In the West, relations between science and religion have tended to be uneasy, periods of relatively peaceful coexistence being punctuated by periods of acute tension. Two such times which immediately spring to mind are those associated with Galileo in the early sixteen hundreds and with Charles Darwin half way through last century. The former asserted that the earth went round the sun, and not vice versa; the latter that plants and animals had evolved by a process of natural selection (i.e. by survival of the fittest), and that man, at least so far as his body was concerned, had evolved from the animals. When these discoveries were first proclaimed, the attitude of the Church was hostile and led to conflict. In order to probe the cause of these conflicts and whether they were justified, it is necessary to define science and religion.
Science is defined in the Oxford Dictionary as ‘systematised knowledge’, that is, knowledge which can be measured or classified. Religion is less easy to define, but in Chambers Encyclopedia is referred to as ‘the word generally used to describe man’s relation to divine or superhuman powers and the various organised systems of belief and worship in which these relations have been expressed’. Put a little differently, religion is the life of the spirit; the intuitive recognition by man that he possesses a spiritual nature, and the extent to which he manifests that nature. In neither of these two definitions is religion either measurable or classifiable.
Science is concerned with quantity; religion with quality. Science is primarily interested in the form; religion with the consciousness which animates the form.
Science is essentially objective, religion is largely subjective. In a way, the roles of science and religion correspond to the outline and colour in a painting. The outline provides the framework, the colour portrays the spirit.
With science and religion so defined, it follows that their respective roles are complementary and, though contiguous, rarely, if ever, overlap. How is it then that from time to time tension and conflict have occurred? The answer is: ‘When either science or religion have stepped outside their rightful domain and made claims to which they were not entitled.’ In the case of Galileo, whether the earth went round the sun or vice versa, had nothing to do with religion as properly defined and understood.
But the ecclesiastical authorities at that time thought that it had; hence the controversy. With regard to Darwin, the situation was more difficult since evolution is a subject which is of concern to both science and religion, but viewed from different standpoints. Science is primarily concerned with how evolution has taken place, that is, with the mechanisms by which some species of plant or animal has given rise to another species, often of greater complexity, and ultimately to man. But why evolution has occurred, why in the sense of to what goal or for what purpose, is a religious question with which science has little or no concern. The Scottish Catechism, for example, states that `Man’s chief end is to glorify God and to enjoy him for ever’, an essentially religious statement on which science is not qualified to comment.
The answer to how evolution has occurred depends on measurement and classification and is therefore an eminently appropriate field for scientific investigation. The answer to why, for what purpose, is not something which can be measured or classified, but depends on values. And these are the province of religion. Why then did Darwin’s theory of evolution produce such a violent and, from the Church, hostile reaction? From accounts written at the time, it would seem due to the belief, implicit rather than explicit, that consciousness was a product of matter, physical matter — the view on which scientific humanism is based — and that because evolution of the physical form of plants and animals and finally man had been ‘adequately’ explained by the process of natural selection, so had the evolution of consciousness. Consciousness had evolved as the form had evolved — automatically. There was no place for the concept of special creation, and therefore no need to postulate the existence of God.
Whether ‘adequately’ is an appropriate word to describe the current view or views of evolution is open to question. That natural selection has been a major factor in bringing about evolution there can be no doubt. But ‘gaps’ persist. How explain, for example, the gradual development of an eye? A progressively sensitive area which could not, on the face of it, bestow any advantage on its possessor until it had-become an, at least partially, effective organ of vision?
Previously, it was suggested that conflict between science and religion occurred when either science or religion stepped outside their rightful domain and made claims to which they were not entitled. Let us now see how this applies to the conflict over evolution. Stripped of inessentials the controversy arose from two incompatible views about the nature of man. The view of many Darwinians, though not necessarily of Darwin himself, was that man consisted of his physical body and of that only, and that to suggest the existence of soul or spirit independent of the physical body was illusory. The orthodox Christian view was that man’s being was at least twofold — body and soul — and perhaps threefold — body, soul, and spirit.’ In this conflict both parties were at fault. The scientists, qua scientists, were quite unjustified in expressing an opinion about the existence of the soul and spirit of man, and of how this had evolved or come into existence. The Church party, on the other hand, was equally unjustified in asserting what could, or could not, be true regarding the evolution of man’s physical body. Both parties to the dispute had stepped outside their rightful domain and had made claims to which they were not entitled.
An apt commentary on the attitudes responsible for such conflicts is provided by the following extract from a paper presented by Willis Harman at a Conference on Science et Conscience at Cordoba in October 1979.
Scientists of an earlier generation were guilty of overclaiming when, with abundant hubris, they dismissed religion as prescientific theories about matters on which scientists would eventually have a later word, if not the last. To be sure, the religionists were particularly vulnerable when they insisted that characteristics of the physical world — such as relative positions of earth and sun, the age of the earth, and the physical ancestors of humankind — should be established by Holy Writ rather than empirical observation. But the scientists, on the other hand, were egregiously arrogant in insisting that all the religions of the world were based in illusion since the realm of human experience they took as central was not caught in the net cast by science.
