Science and religion have been at loggerheads for a long time. Human thought is shaped more by faith than scientific temper, and the personal and the political are seldom the same.

BY G K RAO

It’s just an anecdote but it does capture the flavour. “When a cow returns home after grazing the whole day, the dust it raises while walking is called godhuli. It is considered the most auspicious time. Why? It’s because when cows graze the whole day, they absorb the sun rays through the horns. This energy is transmitted to the earth through its hooves. That’s why when bulls are used for ploughing, the soil does not need fertiliser.”

That is a comment by Uttam Maheshwari (Fountain Ink, August 2015), a self-professed cow therapist who also says he once asked Tihar Jail inmates to go around a cow 10 times. “At the end the visiting doctor recorded an increase of energy levels by eight times.” He does not specify what he means by energy, what device the doctor used to measure it, what the energy level was before they went around the cow, whether it was the godhuli time or even what, on his scale, is the normal energy level of a male adult.

Yet many of us would have no problems with a statement of this type. We would probably take at face value a basically unproven rhetorical proposition with none of the rigour that a scientific statement is expected to have. It is blithely passed off as evidence of the wisdom contained in old scriptural texts and becomes a handy tool with which to bash the rational sceptic. Objections are dismissed in terms of political orientation. In fact it’s become one of the hallmarks of the new wisdom as preached by the new apostles of ancient verities. Abusing the naysayers into silence is the preferred option.

One of the most remarkable features of the 20th century was the retreat of organised religion in the West. The first world war led to the most profound reordering of the old regime, rooted almost everywhere in the alliance of state and church or state and mosque. As the empires trembled and crumbled so did religion and many of the underpinnings of ordinary life. But it never quite went away, though the decline of empire shook faith and church down to the foundations.

The business of church-going or praying is a small part of the day’s work and ordinary people had many bigger issues on their plate, like dealing with the dislocations caused in the war’s aftermath. The overall effect was to shake up all the comfortable certainties of the “golden” period of colonial rule. It called everything in question, especially the legitimacy of authority. For one thing, all of God’s anointed, except for the King Emperor of Britain, either abdicated or were driven from power in popular movements. For another, this conflict was about colonies and a bigger share of the plunder, following the pattern set by the Napoleonic wars. Religion came only later, when it became necessary to pray for their boys, their side. In this respect, things had changed fundamentally. The motives were secular, not driven by faith. It had been undermined by the rise of new classes, new ideas and the scientific method.

The rise of historiography and systematic textual criticism, geology, archaeology and allied disciplines led to a general and thorough debunking of virtually every sacred text, but especially the Bible, poetic justice for the church which had done so much to keep a tight rein on scientists. It’s worth noting that the clergy as one of the most highly educated sections played an important role in this regard, the Darwin family being a prime example. Moreover, science in itself had become fashionable apart from the fact that it was the foundation of the Industrial Revolution, which encompassed everything including agriculture. Its prestige grew in direct proportion to its increasing presence in every part of an ordinary life. It’s a continuing movement that’s shaped everything since then, from public health and education to industrial organisation and market strategy to the very fabric of reality. Modern living is unthinkable without it. It’s possible to contemplate a world without God but not without mobile communication.

***

At some point last century, with universal schooling and unprecedented numbers of young people in graduate courses, deicide seemed all but inevitable in the West. The combination of quality education, a young population open to new ideas, universal franchise, rising prosperity and the spectacular diffusion of science, both applied and theoretical, was supposed to be irresistible. For scientists, a deity is in any case an unnecessary distraction in the professional sense and education was expected to make that—as well as the removal of racial prejudice and other undesirable holdovers from previous generations—into an automatic reflex in advanced societies. For a while it seemed change would be constant, incremental, even revolutionary, a gradually accelerating curve into some far, yet unforeseen future of perfect equality where you would “judge a man not by the colour of his skin but the content of his character.” That view would be considered naïve in any context, but seems hopelessly optimistic from today’s perspective. So what happened?

Many things, certainly but, equally, many things did not happen. That could be a partial explanation for what we see today. Consider independent India, for instance. For all the soaring nobility contained in phrases such as “scientific temper”, “temples of modern India”, “rational discourse” and so forth, it was never clear how many signed on or were even aware of the sentiments they evoked. It was a case of “the leaders said it so it must be true or will happen shortly” wishful thinking. It was supposed to be a command performance but sections of the orchestra couldn’t hear the conductor. So a largely illiterate population signed on to an elected republic but didn’t bother to read the rest of the manifesto. As for the state, it simply couldn’t live up to its promise but even if it had there’s no guarantee that “rational discourse” would have produced the sort of “scientific temper” the ruling ethos favoured.

The discussion is academic now because the Indian state succumbed very early to a show of religious symbols on the pretext of respect for culture. Over the decades it’s moved steadily towards an open embrace of Hindu rituals, making a complete nonsense of its secular credentials. In this scenario, where was the chance of a secular state ever becoming a reality? The state quietly made its peace with religion while continuing with the charade. Now even that pretence has been given up. So it is hard to comprehend the public dismay at the resurgence of religious fundamentalism. The signs were always present for anyone with the eye to see.

