Science, religion and the Covid-19 crisis

Will science one day finally see the back of God and religion? This is one of the questions DR GURNAM SINGH asks

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Original illustration by Dom McKenzie / The Observer
By Dr Gurnam Singh | OPINION |

One of the many consequences of the terrible coronavirus crisis is the opening up of debates about the relationship between religion and science. Among Sikhs, and I suspect other faith groups as well, the coming of COVID-19 has opened the age old question: if God exists, if God is compassionate and if God is in control of everything, then why would he unleash such terror on humanity?

Theologians have managed to develop a robust defense to this argument that goes something like this: in suffering God helps us to learn to become better people for it is in the face of suffering that we can realise something is wrong. However, though such erudite philosophical justifications may carry weight in a university seminar, they have little purchase on the ground, where suffering is experienced the ordinary people.  It certainly appears, in the current crisis, along with the places of worship of our great religions, God too has been locked down and the people are looking towards scientists, doctors and nurses to help them in their hour of need.

Amongst Sikh groups it appears COVID-19 has thrown fuel to an ongoing theological conflict about the nature of God in Sikhi. Put crudely, Sikh parcharaks (preachers) are split into two almost opposing world views.

One perspective, commonly associated with the Nirmala Sant tradition, argues for a personal anthropomorphic (human like) God with super natural powers. This God is often depicted as an old bearded man dressed in white flowing robes; interestingly, not dissimilar in appearance to the priests belonging to this tradition! For this school of thought, God is merciful and compassionate to those who, with genuine love and faith,  perform penance, religious rituals, selfless service and prayers. In return, God rewards his devotees with divine intervention, which may result in reducing or even eradicating their suffering, be it physical and/or mental. It logically follows that those subscribing to this perspective will have faith in supernatural events and miracle cures. Indeed, the sermons of the Nirmala parcharaks are replete with miracle stories, which no doubt provide hope and inspiration to their followers.

The other school of thought is what can be broadly termed the Sikh missionary tradition.  The roots of this tradition can be found in the development of the Tatt Khalsa and Singh Sabha Movement in the late 19th and 20th Century. There are complex socio-political reasons for their emergence, but in relation to question of theology, the Singh Sabha Scholars were, as noted by Pashaura Singh and Louis E. Fenech (2014) in The Oxford Handbook of Sikh Studies, profoundly influenced by the European enlightenment and in particular the ideas of reason, logic, universality and rationality.  In some senses, one could argue that the project of the Singh Sabha Scholars was to reform the Sikh God in the light of the growing impact of science in the West. Indeed, there is no doubt that science  was making major inroads into the influence of Christianity in Europe during the 19th and 20th Centuries.

Though there are differences, broadly speaking the Sikh Missionary take on God is that He first created the universe and all that exists within it and then he became one with it, with nature or ‘kudrat’. It follows that the laws of nature are also the laws of God and therefore the aim of religion or dharam is to find ways of appreciating and living with these and religious worship is essentially a tool to develop inner spiritual awareness. In other words, dharam is not invoke a vehicle for invoking God to intervene or to disrupt that which is natural, but to help us to accept his will manifest in natural processes.

One could argue their position is closely related to the proposition made by the Dutch/Portuguese philosopher Benedictus de Spinoza, often seen as the originator of a school of thought termed Panentheism. Spinoza argued that, though God and Nature had their distinct meanings, namely, they were not interchangeable concepts, it was through nature that Gods infinitely many attributes were demonstrated, including the human qualities of reason, from which science and reason itself emerges.

