Religion and science

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Is there a conflict between religion and science?

Seeing religion and science or scientific studies as two conflicting disciplines is a product of the Western attitude towards religion and science. In order to understand the background of the historical conflicts between science and Christianity in the West, we should first discuss the main reasons why sciences have developed in the West in recent centuries.

● What are the main reasons why sciences have developed

in the West in recent centuries?

While studying the reasons why sciences have developed in the West in recent centuries, we should not forget that the main reason is the influence of the Islamic civilization. Since this is a known fact and has already been mentioned above, in the lines to come, we will concentrate upon three of the other factors—namely, changing Western way of thinking, Protestanism and geogragphical discoveries and colonialism.

Christianity and changing Western way of thinking

When, after years of struggle and the lives of thousands of martyrs, Christianity became the state religion of the Roman Empire, it found itself in a climate where Epicurean and naturalistic attitudes prevailed and human knowledge was sanctified.

The teaching of Jesus, which would later be called Christianity, won the victory in its struggle with the Roman Empire but unfortunately at the expense of losing its original identity and purity. Besides, deviating from being a middle way as a God-revealed religion, theoretically it restricted itself to love and condemned nature as a veil separating man from God. Also, influenced by Near Eastern religions like Mithraism and Manichaism, it tended to become a completely mystical religion. However, the earth or nature is seen in Islam and, of course, in God-revealed religions, as a realm where God’s Most Beautiful Names are manifested, a realm on which minds should reflect in order to reach God Almighty, and which is itself a reflection of Paradise.

Certainly, it was the Church which, having announced itself as the body of Christ enjoying his authority, shaped Christianity in the mould explained above and later campaigned to seize, besides its spiritual, the worldly power also. In the centuries during which the West was under the dominion of the Church, a magnificent civilization flourished in the Muslim East. As a result of the West’s contact with this civilization through the Crusades and by way of Andalusia, the West had also the opportunity to learn about antiquity. Greek philosophy, especially Aristotelianism, Roman naturalism and also Greek Epicurism and hedonism found their way into Western thinking. When this Western awakening to antiquity through the translations from Arabic and by way of the Muslim centers of learning in Andalusia and Sicily, was united with Western envy of the prosperity of the Muslim East, the ground was prepared for the Renaissance.

Western ways of thinking changed greatly. The ‘iron wall’ between Western attitudes and Islam which the Church had built up over centuries, caused this change to evolve against religion. Having feared that it would lose its worldly power, the Church severely resisted this change. The corrupted Bible was no longer able to answer the questions that arose in inquiring minds about creation and the order of the universe. The Old Testament had been lost long centuries before during the Assyrian invasion of Jerusalem. The texts to hand were written down by Jewish scholars, who certainly had in mind the problems of the Jewish community at that time. None of the Gospels, which had been chosen out of hundreds and accepted as canonical, was the original one which God sent to Jesus, upon him be peace. Besides, none of them was written by the apostles or disciples of Jesus. So, the symbolical language of Divine Scriptures—symbolical because they addressed every level of understanding at all times and in all places—was lost. As a result, for example, in the description of creation, the Old Testament mentions seven days like the days of the world. It says: ‘And there was evening, and there was morning—the first day.’ Whereas, the conception of a day of morning and evening belongs to us, who live on earth. The Qur’an also mentions days and that God created the universe in six days. But it never mentions mornings and evenings and presents ‘day’ as a relative period whose measure is not known to us. For example, in the verses: The angels and spirit ascend to Him in a day whereof the span is fifty thousand years (70.4), and They will bid you hasten on the Doom, and God fails not His promise, but a day with God is a thousand years of what you reckon (22.47), and He directs the affair from the heaven unto the earth; then it ascends unto Him in a Day, whereof the measure is a thousand years of what you reckon (32.5).

The failure of Christianity and the Bible to answer the questions put by inquiring Western minds caused the direction of scientific developments to be opposed to religion. However, the great scientists such as Galileo or Bacon and others were not irreligious at all. They favoured a new interpretation of the Bible. Certain scientists and theologians tried to do that. For example, Roger Bacon was in favour of experimental methods in scientific investigations but he also defended the notion that one could attain knowledge of heavenly things through spiritual experience. Thomas Aquinas, whom some introduce as the Christian counterpart of Imam Ghazzali of the Muslim East, tried to reconcile Christianity with Aristotelianism. Another theologian, Nicolas de Cusa, opposed the astronomy of Ptolemy but emphasized the profound meaning of the limitless universe whose center is everywhere and peripheries nowhere. Nevertheless, the efforts of such theologians and scientists to reconcile Christianity with science were not enough to prevent science finally breaking with religion. This was partly due to the severe opposition of the Church to scientific developments for fear of losing its power, and partly because of the Western awakening to a material life.

