Science and Religion (originally published in Immrama magazine, June 2006)
From In the modern world the scientific and religious view of the world would appear to be at opposite ends of the spectrum, however it was not always thus and the divide between these views points is decreasing.
In ancient times the idea of subdividing knowledge as we do now was not common. Pre-Christian peoples of Europe (at least among the higher strata of their societies) were acquainted with knowledge – the Greeks, Romans, and Celts plus further afield the Persians, Egyptians and Sumarians had an understanding of astronomy, mathematics, architecture, medicine and engineering and even electricity (eg the ‘Baghdad battery’) yet they were also highly religious societies.
As late as the renaissance people of learning were often versed in all the ‘arts’ by which I mean knowledge in a wider sense; two very famous examples of this are Leonardo Davinci who was an accomplished artist and scientist, and Michel de Nostradame (Nostradamus) who was an excellent physician and also a seer. In medieval times and earlier all aspects of knowledge were studied in a more holistic approach to life, as such the work of the magus or alchemist was as much a scientific undertaking as it was a spiritual one. It was mainly the prohibition of scientific thought by the Roman Catholic church that forced a gradual change of view, those who wished to acquire a better understanding of the physical nature of the universe had to pursue their studies in secret or openly reject the Church. In addition to this, the wide acceptance of the ideas of 16th century philosopher Rene Decartes served to widen the gap between religion and science. Decartes believed that the mind was divisible from the physical world and that physical matter is more or less clay to be manipulated as we see fit. In essence Decartes divorced the natural physical world from divinity, connecting only the mind or soul with higher powers, i.e. God, this idea has evolved to create a purely rational way of life that denies the relevance of spirituality in the apparent world.
The logical conclusion of this process of rationalism is where we have arrived at today - human society with scant regard for the physical universe and a very weakened sense of interconnectedness or equilibrium between the physical and spiritual planes of existence.
One might think that the schism between science and religion is complete but recent events (by that I mean the last few decades) have caused a remarkable turnaround. Quantum leaps in physics have lead to a complete reconstruction of physicists’ view of the universe and a more complete picture shows an indefinable factor at work in much of the laws of nature, what is often referred to as ‘the hand of God’. Such facts as light being both a wave and a particle (which is supposedly impossible), water being able to retain information, the change in nature of sub atomic particles that occurs as a result of observation etc. defy human logic but have been scientifically proven.
This shift in understanding has prompted many hardened atheist scientists to declare that God actually does exist being that there can be no other explanation for some of phenomena that exists in the universe. Their ideas of what God is may differ greatly from that of the common concepts, however there is a growing acknowledgement in the scientific community of a greater force at work that is as yet beyond human understanding.
It is my hope that the two strands of human understanding of the world around us – science and spirituality will unite again once more to give a more complete picture of the nature of existence; perhaps in order for science to develop as it has, it was necessary for this schism to occur. Unfortunately because of this schism many scientists have rejected religion in the past, as a parallel to this religious people often have a tremendous scepticism and fear of science as if it were innately dangerous or somehow wrong.
In my experience many of the pagan community have a blind faith in their religion and a distrust of science, a perfect mirror of the scientist’s rejection of God and blind faith in science. As spiritual beliefs become stronger, this is often coupled with an absolute rejection of science and all that it has brought us – a perfect example is the person who will consult an untrained sales assistant in a health food shop but refuse the advice of a Doctor who probably underwent 5-7 years training before being able to practice. I’m not saying that natural therapies are inferior, they are after-all the foundation on which modern medicine was built, what worries me is the supersticious fear of knowledge derived from science - which I see as akin to fear of voodoo. (Note: Voodoo or Voodun is an African/Afro-American earth based religion not to be confused with Hoodoo which is an American magical system based on African, European and Native American magic).
Some philosophers have argued about the moral aspects of science and technology (eg. Futureshock by Alvin Tuffler discusses this in detail), and many people believe it to be morally suspect. I believe that science is neutral, to me it is the gift of the Gods and may be used both to benefit or bring harm as we see fit. The Greek god Prometheus was credited with giving man the gift of fire, perhaps the very first technology we possessed, for which he suffered eternal torment. However, we possess an ability to learn and manipulate the physical world far beyond any other creature, surely that is a gift of knowledge that the divine meant us to possess. It is the application of our knowledge that is the crucial factor – for example a sharp knife in the hands of a chef is a useful tool, in the hands of deranged criminal that same knife becomes a deadly weapon.
As a person trained in scientific methods, whilst also practicing my religious beliefs as a pagan I attempt to marry the two ways of thinking to obtain a balanced and hopefully better understanding of the world around me.
One of the greatest problems facing the human race is to learn how to live in balance, both science and religion indicate that the universe attempts to maintain an equilibrium – a state of perfect balance. Unfortunately living within that state of harmony has proved to be very difficult for us as a species, we live at odds with the natural world, dominating and destroying it but at the same time hopelessly weak before it when it unleashes its raw power. Within our own sphere of human interaction we are still horribly off kilter, unable to live in peace, unable to accept different modes of thought, religion, lifestyle or even minor differences of physical appearance.
It will take every ounce of all that we possess spiritually and intellectually if we are to survive our own inadequacies and evolve beyond the dangerous semi-savage state that we are currently in.
Learning to throw aside our preconceptions but at the same time drawing on all the vast resource of physical and metaphysical knowledge that humanity has accumulated might be a way forward for us. Most essential of all is that we regain some humility and realize that to the Gods we are like foolish children in need of help, only when we accept how little we really know will we begin to learn the true meaning of our existence.