Whilst Spinoza was seeking to reconcile reason and God, others, such as the English philosopher, Bertrand Russell sought to write off God altogether! In a famous lecture at the Royal Society in 1927 entitled, ‘Why I am Not a Christian’ (https://users.drew.edu/jlenz/whynot.html ) after systematically refuting the convectional Christian arguments for the existence of God, Russell concludes with the following devastating observations:

We want to stand upon our own feet and look fair and square at the world—its good facts, its bad facts, its beauties, and its ugliness; see the world as it is, and be not afraid of it. Conquer the world by intelligence, and not merely by being slavishly subdued by the terror that comes from it. The whole conception of God is a conception derived from the ancient Oriental despotisms. It is a conception quite unworthy of free men. (Russell, 2927)

There can be no doubt that science does call into question many of the claims made in the name of religion, but, somewhat counter intuitively, this has not stopped some of the greatest scientific brains from invoking the concept of God in their own attempt to answer the big questions. One of the few boons of the COVID-19 lockdown is that we all have more time on our hands. For some this has meant catching up on multitude of DIY tasks, binging on Netflix or social media. To be honest, I too have been doing all these things, but I have also been getting on with some reading. Accordingly, I came across a book by the late Professor Stephen Hawking entitled Brief Answers to the Big Questions which was posthumously published earlier this year. I was particularly drawn to a chapter where he asks the question, Is There a God? Here is a sample of his argument.

Science is increasingly answering questions that used to be the province of religion. Religion was an early attempt to answer the questions we all ask: why are we here, where we come from? Long ago, the answer was almost always the same: gods made everything. The world was a scary place, so even people as tough as the Vikings believe in supernatural beings to make sense of natural phenomena like lightning, storms or eclipses. Nowadays, science provides better and more consistent answers, but people will always cling to religion, because it gives comfort, they do not trust or understand science. (Hawking, 2020 P25)

I have been a fan of Hawking for many years and have read  a number of his ground breaking books, including his first and most famous, A Brief History of Time, in which he sets out the Big Bang Theory. Hawking was always interested in the question of God and he concluded this book with a very interesting speculation about what might have been there before the Big Bang. He contemplated that to be able to answer that question one ‘would know the mind of God.’ This statement has been subject to most much debate about what Hawking actually meant. Did it reveal a latent belief in God or was it simply a play with word?

Some religious  people took Hawking’s statement as scientific evidence of the existence of an intelligent creator, whereas Hawking, in later clarifications, confirmed that he did not believe in God and that he was simply playing with words. However, at the end of the chapter of his last book, he concludes that though he does not have faith in ‘heaven’ or ‘afterlife’, he is open to the possibility that we do live on, in our influence, our genes.

For Hawking, there is something special about being born a human being, for it is the one opportunity we have to appreciate the ‘grand design of the universe’. For me this is very similar to the idea in Sikh scripture (Gurbani )that it is only in the human form (manukhi jananm) that we have the possibility of meeting the divine universal force (Gobind) and the way to do that is to engage in thoughtful reflection (naam simran).

Though science has answered a lot of the big questions, many others remain, so the mystery of life and the beginning of existence is not likely to be solved in the near future. Moreover,  during its short history of some 400 years, there are many questions that science has got wrong and sometimes this has led to terrible suffering.

Indeed one of the paradoxes of science is that it progresses by negating its own truth claims!  In other words, scientific claims are themselves speculative and trapped within the prevailing theories and paradigms of the age. So for example, if one takes quantum mechanics, many of the findings completely refute Newtonian physics. Similarly, who knows if today’s discoveries in cosmology and quantum theory will not similarly be overturned in the future. For example, developments in neuroscience and genetics over the past 30 years has completely changed our view of how the mind and body works and the relationship between our thoughts and our physical body.  The possibilities of discovery appear to endless, particularly as we contemplate a new age of artificial intelligence, so who knows how this might shape the way we think about our place not only in this world but the universe as a while.

