On Science-Religion Conflicts

Conflicts between the adherents of rational/naturalistic modes and those inclined to magic and mystery have existed at all times. In ancient Greece, Anaxagoras was prosecuted for his impiety. In ancient China, the works of Mo-Ti were fed to the flames because he was too much of a scientific philosopher. The materialist Carvaka was vilified in ancient India. Scientific heretics have had to face the wrath of traditionalists in practically every culture. The fate of Galileo was not a unique phenomenon in human history.
When inquisitions, excommunication, and book-burning became no longer fashionable (in scientifically awakened societies), and it was becoming ever more difficult to challenge on logical grounds the scientific mode of comprehending the world, the devotees of supernaturalism started to argue, in the spirit of if you can’t beat ‘em join ‘em, that religion and science were perfectly compatible and complementary. Modern apologists of non-Christian traditions have followed suit, suggesting that there has never been any conflict between science and religion in their own traditions. Thus, enlightened advocates have been ably pointing to the commonalty between science and the particular theologies to which they subscribe, albeit in appropriately modified and nebulous versions of the same. Their goal has quite simply been to make the world views of their favored revered texts as compatible as possible with the scientific tenets of the age.
Given that, for the non-Western world, modern science is of alien vintage, and seeing the sorry spectacle of pollution, crimes and climbing divorce rates in industrialized countries, some argue that Western science, based on materialistic values and leading to exploitation of nature, may have much to learn from non-Western cultures wherein the sacredness of Nature, harmony and other wholesome ecological insights have always been the guiding principles. In this context, a few popularizers of science have been propagating the thesis that the esoteric epistemology of current fundamental physics is merely a re-formulation of ancient mystical aphorisms.
While this happy marriage between science and mysticism is being conducted, another ancient school of thought still survives. Its goal is to demonstrate that scientific knowledge (a) is not reliable; (b) that even if it were, it is certainly not more reliable than religious knowledge; (c) that it is not as objective as it is claimed to be; and (d) that it is potentially dangerous.
Already in the 16th century, Cornelius Agrippa warned that “there is nothing more deadly than to be, as it were, rationally mad.” From George Berkeley in the 18th century who wrote The Analyst as “a discourse addressed to an infidel mathematician wherein it is examined whether the object, principles, and inferences of the modern analysis are more distinctly conceived, or more certainly deducted, than religious mysteries and points of faith,” to the modern philosopher who regards science as “conspicuous, noisy, and impudent”, there have been any number of intelligent thinkers who have reveled and rejoiced in exposing the limitations of the scientific enterprise.
Scientists in their professional work are generally indifferent to these noises, so science marches on with its thousand strides. They recognize, often at a deeper level than some of their harshest critics, what the scope and limitations of science are. Few serious scientists would claim that science’s views of the world are absolute or ultimate. Unfortunately, the scientific enterprise also adamantly refuses to pay homage to unscientific endeavors to explain the world, let alone solve our material problems. This provokes the wrath of the anti-science crowds.


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Varadaraja V. Raman

Physicist, philosopher, explorer of ideas, bridge-builder, devotee of Modern Science and Enlightenment, respecter of whatever is good and noble in religious traditions as well as in secular humanism,versifier and humorist, public speaker, dreamer of inter-cultural,international,inter-religious peace.

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