Religion and science: Do they obstruct each other, and are they truly incompatible?

Religion and science: Do they obstruct each other, and are they truly incompatible?

Religion and science both seek to give explanations of different aspects of the world; science, concentrates on the physical, observable, and verifiable, usually through hypotheses and experiments; religion, is based largely on belief and faith. Religion
pre-dates recorded history, and perhaps goes back to the time when the first humans could depict or convey some form for which they had reverence or awe, or, most likely both. From a Western/Euro-centric influenced point of view, science can be thought to have taken roots with the Scientific Revolution in the 16th century[1]. The scientific method is a process based on information, thought, observation, and experiment, used to systematically arrive at a conclusion.

Most, if not all ancient civilizations have sky mythology, which exist either by themselves, or as some part of a religious system. The Babylonian Civilization circa 3000 BC is credited[2] as having the earliest knowledge of the celestial bodies and calendars based on the regularity of astronomical events. The Ancient Egyptian Civilization was also heavily based on astronomical events and religious rituals. . The helical rising of the star Sirius was believed to herald the flooding of the Nile River predestining the production of food and continuation of Egyptian life[3]. The engineering and architecture of the Great Pyramid of Giza also links the religion of the Ancient Egyptians to the stars. These stars represents their God Osiris and Goddess Isis and were the parents of Horus, who, it was believed was the Pharaoh, to whom the Pyramid was dedicated and in which the mummified body of the deceased Pharaoh lay. The Ancient Egyptians had elaborated funerary rituals and a strong belief in the afterlife, based primarily on the stars and the skies and the return of the ‘soul’ to the skies. Very little is known about the science of these ancient cultures, however, based on their observations and calculations, they were able to predict celestial events which they believed affected their lives and, this was incorporated into their lives and religion. The ability to predict events is an aspect of modern science.

In the 2nd century C.E, Ptolemy (Alexandrian astronomer, geographer and mathematician) proposed the Ptolemaic System[4]. This described a geocentric system, where the Sun, Moon, and all the planets revolved around the Earth, establishing the Earth as the centre of the known Universe. This geocentric system was, generally, based on the scientific method of that time, based on observations, and somewhat complex mathematical geometries which sought to express and predict the observed motions of the celestial bodies. Incidentally, Christianity was gaining momentum, and was later established (in the early 4th century C.E.) by the Romans. The Ptolemaic system was in harmony with the Church’s doctrines, and it was enshrined, overtime, dogmatically, into Western Christendom.

Ancient religion and astronomy, it seemed took a more holistic, interconnected approached; while it added its own metaphysical interpretations for causality, it was essentially based on the observations of the world, sky and nature. The mainstream organized religion, on the other hand, took belief out of nature and embodied it in an unknowable, omnipotent, omnipresent, omniscient, invisible God, where persons could only know God through worship, with the Church as proxy. This is still somewhat similar to the practice of the ancients, but it was no was no longer linked to observations and had no ‘feedback’ into it. Religion was therefore, established as a separate system. Notably, most Eastern Civilization and mystery traditions still held onto the, now deemed pagan teachings and thinking. For example circa the 5th century C.E. Hindu astronomers[5] believed that the Earth was a sphere and that is rotated once daily[6], however, the rise and spread of the Western World shrouds most of their teachings.

In the 16th century, Nicolaus Copernicus (Polish astronomer, priest mathematician, theologian and student of medicine) proposed the Copernican Theory, attempting to oust the Ptolemaic Theory and establish the Sun as the centre of the cosmos along with the proposition that the Earth rotated daily upon its axis[7]. Copernicus’ theory was based on observations and recalculation of orbits, especially for the Sun and the Moon, and his belief that a simpler model of the celestial bodies might exist to that predicted by the complicated Ptolemaic system. Copernicus took no less than 29 years to officially publicize his theory (in 1543 A.D), even though the Pope in 1533, in Rome, was said to approve of his principles and formally requested him (Copernicus) to publish. His theory was published only through efforts of his friends, and pupil, and even a preface, not written by Copernicus, was inserted into the works as a disclaimer, stating that the Sun was assumed to be stationary only to simplify computations. His and his colleagues’ hesitation to publish the theory was seemingly based on fear of being pilloried, either from the Church, Reformists, or persons who generally did not agree with this theory. The Copernican Theory centred the Sun in the Cosmos, established the sphere of background (fixed) stars as being very distant from the Earth, and, based on observations and logical reasoning, posed the question – why bodies fall to the Earth, if the Earth was not at the centre of the Universe. Indirectly, the Copernican Theory could be said to break the correspondence between the Earth (and probably more appropriately, humans) being a mirror of the surrounding Universe, as the Universe no longer revolved around us. The Earth was a planet in the solar system just like all the other planets, and humankind was no longer the centre of it all. This goes against religious teachings that all of creation was created for humans, and for humans to have dominion over it.