Because of the realization of the incompleteness of knowledge, unlike religion, science rarely gives you definitive answers and this can be frustrating at times. Take for example the COVID-19 crisis where currently we are seeing a desperate race by scientist’s, across the world, to find a vaccine and/or cure. Whereas some ‘God men’ the world over have been offering all kinds of instant remedies, most scientists have been hesitant to make such bold claims. The reason for this is simple, the threshold of evidence for science is very high, whereas for the ‘God men’ it is almost non-existent. Indeed, almost all of the miracle cures  that people of different religious persuasions make tend to be based on single cases that are unverified or unverifiable, or they may be associated with placebo affects. But clearly such cases that appear to contradict medical opinion do allow religious people some comfort in seemingly provoking religious claims.

Often debates about religion and science are presented in antagonistic ways, but this doesn’t need to be the case: it is wrong to see religion or science as either good or bad. The real issue is, what impact do these have on human well-being ? And if this can be proven to be positive, or at least harmless, then nobody should object and perhaps both can co-exist.

There is plenty of historical evidence that religion has been invoked to justify terrible crimes against humans and animals.  But that doesn’t mean that science is exempt from its own inhumanity and historically, the truth claims of science have led to terrible outcomes for humanity, including the justification for slavery, colonialism, genocide and all forms of oppression and dehumanisation. Indeed, if one looks at the field of medicine itself some of the remedies offered by medicine in the not too distant past would today be seen as no different to superstitious folklore, and any doctor practicing these would no doubt be struck off. We must not forget that many of the health gains in modern societies, resulting in dramatic improvements to life expectancy, are related to basic things like clean water, nutrition and health and safety regulations.

And so,  whilst it would be idiotic to discount science, it is also important to realise that science doesn’t always have the answers. That said, I still feel Stephen Hawking’s observations about God and religion are also true and that many of the truth claims of religion have little or no evidence to support them. But the question remains, if it is purely speculative and without evidence, why has religion survived  the scientific age? The way out of this seemingly illogical outcome is to understand that the invocation of religion is not really about God as a real entity, but as a metaphor for not knowing all the answers. The problem of course is that those people who claim to have a direct connection to God, namely the priestly class, will then go on exploit people’s fears to offer them all kind of supernatural unproven explanations and remedies.

Will science one day finally see the back of God and religion? Well God has proven to be pretty resilient, so I would say until science can address his own contradictions, God is going nowhere! Alongside our human instinct towards rationality, there is also the need to believe, to remember, to desire, to imagine, and yes to speculate, and God has nothing to fear from these emotions. Indeed, I would argue, the idea of a mysterious all knowing divine entity can facilitate such imaginings. Perhaps in this regard, one might be able to see God and science as complimentary entities, especially given that science is wholly dependent on cultivating novel thinking and therefore disrupting what might be deemed to be ‘normal’.

Whilst, both Einstein and Hawking were staunch defenders of science, they were also willing to invoke the concept of God in their discourses. Like Guru Nanak, both were in awe of nature, of the universe, of the planets and the stars lighting up the of cosmos. Whereas as Nanak reveals this beauty through his sublime poetic discourses (Gurbani), Einstein and Hawking relied on mathematics.  For Nanak the essence of Gods divinity is experienced through the loving embrace of nature, whereas for Einstein, this relationship is beautifully captured in his famous equation E=MC2. Similarly, Hawking’s  discovery of gravitational waves,  black holes and his mathematics proof of the Big Bang, where the universe is shown to have been born from nothing some 10 Billion years ago, is itself a manifestation of divinity.

And as for COVID-19, it is clearly the case that by forming alliances between science, religion, the state and civil society will we be able to ameliorate and ultimately defeat the virus. Indeed, given the outpouring of love, care, charity and conviviality over the past 3 months, there may just be some good to come out of this terrible moment in human history.

[Gurnam Singh is an academic activist dedicated to human rights, liberty, equality, social and environmental justice. He is an Associate Professor of Sociology at University of Warwick, UK. He can be contacted at Gurnam.singh.1@warwick.ac.uk]

* This is the opinion of the writer and does not necessarily represent the views of Asia Samachar.

 

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Time to flip some prevailing ideas (Asia Samachar, 24 April 2020)

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