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Why Some Religious People Fear (and Fight) Science -- And Why It's a Sad Mistake

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Religious people -- and by this I mean people who are deeply committed to a religion and aspire to live in accordance with its scriptures -- usually fear science; they suspect that science contradicts some of their cherished beliefs, beliefs they are asked to accept on faith. And because many believe that the best defense is offense, the religious often attack science and scientists, and widen the gulf that separates these branches of contemporary culture. This is regrettable, for throughout history every enduring culture embraced the best of its dominant religion, together with the rational and empirical ideas that made up the science of its time. The current gulf is all the more regrettable as it's based on a fundamental misconception. Indeed, on two misconceptions: of the nature of religion, as well as of science.

The average religious person identifies the religion that he or she espouses with the doctrines of that religion. These are the sacred scriptures created by the founders and prophets of that religion. For the most part they are centuries old, and contain sayings, episodes, and injunctions that are said to come from a higher, superhuman authority.

If it is its doctrines that make up a religion, then there are reasons for the faithful to fear science, or at least a dominant (mis)conception of science (and the misguided souls who embrace that misconception). It's always possible that science will fail to recognize that the sayings, episodes, and injunctions that make up the literal content of the doctrines come from an undisputable superhuman authority. Scientists are not disposed to accept claims on faith; they are trained to ask for proof -- for empirical proof. If it's not available, then they might say that the sayings, episodes and injunctions are unproven, and could be mistaken. In that case the religious would have good reason to fear science (or at least those who believe that science would pass judgment on the literal meaning of religious scriptures); their deepest convictions would be in question.

But this fear is unfounded. It's based on a misconception of the true nature both of religion, and of science.

Religion doesn't simply consist of the doctrines that make up its sacred scriptures. There is far more to religion than that. And it's not the case that science would take religious doctrines at face value and pronounce their content either true or false. There is far more to science than that.

Both religion and science are sourced in human experience. True, they are sourced in a different kind of experience, and science can tell us that they are conveyed by a different hemisphere of the brain: religion is right-hemispheric, and science, left-hemispheric. Human experience encompasses both.

Religion is based on the right-hemispheric experience of its founders, saints, and prophets. These must have been deep and vivid experiences, for they had a remarkable power to affect the heart and the mind of those around them. The founders, and even more their disciples, sought to communicate the substance of these experiences. They did so in the language, and with the concepts of their time. Their followers made the mistake of taking the record of the experiences for the essence of the experiences. They mistook the letter of religion for its spirit.

True scientists would not confound the record of a religious experience with the meaning of that experience. They would not judge a religion by the literal veracity of the sayings, episodes, and injunctions contained in its doctrines; they would ask about their roots in lived experience. And they would seek to understand that experience.

Analyzing the nature and meaning of religious experience is not a threat to the religious. On the contrary, it can prove to be a support. Because when the deep religious experience is analyzed with the methods of a science, a remarkable finding comes to light. The religious experience has aspects and elements that make it consistent with the world scientists discover on the basis of empirical experience.

Strange? Perhaps, but it is so. Psychiatrists such as Stanislav Grof find that in meditative, prayerful, or otherwise altered states of mind and consciousness, people have access to the kind of mystical or transcendent realities that make up the substance of all great religions. This doesn't mean that science can "verify" the metaphysical reality of these visions and entities. To establish their reality is not simply to see whether they correspond to the entities and processes that make up the content of valid scientific theories; it calls for careful reasoning and a further development of our understanding of the perceptual and cognitive powers of the brain, and of the consciousness associated with it. This development is already underway -- among other things, recent attempts to discover the quantum-receptivity of microtubules and other subneuronal arrays in the brain point to it. It appears that we can apprehend far more of the reality in which we are embedded than we had thought. In addition to its standard information-processing circuits, the brain has quantum-receptive capacities, picking up information that's instantaneous, multidimensional, and "nonlocal."

Work in this area is still in progress, but we can be reasonably certain already that there are aspects and planes of human experience that far transcend the limits of everyday experience. As Shakespeare remarked, there are more things in this world than you and I had ever conceived.

Entering on a plane that is deeper or higher than that of everyday experience is what the religious experience is all about. And trying to understand how we can connect with that plane is one of the most exciting tasks facing science today.

The sincere religious has nothing to fear from the genuine scientist. On the contrary, the religious and the scientist have much to learn from each other. Together they will achieve a better understanding of the deep reality that surrounds us and grounds our own existence. Isn't it time to begin to explore that reality together -- instead of fearing and fighting each other?

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