“Science and Religion – Strange Bedfellows?”
“Misery acquaints a man with strange bedfellows.” The Tempest by William Shakespeare
Over the last five centuries, science and religion have certainly been ‘strange bedfellows’ and caused supports on both sides of the argument considerable misery and uncertainty.
1. The Great Debate
It is a warm summer’s evening on the last day of June 1860, nearly seven months after the bombshell publication of Darwin’s “On the Origins of the Species.” Shafts of early summer sunlight slant through motes of dust into an oak-panelled conference in Oxford University, England. This is a debate organized by the British Association for the Advancement of Science to discuss God’s part in the creation of the world versus Darwin’s new highly controversial theory. Far from the erudite academic atmosphere you would expect to find in one of the hallowed university rooms of Oxford, ‘the city of dreaming spires’, the gathering has the atmosphere of a World Heavyweight Booking championship contest. In the religious ‘corner’ stands Archbishop Wilberforce resplendent in ballooning sleeves and a purple and black monastic robe. In stark contrast in the opposite, agnostic corner sits ‘Darwin’s bulldog, the renowned bearded and bespectacled biologist, Thomas Henry Huxley, wearing a long-tailed suit that could have come straight from the wardrobe of Abraham Lincoln. The Archbishop of Oxford has a reputation of being a skilled debater and his expected to crush Huxley’s defence of Darwin’s views by his cutting, honey-tongued oratory and towering intellect. The heated exchanges soon develop into a battle of the books; Wilberforce clutches his bible and Huxley parries forward with Darwin’s voluminous tome in his hand. In modern American parlance, this would have been called a ‘town hall meeting’, albeit one attended by a very well-heeled and highly-educated audience.
As was expected, the most heated topic of the evening is the descent of man from ape-like ancestors. In one famous exchange, the archbishop turns to face his adversary with an insolent smile on his face and asks “ Dr Huxley, I beg to know, was it through his grandfather or his grandmother that you claim descent from a monkey?” The slight tall figure of biologist rises quietly to his feet to deliver the stinging words “I would rather be the offspring of two apes than of a man (Wilberforce) who is afraid to face the truth. I unhesitatingly affirm my preference for the apes.”
At the end of that momentous evening, there was no clear winner, but the great debate on the evolution of man had begun and continues to this day.
How often has it been assumed that, since I believe in and teach the process of evolution at a university level, I must be an atheist. For me, the more you learn about evolution, the more miraculous and improbable does the process become. The story told by science seems far more wondrous than any instantaneous abracadabra creation of the earth and universe. Many are those of the Christian faith who see evolution as the steps along the pathway of a planned creation.
Even Huxley, who coined the term ‘agnostic’, attacked only dogmatic, organized religion, and not a possible spiritual dimension to the world.
This blog argues that the Oxford special creation versus evolution great debate, although the historical the first, is in many ways not the most important question in the religion versus science debate.
2. Possible Solutions to the Religion versus Science Conundrum.
At some point in their high school or science education, students are likely to encounter new ideas that appear to contradict beliefs instilled in them by religious parents, Sunday school teachers, Priests, Imams, or Pundits.
This blog suggests that there are five different possible strategies to cope with this crisis of belief that has become increasingly prevalent in the modern world.
The first two strategies agree with the words of the apostle Matthew in the bible “No man can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else, he will hold to the one, and despise the other. Ye cannot serve God and mammon.”
Option one is to deny, as Archbishop Wilberforce and present day creationists do, the validity of the scientific ‘facts’ and theories that challenge one’s religious ideas and upbringing.
In the great debate, Wilberforce had a very valid line of attack “where’s the fossil evidence for the evolution of man? He asked.” Darwin was well aware of this Achilles Heel in his argument, but suggested fossils of ape -men exist but had yet to be found—probably in Africa. His prediction was apply confirmed by the discovery of Lucy, the hominid Australopithecus afarensis, in Ethiopia in 1974 nearly one hundred years after Darwin’s death. In the last decade, evidence has surface that a veritable menagerie (Section 3) of hominid species populated Africa, Europe and Asia millions of years ago. For many, the sheer weight of scientific evidence on many controversial topics makes it difficult to subscribe to this first approach where ‘God’ is chosen in preference to ‘mammon’.
Option two takes the opposite rejection approach: it accepts the finding of science and rejects the traditional teachings of organized religion. Most adherents to this view are atheists arguing that science has removed the necessity and validity in believing in a God or any spiritual dimension to the physical universe. This blog argues against this materialistic dogma.
The third ‘not sure – it’s complicated’ option, is the agnostic approach whose advocates claim they are not sure if there is a God, or if the universe has a spiritual significance. The valid assertion is often made that if one bases one’s beliefs entirely on scientific evidence, this automatically puts you in the agnostic camp.