Truly, as Professor Tawney says, quoted Erich Fromm in Escape from Freedom (Turkish translation, 1982, pp. 70–1), in the medieval period, people usually aimed at eternal happiness through economic activities and enterprises. They feared economic motives that appeared in the form of strong desires. A man had the right to gain enough money to lead a life according to his social status but to try to gain more meant greed for money and was a grave sin. Wealth and property had to be obtained through lawful ways and circulate among as many people as possible. However, the Renaissance changed social or even moral standards prevalent in the Middle Ages, or, we might say, changes in those standards gave birth to the Renaissance. Even a superficial glance at the arts of the period suffices to reveal this fundamental change from the moral and spiritual to the material. For example, sculpture—in the view of Sokorin, the product of the desire to escape death and the mental ‘disease’ of representing mortals in the shape of young, immortal deities—used the female body to model passionate desires and pleasures, deceit, sexuality and physical beauty. In Renaissance art, the Virgin Mary was no longer an image of modesty and chastity, inspiring respect and compassion; instead, she began to be painted as a woman with physical charms. The David of Michelangelo is a powerful, muscular youth, an image representing bodily perfection.

The man of the Renaissance desired to be like Odysseus, well-built, comely, intelligent, powerful and skilful in oratory. He was convinced that to become like Odysseus was possible through knowledge. Nevertheless, as will be seen in the following verses, ‘God’ of the Bible was jealous of man and had forbidden him to eat of the fruit of knowledge:

The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it. And the Lord God commanded the man, ‘You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat of it you will surely die.’ (Genesis, 2.15–7)

And the Lord God said, ‘[by eating of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil], the man has now become like one of us, knowing good and evil. He must not be allowed to reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life and eat, and live for ever.’ So the Lord God banished him from the Garden of Eden to work the ground from which he had been taken. (Genesis, 3.22–3)

These verses of the Bible would certainly be antipathetic to the feelings of a typical man of the Renaissance and remind him of the Greek deities who forbade man the sacred fire. Therefore, what fired the imagination of the Renaissance man was to become a Prometheus, who rebelled against the gods and stole the sacred fire from them. This change of attitude towards religion and life is one of the foremost points to emphasize if we are to understand the conflict between science and religion in the West.

Protestanism

According to Max Weber, the development of science and technology in the West was not independent of religion. He maintains that Protestanism was one of the main factors behind scientific developments in the West. As everybody knows, Protestanism developed against the authority of the Catholic Church, although it has not any radical difference from Catholicism.

According to Weber, Protestanism is fatalistic in its attitude towards history and man’s destiny. Everybody is born stained with original sin and no one can be saved from eternal condemnation by his own acts. Both Luther and Calvin were of the opinion that whatever man does, he cannot be saved unless he is among those whom God pre-determined to be chosen and saved from eternal punishment. But the sign of one’s being chosen and saved is that one works tirelessly and is continuously active to overcome one’s feeling of weakness and helplesness. The more one earns and the more successful, the more he means to be loved by God. Weber asserts that the grudge of the middle classes against the rich and aristocracy roused them to further and further earning and accumulation of wealth. Earning incited consumption, consumption caused the rise of endless needs and needs stimulated further work. According to Weber, this never-ending spiral played an important role in the development of sciences and technology. However, it is also behind the egotism, individualism and self-centeredness of modern Western man.

Geographical discoveries and colonialism

United with the authority of the Church, the despotism of kings and feudal lords suffocated people. Besides, the continent no longer seemed to meet their increasing needs and the seas surrounding it invited them to overseas adventures. Needs urge people to investigate and learn new things, and the abundance of natural ways of transportation like rivers and seas as against the smallness of the land enable them to make frequent contact with both surrounding and overseas areas. The Europeans of the Renaissance period made much use of this privilege they had to increase their knowledge and reach remote lands.

The Europeans went in pursuit of gold in remote parts of the world. Finding gold only increased them in avarice which made them cruel and opened the way to a ruthless colonialism. The slave trade and the eradication of the native peoples in continents like America and Australia became the trade mark of the rising capitalism and colonialism. It was only after the transportation of the treasures of the newly invaded countries to the West that the industrial revolution became realized. All historians are agreed that James Watt invented the steamship after the coals of Bengal in India were carried to England after the Battle of Plassey. The invention of steamship marked the start of the industrial revolution.

Today, the USA, whose population forms only 6 per cent of the world population, consume 40 per cent of the paper pulp, 36 per cent of the coal, 25 per cent of the steel, and 20 per cent of the cotton, produced in the whole of the world. The developed countries together form only 16 per cent of the world population but consume 80 per cent of world resources.

In sum, it should not be forgotten that a ruthless colonialism and geographical discoveries are two of the main factors behind the scientific and technological advances in Europe in recent centuries.

 

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