Of Science, Religion and all that Jazz

By K.M.Hussain

“Do not believe in anything simply because you have heard it. Do not believe in anything simply because it is spoken and rumored by many. Do not believe in anything simply because it is found written in your religious books. Do not believe in anything merely on the authority of your teachers and elders. Do not believe in traditions because they have been handed down for many generations. But after observation and analysis, when you find that anything agrees with reason and is conducive to the good and benefit of one and all, then accept it and live up to it.”
~ Gautam Buddha (563-483 B.C)

Science today has become a victim trapped in the crossfire between the religious and the atheist. I am a non-believer and have been so for most of my life but I find it quite irritating when radical atheists deliberately use science to claim the falsehood of certain religious belief without undertanding its significance to the follower of that religion. I am equally irritated when religious fundamentalists deliberately reinterpret the metaphors in their religious scriptures to allign them with a certain scientific theory. Because if they succeed in their misinterpretation they claim that their holy books already explained the observed phenomenon long before the scientific theory was discovered and if they fail they reject the phenomenon itself claiming that it is just a theory. As I frequently encounter such claims I decided to analyze some of them in this article.
  1. Science is the religion of atheists - False

    This claim is made by those who neither understand the meaning of science nor that of religion. Science is a 'fact' based system which allows people to understand 'natural processes' so that they can improve their 'lives'. On the other hand Religion is a 'faith' based system which allows people to understand 'spritual experiences' so that they can improve their 'after lives'. You can notice that the basis, the purpose and the goal of science is completely different from that of religion. They both seek knowledge but of different kind and by using different methods. Religion requires belief in scriptures while science requires observation and reasoning. One more important difference between the two is that religion is personal to its follower (Person A and Person B can follow their own different religions) but science is common to all. Thus the claim that science is a religion is not only absurd but dangerous as well. It might stop a religious person from reaping the benefits of science.

    An atheist is someone who lacks faith in any diety (a supernatural power that must be worshipped) which is the principal element of popular revealed religions. An atheist believes that there is nothing beyond the physical nature and the natural life of any living thing including human beings. As these beliefs are the foundations of every religion, it is safe to say that an athiest does not belong to any religion. Even an assertion such as "atheism is religion" is not only self contradictory but also insults someone who is truly religious.

  2. Leading scientists of the world believe in God - False

    This claim is more outdated than false. The prominent pre 20th century scientists believed that their religion explored the spiritual world which ran in parallel to the physical world of science. They were able to maintain their religious faith along with their scientific research as they saw no conflict between the two. 20'th century began with an explosion in scientific discoveries. Science became so complex that it required an undivided attention of its students. Soon scientists drifted away from the personal God of religion and some of them even started using God as a metaphor for the impersonal laws which governed the physical processes observed in nature (ironically religious scriptures are known to use natural processes as metaphors for divine activities). In present time the lack of belief in scientific community is not because scientists are losing their faiths but because science is more commonly pursued by those who are already non-believers.

    The issue published on 23'rd July 1998 of Nature (an international weekly journal of science highly regarded by scientists around the world) reported "Our latest survey finds that, among the top natural scientists, disbelief is greater than ever — almost total". This report clearly shows that the claim under question does not hold true in present time. But the faith of a true believer is not affected by belief or disbelief of others no matter how important they are. Any comfort or discomfort that one gains from beliefs or disbeliefs of others simply indicates the weakness of one's own belief.

  3. Evolution is just a theory and not the truth - False

    This is a common claim made by those who don't understand meaning of scientific theory or of evolution or of both. A scientific theory is basically a framework based on rational principles devised for explaining a natural phenomenon. A scientific theory must yield verifiable conclusions and when these conclusions are confirmed by repeatable experiments it is accepted by the scientfic community. A scientific theory does not require a 'belief' (an acceptance that something is true without any confirming evidence) as it never gets accepted without being confirmed by evidence collected through precise experiments. For instance gravitation is a natural phenomenon that allows a material body to exert an attractive force on another material body. Newton's theory of gravitation is a scientific theory (based on principle of action at a distance) devised for explaining gravitation. One of the many concusions of this theory is that if a body is projected horizontally with a proper speed it will revolve around earth in a stable orbit. The theory of gravitation also provides means to calculate this speed and the period of revolution. Our geo-centric satellites confirm this conclusion. Similarly evolution is a natural phenomenon that allows next generation of a speices to be a bit different from the previous generation so that it is more adaptable to its changed environment. Darwin's theory of evolution is a scientific theory (based on principle of natural selection) devised for explaining evolution. One of the many conclusions of this theory is that the biochemical agents which can destroy certain disease causing microorganisms at a particular time may become ineffective at future time. Presence of drug resistant microbes confirm this conclusion.

    The claim that 'Evolution is just a theory and not the truth' is as absurd as the claim that 'Gravitation is just a theory and not the truth'. Both gravitation and evolution are observed natural phenomena and not theories. Yes we do have experimentally confirmed scientific theories to explain these phenomena. These theories are also helping us to launch satellites and fight deseases. Unlike gravitation, evolution seems to contradict the creationist view presented by religious scriptures. Perhaps the scriptures are describing the origin of human spirit (using human as a metaphor) while theory of evolution explains the origin of human speices and there's no real conflict between the two.

