I have listed definitions of Religion and science below, courtesy, www.dictionary.com. The essay will use this as the base definitions to deliberate on the subject.
Religion: “a set of beliefs concerning the cause, nature, and purpose of the universe, esp. when considered as the creation of a superhuman agency or agencies, usually involving devotional and ritual observances, and often containing a moral code governing the conduct of human affairs.”
Science: “a branch of knowledge or study dealing with a body of facts or truths systematically arranged and showing the operation of general laws: the mathematical sciences.”
As one can see, the glaring difference between the two is, Religion is based on “beliefs (faith)” and Science is based on “facts or truths”. Without going into much detail, we can see that “based on beliefs” and “based on facts” naturally form the opposite ends of spectrum of thought. At a high level, we can probably conclude that they cannot go hand in hand and never have a consensus on anything.
But is this truth?
Typically people believe something, when they do not know (understand) the fact. When they do know the facts, they understand something rather than they believe it. For example, people believe that “there is God”, whereas people understand that “touching fire burns”. When it comes to subject of “Purpose of Life”, “Who is God?”, “What will happen after we die?” etc. etc. type of questions, the facts (scientific truth) are not known by the human being and hence no facts associated with it. There are number of theories, some of the learned men have created to answer these questions. These theories are imbibed in the followers of various religions/castes/sects present in our society. Hence we can conclude that the “area of play” of Religion and Science is different. They are not opposites. In the scenario where scientific facts are not available, people are free to believe (have faith) in something which makes sense to them, (Typically theories, philosophies) with the purpose of finding the truth.
Over the years of human history, Religion and Science have been loggerheads with each other. Some of the glaring examples I remember are from the western society, where Copernicus, Galileo etc. had to face the wrath of the religion because, they proved a fact, which was against the general belief of the religion. The religious belief of the society was shattered by the revelation, and at that point in time not many people had the sense to try understanding and appreciating the fact in it. Darwin’s theory of evolution was not accepted by the Christian followers, as it provided a completely different view of the evolution than the Genesis theory in Bible. It took 200 years (Just recently in 2009, Vatican accepted the Darwin’s theory) for the religion to accept a very strong theory of Darwin. (Some of the evolutionary concepts can never be proved. Some of them related to Plants, Birds have been proved through the experiments and genetic engineering).
In our Hindu society, some of the examples of following of conflict between faith and science are the non-acceptance of staunch believers in the abolition of sati, child marriage, English Medicine (Still some villagers think, it is a sin to use them) etc. We can relate some of the ills of our society, back to faith and religion, and lack of factual thinking and lack of effort to find truth. Every society has got lot of good qualities also because of the belief in the religion, For E.g. Non Violence, Respect of others etc.. (I apologise, I couldn’t think of better examples of conflict between science and religion in our Hindu society. If reader can give some, it would help me.)
As we can see very clearly, through the Faith (Religion) and Fact (Science) act in a completely different “area of play”, their paths have crossed and ended mostly in a conflict. The reason is very obvious; the basic implementation (followed by people) of a belief is to believe without logic/reason. Unfortunately this has been the method of teachings of some of the religions hve followed to keep the support group strong. (“Never question God”. “It is written in the sacred book”. These are the statements which the preachers of such type of belief make). When a fact is proved, by somebody, it is a natural instinct (survival instinct) for a believer to instantaneously reject it. This is the reason that Religion and Science have not gone hand in hand most of the times.
When theory (logic) is thrown to counter a belief, the theory has to be countered with logic of the belief, instead of blind negation due to faith (Blind negation due to faith, will hamper the knowledge and hence the opportunity to know the truth). This process will give the best of both the “areas of play” to all the individuals. This process will make sure that, Religion and Science both benefit from each other.
One of the great examples of follower of the above process was Einstein. He was an avid reader of philosophy and religion. He has also made some statements regarding the greatness of some of the religious theories and how it has helped him. He has even proposed some theories on “Meaning of Life”, “Purpose”, “Soul” etc. (This article gave me an opportunity to search and find this site today - http://www.einsteinandreligion.com. One never knows where knowledge is available :-))
The example of greatness of this process in India is Shankaracharya; he traveled across the country, having arguments with the leaders, individuals, teachers of different beliefs. He spread his Advaitha philosophy across India though this method. There are examples of some great thinkers/philosophers accepting his theory after big discussions (Discussions with Mandana Mishra and his wife is very well documented one). One story about how an “Untouchable Fisherman” teaches the basics of his Advaitha philosophy (which Shankaracharya propagated) to himself is a wonderful example of the process. (Though both are theories, than facts, a stronger theory has a better logic and appreciating that will help in reaching the Ultimate fact.)
One can argue that, “Why have faith at all? When we do not know about certain thing, why not just accept and sit down saying, I do not know about this, I do not believe anything.”
Unfortunately the above thought process leads to inaction. If inaction is the happiness for somebody they can follow this. If the purpose is to understand the Truth of any matter, Faith becomes a very important vehicle. With the available knowledge, one will have to figure out the “unknown areas”, and start searching for answers in “unknown areas”. Since, the facts are not know, Faith is the vehicle which gives the individual the belief that the answer can be found. Faith is the vehicle which takes the individual across the difficult times in his search for the truth.
-- Madhukar Hebbar