It is often said that religion died at the door of science. More specifically, religion stubbornly refused to enter the residence and ridiculed the invitation from science. Instead, ignorant of the impending storm, religion froze to death. People who champion this perspective cling to history, which chronologically documents science leapfrogging religion as the source of truth and wisdom.
Along with Darwinian evolution, social evolution also became a criterion for truth. The traditional mesh of religious truths was perforated, sending religion on the defensive. Like an unrequited lover, religion was disdainful of change and pushed to embed itself, once again, in the consciousness of society. Its techniques were not always elegant, but tenacity was never about aesthetics. It stuck to its big sticks—its holy books and the words of its holy men. Armed with these weapons, it fought the beast of science, dogmatically overlooking the fact that its sticks were anachronistic in the age of gunpowder. The literalists read their Bibles, the rabbis preached exclusion and the clerics made parochial fatwas, while the Scopes trial made monkeys of them all and Margaret Sanger continued to sell her bread.
Insensitive to defeat, religion continues to be a thorn in the side of science by pricking it whenever it approaches the burning bush. Certain fields stay off-limits because they don’t read well in exegesis. However, as recalcitrant as religion appears to be, there is no conflict between it and science.
To resolve the dichotomy between what religion has been and what religion should be, I will refer to the metaphor of religion freezing outside the doors of science. The reality is that the storm was mild, but the homeostatic capabilities of religion were inhibited by dogma and absolutism; in a sense, religion declined not because of science, but because of religion itself. At their humble origins, religions were dynamic entities that emphasized private faith in public settings. As religion grew and developed a hierarchy, learned men who professed religious laws changed the face of religion and pushed for public faith in private settings. At that point, religion lost its purity and began to shiver.
All the world’s major religions had humble origins. The founders and early religious leaders – prophets, saints and imams – spread the ambitious tenets of their new faiths with an ambience of tolerance toward those of different spiritual backgrounds. Tolerance was not to accept but to permit the practice of contrary views. These early theological leaders admonished citizens but kept their distance from aggressive recourse.
At the founding of the faith, these leaders had little option but to tolerate the strata of thought and hierarchy of power, but even as these faiths grew and gained supporters, the early leaders retained the tolerance that permeated the inception. The tolerance of thought and ideas was no accident; the faiths grew because of it. They were first embraced by the wretched and the poor—people who, like the religious leaders they embraced, were outcasts of an intolerant system. Their appeal grew because the faiths provided more freedoms than the system it was looking to replace.
Part of the tolerance was in the realm of science. Early founders of religion stressed the use of human faculty to observe the world around them. They stressed reason in embracing the new religion and tolerance in practicing it. Science was an outgrowth of that emphasis on human reason. The ability to study the world was to study the creation of God in its infinite forms. Science, philosophy and religion were one—study of the mundane led to conclusions on the sublime. Science increased spirituality and spirituality increased science. At this point, religion was dynamic.
Like all great movements, religion became inebriated by its own success. As it grew big, it grew bloated and unhealthy. It started frolicking with ambitious politicians and prostrating to men wiser than their traits. Politicians sponsored a religion and hired sycophantic religious leaders to make the investment lucrative. Edicts passed about what could and couldn’t be done, about what could and couldn’t be said and about what could and couldn’t be felt. Religious leaders began to define nature and scripture, ignoring, to quote Einstein, that “before God we are all equally wise—and equally foolish.” That’s when science removed itself from religion and set up its own abode, where it passed contrary convictions on the state of nature. At this point, religion became static.
Religion’s endless mingling in scientific affairs is an offshoot of the hardening of religious thought. It’s a reorientation of religious values away from private acts and toward public proclamations. Religion should be a private connection between an individual and a higher spiritual entity and a continuing interaction among those who believe in that same entity. Religion should preach less and practice more, ironically moving back toward its foundations. Like those early founders, religion should be less concerned with fighting the esoteric observations and applications of science. Instead it should oppose the agents of intolerance, which exist as much today as they did in the past.
Ali Saadi is a second-year biological sciences major. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.