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Can scientists believe in God, yet explore nature 'abandoning' belief?

By Dr TV Sajeev* 

In August 2023, India celebrated the successful soft-landing of Chandrayan on the south pole of the moon. That mission too led to some questioning about whether scientists could believe in God. The culture of temple visits and poojas before the launch of rockets with or without payload had been a mocking point for a long while. 
On the Chandrayan’s moon landing, however, the chairman of ISRO boldly proclaimed: “I grew up in a religious ambience and the visit to the temple adds to my confidence. It is part of my spiritual pursuit. I don’t see any conflict in leading explorations on outer space and my own inner spiritual explorations.”
Add to this the naming of the point of landing on moon as Shivshakthi Point -- in a country with scores of religions, each having numerous sects, subgroups, and syncretic belief systems within these major religions, this was awkward. Science aims at explaining nature without the agency of God. So how does giving a spiritual and religious aura to a scientific breakthrough like moon landing help its cause?
We also need to differentiate between science and technology. While the former tries to explain nature, the latter tries to develop gadgets to make our life easier. These are two different ball games. While Albert Einstein was a scientist, Thomas Alva Edison was a technologist. While CV Raman was scientist, APJ Abdul Kalam was a technologist. 
All made great contributions, but their fundamental principles were different. While the scientist relies on observation, experimentation and theorization, the technologist stops short of theorization, tasked not with explaining nature, and relying on a great deal of trial and error, as was Edison’s practice. While technology emerges from science, the two are not water-tight compartments. There are many who work at the interface of science and technology.
However, while technologists need not worry about their belief systems when it comes to explaining their work, scientists need to. Science can never take God as an explanatory factor. Diego Maradona attributed his first goal against England in the quarter finals match of the 1986 FIFA World Cup to the “hand of God”, but on a similar achievement, a scientist cannot legitimately make such an attribution. The scientist has no such poetic license. This is entrenched in the practice of science by way of strict peer review and critique.
There was once a couple that arrived in Kerala from France. Their objective was to steer clear of established tourist destinations and experience village life. In the first few days of their stay, they were surprised that village folk knew Marx, Engels, Marquez, Rosa and had good understanding of Russian and American history. Some even cited Nietzhe, Kafka, Camus and Sartre. 
A bigger surprise awaited the couple on Sunday, when they saw the whole village streaming into church and listening with rapt attention to the priest’s sermon! The couple learned how people could live different lives on each day of the week.
There were scientists who believed in God -- William Harvey, Blaise Pascal, Ernst Haeckel, Galileo Galilei, Johannes Kepler, Max Planck, and in a different mode -- Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein. 
There were those who did not believe in God -- Christian Bohr, Sydney Brenner, Subramaniam Chandrasekhar, George Gamov, Samuel Cohen, James Chadwick, Stephen Hawking, Francis Crick, James Watson, Meghnad Saha, Paul Dirac, JBS Haldane, Piere Curie, John Fobs Nash, Robert Oppenheimer, Carl Sagan, Linoy Pauling, Alfred Nobel and the extremely vocal Richard Dawkins. 
There are also scientists in a third camp, who remained agnostic and maintained that nothing could be known about the existence or nature of God. JC Bose, Jon Bardeen, Marie Curie, Edwin Hubble, Freman Dyson, CV Raman, Rosalind Franklin, Enrico Fermi, Carl Sagan, Paul Dirac, Henri Poincare and many others belonged to this category. 
As we can see, all the three camps are quite strong. This essentially mean that the there is no significant bearing of a scientist’s belief in God on his/her potential scientific achievement. So where exists the problem? The problem lies not in personal  professional excellence but in the public domain..
Calling Chandrayan landing spot as Shivshakthi Point is against the principles of Astronomical Union Code for naming celestial spaces
Of all the vocations, why should scientists be questioned about their belief in God? Because they are in the job of explaining nature without attributing explanatory or causative role to God. So if a scientist believes in the existence of God, s/he would have to divide him/herself into two parts -- an inner self which believes that God is a factor in causation of events and an outer professional self which explains nature without any explanatory or causative role attributed to the factor named God. It is this divide which needs to be looked upon more closely in the current context.
The first is the constitutional obligation of all citizens to uphold the spirit of science and scientific temperament. Not all those who study science become scientists. But for all of them, an empirical approach, critical thinking and avoidance of logical fallacies are tools that are very much needed in any walk of life. With a strong spiritual industry in the country thriving on illogical arguments, faith healing and the like, scientific temperament is a valuable asset.
The split between religion and governance which happened during the enlightenment period allowed politics to mature, and became the basis of democracy. Science too was saved from the clutches of religion at that point, to have a fantastic run ever since.
That is why, when we name the spot of the Chandrayan landing as Shivshakthi Point, against the principles of Astronomical Union Code for naming celestial spaces, it is akin to going several steps backward on the independence of science. So even though a scientist’s belief in God would not impact the fabric of scientific practice, there are impact points which would leave long lasting scars that prevent the expansion of the scientific temperament. 
What this also does is that it affirms the view that there are realms science cannot study. In fact, there are no leaves unturned by science, which expands every day through multitudes of disciplines. There are excellent, empirical analyses of myths, like those conducted by anthropoligist Claude Levi Strauss, explaining human thought and culture.
If a scientist is split as an individual between an inner, private domain where he/she pays obeisance to God, and still explores nature while abandoning that belief, it creates a bipolar disorder, which could ripple outwards to general humanity.
It is pertinent to recall that Maradona wrote this in his autobiography: “Now I can say what I couldn't at that moment, what I defined at that time as The Hand of God. What hand of God? It was the hand of Diego!”
The advancement of science has likewise explained away many of the things earlier attributed to God. Storms, thunder, sun, moon, ocean, epidemics etc. are better understood, and God these days has a limited role in explaining natural phenomena. Even though Prime Minister Narendra Modi now asserts that he is not biological born, practitioners of science cannot curtail the fast expanding explanatory potential of science. For things that remain unexplained, we should remember that science is not a closed project.
*Chief Scientist, Kerala Forest Research Institute



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