belief in the unseen nature of
religion and yet most people, including many scientists and theologians,
agree that both can work in concert to enrich our material and spiritual

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
a few thousand years old. Some scientists will assert that an atheistic view
of life is our only choice as a consequence of what they consider to be the
all-encompassing reality of Darwins theory, while certain religious leaders
are so enamored of their certitude that they do not shy away from
pronouncing who will go to heaven and who are destined for hell.

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
intelligence God for fear of being labeled fundamentalists.

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
biology classroom, although it can be part of a religious or philosophy
curriculum. Pleading acceptance by the scientific community on the basis of
ignorance and gaps in knowledge benefits neither science nor religion.

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

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
made discoveries based on challenges posed by religious observances.
Determining the proper time of day to offer the five daily prayers,
calculating the precise direction toward the kiblah, and predicting the
visibility of the crescent moon to mark the beginning and end of lunar
months led to the discovery of spherical trigonometry and algebra and
significant advances in astronomy. Muslim scientists constructed astrolabes
and observatories, emphasizing observations and experiments by which to test
theories and their predictive powers. Science became a spiritual quest for
them, a way of seeing traces of God's handiwork in the universe. (A telling
example is that of the astronomer, mathematician and poet Ulugh Beg
(1349-1449). Considered a genius, he established an observatory at Samarkand
and with astounding accuracy charted the course of more than 1000 stars over
a period 18 years. Unfortunately, he was murdered by his son who felt that
his secular interest in science betrayed the spirit of Islam!)

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, an 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 .Think by
physicist Charles Townes also provides insights into the evolving nature of
religion-science relationship. After building the case that the two shared
fundamental similarities - revelation in one is epiphany in another, for
instance - Townes concluded that the two will eventually converge. I
believe, he wrote in 1966 in The Convergence of Science and Religion, this
confluence is inevitable. For they both represent mans efforts to
understand his universe and must ultimately be dealing with the same

Townes idea caused a renewed stir after he won the Templeton Prize for Progress toward Research or Discoveries about Spiritual Realities in March
this year. A devout Christian, he is also one of the greatest scientists of
the twentieth-century, winning the Nobel Prize in physics in 1964 for
inventing the maser and the laser.

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
affairs. It may force us to rethink our ideas of ԓpredictable and ԓrandom
events in a scientific context, thereby uncovering if there was indeed
something to Einstein' intuitive objections to the probabilistic foundation
of quantum mechanics when he said, God does not play dice with the
universe. And God is subtle but He is not malicious.

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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