Science and Religion


The relationship between the categories “science” and “religion” retains great significance within contemporary society. Exactly what that significance is, though, depends on the person’s conceptions and interests. For example, some want to emphasize the value of one over the danger of the other, while some work to bridge the apparent divide separating them. An article that a student pointed out to me last week connects the two categories by asserting scientific explanations for particular practices and traditions that the author labeled Hindu. (Thanks, Lexi.)

The authors ascribe to leaders of ancient India knowledge that fits with contemporary science. These twenty examples range from the joint palm greeting, which, they assert, prevents the spread of germs among other benefits, to the assertion of the health benefits of occasional fasting. Several examples assert that the authors of the Vedas instituted particular practices as religious because they knew about related physical benefits for society. For example, they write, “Our ancestors knew that ‘Peepal’ is one of the very few trees (or probably the only tree) which produces oxygen even at night. So in order to save this tree because of its unique property they related it to God/religion.” Exactly how they figured out what people in South Asia understood 3500 years ago is unclear. The narratives that they have constructed stretch beyond available evidence (thus scientific observation) to make broad claims that they present as “scientific” explanations of particular practices.

Such assertions connect with other efforts by some who identify as Hindus to use the legitimacy of science to bolster the validity of their practices and to argue for the advanced ideas of their ancestors. In India, the recent electoral victories of the BJP (often labeled a Hindu nationalist party) has increased public discussion and debate over the connection of science and the Vedas. For example, Chhattisgarh Chief Minister Raman Singh in December reportedly stated, “The Vedas [which many identify as the basis for Hinduism] are the first source of all kinds of knowledge and science in the world. The knowledge ingrained in Vedas cleared the darkness of ignorance that had enveloped the world.” Prior to the election in the fall, the BJP President asserted that Vedic philosophy provided the basis for Quantum Mechanics.

Even more interesting to me is the way that these authors construct the intent of the initiators of these practices according to a trope that demeans the majority of their ancestors and practices that people often label religion. The leaders tricked their followers into performing these rituals by presenting a supernatural authority behind them because the leaders knew that the common people would not understand or accept the scientific benefits of these practices. So, the leaders are devious, traditions that we often label religious are merely tricks relying on false explanations, and the common people are easily duped. Not a very appealing picture, unless the authors want to bolster the image of those they presume to be their ancestors (the leaders of course, not the common people) and present South Asia as scientifically ahead of the rest of the world. Science remains supreme in this approach, even as it appears to validate what the authors label Hindu traditions.