Having looked at some of the differences between religion and science, I would like to give some observations about this difference.
Because religion offers this comprehensive and immediate truth, an answer that is suitable for the masses, but which at the same time is not verifiable through any of the five senses, it must hinge on faith. Because these answers are unverified, they will be constantly growing. At one time one kind of answer is submitted. People don't know whether it is true or not, because it can't be verified. If they believe it they accept it. At a later time a new answer is given. Nobody knows whether this new answer is true or not, it can't be verified either. It boils down to preference. Some may prefer the older belief, some the newer one. Religions, built as they are on faith, vary in accordance with that faith. For this reason we can see at any one time many different religions.
Why is this? Because this is the nature of such answers. The all-embracing, absolute answer must be like this. It cannot be verified, it rests on belief. When a new answer arises there will be some who believe that, but all the answers are equally unverifiable.
On the other hand, science answers slowly and methodically, verifying each point as it goes. It solves problems intelligently. At any given time there is only one science. So we find people saying, There are many religions, but only one science.
However, looking from a historical perspective, we find that there are many sciences, because science doesn't give a total view of truth. There may be many religions at the one time, but from a historical perspective, there are many sciences. Theories about the nature of the Universe vary from time to time. One set of scientific answers may seem correct at one time, but at a later time it is proven to be wrong. As time goes on, this new answer, at first thought to be right, is in its turn proven wrong. A new picture is constantly unfolding.
At one time science followed the Ptolemaic System, which showed a universe as postulated by Ptolemy (geocentric). Then came the Copernican System (helio-centric solar system), following the model of Copernicus, then there were the Cartesian and Newtonian systems, and now we have the universe of the new physics. Science's picture of reality has been constantly changing. Nature, or the Universe, according to the modern theories of physics, whether the quantum or relativity theories, is completely different from the universe in the time of Newton. So there have been many sciences throughout the ages.
Moreover, not only are there many sciences throughout the ages, it seems that in the present age we have many sciences existing together. There are even scientists who now say that the time has come for science to change some of its basic premises. These scientists reject some of the old scientific premises and talk of a new physics' and a 'new science', indicating that there is no longer only one science.
Just now I mentioned that science deals with the outside world, measurable by the five senses. In this connection religion has yet another special characteristic. Religion not only looks at the outside world, but also concerns itself with the human being, with the one who is observing. Science concerns itself solely with the objects of observation, but religion concerns itself with the observer, the one who is using these five sense bases. Religion is thus not confined to the five senses, but is also directly related to the level of development of each individual. The way religion is perceived is directly related to the level of mental development of the perceiver, which gives it an added level of complexity.
In any case, as far as religion goes, even though it lays emphasis on the human being, it does so only insofar as the human being is experiencing a problem, and that problem needs to be dealt with. When looking for the causes and factors of that problem, however, most religions turn around and look for its source, like science, in the external physical world. In this respect, most religions do not differ from science: they look to the external natural world as the source of problems, the source of suffering. Religion's search for truth is in order to solve the human problem, while science's search for truth is in order to satisfy the thirst for knowledge.
For most religions, which are compelled to have a ready answer, the cause of problems, whether internal or external, is seen as existing behind that natural world, in the form of spirits, deities, gods or other supernatural forces. For external disturbances, such as lightning, earthquakes and so on, sacrifices and prayers to these forces are prescribed. For internal disturbances, be it sickness, mental disease or hysteria, mediums or spirit healers perform mystic ceremonies. Science, not being compelled to find any immediate answers, slowly and systematically goes about its search for data.
The natural religions, Buddhism in particular, although having a special interest in the human condition, do not see the source of problems as being entirely in the external, physical world. This kind of religion looks for the source of problems within the entire process of causes and conditions including those within the human being, such as wrong ways of livelihood be they internal or external, material or immaterial, physical or mental.
Among ordinary religions, there are many that teach the treatment of problems by appropriate means, through morality or ethics, which seems to indicate an understanding of the internal factors contributing to problems, but this is not necessarily the case. In fact, such practice is often not done with real understanding of these factors, but out of obedience to some external supernatural force. The relationship is one between mankind and an external power. Ethical behaviour in these religions is usually done in order to avoid punishment, or to gain favours or blessings, rather than through awareness of the factors occurring in the natural processes.
Religions, many and varied at the one time, address the needs of different levels of people. At any one time society consists of many different levels of virtue and understanding, thus the need for many religions, answering many different levels of need.
In the past the truth of science was verifiable through the five senses, but this is no longer the case. Initially observation was carried out with these five senses on their own with the naked eye, the naked ear, directly by hand and so on. As time went on it became necessary to develop instruments, such as the telescope and the microscope, to extend the capabilities of these senses. Eventually even these instruments had reached their limits, making it necessary for scientists to develop even more complex instruments, untilfinally it has become necessary to test hypotheses with mathematics. Mathematical languages became the instrument of verification. In the present time this has been extended to include the use of computers.
Science's development of increasingly complex means of verification has given rise to another feature which distinguishes it from religion. The verification and observation of science has become a specialized field, accessible only to a select few. It has become impossible for the average man to observe the truths of science, because the instruments are not available to him. Science has become a highly select subject.
Religion belongs to the masses. It is available to the average man, who is free to accept or reject it without the need for proof. Although it is true that some religions, like science, reserve their truths for a select few, the priests or monks, and even reserve the right to spiritual attainments, this is more a result of manipulations of certain individuals. In the natural religions, such as Buddhism, there is no such distinction or exclusion, because nature is its own master. How could it be monopolized? It is each individual's right to understand and attain the truths of nature, depending on intelligence and discernment.
Note that there are two kinds of inability to verify truths. One is through an inability to access the instruments of verification, while the other is because such truths cannot be verified through the means being used. In the present time science is experiencing problems on both counts, especially when attempting to make a statement of ultimate truth, or delving into the realm of the mind.
If science does not broaden its outlook, it will arrive at a dead end. Science has a very strong aspiration to answer the fundamental and ultimate questions of the universe, but it never seems to get near them. Just as it seems to be getting on the verge of an answer, the truth seems to slip beyond its reach.
Copyright © 2002 Mahidol
University All rights reserved.