The unregenerate tribalism of religious sects has in any case always been part of the social set-up, both in India as well as other countries. It’s resistant to dispassionate reason because it holds its faith so strongly. Its power is usually latent but its force can’t be discounted. That’s why politicians, who are intimately acquainted with every pressure group, court them so assiduously.

The scientific temper is an idealised state of mind where we consider a subject with perfect dispassion, question and investigate every part of it to see how far it corresponds with physical reality. Amartya Sen  provides the working description: “The scientific temper is a way of life (defined in this context as an individual and social process of thinking and acting) which uses the scientific method and which may, consequently, include questioning, observing physical reality, testing, hypothesizing, analysing, and communicating (not necessarily in that order).” The existence of a thing is thus directly linked to observation and the inference that follows. In short, if you can see its shape and it looks the same to everyone else it’s real.

By that criterion faith cannot exist. My feeling of reverence for the deity may be very real, as may be the general sentiment of everyone else with similar feelings but that would also be true in every case of disbelief. Those feelings too would be real and everyone who feels that way has an equally strong argument. There’s only one way to decide the matter, find a way to show it’s the same, whether you’re a believer or not. The proof of the pudding is in the eating. If you can’t eat it there’s no pudding. It’s the way science works, either a thing is or isn’t and the only answer is through empirical evidence. This is how science works and if you don’t agree then your position is not only irrational but also anti-science. That in brief and with some qualifications is the argument from reason.

***

If we agree that this proposition is correct then there is one interesting implication. It assumes that scientists in general as individuals are unbelievers and anyone who doesn’t toe that line should be automatically disqualified. Is that true in real life, though? Not at all. The scientist—or philosopher, as they were called in medieval times—as a man of faith is a constant in Christian and Islamic civilisation. Isaac Newton, who did so much to prepare the ground for the decline of faith, was a devout Christian who spent about half his life trying to prove the Bible was literally true.

Coming to more recent times Jocelyn Bell Burnell—co-discoverer of the neutron star (1968) and one of the most distinguished astronomers living today—has been a life-long Quaker. She finds a common bond between the two. “I find that Quakerism and research science fit together very, very well. In Quakerism you’re expected to develop your own understanding of god from your experience in the world. There isn’t a creed, there isn’t a dogma. There’s an understanding but nothing as formal as a dogma or creed and this idea that you develop your own understanding also means that you keep redeveloping your understanding as you get more experience, and it seems to me that’s very like what goes on in ‘the scientific method’. Nothing is static, nothing is final, everything is held provisionally.”

Faith, in her view, is a process of evolution. It’s also very different from the patriarchs of every creed who claim to be the Final Word on all that is or will be. But it is born of passion and feeling, as much visceral as it is intellectual. Oddly enough, the same could be said of her professional life. In a 2006 interview with BBC she describes her excitement at the “eureka” moment of finding a pulsar, one of the grails of astronomy, many decades after its existence was postulated by Zwicky and Baade in the Thirties. These are the twin poles of her life. The anti-science thesis seems a bit hasty in this light.

Closer to home, the Indian Space Research Organisation is one of our most outstanding institutions. Its launch record is the envy of virtually every nation and it’s the benchmark for economy in a vastly expensive field. There can be no doubt about its scientific credentials. Three years ago, after the launch of Mangalyaan, the Mars Orbiter Mission, there was a hue and cry over ISRO’s habit of sending scale models of its launch vehicles to Tirupati for blessing.

ISRO’s then chairman, Dr K. Radhakrishnan visited the shrine of Lord Venkateswara a day before the launch of Mangalyaan from Sriharikota. It prompted a massive broadside from the Federation of Indian Rationalist Associations: “I don’t know which principle of science is applicable to the act of placing a replica of the satellite at the feet of a statue at a temple. How can a person like him in a responsible position in a government organisation be foolish enough to believe that prayers to [a] particular god can ensure the proper launch of a satellite! I don’t know who is responsible for the failures in such a scenario,” FIRA president Narendra Nayak was quoted as saying by Deccan Herald. The same report also said his actions violated Article 51A(h) of the Constitution which exhorts citizens “to develop the scientific temper, humanism and the spirit of inquiry and reform.” By FIRA’s creed one of our most distinguished scientists is guilty of a cardinal sin apart from violating the spirit of the Idea of India.

It should be said right away that we cannot read too much into the attitudes of two individuals, however distinguished. There are many others whose views are diametrically opposed and they too would be equally valid. In fact, by the evidence test they would win the day. The really striking thing, however, is that belief is a choice consciously made, for whatever reason. It is difficult to believe anything else of highly educated, informed, intelligent and motivated individuals. The reason could be something as simple as an inability or reluctance to forsake tradition, or something more nuanced, a feeling that what is unproven need not necessarily be untrue. The choice is then to go with the heart or the evidence.

Jocelyn Bell Burnell’s views on science are worth examining in this context. Here’s one example: “Science is a quest for understanding. A search for truth seems to me to be full of pitfalls. We all have different understandings of what truth is, and we’ll each believe, or we are in danger of each believing, that our truth is the one and only absolute truth, which is why I say it’s full of pitfalls. I think a search for understanding is much more serviceable to humankind, and is a sufficiently ambitious goal of itself.”

