By Dr. Srini Pillay
Religion and science both help us understand the world and make sense of the confusion that surrounds us. However, a bitter rift between the two has led to tremendous polarization and conflict, with proponents of each convinced that their view is the correct one.
Science has long blamed religion for the start of this fight. Tensions can be traced all the way back to the 1600s, when the Catholic Church persecuted scientists — among them Copernicus and Galileo — for their views. And in more modern times, scientists have correctly pointed out that religious differences are often the basis for terrorism and the lack of safety that we currently feel throughout the world.
Anti-science proponents have also had their say. Whether they oppose embryonic stem cells, vaccines, or psychiatric pharmaceuticals, plenty of notable people (including those who run the most powerful nations in the world) claim that science should take a backseat to religion when it comes to moral or ethical decision-making.
But are the differences between science and religion really that cut-and-dried? Does the divide really need to be so vast?
Historians and scientists alike are beginning to ask these exact questions. Alvin Plantinga, professor of philosophy at the University of Notre Dame, says the conflict between science and religion is merely superficial. He feels that digging deeper will reveal there’s actually a “deep concord” between the two. Francis Collins, genetics researcher and the director of the National Institutes of Health, has also been very vocal about how science and religion overlap in his own life.
Notwithstanding the obvious problems with fudged data, scientific bias, killing people for their scientific ideas, and religious fundamentalism that leads to terrorism, it may be helpful to spell out why science and religion may, in fact, have more in common than we think. If we can see these similarities, perhaps it will lead to more conversation, humility, and productive conflict.
Hypothesis and Faith: Are They Really All That Different?
The scientific method begins with a hypothesis, a belief based on data that can be verified or debunked through tests and observation.
Religion also begins with belief, and while detractors may view it as blind faith, it actually does emanate from a database that includes scriptural testimony (from the Bible, Quran, Torah, or Ramayana), inference (“I cannot explain why something exists; therefore, I must attribute this to a higher power”), and direct perception (“I had an experience of God”).
Scientific and religious beliefs begin the same way, but the polarized proponents of each fail to see this. Scientists say that religion is not verifiable or observable, and believers in God claim scientific perceptions are limited.
Both Work Better When Personalized
Science-based interventions typically involve the study of large groups and rely on the principle of averages. For example, medical treatments are deemed effective only after they’ve been tested multiple times across multiple studies and compared with multiple other treatments. In that sense, the findings of science are generalizable — perhaps to a fault. That’s why more and more medical scientists are recognizing that large groups tell us little about an individual, and they’re calling for a more personalized approach.
Studies show that religion may be beneficial for those who suffer from chronic inflammation and mental health disorders, but it is unclear whether these benefits are generalizable. Just as no two scientific test subjects are exactly alike, no two people who attend religious sermons are exactly alike. One person might hear a sermon and feel a sense of inner peace, while another feels motivated to create strife in the world.
This is why both science and religion serve us best when they’re personalized.
Both Revolve Around Love, Passion, and (Sometimes) Power
Religion can help romantic relationships remain solid and families bond. Studies also show that people who practice a religion may be happier and feel greater satisfaction than those who do not. Religion is also linked to feelings of personal empowerment.
Science fuels a passion to improve health and technology. Scientists themselves are impassioned, much like the people who believe in science (just visit this Facebook page to see what I mean). Belief in science has been proven to relieve stress and anxiety and promote feelings of self-control; further, science is considered to be a vehicle to accumulate power in the world. As Carl Sagan wrote, science serves as a “candle in the dark.”
When you think about it, the desires and passions of scientists and religious folks largely come from the same place.
Both Appoint Higher Powers
Religion and science both rely on higher powers to justify their basis. In religion, it’s priests and gods, and in science, it’s journal reviewers and heads of departments or institutions.
I believe that every human being has a need to belong and a need to be independent and free — and these desires occur simultaneously. It is a master-slave dialectic of sorts; neither method could extoll its virtues without the other. The supreme beings in science and religion help us contextualize these desires.
I am a scientist who believes in God. My scientific perspective is sometimes great; at other times, it’s awful. Sometimes, my religious practice is great; at other times, it’s awful. And I have personally seen how both scientific and religious extremism can hurt people.
Yet I wonder whether we could take a more conversational stance on the matter. Rather than justifying our personal belief systems when there are clearly holes in them, perhaps we can discuss them, grow from them, and recognize that we have much more in common than we have differences. And perhaps we could try out different perspectives while keeping a few basic principles in mind.
Life is precious. We have a limited amount of time on earth. No matter what our beliefs are, we should come to question them most if they separate us from others. Without doing so, we become victims of false certainty in a clearly uncertain world.
Dr. Srini Pillay, founder and CEO of NeuroBusiness Group, is a pioneer in brain-based executive coaching who is dedicated to collaborating with experts to help people unleash their full potential. He also serves as an Assistant Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and teaches in the Executive Education Programs at Harvard Business School and Duke Corporate Education.