  4. There is no scientific basis for moral values and so life is meaningless without religion - False

    We humans have evolved into social and emotional speices. We live in groups that provide us with protection and support needed for our survival. The privileges enjoyed by an individual in such a group depends on how beneficial that individual's actions are to the group. The need to remain in our groups and to elevate our positions motivates us to do good. This is the scientific basis for moral values. The evolution of our brains has provided us with different suppresible emotions. Just like physical attributes, the intensities of these emotions and the abilities to control them vary from one individual to another. Sometimes a high intensity of a certain emotion coupled with a low ability to control it can override a person's social instinct making that person act against the interest of the group. In moderate cases the fear of punishment (another emotion) imposed by the group can deter the person from harmful activites. A human society that neither honors its citizens for their achievements nor punishes them for their transgressions but relies entirely on the divine judgement cannot function. Thus there's more to moral-values than the temptation of heaven or the fear of hell.

    Religious philosophers often claim that the existence of after life gives meaning to this life. This claim however makes the after life meaningless (there is no after after life). Our biodiversity indicates that the true meaning of life is the variety it provides to the nature. Even though we belong to the same human spieces we differ from each other in our appearances and our abilities. We are identified by these differences and we strive to maintain them. Imagine a world full of identical people all kept alive to worship their common maker through a common set of rituals. Their lives though purposeful would still be dull and meaningless. Like every other living thing we struggle to survive and we all want atleast some part of us to outlive our deaths. We achieve this by passing our genes to our children or our acquired wisdoms to the next generation. Sometimes our best accomplisments ensure us of our imortality more than our belief in the after-life.

  5. We are all born as atheists but some are brainwashed into following religion - False

    I know of someone who was brought up with a fair amount of religious teaching along with his formal education. However at age of 14 when he began to think about things, the antithesis of an 'all powerful deity who depends upon human devotion' did not make any sense to him and he realized he didn't need to believe in any such deity. On the other hand his youngest brother who was brought up in a rational environment (influenced by him) without any religious education grew up to become a deeply religious man. This isn't just a story of one person's family but a pretty common observation whose explanation lies in evolution of our brain. As explained in above section, our brain has evolved to provide us with emotions. The ability to believe or to rationalize (like the ability to love or to hate) is part of a person's emotional self. The strength of an emotional ability varies form individual to individual and is hardwired into the subconcious of an individual during the prenatal development of that individual's brain. As we grow up we become concious of these abilities and we become who we are. Thus each of us is born to grow up into a rational or a religious person and no amount of teaching or preaching can change that.

    Imagine advising a man who's born blind to take a torch (flashlight) when he ventures into the darkness. This blindman will ignore your advise, not because he denies the importance of a torch as source of light in darkness but simply because he does not need one. His blindness has given him an ability to use his other senses to find his way. In the same manner an extremely rational man is spiritually blind, he does not believe in god because he does not feel the need to do so. And likewise an extremely religious man is rationally blind, he doesn't seek the proof for god's existence because he does not feel the need to do so. If these men follow on a right path despite of their blindness then they should be worthy of our respect.

  6. The reference to god is only valid within context of a religion - False

    The meaning of the term god changes from one type of person to another. For instance a theist identifies god as the ultimate diety

    On the other hand a diest identifies god as the ultimate force Even some scientists have used god to identify the ultimate scientific theory (also called the grand unified theory which is yet to be discovered) that can explain every natural process and from which all the laws of nature can be derived. Unlike the personal god of theists, the god of diests and that of some scientists has nothing to do with any religion.

    Some people are also known to make a claim such as Russ Freeman is the god of jazz. Even in this case the term god is used out of religious context. By examining all these usages of the term god we can conclude that the god in its most basic form identifies an 'ultimate level of greatness'. The limit of this level and the context of the greatness can vary from one person to another. Using this as the basis each one of us can model our own god and strive in our own way to get closer to it.

  7. Atheists are non-believers and vice versa - False

    A theist is someone who accepts existence of god without proof and an atheist is some one who accepts inexistence of god without proof. As both of them accept a claim without requiring a proof, they are both believers. Atheists will generally argue (burden of proof cliche) that it's existence of something and not its inexistence that requires proof. But for more than 300 years scientists accepted existence of luminiferous aether(an elastic medium that filled the entire space through which light waves were assumed to propogate) until its 'inexistence' was proved by the famous Michelson-Morely experiment. Absence of proof does not imply proof of absence so atheists have no alternative but to believe that god does not exist. A non-believer lacks ability to accept any premise without a proper proof(in form of an experimental evidence or an analytical deduction). I am a non-believer and if I am asked about the existence of god my answer would be a simple I don't know because I don't have a proof for its existence or inexistence and I don't care because its existence or inexistence does not affect me physically or emotionally.

    An entity is said to have a physical existence only if its attributes can be measured using the instruments of physics and its behavior is governed by the laws of physics. The elements of our hopes and imaginations are not confined by these requirements so they don't have a physical existence. But as we can feel them so strongly, they must exist in a non-physical way within the state of our minds. Similarly the god of religion does not exist physically but as its presence is felt by its believer so it must exist in a non-physical way within the believer's state of mind. In conclusion I think that believers(theists as well as atheists) and non-believers can coexist without conflict if they learn to accept the following principles:

    1. Everyone has a right to believe in whatever they want as long as they don't impose their beliefs on others.
    2. Physical observations must neither be used to justify not to falsify the matters of personal beliefs.