Followers of the fourth option disagree with Apostle Matthew, and argue that it is possible to serve two masters (religion and science) since each belief system describes a different aspect of reality and therefore do not contract each other. I came across a striking example of this approach when I interviewed a brilliant young Indian mathematician and quantum physicist at one of the most prestigious universes in Bangalore, Indian. After discussing some computer simulations of simplified quantum physics I was working on, he announced that in a few weeks he was abandoning his academic career since he had been offered the post as a pujari (archaka) – the head priest at his local Hindu temple. I tactfully asked him how reconciled his acceptance of the pantheon of exotic Hindu Gods with his belief and expertise in mathematics and quantum physics. Looking at me with a puzzled expression that clearly suggested pity for me as a shallow-minded westerner, he explained his science and religion described different aspects of the same reality. I still find this approach difficult to understand but then, have to admit his intelligence is vastly superior to mine own.
The final option is the one that to me rings true. It seeks one unifying logic that can be applied to both science and religion. The vast majority of the world’s organized religions evolved hundreds or thousands of years ago when human understanding and knowledge of the universe was very limited. In those distant times, the follower of a religion looked back in history to the wisdom of his ancestors and the messiahs of the past for spiritual guidance. In modern times, however, many people now prefer to look to the discoveries of present day science, and their personal experiences, to shape their world view.
3. Problems in the Earth’s Backyard.
One night in the late 1990’s when I lived in Egypt for a year, I accepted an invitation to tour the Bibliotheca Alexandrina before its official opening in 2001 at the beginning of a new millennium. The impressive building is a reconstruction of the ancient Great Library of Alexandria which was the Greco-Roman equivalent of Oxbridge, Harvard and Yale. Walking along the Alexandria Cornish in front of this magnificent building, I imagined the most famous astronomy of antiquity, Ptolemy, standing here on the beach near the eastern harbour of this ancient city gazing up at the stars in the then non-light populated skies of a Mediterranean night. How important he must have felt living on a unique planet at the centre of a geocentric universe in which all the other planets, the sun and the stars orbited around mankind’s home planet, Earth. I remembered also viewing in the Gallerie dell’Accademia gallery, Venice, Leonard da Vinci’s famous monochrome image, “Man as the Measure of All Things” (Vitruvian Man – 1490) drawn nearly 500 years after Ptolemy’s death that was inspire by the anthropomorphic arrogance of the geocentric universe. Yet it was only around 50 years after Leonard created this work of art, that Copernicus had the temerity, in his book “On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres “ (1543), to suggest his heliocentric model of the universe in which the sun, not the Earth was the centre of the solar system. Support for this revolutionary and heretical view of the universe landed Galileo in front of an inquisition convened by the powerful Roman Catholic in 1663. The inventor of the astronomical telescope was forced to recant his belief in the heliocentric model and live under house arrest until his death nine years later.
Interestingly, the sentiment and message in a recently discovered letter penned by Galileo is still relevant today. He argued that the heliocentric model didn’t inherently contradict the Bible since “the scant references in the Bible to astronomical events should not be taken literally, because scribes had simplified these descriptions so they could be understood by common people at the time.” (Applying Option 5?)
Perhaps then, it was Galileo’s altercation with the Roman Catholic Church that turned the first pages of the religion versus science centuries-long story.
Little did Galileo and the church know that the heliocentric model was but the first of a long series of increasingly humiliating demotions of the human world from the centre of the known universe.
Next, the famous American astronomer, Edwin Hubble, using the then largest telescope in the world, the Hooker telescope at the Mount Wilson Observatory, discovered in 1929 that the fuzzy patches seen in small telescopes and assumed to be nebulous clouds of gases, where in fact separate galaxies each resembling the star systems of our own Milky Way Galaxy. The multi-Galaxy universe was born with a strong emphasis on the prefix ‘multi’: in the decades of observation that followed, if was discovered that there are around 200 billion stars in a typical galaxy, and at least 100 billion galaxies in the observable universe.
Hubble’s other major discovery was that we live in a dynamic universe and not in a steady-state universe that English astronomers had proposed. The galaxies are now flying apart at relativistic velocities suggesting that around 13.8 million years ago, the universe was born in the big bang when matter spewed and space forth from a dimensionless point, a singularity. To the religious, this sounded like a latter-day genesis.
