Curiosity about the mystery of the cosmos and the unwillingness to condemn the unknowable as non-existent are what religion is all about
I read Prof. Vasant Natarajan’s article “Let’s aim for a post-theistic society” (Open Page, The Hindu, September 22, 2013) with a lot of interest especially in view of the anxiety generated by the inhuman killing of Dr. Narendra Dabholkar. The main premise of the article is that religion is founded on fear, the fear of the unknown. He has also argued that modern science has been able to explain almost all natural phenomena.
When we discuss the relevance of science and religion, it will be misleading to look at it through the “either-or” prism. Among scientists, there are many who are religious and similarly among the religious, there are many who have a scientific frame of mind. Far from being founded on the fear of the unknown, true religion is founded on the faith in the grace of the unknowable.
It is easy to define religion opportunistically and then decry it. If we associate terrorists with religion, as Prof. Natarajan has done, religion becomes nefarious. If we understand religion as an enquiry into the ultimate purpose of life and equate it with spirituality, the merits of religion will become manifest.
Prof. Natarajan has tried to understand why humans invented the concept of God and denounced it by quoting Albert Einstein. It has been a universal practice cutting across all religions to describe what we don’t understand (essentially what is called ‘mysterious’) as acts of God. Einstein was appreciative of this phenomenon and that is why he said, “The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and science” and “Science without Religion is lame; Religion without Science is blind”.
The author has conflated the miraculous with the mysterious, assumed that religion perforce believes in miracles and argued that there is no supernatural MIRACLE that has withstood the scrutiny of science. Belief in miracles is not an essential part of religion; however, curiosity about the mystery of the cosmos and the unwillingness to condemn the unknowable (at least what is unknowable at the present stage of science) as non-existent are what religion is all about.
According to NASA (which is by no means a religious institution): “More is unknown than known. It turns out that roughly 68% of the universe is dark energy. Dark matter makes up about 27%. The rest — everything on Earth, everything ever observed with all of our instruments, all normal matter — adds up to less than 5% of the universe. Come to think of it, maybe it should not be called ‘normal’ matter at all since it is such a small fraction of the universe.” (http://science.nasa.gov/astrophysics/focus-areas/what-is-dark-energy/)
Therefore, Prof. Natarajan’s claim that “modern science has been able to explain almost all natural phenomena so that the purview of the unknown has shrunk considerably” is preposterous. I am not in the least ridiculing science; I am only arguing that both science and religion, which wonders at the ever-expanding mysteriousness of the universe, have their respective places under the sun. We may not need a sun-god as the professor argues but we cannot deny people’s right to be wonderstruck by the apparently inexhaustible solar energy that sustains life though we have not fully comprehended the origin of the sun and various stars and planets. It delights (and does not demean) a true scientist to find that the more he understands the unknown, the more he discovers that even less is known about the unknown.
It may surprise us to know that Albert Einstein, an apparent non-believer in god and religion, said: “Before God, we are all equally wise — and equally foolish” and that “all religions, arts and sciences are branches of the same tree.” It is not all that scientific to say that one branch is better than others.
(The writer is a former banker and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)