1887
Volume 2014, Issue 2
  • ISSN: 2218-7480
  • E-ISSN:

Abstract

The intersection of science, knowledge and religion has been one of the most important and sensitive areas in the last centuries, particularly in the West, as these domains have increasingly drifted apart from each other. The bifurcation between knowledge and faith has been a result of a profound alteration of both. Since the scientific revolution of the seventeenth century in Europe, knowledge has been almost exclusively reduced to an acquisition of information about nature, mankind and the myriad of phenomena that are apprehensible by human consciousness, while faith has all too often been confused, especially in the last centuries, with a mere belief grounded in customs and sentiments. The result is that for many today, science has become a religion, that is a belief system based on assumptions and premises about the nature of knowledge and the world, rather than simply an activity of inquiry into the nature and structure of the universe. Religion, conversely, has largely ceased to be a science, in the full sense of a means of knowing the Ultimate, and through it the world and the self. Indeed it has become increasingly reduced to matters of private feelings, codes of morality, or prescriptive and proscriptive rules, when it has not been turned into an ideology competing with other ideologies. The contemporary relationship between religion and science can be schematically taken to come in one or several of the following forms. First, there is an antagonism fueled by a sense that either side of the polarity might be threatened by the other on competing grounds. Second, there is a growing interpretation of religion and science as converging in terms of understanding the world, or at least in terms of a complementarity between the two that enriches our human outlook. Depending on the point of view this may amount to a kind of validation of religion by science, or conversely a prefiguration of science by religion. This type of understanding may even sometimes take the form of a complementary vision of science as fulfilling the needs of human rationality, and religion as fulfilling those of morality and imagination, the two coming together in full circle. Thirdly, there is a rarer, more subtle and no doubt more fruitful, view that suggests that religion and science speak mostly about different things, and not only about the same things in different ways. This means that neither antagonism nor convergence, nor even symmetrical complementarity, can account for a fully satisfactory understanding of their relationship. The conflict between religion and science is not, therefore, inexorable, nor is the convergence of the two likely. In reality, religion has come to be identified with belief alone, and science has been by now exclusively equated with a certain form of quantifiable knowledge of the world; but this has not always nor everywhere been the case. For instance, many Muslims today look with nostalgia at a past in which scientific knowledge was paramount in their civilization, and wonder how to restore this glory. One unconvincing way to do so is to embrace the modern concept of science and to rename it Islamic, with a few ethical caveats attached; not to mention popular attempts at treating the Qur’_n as a scientific or technological handbook with the advent of a kind of “Islamic scientism”. This amounts to ignoring, among other things, that the Quranic term used to refer to “science”, ‘ilm, encompasses a range of meanings that is much broader than is ordinarily realized by believers today. The word science appears in the Qur’_n in contexts and with meanings that challenge facile and flattening down contemporary translations and applications. Islam tended to define science as the “firm certitude in agreement with reality” (al-isti’q_d al-j_zim al-mut_biq li-l-w_qi’) to quote only one standard definition, by Jurj_n_ (1339-1413) in his Kit_b at-ta’r_f_t. And the Qur’_n contains numerous mentions of “science” that can hardly be limited to what most contemporaries understand by this term, i.e. a verifiable, quantifiable, increase of information about the material universe that surrounds us. For instance, it is very unlikely that the science/’ilm received by the mysterious guide of Moses in the Surah of the Cave (wa ‘alamn_hu min ladunn_ ‘ilman, “and we taught him a science from Us”, 18:65) could be equated with the science of contemporary biologists or physicists. There is no question that science and knowledge encompass an extremely wide range of objects. The breadth of knowledge has been in a sense widened by the modern epistemogical revolution of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries by opening onto domains of reality, primarily on the physical plane, that had been relatively unexplored by pre-modern mankind. However, the question remains of knowing whether, for most, this analytic and quantitative progress has not been paid at the price of an atrophy of metaphysical intuition and the sense of the sacred.

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2014-12-01
2019-11-14
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