Science and religion both concern us because we can’t do without science and its derivative, technology, and religion has been woven into the fabric of our society over many centuries. However, the methods that science and religion use to find an answer to a question, to solve a problem or simply to find the truth, are fundamentally different.
Science uses the scientific method, or the experimental method, which is based on reason and logic. It consists of four distinct steps: the framing of a question on the basis of careful observation or analysis of existing data, the formulation of a testable hypothesis, the performance of experiments to check the hypothesis and, finally, arriving at the answer. One may of course in certain circumstances omit the steps of hypothesis and experiment and replace them with the use of existing knowledge and reasoning, but that isn’t really important. What is important is that the method of science has a built-in corrective and that the conclusions that one arrives at by using this method are verifiable and repeatable.
Religion invokes religious texts or religious traditions often codified by religious teachers. Their origin is largely revelation. Truth was revealed to and not discovered by all the religious leaders of the past – be it Moses or Mohammed, Christ or Buddha. Revelation is the method of religion.
The present government at the centre is largely under the influence of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), which is committed to making India a Hindu country. Further, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government does not seem to understand science or give it any kind of priority, say from the point of view of funding. In other words, the present government is religion-oriented rather than being science-oriented, and it therefore becomes interesting to compare science and religion and identify the points of similarity and difference between the two.
The differences between science and religion are numerous while the similarities are few. Let us look at some important differences first.
According to the current scientific view, our universe came into existence some 13.8 billion years ago following an event called the Big Bang. We can’t know what happened exactly at the Big Bang but we can trace the history of the universe with a fair degree of certainty from 10-41 seconds (an extremely small time) since its happening. Religions tell us that God created the universe – and that’s it. No further explanation is provided. Science has explanations as to how the various objects we see in the sky with the naked eye or with telescopes were formed; religions have no such explanations.
Science tells us that man has evolved from lower forms of life by a slow but continuous process of evolution; virtually all religions contest this Darwinian theory of evolution and believe that man was put on earth by God as the fully-formed creature of today.
Testability and refutability
One of the important attributes of science is that it allows one to make testable predictions. It was scientists’ ability to make predictions with considerable certainty and accuracy that allowed man to land on the moon. Indeed, in the one grand experiment that the first manned landing on the moon was, an enormous number of predictions made by scientists in a variety of fields came true. If one of these predictions had gone wrong, there would have been disaster.
Science has allowed us to predict chemical elements, fundamental particles, planets and biological species. For example, the great Russian chemist Dmitri Mendeleev predicted the existence of the elements gallium, scandium, and germanium in the middle of the 19th century. He said that when gallium is discovered, it’d melt with the heat of the human hand. Its melting point was later found to be about 30 ºC. The Austrian-Swiss physicist Wolfgang Pauli predicted the existence of the fundamental particle called neutrino in 1930 (which is now very much in the news). It was discovered in 1956. Murray Gell-Mann, who like Pauli was Nobel Laureate, predicted the existence of another exotic fundamental particle, the omega minus, in 1962. This particle was discovered by Nicholas Samios in 1964.
The existence of Neptune and Pluto was predicted, too, before they were discovered. In the case of Pluto, the exact place in the sky where it should be found, on that fateful night in March 1930 when it was discovered, was foretold as well. Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution predicted the existence of the Latimeria (coelacanths), a fish, and Pithecanthropus erectus and Oreopithecus, two ancestors of man. Both the fish and human ancestors were discovered later: the fish as a live specimen and our ancestors as skeletons. Both were found to have the characteristics predicted by Darwin and his disciples. In the entire history of religions, there has not been a single such prediction that has subsequently come true.
Another important difference between science and religion is that while science is truly international, religion is not. Scientists all over the world use the same method: the method of science. They employ the same techniques, use the same materials, and publish frequently in the same journals. They are increasingly beginning to use the same language (English), and they form a truly international community in which the professional links are at least as strong as, if not stronger than, any other link.
Contrast this internationalism of science with the parochialism of religion. There are many religions and they differ from one another in many respects. The activities of a particular religion are carried out in isolation of the other religions. In fact, people of other religions are often prohibited from participating. There is little communication between various religions and so no common language. Religious customs and practices differ enormously, often fundamentally, from religion to religion. Religion in fact divides people while science unites them.
Godmen and the invention of miracles
Religion is defined variously as service in adulation of God as expressed in forms of worship, a system of faith, and an awareness or conviction of the existence of a supreme being that arouses reverence and the will to obey. The existence of the supernatural, a thing beyond the laws of science, is implicit in religion irrespective of what definition one adopts. In all religions, there is also provision for the supernatural to take the form of what appears to be natural. Thus, messiahs or avatars are born on this Earth and God takes the shape of man or even other creatures as is supposed to be the case with some of the incarnations of the Hindu deity Vishnu.
It is this inherent belief that underlies religion, which has led to the emergence of various forms and shapes of godmen, be it Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, Shri Satya Sai Baba, Acharya Rajneesh, or whatever have you. These godmen would like others to believe that they have supernatural powers that can’t be understood by other men and that their statements and actions must as a result be accepted by others without question. Science on the other hand does not accept the existence of a high priest, a godman or any other authority that/who can’t be questioned. In fact, science denies the existence of the supernatural.
One often witnesses or hears about events which, in the opinion of those who are religious, can have only a supernatural explanation, an explanation outside the scope of the scientific method. In the view of science, all such events – assuming they ever occurred – do have a scientific explanation, often simple and ingenious.
There will be no belief in God if there were no miracles. Such events by definition cannot have a scientific explanation; they are the very essence of religion. Science does not believe that any miracle has ever occurred, and that events that have occurred and have been termed as miracles have had a scientific basis. There is much untruth behind the story of miracles. For example, for Mother Theresa to be canonised, two miracles that had never occurred were invented. Religion even allows you to bribe God to perform miracles for you.
Belief in the existence of the soul and in the phenomenon of rebirth pervades most religions. According to science, there is not a shred of evidence in favour of the existence of souls or rebirth. Every claim of rebirth that has been examined in detail has been shown to be fake.
Science and religion are mostly incompatible
Lack of belief in religion or what religion considers to be true can lead to punishments. The Polish astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus (1473-1543) had to recant his ideas because he had said that it was not the Sun that goes round the Earth but the Earth that goes round the Sun. Galileo Galilei, a follower of Copernicus, died under house arrest on account of holding on to Copernican beliefs. And before Galileo, the Italian philosopher Giordano Bruno (1548-1600) was burnt at the stake for reasoned dissent, which is disliked by religion – as we’re currently seeing in India. As recently as within the last two years, three distinguished rationalists have been murdered in our country. History is full of religion-based wars.
Having said all this, one may now ask what about values which indeed are an integral part of all religions, and not a special characteristic of any particular religion. Scientific truths are value-free but the practice of science generates values, many of which overlap with universal religious values: truthfulness, integrity, ethics and honesty. Unfortunately, a particular religion receives its identity not from its values but from its dogma. And one does not need religion to have these values.
There are other differences between religion and science. For example, religions (such as Christianity and Islam) are evangelistic while science is not supposed to be.
So, what we can infer is that science and religion are mostly incompatible. A country’s true commitment to science would therefore automatically put some restrictions on the practice of religion, just as religious values that are supported by science would put a restriction on the use of technology – for waging wars or for other destructive purposes.
Dr Pushpa M. Bhargava is founder and former director, Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology, Hyderabad, and former Vice-chair, National Knowledge Commission.