Why Should Scientists Care About Religion?

By Nidhal Guessoum

As a Muslim scientist, I spend much time and expend much energy trying to convince Muslims and other believers to take modern science seriously, with all its methodology and results – and its limits.

The reverse exercise, to try to convince scientists and other educated people that religion should be taken seriously, is much more difficult, for several reasons. First, there is an intrinsic asymmetry in the relationship: science, in addition to being a methodology and a discovery process, is able to ascertain a vast array of results and present whole swaths of established knowledge.  Today, no one can doubt that matter is made of atoms and particles, that life evolved and produced a vast tree of species, or that the universe has expanded from a singularity and is today made up of hundreds of billions of galaxies, each made up of hundreds of billions of stars, many/most of which have planets around them, etc.

On the other hand, “religion” (I’ll get to definitions shortly), while having developed branches of knowledge, with methodologies and references, cannot claim to present realms of established knowledge. Still, “religion,” in some forms and from some perspectives, can present an ensemble of highly respectable and beneficial ideas that even hardline scientists can appreciate and find useful, for humanity if not for themselves.

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In attempting to explore this issue, a problem of definitional clarity presents itself right away. If the concept of “science” is more or less understood, at least by well-educated people, the notion of “religion” is far from evident and agreed upon. To make things clear, I’ll define science as a rigorous and systematic process of discovery about the world (in all its fields and features, physical, biological, psychological, etc.), a process which is able to ascertain its results through confirmatory procedures (which involve testing, peer reviewing, etc.). Modern science is not a foolproof process, but it is as close to a robust system for reaching factual and objective knowledge (independent of the subject) as we have been able to construct.

In attempting to define “religion,” however, one must distinguish “faith”, “spirituality”, and “religion.” “Faith” is the belief in something or some things (a creator, a divine force, a spirit, life after death, revelation, etc.) without being able to prove that in any objective way. (“I had a vivid, personal experience” is wholly subjective.) “Spirituality” is a feeling that there is some activity within us that is not purely material or at least happens at a higher plane than our simple bio-psychological phenomena. “Religion” relates to an organized system of beliefs (theology), practices (rules and rituals), and relations, at both individual and communal levels (church, community, society, etc.).

Recently, social scientists such as Elaine Ecklund have highlighted the importance of differentiating between “spirituality” and “religion;” indeed, Ecklund has found that among academic atheists, 22 percent describe themselves as “spiritual;” it has also been reported that 10 percent of Danish atheists call themselves “religious.” To understand “spiritual atheists,” one must keep in mind that “spiritual” for many scientists and academics refers to a feeling of awe, wonder, and mystery about the world and about all of existence. And to make sense of “religious atheists,” one must recall that some religions (e.g. Buddhism) do not have God or theism as part of their belief systems…

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Why Should Scientists Care About Religion?