Gandhi Interfaith Conference: Science and Religion

Every year Bakersfield holds an Interfaith Conference in honor of Mahatma Gandhi's birthday. This year the main event of the conference was a panel discussion on science and religion. Persons from various faiths were asked to speak on science and religion. Faiths represented were Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, and Christianity. I was the representative of Christianity. After the opening remarks, the panel opened up to Q/A from the audience.

For our opening remarks, the panelists were given nine questions and we were told to keep our opening remarks to 12 to 14 minutes. Now, mind you, books have been written about each of the nine questions! Attending the panel discussion would have been interesting if only to see how the speakers managed to condense things down to that short a time.

Because we had such a short time to answer nine deep questions, I wrote down my opening remarks to keep myself on track.

  1. Do religion and science complement or contradict each other? Science and religion deal with different aspects of our human experience in the universe, so I see them as complementary. Theology and science are different ways of trying to understand or know ourselves in the context of the universe around us; how we relate to each other on a physical, emotional, and spiritual level; understand how and why things are the way they are; and how to make things better. For Christians, the universe is more than just the physical material stuff that can be measured with our instruments, but it also includes the non-material plane of existence, ideas, thought and spirit.

    All scientists make the assumptions that there are fundamental rules that nature follows, that there is only one real way that nature operates, and that we have the intellectual capacity to figure it out. That is a sort of a faith statement. The Christian would say that meshes with a loving God who created a reliable and intelligible cosmos, who doesn’t want to fool us, and that we understand God better by exploring the universe.

  2. Is God necessary for explaining the existence and order of the universe, or has science rendered God unnecessary? In a purely materialistic universe, God is probably “not necessary” but in a universe that includes Beethoven, Shakespeare, love, compassion, art, consciousness, etc., then God needs to be part of our thinking about it and explaining the value of those things. Even in a purely materialistic universe some scientists such as Paul Davies have argued that the fact that our universe is both ordered and intelligible points to the existence of God. In his Templeton Prize address he said “Who needs a God when the laws of physics can do such a splendid job? But we are bound to return to that burning question: Where do the laws of physics come from? And why those laws rather some other set? Most especially: Why a set of laws that drives the searing, featureless gases coughed out of the big bang toward life and consciousness and intelligence and cultural activities such as religion, art, mathematics, and science?” Other scientists have postulated the existence of a “multiverse” made of a seemingly infinite variety of universes each with their own laws of physics and in only a few of which consciousness may arise or maybe our universe is the one statistical fluctuation in which the laws of physics worked out for consciousness to arise. I don’t see how we can test the existence of this multiverse with the tools of science, so there’s quite a bit of faith going on to believe in the existence of a multiverse.

  3. Is there a scientific proof that a great mind or power is behind the Big Bang and evolution or that the process driving evolution has another explanation? There is no scientific proof that God is behind the Big Bang and evolution because science cannot prove or disprove the existence of God. Science cannot tell us the purpose of ongoing creation and why the laws of physics and biology are the way they are. Science works on trying to discover what those laws are and how they make the matter and energy create the things we see around us.

  4. According to your religion, what is the origin of human beings? How do they develop? Christians believe that God created us out of love for us and because it was good to do so. This thing called consciousness and reason is a gift of God. One of the creation stories in my religion’s scriptural book called the Bible describes this as God breathing in a lump of dirt. A fundamentalist minority in my religion take a literal interpretation of everything in the Bible but most Christians do not interpret the Bible literally. My religion believes that we are a special part of God’s creation and through the gift of reason, thought, consciousness, we are given power over God’s creation that we must exercise responsibly. The Bible shows a development in our understanding of our relationship to God and how we should treat each other. Many in my religion believe that our understanding of God and how we relate to God and each other continues to develop after the times the words were set in the Bible. God continues to create and we are part of that creation process both on a physical, materialistic level and on a consciousness or spiritual level.

  5. What does your religion have to say about Young Earth Creationism and Intelligent Design Theory? Most Young Earth Creationists (YECs) and proponents of Intelligent Design are Christian but most Christians are not Young Earth Creationists because most Christians feel that the YECs are not using the God-given power of reason properly. Many scientists who are also Christian understand ID as a “God-of-the-gaps” type of “proof” of God’s existence that is an unsatisfactory basis for a belief in God. Based on the evidence presented at the Dover trials a few years back, many Christians now see that those pushing to require Intelligent Design be taught in the high schools were being dishonest by trying to sneak a particular narrow way of interpreting the Bible and non-scientific way of understanding the physical world into our science classrooms.