In this view, science is not the entirety of the universe. It’s one way, albeit an important one, of looking at a complex reality. She doesn’t make the same sort of case for faith; it is more personal. There, too, the question of truth is not final, as she puts it. Professionally you follow all the protocols of your discipline because they’re necessary. Whether you believe in God or not is beside the point. The result should square with the observations made. What you believe in your personal life is entirely up to you.

***

In this matter, it seems we all have a similar approach. The precise flavour of our personal mythologies concerns no one but us, at least ideally. As humans we seem to get on happily enough with these divisions between public and private beliefs that should be fundamentally irreconcilable. An engineer could be a devout follower of scientology—for whose basis there is no proof—just as a student of comparative religion could be an atheist. Millions of us live useful and productive lives, discharging our civic and family obligations at the same time as we make our bows to fearsomely parochial deities that encourage us to regard everyone who doesn’t subscribe to the Word as infidel. Most of us seem to handle that contradiction without too much grief.

It is possible that the ability to reconcile opposites is the remnant of a mechanism that helped us cope with environmental stress in prehistoric times. Of course, it also means that our nose for the truth may be less than ideal. The gut feeling that decides so many actions may be misplaced. What we see as truth may be no more than what we would like to see happen. This is emotion masquerading as rational discourse, a phenomenon that seems to increase by the day. It has everyone scratching their heads for an explanation. Why, in this age of accurate information easily accessible by the public, are we seeing a tribal polarisation even in highly educated societies when it should be the other way around?

There is a simple explanation: We can take only so much change. We have a limit beyond which we’re reluctant to go. It’s worth noting that though we agonise so loudly over the shape of the future we find relatively little trouble adapting to the advance of technology. The use we make of the dizzyingly accelerating progress in the manufacture of increasingly more ingenious artefacts is one thing. For instance, amniocentesis was developed to test for foetal abnormalities but we use it extensively, and illegally, to determine the sex of the foetus. Most of us don’t understand how it works but we’re ready to exploit it for our ends.

A more dramatic example is the mobile phone, which people are using for a growing variety of transactions far removed from its original purpose. It’s transformed the lives of people like maids, carpenters, pushcart vendors, housewives, schoolchildren, and a myriad others. The adoption of this device in its multiple iterations of increasing sophistication has been virtually seamless, depending only on reliable connections. Without it many of us would feel crippled and helpless. Yet how many of us subscribe to the science behind it, which is not only value-free but postulates a universe with neither guardian nor guide? It’s a complex formulation but most of us could understand the basic underpinnings in general. Whether we accept all its implications is another matter.

In the last 150 years, evolution theory has been beyond doubt the most influential of all Great Ideas in shaping our lives. It touches almost every aspect of practical life, from the food we eat to the crops we grow, the way we look at things in terms of progress and evolution to a greater understanding of disease and the treatment we get for it. Yet huge numbers of people, especially the devout, find it utterly repulsive. Evolution doesn’t need God, it doesn’t need transcendental purpose and, worst of all, there is no particular end apart from exploiting marginal efficiencies to better adapt to its surroundings. That’s about the size of it. It was bitterly contested in Europe and the US by religious groups. The state of Tennessee actually banned the teaching of evolution in state-run schools and that led to the Scopes Monkey Trial which exposed the divide between religious fundamentalists and modernists. It remains unbridged even today.

In the US it’s taken a curious turn in Creationism, a pseudo-science that reinterprets the Bible to bring it in line with Darwinism. This tortuous reordering of the Word of God would have brought a wry smile to Charles Darwin’s face. It’s a small triumph for science, oddly enough, though fervent Christians would furiously deny that.

In India there’s never been a real public debate on the subject though religious right-wing “intellectuals” have summarily dismissed the genetic evidence for homosexuality. It’s never seriously engaged public sentiment so that may explain the relative lack of heat in this matter. For the moment, we seem to have accommodated it in a compartment and got on in our schizoid way with normal life. It would be interesting to see what happens if the question ever occupies centre stage in our public discourse.

The facts are supposed to be beyond question, except in a technical sense. The proof is provided in chapter and verse, so that should be the end of the matter. But it doesn’t seem to work that way, especially in an everyday context. The world seems to be fractured into incompatible, often irreconcilable segments. The more optimistic among us feel it’s like a jigsaw puzzle. All we need is to put the pieces in the right places and it will be whole. The underlying assumption is that ignorance leads to a lack of understanding which results in these polarities. But it may not be quite that way.

The people who deny evolution, for instance, are neither ignorant nor stupid. They are aware it is in fundamental conflict with their worldview. There are only two ways out of this cul de sac, reject it or suborn it. Creationism and the Master Race theory could be viewed as devices to protect and rebuild their universes by turning a hostile creed to their purpose. It’s possible that the fact-free bloviation that seems to be taking over our discourse is a response to change that threatens our various tribal strongholds. We live in a divided world because we choose it as the better alternative.

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