On one of my trips to the southern Indian state of Karnataka, I sat on a pristine sandy beach in front of the ruins of the Mahabaleshwar Temple, Gokarna, one of the most beautiful beach-side temples in India. As I scanned my binocular cross the Milky Way, the central region of our Galaxy that arcs like a celestial river from the east to the west horizon and illuminates the neighbouring galaxies with its watery light. The view of such glittering, filigreed and multi-colour star fields through a low power eye-piece lens of a large reflecting telescope is one of the delights of amateur astronomy. Dropping the binoculars, I ran my fingers at the sand in from of my feet, and seemed to hear the sonorous words of Carl Sagan, the brilliant American astronomer, astrophysicist and science popularizer, echoing in my ears quoting in his hit TV documentary series “Cosmos”:
“The total number of stars in the Universe is larger than all the grains of sand on all the beaches of the planet Earth.”
I also remembered those words years later in a Tibetan monastery as I translated some stanzas from a photograph of a 500-year old parchment using a Tibetan/English dictionary.
“The earth is not the only star – there are a myriad of other stars in the universe.”
“The earth is not the only inhabited world, other earths teeming with intelligent life rotate around an infinite number of other stars.”
“Ours is not the only massive system of countless stars. There are an infinite number of other star systems separated from each other by great iron walls of darkness.”
I liked the phrase “great iron walls of darkness”, it seemed a perfect description of inter-galactic space.
How did this come to be written before the invention of the telescope?
Cosmology did not stop at the description of the multi-galaxy universe, but carried human kind’s demoted to the ultimate limit. Probably, it is now conjectured with some observational evidence, our universe is but one of an infinite number of universes in a multiverse.
How can a universe of such complex and unimaginable dimensions be squared with orthodox theistic religions. Why if, as these religions assume, was a universe of such excessive proportions created to accommodate the human race? It is also tempting to ask the blasphemous question – would you build a Pacific Ocean-sized fish tank to house a few goldfish?
Even more important question is if, as seems overwhelming likely, there are other planets on which intelligent sentient life forms have evolved or been created, were there other delinquent Adams and Eves who tasted the forbidden fruit –the knowledge of good and evil? Did other extraterrestrial worlds merit sending a Messiah to cleanse the original sins from their inhabitants?
The philosophical and religious significance of there possibly being other intelligences in the universe is rarely discussed, but it would seem to be a vitally important question in the light of our modern scientific knowledge.
4. The Four Serendipitous Forces of Nature.
Science has revealed our universe to be a highly improbable place – the result of the fortuitous fall of a small number of cosmic dice. The odds of us existing are truly astronomically small.
One of the main goals of science is to understand a multitude of complex phenomena as a result of a small number of underlying simple principles. Amazingly, all the complex interactions in the universe can be explained in terms of just four fundamental forces: gravity, the strong and weak nuclear forces, and the electromagnetic force. It transpired that if the strength of just one of these fundamental forces was just three or five percent above, or below its actual current value we, and the universe in which we live, could not exist. To further deepen the mystery, it is not just the value of individual forces, but the balance of strengths of all four forces that makes a universe of our type possible – a million or billion to one against chance in the cosmic lottery. This is a crucial point in the science versus religion debate on evolution. Evolving a human being from something like an Amoeba is far less miraculous than setting the forces of the fundamental forces to generate the properties of the atoms and molecules of which such life is composed. Biological evolution assembles the ‘Lego’ parts concocted by cosmology, chemistry and physics. This view would seem to re-introduce the need for a super-intelligent ‘designer’ of the universe.
Atheists, however, have a neat rejoinder to this argument: no problem, let it be a million to one chance, if there are a million inhabitable worlds, as suggested by cosmologists, on average there will be one world such as earth with the Goldilocks combination of fundamental force fields of just the right strengths. We exist and are aware of the force strength problem because we live in that single fortuitous world. Case closed? Perhaps not. It sounds a convincing, materialistic God-less hypothesis except for one crucial observation. If there are millions, billions, or even an infinite number of universes out there, the atheists are basing their view of the universe on an infinitesimally small sample of reality. To make a valid judgement in science, you need a representative and significant number of data items.
Adapting Shakespeare’s regicidal character Macbeth’s poignant soliloquy, “there is more in particular universe my atheist friend Horatio, then are even dreamt of in your science.”
5. The Hominid Menagerie and Ownership of a Soul
A famous question which surfaced during the great debate between Archbishop Wilberforce and Huxley was – ‘does a dog have a soul?’ The obvious answer to Wilberforce and the prominent prelates of his day was a definite no.
The perceived gulf between animals and humankind was even wider in Darwin’s day when it was believed that humans were the only species capable of making tool and communicating by means of language. The discoveries in behavioural science in the late twentieth century eroded both of these dogmas, and it is now generally accepted that the level of conscious in primates, the higher apes, and other higher vertebrates, is much higher than previously imagined. Is there any correlation higher consciousness and possessing a soul? That is an interesting question.
