PREVIOUS INTERVIEWS OF THE WEEK
Spirit of Science
What is the relationship today between science, religion and development?
How do we resolve the moral and ethical questions we're being faced with
today, with newer technologies accelerating scientific discovery?
A colloquium was held in the Capital recently to debate this issue. One of
the participants, Farzan Arbab, particle physicist, formerly of
Harvard and Columbia universities and now director of the Baha'i Teaching
Centre at Haifa, Israel, spoke to Narayani Ganesh on the human face
of science and development:
Why do you think there's a need
to talk about the relationship between science, religion and development?
The basic problem is that the gap between the rich and the poor
continues to widen. There's more violence, there's more despair. Sure, there
are a number of people who are better off; but overall, despite the ongoing
development processes, somehow, we have not been able to resolve many of
Some of us believe that one of the fundamental reasons for this failure is
that the very conception of development is flawed, it has been materialistic;
that it has not paid attention to the spiritual nature and motivation of
the human being.
Development theories are based on the working of material, economic and
political forces. The spiritual aspect is neglected.
But surely, it is only because we anticipate a certain material profit that
we're actually motivated to perform, whether it is in a business or a job.
How would you reconcile economic activity with two divergent philosophies,
that of materialism and spirituality?
What is human nature? Human beings have two natures -- the lower, material
one which seeks comfort and physical satiation and a higher nature that's
willing to sacrifice, that's compassionate, which values justice. It depends
on which one we address.
The same person behaves differently in different situations. A shrewd
businessman might seem unfeeling and materialistic while conducting his
business but where his family is concerned, he's different -- he's
sacrificing, loving and generous.
How can this be translated for the common good?
We all have the capacity to go beyond our personal circle of family and
friends. What is needed is education that caters not just to the material
side but to the spiritual side, too.
There's a danger here. Whose brand of spirituality should be taught in
Surely, it is not difficult to identify in the traditions of all the
religions and beliefs of the world, some universal values that we can all
We require this kind of consensus. That's why we're talking of a synergy
between science, religion and development. Religion should be treated as a
way of life. Just as science is trying to understand the material world,
religion is trying to understand the spiritual world.
You make it sound so simple but the fact is that science and religion have
always been diametrically opposed to each
For instance, in the history of Hindu and Muslim
civilisations, this kind of opposition did not exist. The conflict
between science and religion is something that emerged out of the Age of
Enlightenment in the west, in which things were categorised and it was a
reaction against religion that was confused with superstition; a
reaction against the tyranny of certain rigid religious organisations.
Even scientists and philosophers began to feel that the pendulum
had swung too far to the other side. The `reason' that was being
advocated -- despite the many good things it threw up like development
of technology -- ended up being very narrow.
It is this same
`reason' that has taken humanity towards damaging the environment. If
scientific advances are based on reason, then how do you account for
such advances ruining nature?
Are you saying that the world
view of scientists then and now, has changed?
still a method of knowledge that is trying to understand the universe.
But science by itself cannot assign values; it cannot find the purpose
and meaning of the universe.
But aren't both science and
religion engaged in the pursuit of truth?
Indeed, they are.
And in this pursuit when they are actually in harmony, real civilisation
advances -- not the kind that believes that while one section of
humanity has everything, the other can be left with nothing? We have to
ask, progress for whom?
We praise technology. But there's
something missing if the fruits of progress are available only to a
select few. Cruel materialism leaves most people out. Religion without
science ends up as superstition.
Therein lies the duality of
science and religion. We have to find ways of making the two
complementary and interactive. How can science and religion together
bring about knowledge that can spur the kind of altruistic development
that advanced technology can make possible?
Can you give some
At the colloquium we examined four areas
-- governance, education, technological choices and economic activity
including economics. The way we look at education right now, we want to
create more schools that impart material education.
educated, you ask, to what extent are they morally or spiritually
inspired? Are they equipped to make the right decisions? Are they
prepared to share their knowledge with others?
If people have
to be taught how to make moral choices, then how does one go about
imparting universal values as part of education?
people from different faiths can come forward to conduct workshops.
Consultancy services can be made available to centres of learning. In
Bolivia, we created a university and conducted a programme called moral
leadership for teachers in rural areas to help in development
activities. Such efforts can be carried forward to different parts of
Today, scientists face unprecedented ethical
questions. For instance, should they go ahead with human cloning? Is it
okay to harvest stem cells? The Pope has been expressing his
disapproval. Where does religion fit in here?
always happening in the frontiers of science, whose ethical implications
are not fully understood. And, there's always a debate between those who
say a rigid `no' and those who are willing to say `yes' to any new
Many of these issues like genetic engineering are
entirely new -- so it is premature for any authority -- even religious
authorities -- to issue edicts or laws preventing these new areas of
research. These new issues haven't been fully understood yet. We have to
figure out the implications.
I think we should look for the
answers as we go along. I don't believe that just because something is
possible, it has to be done.
Religion can put limits on what is
ethical but I also think that religion should be cautious about making
pronouncements prematurely. Both science and religion have to figure out
what is okay and what is not.
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