A major factor in the tremendous successes achieved by science during the last 150 years has been the use of the scientific method. This is the name given to the three-fold process of collecting data relevant to the particular problem being investigated; framing a hypothesis (i.e. making a guess) as to what will explain the data; and then testing the hypothesis by appropriate experiments. As an example, let us see how Newton’s Law of Gravitation was derived. Stage one was the observed fact that when any body, small or large, light or heavy, was raised from the earth’s surface and released, it fell to the ground. The problem — Why? What was it that prompted bodies to fall? Stage two consisted of putting forward the hypothesis that any two bodies are attracted to each other by a force which is directly proportional to the product of their masses and inversely proportional to the square of the distance between them. Stage three consisted of testing this hypothesis by observation or experiment. An especially significant test was provided by observing the orbits in which the planets revolved around the sun. Were these orbits, which were observed to be elliptical, consistent with Newton’s Law of Gravitation? The answer, of course, is ‘Yes, they were’. But at the time, three and a half centuries ago, this discovery which we now take for granted, marked a great step forward in understanding the motion of the heavenly bodies. An important characteristic of a scientific hypothesis is that though it may be proved false, usually as a result of some experiment, it can never be proved true. All that can be affirmed is that a particular hypothesis is consistent with certain experimental results. In practice, most working hypotheses are only valid, i.e. supported by experiment, over a particular range of the variables involved and to a certain degree of accuracy. If the accuracy is great and the tests are numerous, the hypothesis is sometimes referred to as a law, e.g. Newton’s Law of Gravitation. But most hypotheses are not like that, and changes may be rapid. For this reason scientific hypotheses are sometimes referred to as models. Consider, for instance, the concept of matter. A century ago matter was thought to consist of exceedingly small indivisible particles. Fifty years later each particle had become a kind of miniature solar system. And now? The solar system model has been shown to be inadequate and been replaced by . . .? Difficult to say! In a period of just over one hundred years there have been three different models. It is, however, important to appreciate that an outdated model may still be useful. In the case of matter, for example, each of the outdated models has wide ranging use and application.
Having noted the vital part played by the scientific method in the development of science, it is natural to enquire whether anything comparable exists in the religious field. The suggestion is now made that there is. If the problem posed is: Who or what is God? What is the purpose of human life? Let us see what might correspond to the three stages of the scientific method when applied to this particular problem. Stage one is collecting relevant data, and we must consider what comes under this heading.
Reflection suggests that relevant data are the fons et origo of the great religious traditions; and, of these, attention has been focussed on Hinduism, the Hermetic Tradition, Buddhism and Christianity. In the case of Buddhism and Christianity the foundation is the life and sayings of Gautama the Buddha and of Jesus the Christ. In Hinduism and the Hermetic Tradition the situation is more difficult as there is nothing which corresponds to the life and sayings of an original founder. Instead, we have chosen certain texts from Hindu and Hermetic literature which are deemed by their followers to be of fundamental importance. In each of these religious traditions there are today many sects and schools of thought. But whatever the sect or school of thought, there are very few who would not accept the relevance and importance of the passages quoted from within their own tradition. The disagreements which have led to sect or schism arise, not from whether what is recorded was actually said, but from differences of emphasis and interpretation of what was said. For it must always be borne in mind that the world’s scriptures are concerned with the life of the spirit, to describe which words are not entirely satisfactory, though they are all we have. Our everyday lives are mainly taken up with thinking, feeling and doing, and for such functions words are well adapted. But the life of the spirit involves something more, and when referring to this words have to be regarded as symbols and interpreted accordingly. It is not just chance that the great religious teachers have all made such extensive use of metaphor, allegory, and parable. To describe the transcendent they could scarcely do otherwise.
Now what corresponds to the second stage of the scientific method, that of framing a hypothesis, i.e. making a guess as to what will explain the data — the inspired writings in the case of Hinduism and the Hermetic Tradition, and the reported sayings of Gautama and Jesus in the case of Buddhism and Christianity? The answer is the dogmatic statements of belief which have been formulated and declared official by the relevant ecclesiastical authority. This prompts three observations. First, Gautama and Jesus never propounded dogmatic statements of belief. Indeed, the former is reputed to have said: ‘Never accept anything that I, the Buddha (which means the enlightened one) say, unless it appeals to your reason.’ These formulated statements were made by the followers of Gautama and Jesus, never by the teachers themselves. Second, these dogmatic statements were inevitably coloured by the knowledge and outlook current at the time they were formulated. As the centuries pass, knowledge and outlook change — during the last century and a half with great rapidity — but in the case of Christianity the dogmatic statements have remained, to all intents and purposes, unaltered. Third, until quite recently Christians had little knowledge of what Hindus and Buddhists thought and believed, and vice versa. And the same is true of the Hermetic teaching.
Which brings us to the third stage of the scientific method: testing the hypothesis by observation and experiment. What corresponds to this? The answer, surely, is experience. For example, the individual experience of the mystic; the repeatable experiments of science; and the cumulative evidence of the paranormal. In Galileo’s time this third stage was ignored, with disastrous results for the Christian Church. Asked in all humility, is there not a danger today of the Church repeating its mistake — this time in relation to the paranormal — by not taking sufficient note of the considerable and increasing body of evidence regarding the higher psychism, the nature of life after death, and the possibility of serial existence and its far reaching implications?
The next three chapters are devoted to the application of the scientific method to the problem posed by the three fundamental questions: Who or what is God? Who or what is man? What is the purpose of human life? Chapter 3 assembles the data or, more precisely, a sample of the data —evidence from some of the world’s scriptures. Chapter 4 appraises this evidence, preparatory to framing a working hypothesis which is consistent with it. Chapter 5 considers how the formulated hypothesis stands up to mystical experience, now recognised as being far more widespread than had previously been thought; to recent developments in biology, physics, and psychology; and to evidence from the paranormal.
“The Distinctive Roles of Science and Religion” is an extract from A Forgotten Truth: A Spiritual Vision for Modern Man by D. M. A. Leggett and M. G. Payne