On the Intersection of Science and Religion
Source: Pew Research Center
Over the centuries, the relationship between science and religion has ranged from conflict and hostility to harmony and collaboration, while various thinkers have argued that the two concepts are inherently at odds and entirely separate.
But much recent research and discussion on these issues has taken place in a Western context, primarily through a Christian lens. To better understand the ways in which science relates to religion around the world, Pew Research Center engaged a small group of Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists to talk about their perspectives. These one-on-one, in-depth interviews took place in Malaysia and Singapore – two Southeast Asian nations that have made sizable investments in scientific research and development in recent years and that are home to religiously diverse populations.
The discussions reinforced the conclusion that there is no single, universally held view of the relationship between science and religion, but they also identified some common patterns and themes within each of the three religious groups. For example, many Muslims expressed the view that Islam and science are basically compatible, while, at the same time, acknowledging some areas of friction – such as the theory of evolution conflicting with religious beliefs about the origins and development of human life on Earth. Evolution also has been a point of discord between religion and science in the West.
Hindu interviewees generally took a different tack, describing science and religion as overlapping spheres. As was the case with Muslim interviewees, many Hindus maintained that their religion contains elements of science, and that Hinduism long ago identified concepts that were later illuminated by science – mentioning, for example, the antimicrobial properties of copper or the health benefits of turmeric. In contrast with Muslims, many Hindus said the theory of evolution is encompassed in their religious teachings.
Buddhist interviewees generally described religion and science as two separate and unrelated spheres. Several of the Buddhists talked about their religion as offering guidance on how to live a moral life, while describing science as observable phenomena. Often, they could not name any areas of scientific research that concerned them for religious reasons. Nor did Buddhist interviewees see the theory of evolution as a point of conflict with their religion. Some said they didn’t think their religion addressed the origins of life on Earth.
Some members of all three religious groups, however, did express religious concerns when asked to consider specific kinds of biotechnology research, such as gene editing to change a baby’s genetic characteristics and efforts to clone animals. For example, Muslim interviewees said cloning would tamper with the power of God, and God should be the only one to create living things. When Hindus and Buddhists discussed gene editing and cloning, some, though not all, voiced concern that these scientific developments might interfere with karma or reincarnation.
But religion was not always the foremost topic that came to mind when people thought about science. In response to questions about government investment in scientific research, interviewees generally spoke of the role of scientific achievements in national prestige and economic development; religious differences faded into the background.
These are some of the key findings from a qualitative analysis of 72 individual interviews with Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists conducted in Malaysia and Singapore between June 17 and Aug. 8, 2019.
The study included 24 people in each of three religious groups (Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists), with an equal number in each country. All interviewees said their religion was “very” or “somewhat” important to their lives, but they otherwise varied in terms of age, gender, profession and education level.
A majority of Malaysians are Muslim, and the country has experienced natural migration patterns over the years. As a result, Buddhist interviewees in Malaysia were typically of Chinese descent, Hindus were of Indian descent and Muslim interviewees were Malay. Singapore is known for its religious diversity; a 2014 Pew Research Center analysis found the city-state to have the highest level of religious diversity in the world.
Insights from these qualitative interviews are inherently limited in that they are based on small convenience samples of individuals and are not representative of religious groups either in their country or globally. Instead, in-depth interviews provide insight into how individuals describe their beliefs, in their own words, and the connections they see (or don’t see) with science. To help guard against putting too much weight on any single individual’s comments, all interviews were coded into themes, following a systematic procedure. Where possible throughout the rest of this report, these findings are shown in comparison with quantitative surveys conducted with representative samples of adults in global publics to help address questions about the extent to which certain viewpoints are widely held among members of each religious group. This also shows how Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists as well as Christians around the world compare with each other.
Suggested reading by Zia H Shah MD, Chief Editor of the Muslim Times