Last week, a much-publicized debate took place at the Creation Museum in Petersburg, Kentucky between "Science Guy," Bill Nye and Creation Museum founder and creationist, Ken Ham. The debate, according to one news report, was a sold-out event that attracted dozens of national media outlets. Traffic was extremely high on the museum's social media sites.
Although the participants in this debate came from the worlds of science and religion, it would be wrong to make broad and general inferences about the relationship between science and religion from this dialogue. Ken Ham speaks from the Christian tradition and is representative of one perspective within that diverse tradition.
The radical divide between Nye and Ham reflects, however, the historically contentious and combative relationship between Christianity and science. At the heart of this divide are conflicting claims about truth and the validity of knowledge. Traditionally, the Christian tradition, locating itself in the authority of the Bible, claimed to offer truths, not only about the meaning of life, but also about the nature and functioning of the universe. It claimed infallible authority in all matters of human knowledge.
Science entered and disrupted this closed world of knowledge with findings that refuted long-standing beliefs. It offered a method of gaining and verifying knowledge that was independent of religious authority. The claims of science were demonstrable and verifiable through empirical methods of inquiry and experimentation and generated tangible results. Copernicus, for example, refuted Church teaching that a stationary earth was at the center of the universe and the stars revolved around it. He proved that the sun occupied the center and the earth and other planets moved around it. In last week's debate, Nye offered evidence to challenge Ham's belief that the earth was 6,000 years old. Ham's response was to assert the authority of the Bible over the evidence of observation. It is unfortunate that there are many speaking today for religion who are untroubled by incompatible truth claims. They assert the validity of religious teaching, even when such teaching is contradicted by observation and inference. Conflicts between science and religion are inevitable when both claim authority about the same subject matter, for example, the age of the universe, and offer incompatible conclusions (6,000 versus 18 billion years). These conflicts are unavoidable as long as each persists with the belief that it speaks comprehensively and authoritatively for the totality of reality.
It is unfortunate that important debates, like the one between Nye and Ham, are conducted without voices from religious traditions other than Christianity. Other traditions have much to contribute to such discussions and offer different perspectives to our understanding of the relationship between science and religion and to dealing with conflicting truth claims. The polarization evident in the Nye-Ham discussion is not true across the religious world. Our religious diversity in the United States is a special opportunity for us to be enriched by multiple perspectives and multi-faith conversations.
The Hindu Vedānta tradition regards the scripture (Vedas) as a source of valid knowledge. This understanding of the nature of scripture makes high demands on the teachings of the text. Most importantly, these teachings must satisfy the criteria for valid knowledge and the most significant among these is non-contradiction. A belief or proposition that is contradicted loses its validity. Many, for example, believed that the earth was flat until this was contradicted by the knowledge of a spherical earth. This was a prominent point of contention in the Nye-Ham debate.
For the great Vedānta teacher, Shankara (ca.8th CE), religious teachings cannot contradict or be opposed to established facts. If a religious teaching contradicts a well-established fact of experience, it cannot be considered authoritative. You cannot prove, Shankara said famously, that fire is cold or that the sun does not shine by citing sentences from scripture. These are facts already established by other authoritative sources of knowledge and a scripture cannot reverse facts. If contradictions occur between different sources of knowledge, earnest inquiry is necessary for the resolution of these and religious teachers must welcome and be active participants in such discussions. Vedānta does not allow us to ignore science or to irrationally claim that its findings are false because these contradict scripture. Religious claims that are refuted by valid sources of knowledge cannot be professed in ways suggesting that such contradictions do not matter. Religion cannot claim epistemological privilege and be sheltered from wider engagement with the growing body of knowledge about our universe and life. Religious traditions ought not to fear truth, whatever its source. The vocabulary of truth is, after all, present in every world religion.
Following from this understanding of religious teaching, and critical to the dialogue between science and religion, is the Vedānta view of the limited authority of scripture. It is not the function of the scripture to reveal matters within the range of human experience, ascertainable through our ordinary means of knowledge, like perception or inference. Scripture is redundant if it duplicates what is knowable through other ways of knowing. History, for example, is not within the authoritative sphere of the scripture, and so also are matters that may be known through empirical methods of inquiry. A religion may offer an interpretation of the meaning of history, but the facts of history are not the authoritative concern of religion. Religion ought not to claim authority in those fields of inquiry where its methods and sources are not appropriate. At the same time, the Vedānta tradition calls for a similar acknowledgement of the limits of empirical modes of inquiry. Reality is not circumscribed by the limits of perception and inference. Epistemological humility is a virtue for both religion and the empirical sciences.
Today, we can no longer persist with a narrow and compartmentalized understanding of knowledge. Religious claims cannot be privatized and treated as exempt from what we know to be true from other valid ways of knowing. Religion must happily, and without fear, enter the wider stream of discourse about the nature of reality, confident that truth does not contradict truth. The Upanishad prayer, "Lead us from untruth to truth," is one that both scientist and theologian can affirm.