More than half a century later, 1609[8], the Italian mathematician, astronomer and physicist, Galileo Galilei, constructed the first high magnification astronomical telescope. He made several major discoveries over time, viz. the moon was not smooth, but irregular; the Universe was composed of many stars; the planet Jupiter had its own satellites (moons) which orbited it; the Sun had ‘spots’; and Venus exhibited phases. Galileo demonstrated his telescope in the pontifical court in Rome and was encouraged to publish, then, taking a stance on the Copernican Theory. Supporters of the Aristotelian Systems, however, along with Dominican preachers united and conspired to turn “religion”, i.e. the Church, on Galileo, claiming he was promoting heresy against the Church and against the Scriptures. Interestingly, Galileo foresaw this impending crisis and pointed out to the Church of its standing practice of interpreting Scripture allegorically, whenever if came into conflict with scientific truth[9] and even begged Rome to leave the way open for a change, stating that it would be a “terrible detriment for the souls if people found themselves convince by proof of something that was made then a sin to believe”. The chief theologian, however, wanted to avoid the Protestants gaining the upper hand over Catholicism and passed a decree, in 1616 to suppress the book and theory of Copernicus, even though a number of ecclesiastical experts supported Galileo.

In 1632, however, Galileo was allowed to publish a book Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems – Ptolemaic and Copernican, provided he did commit to one, and concluded that “man cannot presume to know how the world is really made because God could have brought about the same effects in ways unimagined by him” and (Galileo’s work) must not restrict God’s omnipotence. This was the Church’s attempt to preserve the ideal of God. Other religious orders, however, protested that Galileo was committing heresy[10], and he was prosecuted, being sentenced in 1633, to house arrest indefinitely. Under confinement, Galileo went on to discover the Moon’s diurnal and monthly librations, and died, still under house arrest in 1642. Notably, Galileo seemed to ignore Kepler’s laws, especially Kepler’s first law which describes planetary orbits as being elliptical rather than circular. Circles, were, then, deemed to be more perfect than ellipses, and surely cosmic motions would be none other than perfect.

Both Copernicus’s and Galileo’s run in with established religion shows the power of religion in that time, and the personal fear that questioning it would result in problems; this, even though they both had observable proof against the previous theories since adopted by the Church. Galileo’s letter to the authorities further demonstrates the Church’s power. From the historical evidence found, the church seemed to not have an issue with the theories themselves, but the problems they could cause by destabilizing the Church and the ideal of God; the issue seemed not about the Earth being dethroned from the Cosmos, but about the Church’s and God’s power in society being taken away. Historically, and still, presently, from a mainstream perspective, science and religion are still obstructing and at war with each other. German philosopher Nietzsche said it best in[11]Everything true faith is infallible; it performs what the believing person hopes to find in it, but it does not offer the least support for the establishing of an objective truth. Here, the ways of men divide. If you want to achieve peace of mind and happiness, have faith; if you want to be a disciple of truth, then search.”. This quote applies to both science and religion, though religion and science are two different fields; science being objective and based on evidence, and religion based on faith. For both to be compatible, religion, like science, must be able to evolve. The Dalai Lama stated[12] If science proves some belief of Buddhism wrong, then Buddhism will have to change…. science and Buddhism share a search for the truth and for understanding reality.”

Both science and religion, originally shared a search for truth. Religion however seems static, or at least changes at a much slower rate than science; perhaps owing to its longer lifespan and indoctrination of its teachings over time. Neither, however, is infallible. In more recent times, science too, can be said to have attained something of a cult status; absolute and all knowing, especially in mainstream thought. For example, the demotion of the “planet” Pluto to a dwarf planet (terms only officially defined only in 2006[13]) caused much controversy, even in academic circles. As a result of this, notably and surprisingly, definitions which can be said to be basic had to re-defined to incorporate new information that was now known. Many people still, and inconsequentially, as it doesn’t affect anything in the Universe outside of the human mind, protest that Pluto should be re-instated as a planet. It affects and questions (shakes) their belief systems. How could we, in the 21st century, not know what a planet is?

The domain of religion, however, is much larger than the physical boundaries of science. Religion was born, presumably, to provide a body of all encompassing laws of society, related to justice, economics, morals, ethics and behaviour; ideas which, now like astronomy, have their own fields outside and apart from religion and any numina, although some subtle ties still remain. If religion is to survive and not be eclipsed by science and other fields, it must be allowed to evolve, incorporating the scientific method (though probably not the method’s epithet). This of course would be no short-term or easy task given the faith and belief system that is has inculcated over millennia. Each individual must be allowed to question and search for truth. Science also must learn from the journey of religion and not assume that it is omnipotent and omniscient. The error checking feedback system crucial to its development much remain open; the scientific theories, are “the best we have” (at that point in time) and a way must be left open for any “more truth” to cast its light.


V. K.



Sources of Reference

[1] Britannica, s.v. “Science” , v27, p37

[2] Britannica, s.v. “Astronomy” , v1, p656

[3] Britannica, s.v. “Mystery Religions” , v24, p706

[4] Britannica, s.v. “Ptolemy” , v9, p775

[5] Britannica, s.v. “Arybhata I” , v1, p611

[6] Britannica, s.v. “Cosmos”, v16, p764

[7] Britannica, s.v. “Copernicus”, v16, p760

[8] Britannica s.v. “Galileo”, v19, p638

[9] Ibid, p639

[10] Historic evidence indicates that evidence was planted against Galileo. Britannica s.v. “Galileo”, v19, p639

[11] Human, All Too Human : Nietzsche, BBC Documentary, A BBC RM Arts Co-Production (1999)

[12] Tenzin Gyatso, “Our Faith in Science,” The New York Times, 12 November 2005

[13] “Pluto and the Solar System | IAU,” International Astronomical Union, n.d., (19 August 2012)

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