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  • On science & religion

    Minna Pöntinen 00e

    During the history religions have inflicted man’s way of thinking and the knowledge available at each time. an During the Dark Ages the contradiction between religion and science was at its height. As the christian church - which was probably at the peak of its power - promoted the holiness of everything God had created, it also condemned further exploration and attempts to understand the world better. It was thought that mankind should not know God’s secrets. This is one of the reasons why much “real” knowledge of the surrounding world was not available to the people of that time.

    Since the church was in such a powerful position, it had excellent possibilities for the practice of propaganda. If the church authorities said that there’s a Heaven and God and that God punishes you for your sins, the common people usually had no way of falsifying these claims. Usually they obviously didn’t even want to do so, since individuals rank keeping yourself alive pretty high in their list of priorities, and the church dispatched many dissidents with no second thought.

    During the renaissance - the rebirth - the way of thinking and the whole atmosphere changed. Now it was allower for a good christian to try to understand God and His ways better, and it was accepted even by the church that the purpose of science is to take advantage out of what God has given us. In fact, the search for the secrets of God and of the nature was even considered as a duty of the good christians, since not doing so could have been indifference towards God.

    As Ralph Waldo Emerson put it later in his diary in 1857: “Religion that is afraid of science mocks God and commits a suicide.” (Pietiläinen 2002, p. 152) In fact, the most important idea of the Enlightenment 1600s was that the methods of natural science could and should be used to examine and undestand all aspects of life. (McKay, Hill, Buckler 1999, p. 604) However, this change also induced a new view of the world, and as the science progressed, the part of God diminished and diminished.

    Even nowadays some propagandistic features can be assigned with the churches, since the practitioners of many religions claim that they’re the only ones right, and give reasons for this. However, also science can be propagandistic in a way, and one vision of the future by Winston Churchill in 1946 states that the practitioners of religions may be started to hunt down just as the practitioners of science were used to: “The Dark Ages can return on the wings of science” (Pietiläinen 2002, p. 8)

    The areas of science and religion can overlap sometimes, but not in a very great way. Science, which is connected with facts, logical thinking and such brings us knowledge about the surrounding world, whereas religion, which is naturally connected with acquiring knowledge (whether true or false) mainly feelings. Science is not all-powerful or a good guide for all of the areas of life; as Leo Tolstoi put it in 1958 in his book What is Art, “Science doesn’t tell us what to do or how to live.” (Pietiläinen 2002, p. 14). Science and firm scientifical beliefs don’t also rule out religion; as Vannevar Bush put in his speech in 1952: “Scientifical thinking is not underestimation of spirituality. In fact, scientifical thinking of the right kind is a ground from which the spirit can rise.” (Pietiläinen 2002, p. 151)

    Nowadays one of the biggest problems between religion and science is the attitudes of those who follow science and believe that via it the universum can be wholly explained. However, many perfectly rational and honored scientists admit that science isn’t the key to everything and that God may very well exist, and agree that the complete lack of evidence isn’t a proof of the non-existence of the phenomenon itself. This view of the world is quite a good compromise, but it is understandable that the “hardcore” scientiests are bothered by the thought that science might not be able to explain everything in the end. As Carl Sagan put it in his book Broca’s Brain in 1979: “There is an nascent fear according to which some things “are not meant” to be understood - some questions are too dangerous for mankind to ask.” (Pietiläinen 2002, p. 154)

    Some people view science as a religion. The main feature of the religion of science includes the belief in the fact that ultimately, science is the best, almost perfect way to explain the world. As John Morley has (perhaps ironically, perhaps half-seriously) put it: “The next big target of science is to create a religion to mankind.” (Pietiläinen 2002, p. 154) Scientists are also called “the priests of a not-so-popular religion” by Fred Hoyle in 1968. (Pietiläinen 2002, p. 153)

    The idea of science as a religion is almost a frightening one: one of the major functions of religion is to give people comfort and help them live their lives happily. Were science considered as a religion, the right purpose - and the definition - of religion would be abolished. Religion, and the knowledge acquired through it is a very personal thing, whereas science is even overwhelmingly public by its nature. Science doesn’t also offer proper background for what religion is famous for: with religion and the knowledge acquired through it there are no things that can be labelled to be right or wrong with good enough certainty, but with science in the end there is eventually just one generally accepted truth.

    At the ideal situation science and religion back eath other up and complement each other. They often even need each other to be somehow closer to perfection: as Albert Einstein put it in Ideas and Opinions in 1954, “Science without religion is crippled, and religion without science is blind.” (Pietiläinen 2002, p. 152)

    © Minna Pöntinen 2009 / minagi (at)