The Intersection of Science and Religion

A volunteer prepares the lamp for prayers during the eve of Vesak Day at a temple in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, Monday, May 12, 2014. In Malaysia Buddha's birthday is known as Vesak or Visakah Puja (Buddha's Birthday Celebrations), thus the most important Buddhist festival of the year.(Photo by Joshua Paul/NurPhoto) (Photo by NurPhoto/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
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.

One of the most striking takeaways from interviews conducted with Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists stems from the different ways that people in each group described their perspectives on the relationship between science and religion. The Muslims interviewed tended to speak of an overlap between their religion and science, and some raised areas of tension between the two. Hindu interviewees, by and large, described science and religion as overlapping but compatible spheres. By contrast, Buddhist interviewees described science and religion as parallel concepts, with no particular touchpoints between the two.
A similar pattern emerged when interviewees were asked about possible topics that should be off limits to scientific research for religious reasons. Many Muslim interviewees readily named research areas that concerned them, such as studies using non-halal substances or some applications of assisted reproductive technology (for example, in vitro fertilization using genetic material from someone other than a married couple). By contrast, the Hindus and Buddhists in the study did not regularly name any research topics that they felt should be off limits to scientists.

The predominant view among Hindus interviewed in Malaysia and Singapore is that science and Hinduism are related and compatible. Many of the Hindu interviewees offered – without prompting– the assertion that their religion contains many ancient insights that have been upheld by modern science. For instance, multiple interviewees described the use of turmeric in cleansing solutions, or the use of copper in drinking mugs. They said Hindus have known for thousands of years that these materials provide health benefits, but that scientists have only confirmed relatively recently that it’s because turmeric and copper have antimicrobial properties. “When you question certain rituals or rites in Hinduism, there’s also a relatively scientific explanation to it,” said a Hindu woman (age 29, Singapore).

While many of the Hindu interviewees said science and religion overlap, others described the two as separate realms. “Religion doesn’t really govern science, and it shouldn’t. Science should just be science. … Today, the researchers, even if they are religious, the research is your duty. The duty and religion are different,” said one Hindu man (age 42, Singapore).

Asked to think about areas of scientific research that might raise concerns or that should not be pursued for religious reasons, Hindu interviewees generally came up blank, saying they couldn’t think of any such areas. A few mentioned areas of research that concerned them, but no topic area came up consistently.

Buddhist interviewees described science and religion in distinctly different ways than either Muslims or Hindus. For the most part, Buddhists said that science and religion are two unrelated domains. Some have long held that Buddhism and its practice are aligned with the empirically driven observations in the scientific method; connections between Buddhism and science have been bolstered by neuroscience research into the effects of Buddhist meditation at the core of the mindfulness movement.

Pew Research Center survey of Muslims worldwide conducted in 2011 and 2012 found a 22-public median of 53% said they believed humans and other living things evolved over time. However, levels of acceptance of evolution varied by region and country, with Muslims in South and Southeast Asian countries reporting lower levels of belief in evolution by this measure than Muslims in other regions.
In discussing scientific research using gene editing, cloning and reproductive technologies such as in vitro fertilization, Muslim, Hindu and Buddhist interviewees raised the idea that such practices may go against the natural order or interfere with nature. As one Buddhist man simply put it: “If you have anything that interferes with the law of nature, you will have conflict. If you leave nature alone, you will have no conflict” (age 64, Singapore). Similarly, a Muslim woman said “anything that disrupts or changes the natural state” goes against religious beliefs (age 20, Singapore).
 
In a U.S.-based Pew Research Center survey, a majority of Christians (55%) said that science and religion are “often in conflict” when thinking in general terms about religion. When thinking about their own religious beliefs, however, fewer Christians (35%) said their personal religious beliefs sometimes conflict with science; a majority of U.S. Christians (63%) said the two do not conflict.
 

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