Perspectives

  • Issue 107 / September - October 2015



    Scientific Skepticism vs. Religious Faith

    Mesut Sahin

    In the positive sciences, the scientific pursuit requires a unique set of personal qualities. A good scientist should verify the source of each piece of new information before using it to build a scientific theory. Those sources need to be reviewed with a critical mind to ensure that the reported results are sound. Methodological shortcomings in these reference studies should be noted, and the results should be interpreted accordingly. In the end, the scientist reports his or her own results and conclusions with an equally critical mind and discusses potential pitfalls of the study in an honest and objective manner without hiding any potential shortcomings. Those aspects of the study that depend on personal experience or the opinion of the presenting scientist should be minimized with as much support from other references as possible so that nothing is left to subjectivity. The reader is never asked to "believe" the soundness of the information presented based on the trustworthiness of the author.

    On the other hand, the methodology in the positive sciences can make for a striking contrast with some traits of a person who has a strong religious faith. The religious experience is mostly personal and subjective. An unshaken faith demands unconditional trust and obedience. Criticizing the scriptures and the trustworthiness of the messenger who delivered the scriptures harms the faith, casting doubts into the mind of a believer. In religious experience, once the source of the message is "believed" to be divine, the content of the message has to be followed. It is this complete trust, based upon a strong faith, which opens up the gates for a personal spiritual experience. This spiritual experience with the Divine increases one's faith and the faith increases their spiritual joy, in a blissful circle of events. Therefore, after the initial phase of questioning and searching for the truth, the religious experience in the mind and heart of a person becomes richer by obedience and trust, leaving the critical thinking behind.

    Scientific methodology and religious experience demand completely different thought processes in a person, seemingly diametrically opposed to each other. This raises the question of whether a person with a religious mindset can be a good scientist. Does the religious experience in one's life hinder the path to becoming a good scientist? These are important questions to all people of science, since scientists are people like everyone else and they are souls who would benefit from religious and spiritual experiences like any others.

    In this article, we claim that religious dedication and faith to a scientific cause are also requirements for a successful scientific career. On the flip side, a scientifically trained mind is a great tool to turn a superficial faith into a strong one based on rationalization.

    First, addressing the former assertion, it suffices to consider how long and how much effort it takes to bring a scientific hypothesis to fruition: from the idea phase to the preliminary testing in a "Petri dish"; to a "proof of the principle" with animal testing; to small-scale clinical trials in human subjects; to large-scale multi-center patient trials; and finally to becoming an established treatment method approved by the national screening agencies, such as the FDA (Food and Drug Administration). These are the stages of development for a new drug, a medical device, an implant, or any medical treatment for human use. Other branches of science have similarly bumpy roads and lots of disappointments. A career in theoretical physics, for instance, might mean a lifetime commitment to discovering a new subatomic particle or a new celestial body and not finding even a trace of it! A scientific career is never without frustrations and disappointments that shake one's faith in the original hypothesis that the scientist set out to prove, or that the final objective will ever be reached in a lifetime. Sometimes, months or years of experimentation are needed before any supporting evidence is discovered. The only thing that keeps the research spirit alive in this journey are the small serendipitous findings on the road while searching for the ultimate goal - the "holy grail," as many Western scientists say. The history books are full of those who dedicated their lives to a scientific hypothesis, which is only heard of if successful. We know the life stories of Edison, Madam Curie, Avicenna, al-Biruni, and others because they made accomplishments that marked the history of mankind. But, we never heard of thousands of others hidden in the pages of unwritten books of unsuccessful scientific research.

    To say the least, scientific pursuit demands a personality with a strong dedication and faith in a cause. Those are the traits that are well developed in a person with religious experience. Believing in the ultimate "goodness" in life, or that we are on earth for a purpose and that there is reward for our good, can help motivate a scientist, just like these basic human instincts lead to a hunger for faith in the Divine.

    Not all scientists believe in the Divine Being or follow a religious tradition. However, a scientist with a strong religious faith would believe in a purpose and that life is not just random, and can use this faith as a source of inspiration during times of difficulty and trial. Believing in divine purpose and that the journey of the soul continues after the grave can be a great motivation for anyone.

    On the latter question regarding the scientifically trained mind being an impediment on the way of religious faith, we can say this: accepting a faith is only the beginning of the religious journey. In order to grow in faith, one needs to seek knowledge of that faith. Only by making connections between one's personal experiences and the doctrines of our faith can we truly begin to understand that faith. The search for a deeper spirituality can lead to different innovations, as research into the workings of the world will be viewed, by a scientist of faith, as research into God's creation.

    A scientist of faith goes into the lab wondering: Is He a God watching us from a distance, or revealing Himself to our hearts and helping us on a daily basis? If He is the Maker of all that we see and experience, can we find manifestations of His qualities in this universe? What about finding traces of His style? Just like any artist would have his own style expressed in his art, surely He has left traces in his work, too - for instance, the holographic effect of finding information about the whole in its smallest particles, such as the DNA of a life form, or its seed. Contemplating on these issues requires a questioning mind; that is, a mind that enjoys questioning, rather than being content with the answers given by others. Only through the personal answers given to these questions, can one's faith have strong foundations based on personal experience. Having been trained in scientific methodology of connecting the observations to governing principles is certainly an important trait that can also be used to deepen one's faith through reasoning and logic. Furthermore, scientific knowledge can also be a means of better understanding faith, for it provides tools to explore the works of the Divine.

    Many great scientists of the past were also people of strong faith, perhaps for the reasons we tried to discuss here. A scientist with faith does not have to wear different hats - i.e. use different mental skills and tools - during his religious journey with God and in the lab. Also, religious experiences do not lower his enthusiasm for scientific research. Scientific motivation and religious faith do not have to be in competition, splitting the mind of a person and thereby causing a conflicting personality. Both can coexist in an individual as personal traits and help him become successful in both fields in life.

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