    However, Intelligent Design as a natural theology can be a basis for belief in God. When I look out into universe, I’m amazed and am in awe like the one who wrote Psalm 8 but that is a religious stance confirming my belief or assumption on the existence and presence of God.

  6. Do scientists overstep their boundaries when they claim that theism is an anti-scientific superstition while atheism is consistent with science? Yes, they are. Science is agnostic with respect to the existence of God. Science cannot prove nor disprove the existence of God. Atheism is also a faith in the absence of God.

  7. In the last twenty years physicists have discovered what they call “dark matter.” Does your religion have an explanation for it? My religion believes that God created the universe---all the matter and energy in it and the rules that determine the interactions of matter and energy. Dark matter is just another part of the physical universe that we’re trying to understand using the tools of science. [If you want to find out more about dark matter, then see and for how our understanding of Big Bang nucleosynthesis shows that ordinary matter must be just 5% of the energy density of the universe but several independent methods show that matter makes up 30% of the energy density of the universe---dark matter must be made of other particles besides the usual protons, neutrons, electrons, etc. of ordinary matter. See also ].

  8. Which one of the two—science or religion—best explains meditative and spiritual experiences and the sixth sense some people seem to possess? The tools of science have enabled us to measure physical changes in the brains of people when they have meditative and spiritual experiences. But is human experience just electrical impulses and chemical reactions between neurons in the brain? Most scientists will say, no, there is more to experience, to consciousness, than what happens on the physical level, at least with our scientific understanding today. Science can describe the neural hardware and software of our brains but not the consciousness that generates works of art, philosophy, etc. from that hardware/software. Maybe complexity theory will be able to describe it in the future. But we need to include religion when explaining all of what happens to us in a meditative and spiritual experience and the actions we take after that experience.

    I’m not sure what the framers of the question mean by “sixth sense”, and as an astronomer, I’m not well-read on all of the meanings of “sixth sense”, so I’m going to make an assumption that what is meant by “sixth sense” is a form of intuition that can predict an event that could not be arrived at by a logical deduction of the circumstances leading up to it such as predicting a terrible accident or natural disaster and then taking steps to mitigate or reduce the harmful results of that accident or natural disaster. Religion may explain that ability as a gift from God, that some people have the ability to be aware of a non-linear aspect of time. Science can be used to test or critically examine those claims of a sixth sense to see if it just a form of confirmation bias (remembering the positive claims and forgetting all of the negative claims) or more than statistical luck or the ability of some people to pick out patterns at an intuitive level. When a scientist or research team makes a claim of scientific “proof” of a “sixth sense”, independent investigators must do more than duplicate the original team’s findings. They must do so using different apparatus, measurements and randomizing procedures than what the original team used to avoid replicating any errors the team may have made inadvertently. So multiple methods and types of analysis must be brought to bear. I do not know if that has been done with the claims of a sixth sense. But at first glance, I myself would be a bit skeptical of predicting the future in the manner of a “sixth sense” because it does violate basic principles of cause and effect.

  9. Does the knowledge of science promote peace, understanding, and unity among people of the world’s religions or does it have no impact? Science is a tool that can be used for great good or for great evil and everything in between. CAN science promote peace, understanding, and unity among people? Yes. DOES it necessarily promote peace, understanding, and unity among people? No, as World I first drove home and was explicitly shown in World War II. Science and religion both have great impact in all of our lives, both positive and negative.

    I like how my oldest brother answered this when we talked about this question: “The problem is not what science can discover concerning the psychological, political, and economic conditions for peace—we know all these things already. What we lack is the will to bring peace about. We lack the commitment to do the things that make for peace. Curiously, this is an issue that religion is perfectly equipped to explain. But everything resides in human decision-making. Aye, there’s the rub.”

After the conference, I wrote an article for the local newspaper about the conference. It appeared in the newspaper's Faith section two Saturdays after the conference.

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last updated: October 11, 2014

Author of original content: Nick Strobel