01 May The Great Rift – Are Science and Religion Really Worlds Apart?
What do we know about this reality? What do we know about ourselves? Is there something more to see or are we just punching blindly in the dark, fighting to find meaning in our lives? Over the millennia humanity has adopted two primary tools for navigating these questions: science and religion. But are they the diametrically opposed practices that many believe them to be?
In its greatness, humanity has arrived at some monolithic checkpoints over its time on this planet. From the crafting of various tools to the forming entire societies, we have made great strides with our increased development of the mind. Ultimately, science and religion are beacons of understanding and guidance that shine brightly against that black, star-speckled backdrop of this expansive universe—a universe we have only just begun to comprehend.
Science and Religion
It’s intelligent design versus evolution—a fundamental conflict of perception Michael E. Hobart calls the ’great rift’. Since conceiving ideas around the notion of ‘God’—however they may have come to us—we have sought to quantify and validate the belief in an intelligent design. Conversely, we have explored our surroundings empirically, experimenting with our findings in search of understanding and meaning within this universe.
The ancient Greeks were forerunners in advancing the western knowledge of religion and science. During this time it was widely accepted that these two now opposing systems of understanding actually went hand-in-hand. Nature has laws and we strive to gain a clearer perspective of how these laws interact with creation. Great minds such as Aristotle and Plato believed that creation is mathematically precise and that a scientific pursuit can give us a glimpse into the thinking of the gods
We now have fundamentalists on both sides of this philosophical chasm who claim their truth is the only truth. Can there really ever be a final answer to this debate? We cannot blanket everyone’s unique experiences with quantified results from a controlled test group. Nor can we offer an explanation of everything that applies to each and every individual life.
Bridging the Gap
Abdu’l-Bahá is the son of the founder of the Bahá’í faith (1863). It is a faith that recognizes the value of all religions and provides a welcoming space for the exploration of their unity—much like the modern-day Unitarian churches. Regardless, Abdu’l-Bahá offers a balancing perspective on this debate:
“Religion without science is superstition and science without religion is materialism”
The late Carl Sagan, who famously brought scientific exploration to the mainstream and inspired millions into astrological pursuits, has this to say about spirituality:
“Spirit” comes from the Latin word “to breathe.” What we breathe is air, which is certainly matter, however thin. Despite usage to the contrary, there is no necessary implication in the word “spiritual” that we are talking of anything other than matter (including the matter of which the brain is made), or anything outside the realm of science. On occasion, I will feel free to use the word. Science is not only compatible with spirituality; it is a profound source of spirituality. When we recognize our place in an immensity of light years and in the passage of ages, when we grasp the intricacy, beauty, and subtlety of life, then that soaring feeling, that sense of elation and humility combined, is surely spiritual. So are our emotions in the presence of great art or music or literature, or of acts of exemplary selfless courage such as those of Mohandas Gandhi or Martin Luther King Jr. The notion that science and spirituality are somehow mutually exclusive does a disservice to both.
Neil deGrasse Tyson was a friend and student of Carl Sagan. Together with Ann Druyan (Carl Sagan’s wife), they have created a modern-day voyage into the mesmerizing rift between science and spirituality. The series ‘Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey’ is available online at various media outlets. It is a sequel to Carl and Ann’s original 1980s scientific and spiritual exploration of our known surroundings.
Where does this all lead?
A new wave of spirituality is beginning to emerge and somewhat bridge the gap. People have been turning to the health and wellbeing effects of Eastern practices such as yoga and meditation. We have aimed our scientific minds towards decoding these practices and the health benefits we see.
Simple meditation techniques have produced a wide range of positive outcomes in recent studies. The reported effects of meditation include reduced stress, anxiety, physiological arousal and increased empathy. A study conducted by Rausch et al in 2006 gathered large groups of undergraduate students and exposed them to either 20 minutes meditation, progressive muscle relaxation (PMR) or a control condition. After which they were subject to one minute of stress induction and then returned to 10 minutes of each intervention method. Participants in the meditation and PMR technique groups showed a significant decrease in cognitive, somatic and general state anxiety than those in control groups. These findings illustrate the effectiveness of group meditation on our cognitive and bodily functions.
Spiritual practices such as meditation have been found to produce concrete results in human wellbeing. The scientific method has given us an ever-increasing quality of life through the repetition of its findings, good or bad. If we can continue to create avenues of thought that cross between these two giant adversaries, then we may once again reunite them into new forms of spiritual-science. To do so, both sides will require an openness to shed any apparent dogma that is holding back an objective exploration of life. We do not know all the answers and we still have a lot to learn. If the universe has taught us anything, it’s that everything is in a state of constant change—and so should we be.
So, what can we take from both sides? Simply, what we need. We should perpetually be on the fence at all times. We study and draw conclusions, always doubting what we find and giving rise to improvement; thinking twice and walking the thin line between the two extremes is the narrow path of truth.
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-“Centre for Neuroeconomic Studies – A Mass Meditation Experiment: The Brain Effects of Group Meditation” Rausch et al; 2006
-The Great Rift – Literacy, Numeracy, and the Religion-Science Divide – Michael E. Hobart
Photo of meditating girl by Jyotirmoy Gupta