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On Science and Religion

Anjali Vaidya

A couple years ago my oldest brother Vivek decided that he believed in God. He had been riding on the bus one day, and as he was looking out the window at clouds in the sky he felt a presence and decided it was God. My brothers and I had been raised nominally as Hindus, and he thought he would try to accept Hinduism more fully. He would accept Hinduism, but with one condition. Hindus are not supposed to eat beef. All our lives my brothers and I have stuck to that: more out of habit, I think, that anything else. And Vivek said that if he was going to be a Hindu he would start eating beef. It didn't make sense to him to not eat beef for religious reasons.

I find it interesting that it is only now, thinking about this again, that I realize that some might see a contradiction there. Looking at the sky and feeling a presence is not logical or scientific or something that "makes sense". Some might even call it crazy. So why should anything after that make sense? Once you've left the realm of logic behind, why make any such half-hearted attempts to bring it back?

It seems to me that Dennett is one who would argue this: that to enter the realm of religion is to enter the realm of irrationality, of skyhooks, and that any attempt to bring logic into a belief in skyhooks would be ridiculous. Logic is the realm of Science. Belief in a higher being is illogical and outdated and apparently educated people should know better.

I constantly seem to run into this assumption that science is in conflict with belief in God. I must admit the assumption puzzles me a bit and has always made me feel a bit left out. I am in my way a very religious person, but I don't find my beliefs threatened by science. I never have. I'll admit I do not have conventional religious beliefs. My mother was raised Christian and my father is Hindu, and perhaps as a result my family is not very religious. When I was five years old my mother made a comment to the effect that humans came up with the idea of God to comfort themselves, which led me to decide in my five year old mind that God must not actually exist. I eventually changed my mind about this, but it gave me a clean slate, as it were, and I've been making things up as I go along ever since.

"Darwin's dangerous idea" apparently lets loose a universal acid that, when one embraces the idea, eats through such precious ideas as God and the soul and truth and meaning. Yet I find everything I hold dear still standing, and I struggle to explain how this could be if the opposite were meant to happen. I speak as a Biology major and someone who has been steered (rather unsubtly) towards the Sciences from a very young age. I find that the more that I learn about the world and the more that I understand the workings of the universe, the more it reaffirms my belief in God. And by God I do not mean a benevolent being up in the sky who directs all of our actions and takes care of us. By God I mean the underlying beauty that I see in the universe. By God I mean the thrilling patterns and the chaos that exist in this world. I find them fascinating. I find the beautiful logic of Darwin's theory of evolution fascinating, and I find the brilliant irrationality of human emotion and creativity fascinating. I see God in all of it.

There is a quote by the late physicist Richard Feynman that relates to this, and which I rather like. It's from a book called "The Pleasure of Finding Things Out". (1)

"I have a friend who's an artist and he's sometimes taken a view which I don't agree with very well. He'll hold up a flower and say, 'Look how beautiful it is,' and I'll agree, I think. And he says, 'You see, I as an artist can see how beautiful this is, but you, as a scientist, oh, take this all apart and it becomes a dull thing."

He goes on to explain how untrue this is. He says that as a scientist he even sees more beauty in the flower than the artist does, since he knows of the intricate processes and structures within the flower, and other details such as the reasons why its petals have colour and the interesting implications of that. And he finally says:

"Scientific knowledge only adds to the excitement and mystery and the awe of a flower. It only adds; I don't understand how it can subtract."

And what of my brother and his irrationally feeling a presence when he looked at the sky? Such a feeling has no scientific explanation. Yet that doesn't mean it is not significant. I have such feelings as well, and I feel it would be irrational instead to pass them off as a case of indigestion or lack of sleep. I am reminded of a beautiful little passage in a book called Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery, which occurs after the main character, Anne, has admitted that she does not say her prayers at night. (2)

"If I really wanted to pray I'll tell you what I'd do. I'd go out into a great big field all alone or into the deep, deep, woods, and I'd look up into the sky--up--up--up--into that lovely blue sky that looks as if there was no end to its blueness. And then I'd just feel a prayer."

Does feeling so moved when one looks at the sky make sense? Not really. Is it unscientific, then, to treasure the feeling as significant? I wouldn't say it's unscientific. What is unscientific is to ignore what one cannot explain. What is unscientific is to completely ignore strong feelings that there is a benevolent presence or universal spirit out there simply because right now they don't make sense.

I remember a few months ago I visited the church of a Catholic friend of mine. It was beautiful inside, empty and quiet and greatly peaceful, and I found myself deeply moved by the place. It felt holy and sacred and healing. And I do not intend to convert to Christianity anytime soon, but I treasure the memory all the same. The experience meant something to me, and I don't feel such meaning to conflict with science. Rather, I do not see how it is possible to use science as a tool for understanding the great chaotic mess that is this world and this universe without seeing God in the beautiful complexity that it reveals.


1)quote from Richard Feynman, (1999) The Pleasure of Finding Things Out : The Best Short Works of Richard P. Feynman

2)Montgomery, L.M. (1908) chapter VII of Anne of Green Gables

3)The Science and Spirit website on Serendip (no specific ideas taken from here, but it provoked a lot of thoughts)

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