Science and Religion

"Science is not only compatible with spirituality; it is a profound source of spirituality. When we recognize our place in an immensity of light-years and in the passage of ages, when we grasp the intricacy, beauty, and subtlety of life, then that soaring feeling, that sense of elation and humility combined, is surely spiritual."-- Carl Sagan

Carl Sagan will remain one of the intellectual giants of the 20th century for many years to come. He was a passionate advocate for science. He combined sharpness of mind, acuity,and curiosity for scientific thought, with the lyricism, poetic sensibility, and humility of a humanist. While he was skeptical of traditional religion and anthropomorphic views of God, he recognized the importance of religion, and knew that both, science and religion, were not completely antipodal to each other. This day and age calls for the unification of both; to finally bridge the gap between science and religion. Scientific knowledge and spiritual wisdom should go hand in hand.

In the beginning of the last century, philosophers and numerous scholars predicted religion would slowly recede into the background of social life before disappearing completely. While it is true religious belief significantly declined in the second half of the century, the resurgence of religion in contemporary socio-political life proves their prediction false. Religion will not fade away; it has returned stronger than ever. But which form of religious life, and whose religion is back? In this global age we need to push for a post-religious spirituality that is compatible with science. And we need to encourage an inter-religious dialogue that finds common ground.

Indeed, the technological transformations of the past two centuries greatly accelerated the modernization process and the full transition into a scientific society led to the displacement and subtraction of religion. There is no doubt science has improved human life, from medicine and biotechnology, to modern electronics and telecommunications. Today we can observe in detailed imagery the radiation left over from the Big Bang or study the atmosphere and density of celestial objets by measuring wavelengths through the electromagnetic spectrum.

Or, consider for example, the latest, most ambitious galactic adventure yet. Just recently, it was announced that scientists aim to reach the nearest star to our sun -- Alpha Centauri. Their plan is to travel the distance in just 20 years, which would otherwise take approximately 30,000 years, by using a laser propelled nanocraft that could travel at 20 per cent the speed of light." The human yearning and thirst for knowledge and discovery is limitless. This will definitely be the pinnacle of human ingenuity, a feat of herculean proportions inconceivable to past generations.

Yet, as much as we cherish and admire science, we remain reluctant to acknowledge the shortcomings and limitations of scientific thought. In 1936, the German philosopher Edmund Husserl argued against recurrent tendencies of importing methods and models from natural science in the research of human affairs. For Husserl, knowledge regarding the human consciousness and human reality itself should not be pursued with the same scientific methodologies because they are not in the same category of existence as the objects in the natural world. Human phenomena are beyond the reach of materialistic and empirical approaches. Indeed, human values, and questions of meaning and purpose are neither quantifiable through testable hypotheses nor through formal models and complex mathematical equations. Instead, the human sciences rely on interpretive, speculative and philosophical claims. This posture however, leads directly into an epistemological problem in the field of human and social sciences.

The so-called fact-value distinction(is-ought debate). While social sciences attempt to replicate scientific models to study human reality, their approach is primarily descriptive, that is, explaining things as they are while abstaining from normative or prescriptive claims. Since human sciences attempt to interpret and understand the meaning, purpose, and motivations behind human actions, many critics have stated that the pursuit of these fields of study should be abandoned. And, in the last few decades there has been a departure from this research due to its lack of utilitarian or monetary value. The humanities knowledge had been subordinated to scientific knowledge.

Regardless if science can provide a more technical, profound and sophisticated understanding of the natural and physical worlds, it cannot judge, evaluate moral or ethical claims because these fall outside the realm of scientific research. We must not fall prey to the dangers of techno-scientific reasons' grip on human society. Unfortunately, we now rely on a techno-scientific worldview to organize societies.

While we promote the study of STEM subjects other forms of knowledge are subordinated and sacrificed in the altar of scientific rationality. Overconfidence in this peculiar form of knowledge has led to moral blindness. It has, in fact, colonized every aspect of socio-economic and political life.

From technocratic ideals running the economy; measuring growth and wealth through econometric models and indicators totally oblivious to human welfare. To disastrous policies disastrous to extract and exploit natural resources at the expense of destroying natural habitats and the displacement of thousand innocent human lives. It is a rather bleak view of human beings but it even seems as if we rejoice in our self-destructive behavior. We seem to reward selfishness and egotistical traits as if in our post-religious epoch, our self preservation instinct comes at the expense of annihilating a multitude forms of life in return. Even warfare has turned into simulation where we have reached the point of trivializing of human suffering.

We should not abandon the pursuit of scientific research, if anything, it should be promoted and encouraged even further. However, we cannot overlook the impact that the study of humanities and religion have in society. If we ignore there is something substantial about these fields of study, or if we neglect that their teachings and research is of value to the preservation of society, then we should not be surprised if further deterioration of the social fabric that binds us together begins to fracture.

We praise fundamental political and societal achievements such as our cherished liberal democratic values, political accountability, and rule of law, yet we failed to recognize that, as Nuccio Ordine so eloquently puts it " literature and the humanities, constitute the amniotic fluid in which our cherished ideas of democracy, liberty , justice, equality, freedom of speech, tolerance, solidarity and common well-being, are nurtured and can flourish" (L'utilità dell'inutile 2013). That is why scientific knowledge is not enough to guarantee that human life can flourish and reach its full potential.

By promoting the study of religion, languages, history, artistic traditions etc... the full spectrum of human potentialities comes into existence. These provide the tools to map the myriad forms through which human beings express their most deepest concerns, whether through deeply devotional faith, or through artistic creativity. They enable us to describe our most vital emotional experiences. We can nurture our cultural sensitivity and rejoice in the symbolic and poetic richness and diversity of the human condition. But we need to learn how to put aside fear, bigotry and intolerance, and start recognizing the humanity in our fellow beings. The hidden wisdom of religious traditions foster empathy, intercultural understanding, mutual respect, and ultimately nourish and strengthens the foundations of healthy democratic and pluralistic societies. It is crucial to cultivate the spirit of brotherhood because our failure to do so, would destroy any remnants of human solidarity.

Furthermore, by following Sagan's footsteps, we should humbly "recognize our place in the immensity of space and time", embrace the scientific discoveries of the last centuries and build upon those towering achievements of the human intellect to promote a planetary worldview and promote a "trans-cultural dialogue among civilizations". It is only by cultivating longstanding trans-cultural relationships and alliances that can helps us tackle future global problems.

In our era of global interconnectedness, peace can only be envisioned on the basis of mutual respect and the acceptance of diversity. We need both science and religion. Our task for the coming years should be building bridges and breaking down barriers in order to bring people together. Religion is not the source of morality, virtue, and ethics. Nevertheless, countless human societies have been shaped and defined by religious traditions. The very foundations of hundreds of modern legal systems and forms of political governance, were laid out by the religious legacy imprinted thousands years ago. To ignore this historical fact would mean the destruction of the very roots of human civilizations. Should we embrace a more tolerant society, we must then teach, discuss, and find a common ground with one another.

Perhaps tomorrow scientists will develop the latest up to date astronomical devices to provide a peak into blackholes. But maybe, just maybe, the greatest challenge humanity will face in the 21st century will not be whether we can measure quantum radiation, or how to bend the space-time fabric but whether or not we'll be able to build a more tolerant, more inclusive society. And to do so, we need to rescue the forgotten wisdom of the spirit.