Q&A: Which is more dangerous: Religion or Science?

Religion is not dangerous when:

  • It is not interacting with other religions.
  • It is purely meditative, and involves only community activities.
  • It considers itself as one of many paths for spiritual fulfillment (polyodosism).
  • It has laws prohibiting intolerance and hurt in the name of God;
  • It does not usurp role of Science in explaining natural phenomena.

Science not dangerous as long as:

  • Its applications are not purely profit-motivated;
  • Its knowledge does not have potential for harm;
  • It recognizes its limits;
  • It is not arrogant;
  • It recognizes the need for transrational experiences.

The passions of hate and intolerance engendered by traditional religions may be tamed and eliminated. History shows that, notwithstanding large pockets of ethnic rivalry and religious persecution still persisting in many parts of the world, there are also places where true-believers may go thus far but no further. Sectarian rivalries and dark-age witch hunting, like slavery and subjugation of women, have become embarrassments of history in many parts of the world. One can hope that in due course such values will become more universal. Then the many religions of the world can coexist in mutual harmony, enriched from one  another’s vision. Such a world, however remote it might seem in the context of what we read in current news,  is not an impossibility.

However, at this point in time,  some of the dangers lurking behind the awesome tentacles of technology seem to be uncontrollable and intractable. So, while in the past religion was surely more dangerous, I for one, devotee and admirer though I am of the glorious spirit of science, am inclined to think that unless massive and intelligent actions are taken, the devastating possibilities  unleashed by reckless applications of scientific knowledge make science potentially more dangerous than religion at this particular stage in human history.

As a young man, I decided to dedicate my life to  science, the endless quest  to unravel the workings of the world. I was thrilled in my efforts to grasp the infinite universe with my finite mind.  I grew up in a religious home. I was enriched by the chants and ceremonies of my  religion which made me aware of the uniqueness of consciousness. And it fulfilled my yearning to connect with the Cosmos.

It is important not to judge  religions by what  some of their practitioners do. Religions soothe the heart and uplift the soul, have given rise to great literature, marvelous music, and magnificent places of worship. I have seen Hindus meditate, Muslims observe  Ramadan, Christians attend church, and Jews hold the Sabbath, deriving inner peace. I have seen them celebrate festivals in collective joy. Left to itself, no religion is injurious in what it does.

But faced with a rival, often at the instigation of charismatic bigots, all the caring and submission to God can be transformed into hate and hurt. History  is replete with ugly memories of mindless massacres, ruthless rampages, heartless burning at the stake, and horrendous holy wars: all  in the name of religion, perpetrated by people who believe they alone hold the Key to the Kingdom. Religions have surely been dangerous.

Even on today’s political map there is awful animosity between Arabs and Jews, Hindus and Muslims, Shiites and Sunnis, Protestants and Catholics. But I cannot forget that religions rest on a  Covenant  with God, on  Buddha’s compassion, and on Vedic visions. Religion inspired massive scholarship in the Arab world, it instigated the love of St. Francis and the caring of Mother Teresa. How can one say in fairness that religions are dangerous? No, when religion is ardent quest to communicate with the transcendent and  deep commitment to love and serve fellow creatures,  it elevates  the human spirit.

The fanaticism and intolerance engendered by religions, despicable as they are, may be subdued some day. Sure, there still are large pockets of religious perversity, but there are also places where the destructive passions of true-believers are restrained by enlightened laws. I  have  hope in my heart that some day in the future sectarian cleansing and killing for creed will become mere embarrassments of history for all peoples.  The religions of the world can coexist in harmony.

My enthusiasm for science rests on the recognition that with its empirical methodology, ingenious instruments, and mathematical analysis, science has made astounding advances in unveiling a myriad secrets of the phenomenal world. Many of these have also enriched the human condition. However,  when Rachel Carson revealed to us that not all the potentials of science are benign, I became more aware of the countless side-effects of technology: from environmental pollution and population explosion to rain forest erosion and global warming, let alone  germ warfare,  chemical weapons, and nuclear holocausts. Science has become terribly dangerous through its material impacts, threatening our very survival.

I am  frightened by the dangers lurking in the tentacles of technology which are wrought with doomsday devastation. They seem like the mean-spirited might of an evil genie, unleashed and uncontrollable. If I must debate, I would contend  that the decimating possibilities from scientific knowledge render science more dangerous than all the havoc of religions, now and of the past.

Yet I cannot ignore that science  has fathomed the core of matter and the depths of space,  eradicated dark-age  fears and plagues of the ages, and may well be our only safeguard from potential catastrophe. How can I then say in fairness that science is dangerous? Surely not, if  it is  only a mind-based effort to unscramble perceived reality, and  a means to enhance the quality of life,  eradicate pain and disease, and resolve the problems it has created.

Science and religion are tamong the loftiest expressions of the human spirit. Yet they both have ominous manifestations. When they are rid of their ill-begotten offspring of polluting technology and mindless bigotry, neither of them will be dangerous.



Published by:

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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