Science and religion coexist to make the world work

Said Ahmed-Zaid, Idaho Statesman religion columnist
Said Ahmed-Zaid, Idaho Statesman religion columnist

“Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind.”

Albert Einstein

There has been so much in the news in recent times about truth versus “fake news.” Science can often help us get to the truth but, throughout history, the truth was often rejected because those in power felt threatened by this truth.

A great example is the scientist Galileo Galilei whose discovery of the moons of Jupiter lent credence to the Copernican model where the planets in our solar system orbited around the sun. This is an undeniable fact, but Galileo was arrested for heresy and placed on house arrest by the Catholic Church for the rest of his life. It only took the church 350 years to apologize and acknowledge this truth.

We seem to be experiencing a re-emergence of belief challenging truth. If people want to hold an opinion based on their religious or social beliefs, that is certainly their right. But, when that belief begins to challenge actual facts and tries to place itself above truth, then it can become dangerous.

There are some religious groups who believe that humans were created pretty much in their present form around 10,000 years ago. On the other hand, science, through archeological finds, carbon dating and other techniques, has shown that our early ancestors occupied this planet 6 million years ago and that modern humans evolved around 200,000 years ago.

What concerns me most is that there have been attempts to incorporate “creationist” viewpoints into our public schools. Belief is attempting to place itself on an equal footing with truth based on scientific facts. Teaching religious beliefs should be done in places of worship or in homes, but not in our public institutions.

When belief becomes incorporated into our institutions or public policy, it can lead to biased decision-making. And, it is often those in power whose beliefs rule the day.

Those who believe that climate change is not happening seem to be those groups or individuals who will be negatively and financially impacted. The scientific evidence has revealed a global temperature rise, warming oceans, shrinking ice sheets, glacial retreat, decreased snow cover, sea level rise, declining arctic sea ice and extreme weather events. These facts are undisputed by the majority of legitimate scientists from around the world. But, the United States has pulled itself from the Paris Climate Accord because of the “belief” that this is not happening. Ignoring science does not change the facts.

My faith tradition teaches me that science and religion do not have to be at odds with each other. In fact, a common supplication in the Quran is to ask God to increase our religious and scientific knowledge (Quran, 20:114). Copernicus, who was a devout Catholic, did not believe that the Bible contradicted the theories in his masterpiece book entitled “De Revolutionibus” or “On the Revolutions,” which was placed on the Vatican’s Index of Forbidden Works from 1616 until 1835.

I also firmly believe that my own scripture, the Quran, was revealed as a guidance for humankind. For example, take Verse 33 of Chapter 21 entitled “The Prophets” which says: “And it is He who created the night and the day, and the sun and the moon. They float, each in an orbit.” When I read this verse, it makes perfect sense to me because modern science has corroborated that the Earth, the Sun and all the other planets are orbiting around the center of mass of the solar system, each floating in its own orbit.

We now understand that every object in the solar system, from the gargantuan sun to the tiniest speck, exerts a gravitational pull on everything else. The solar system is a massive game of tug of war that balances at the center of mass or barycenter of the solar system. Since the sun holds 99.87 percent of the mass of the solar system, sometimes the barycenter is at the center of the sun, but, most of the time, it is constantly changing, depending on where the planets are in their orbital paths. Thus, even the sun “floats” in its own orbit.

Each faithful believer uses his or her religion as a guide for understanding the universe. Religion is best described as a tool for translating and communicating this understanding of the universe. If the translation or interpretation of a scripture and its sometimes cryptic verses does not evolve as modern science progresses, then religion and science will be at odds with each other.

I am a firm believer that religion and science need each other. If we think of them as the two wings of a bird, then we can understand, as a metaphor, why a bird cannot fly with one broken wing. However, we need to teach science in schools and religion in places of worship or at home. One good reason for this separation is that we have a pluralistic society with many religions and, according to the Constitution, the states or federal government should not be enforcing one religious viewpoint over others.

Dr. Said Ahmed-Zaid is a Boise State University engineering professor and the 2004 recipient of the annual HP Award for Distinguished Leadership in Human Rights.

The Idaho Statesman’s weekly faith column features a rotation of writers from many different faiths and perspectives.