For the devotees of Eastern religions, animal ‘souls’ do not present a problem since it is believed all forms of sentient life share in Buddha or Shiva nature. These religions believe that the changes in the level of this consciousness, from the simplest to the most complex forms of life such as man, is an analogue gradient, and not the binomial, dichotomy between soul-less animals and the one species, man, who was fortunate enough to be endowed with a soul and the possibility of eternal live by the creator.
The discovery of strange human-like skull of the first known specimen of Homo neanderthalensis, in 1856, just four years before the Great Debate in Oxford in 1860, began a later flood of the fossil evidence that Darwin and Huxley admitted they lacked to support the theory of evolution. Crippled by both age and chronic arthritis, this first specimen became an unfortunate poster child for modern human’s much maligned cousin, Neanderthal man. The later discovery of younger and more intact skeletons suggest that the stronger build and physical strength of Neanderthal athletes would allow them to hog the podia of any Neanderthal versus modern human Olympic gamess. Far from being a brutish ‘ape-like’ species, Neanderthals are now known to have made e advanced flint tools, execute cave paintings, and perhaps even been able to communicate by means of a spoken language. Another amazing discovery was that we humans acquired highly beneficial Neanderthal genes, including one that contributes to the expansion of the human brain and intelligence, as the result of interbreeding between the two species forty to fifty thousand years ago.
In 2010 the discovery of some bone fragments in a Denisova Cave in the Altai Mountains of Siberia completed the human evolution story still further. Anatomical and DNA analysis of these few bone fragments confirmed that the fossils were those of a new unknown species, Homo denisova, which, together with Neanderthals and modern humans occupied the same cave for many thousands of year. Well, to shorten a well known phrase ‘familiarity breeds ……’, Denisovan genes joined the human DNA cocktail mixing with Neanderthal genes. Recently, a better preserved 160,000-year old jaw of this new species has been discovered from a cave in Tibetan. It is amazing that this species could serve in the high Himalayas during last ice age. The region is even now very inhospitable for human life. Interestingly, it is Denisovan genes which give present day Sherpas and the Tibetans their innate tolerance to low oxygen levels at high altitudes.
Turning the clock back further to the more remote ages and possible distant ancestors of modern man, Homo sapiens, we come to Homo naledi (250,000 Before Present (BP)), the diminutive ‘hobbit man’, Homo floresiensis on Indonesian islands, and the recently discovered Homo luzonensis in the Philippines who both lived as recently as 50,000 years ago, Homo heidelbergensis (500,000 BP), Homo habilis (1.5 million years BP) and the most archaic known species of our genus, Homo erectus (2 million years BP).
Travelling back a further million years, we come to the most famous of the ape-man, or should we say ape-women fossils of all, Lucy – Australopithecus afarensis. Lucy and her clan were not the only Australopithecines walking through the rift valleys of Africa which have up to now been considered the cradle of humanity. Her relatives included A. anamensis, A.africanus, A. sebida, A. garhi and A.robustus. Three or more of these species are thought to have co-existed at the same time in the same area. Then of course, there are the different species of the genus Paranthropus. Which members of the Homo and Australopithecus genera do organized religions believe had a soul ? Can having a soul be linked to having a particular relative brain size?
Another troubling question raises its head, since many of the world’s major religions teach that it is only possible to enter heaven after accepting the teachings of a Messiah. Jesus’s words – “I am the way and the truth and life. No one comes to the Father except through me” come to mind. For millions of years, where human ancestors doomed to hell after death? No wonder many are those who would prefer to hide hominid fossils away in museum cupboards and not answer such a bevy of highly awkward questions.
6. The Scientific Study of the Paranormal
An increasingly important challenge to some organized religions and the atheistic view of the world is the scientific study of the paranormal. Ghosts, reincarnation and the spirit world cannot be reconciled with some orthodox religious beliefs.
In the past, ghosts and apparitions of other kinds could be dismissed as subjective illusions but now, the new generation of ghost hunters using a paraphernalia of scientific equipment such as EMF meters, infra-red cameras, EVP recorders, are beginning to confirm the objective reality of such phenomena.
In the coming weeks, this website hopes to explore the application of stereoscopic photography. electromagnetic field and temperature measurements, and the spectral nalysis of the light emitted by one of the most frequently reported of paranormal phenomena – the orb.
Of the five possible coping strategies that can be employed to reconcile the findings of modern science with religious beliefs, I subscribe to the fifth, the move away from the organized, dogmatic rigid view of the religion and spiritual matters of the past, to a new animist and spiritualist view of the amazing planet earth and the infinity of a multiverse.
Perhaps religion and science are not such strange bedfellows after all, and the two belief systems might, between them conceive, a hybrid more holistic and spiritual view of the universe for this new age.
The term evolution could then not just be applied to anatomical bodily changes, but to the expansion in consciousness and spirituality that began millions of years in the past, and is likely to continue for millions of years into the future.