Bahai News - Spirit of Science


Spirit of Science

What is the relationship today between science, religion and development? How do we resolve the moral and ethical questions we're being faced with today, with newer technologies accelerating scientific discovery?

A colloquium was held in the Capital recently to debate this issue. One of the participants, Farzan Arbab, particle physicist, formerly of Harvard and Columbia universities and now director of the Baha'i Teaching Centre at Haifa, Israel, spoke to Narayani Ganesh on the human face of science and development:

Why do you think there's a need to talk about the relationship between science, religion and development?

The basic problem is that the gap between the rich and the poor continues to widen. There's more violence, there's more despair. Sure, there are a number of people who are better off; but overall, despite the ongoing development processes, somehow, we have not been able to resolve many of these problems.

Some of us believe that one of the fundamental reasons for this failure is that the very conception of development is flawed, it has been materialistic; that it has not paid attention to the spiritual nature and motivation of the human being.

Development theories are based on the working of material, economic and political forces. The spiritual aspect is neglected.

But surely, it is only because we anticipate a certain material profit that we're actually motivated to perform, whether it is in a business or a job. How would you reconcile economic activity with two divergent philosophies, that of materialism and spirituality?

What is human nature? Human beings have two natures -- the lower, material one which seeks comfort and physical satiation and a higher nature that's willing to sacrifice, that's compassionate, which values justice. It depends on which one we address.

The same person behaves differently in different situations. A shrewd businessman might seem unfeeling and materialistic while conducting his business but where his family is concerned, he's different -- he's sacrificing, loving and generous.

How can this be translated for the common good?

We all have the capacity to go beyond our personal circle of family and friends. What is needed is education that caters not just to the material side but to the spiritual side, too.

There's a danger here. Whose brand of spirituality should be taught in schools?

Surely, it is not difficult to identify in the traditions of all the religions and beliefs of the world, some universal values that we can all agree upon?

We require this kind of consensus. That's why we're talking of a synergy between science, religion and development. Religion should be treated as a way of life. Just as science is trying to understand the material world, religion is trying to understand the spiritual world.

You make it sound so simple but the fact is that science and religion have always been diametrically opposed to each other.

For instance, in the history of Hindu and Muslim civilisations, this kind of opposition did not exist. The conflict between science and religion is something that emerged out of the Age of Enlightenment in the west, in which things were categorised and it was a reaction against religion that was confused with superstition; a reaction against the tyranny of certain rigid religious organisations.

Even scientists and philosophers began to feel that the pendulum had swung too far to the other side. The `reason' that was being advocated -- despite the many good things it threw up like development of technology -- ended up being very narrow.

It is this same `reason' that has taken humanity towards damaging the environment. If scientific advances are based on reason, then how do you account for such advances ruining nature?

Are you saying that the world view of scientists then and now, has changed?

Science is still a method of knowledge that is trying to understand the universe. But science by itself cannot assign values; it cannot find the purpose and meaning of the universe.

But aren't both science and religion engaged in the pursuit of truth?

Indeed, they are. And in this pursuit when they are actually in harmony, real civilisation advances -- not the kind that believes that while one section of humanity has everything, the other can be left with nothing? We have to ask, progress for whom?

We praise technology. But there's something missing if the fruits of progress are available only to a select few. Cruel materialism leaves most people out. Religion without science ends up as superstition.

Therein lies the duality of science and religion. We have to find ways of making the two complementary and interactive. How can science and religion together bring about knowledge that can spur the kind of altruistic development that advanced technology can make possible?

Can you give some specific examples?

At the colloquium we examined four areas -- governance, education, technological choices and economic activity including economics. The way we look at education right now, we want to create more schools that impart material education.

Once they're educated, you ask, to what extent are they morally or spiritually inspired? Are they equipped to make the right decisions? Are they prepared to share their knowledge with others?

If people have to be taught how to make moral choices, then how does one go about imparting universal values as part of education?

Like-minded people from different faiths can come forward to conduct workshops. Consultancy services can be made available to centres of learning. In Bolivia, we created a university and conducted a programme called moral leadership for teachers in rural areas to help in development activities. Such efforts can be carried forward to different parts of the world.

Today, scientists face unprecedented ethical questions. For instance, should they go ahead with human cloning? Is it okay to harvest stem cells? The Pope has been expressing his disapproval. Where does religion fit in here?

Things are always happening in the frontiers of science, whose ethical implications are not fully understood. And, there's always a debate between those who say a rigid `no' and those who are willing to say `yes' to any new thing.

Many of these issues like genetic engineering are entirely new -- so it is premature for any authority -- even religious authorities -- to issue edicts or laws preventing these new areas of research. These new issues haven't been fully understood yet. We have to figure out the implications.

I think we should look for the answers as we go along. I don't believe that just because something is possible, it has to be done.

Religion can put limits on what is ethical but I also think that religion should be cautious about making pronouncements prematurely. Both science and religion have to figure out what is okay and what is not.

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