The compatibility between religion & science, By Dr. Maurice Bucaille

The ideas that have been put forward in the present work have taken us a long way from the concepts that held sway over many of the scientists and philosophers of the last century who regarded religion and science as opposites. Religion was indeed essentially considered to proceed from belief, with its accompanying element of mystery, while science was deemed to be based on reason, for only those facts that could be proven by science were acknowledged as true.

Today, however, it is strictly scientific data, which, when applied to an examination of the Holy Scriptures, reveal that religion may be viewed in a light that is different from a pure and simple belief that leaves no room for reason. At the same time however, science is progressing in leaps and bounds, accumulating ever more varied and complex findings, and thereby giving rise to a growing number of genuine enigmas.

The fact is, science alone seems incapable of providing answers to some of the questions it raises:

We have seen this already in tie case of the origin of the genetic code and the accumulation of the information it contains, a phenomenon that has been constant over the course of time. All of the above seems self evident when it comes to a detailed study of the kind of question raised by the present book, but suitable methods of analysis must be used, allowing for investigations concerning the Holy Scriptures as well as the data of science.

In spite of this, the various judgements that have been made on the general subject of the compatibility between religion and science are often corrupted by serious errors arising from the very manner in which the problem is approached. There are far too many researchers who give priority to metaphysical conceptions rather than to facts. While claiming to take account of material data, such people completely disregard the latter, and base their pronouncements on mainly abstract criteria.

The preconceived ideas held by some researchers with regard to one or more of the religions make it very difficult to correct mistaken opinions especially when these result from the existence of inaccurate texts or mistranslation a phenomenon I have often noticed. Added to this is the fact that, in some instances, it is very difficult to deal with certain scientific questions even when expressed very clearly without employing technical terminology that is hard to grasp.

Brilliant minds have been known to lose touch with concrete reality: Their works bear the hallmark of an exclusive predilection for abstraction. It is very rare to find philosophers who support their theories with reflections on subjects other than those belonging to their own field. One must indeed concede that it is extremely difficult for many people to understand data so far out of their normal range of interest, but when they deal with subjects that rely on concrete facts, these commentators must yield to the requirements of material investigation, otherwise their judgements will be unsound.

Preconceived ideas on the religions in general might suggest that those who claim to belong, to a religious community would not be able to express themselves in any other way than according to a simple belief. Naturally enough, they can produce no scientific evidence to support their opinions. It therefore follows that such people cannot fail to think that, as far as the religions are concerned, there can be no statements open to human judgement based on logic.

After writing The Bible, the Quran and Science, I often heard it said that the only way of explaining certain passages in the Scriptures that referred to data discovered, centuries later by man, was by ascribing their presence to chance. This argument was employed, even though the large number of statements dealing with a wide variety of subjects of this kind quite obviously ruled out any such explanation. Thus, the statement is not actually denied, but any serious study is undercut by simple reference to `fortuitous accidents’, a phrase we have already heard in explanation of the origins of life. In actual fact, the scientific enigma posed by the latter leaves many researchers at a loss for words.

There is no excuse for the fact that contemporary commentators have chosen to ignore a subject on which they nevertheless consider themselves authorized to speak, basing their opinions on data which have only become known over the last few decades. There are good reasons, however, why earlier thinkers put forward inaccurate opinions:

They could not possibly have possessed the material data needed to form a correct interpretation at the time they lived. It is always a risky undertaking. to try and imagine what certain people of long ago would say today, if we could bring them back to life:

I shall therefore limit myself to a single question concerning Renan, a nineteenth century thinker who could not possibly have had access to present day knowledge concerning the Scriptures and science. In 1849, Renan wrote `L’Avenir de la Science’ (The Future of Science), which was not published until 1890, and in 1863, he wrote his famous letter to Berthelot, in which he set forth his concept of `God’, a concept which evolved according to the progress of humanity.

Now the question at issue is whether or not Renan would have expressed the same ideas, if he had had access to today’s discoveries in genetics, molecular biology and the organization of the human cell, and had admitted the existence of enigmas raised by these findings.

One wonders whether Renan would have held the same attitude toward the religions, if he had been aware of recent discoveries concerning the history of the monotheistic religions, for they are findings, which cast new light on the contents of then respective Scriptures. By the same token, it is debatable whether Darwin, in On the Origin of Species, would have championed the same ideas, had he possessed access to modern data concerning the genes:

My guess is that these two researchers would indeed have expressed themselves differently. It is staggering to think how few scientific data they had at their disposal to support their final conclusions, compared with the immense fund of knowledge on the same subjects which we now hold at our command! As we celebrate the centenary of the birth of Father Teilhard de Chardin, I cannot help wondering whether the conclusions he drew would not have contained even more convincing arguments, were he alive today.

One wonders whether he would have taken account of today’s realistic concepts concerning the origin of the Biblical texts, which have been duly acknowledged, and also of the firmly established discoveries that have been made over the last decades in the fields of genetics and molecular biology.

As far as I am concerned, this `aristocrat of the intelligence’ to quote the phrase coined by the French President during a celebratory eulogy at Unesco would indeed have made use of these new data. Although scientific materialism boasts of its triumphs, we are perhaps about to witness a reversal of ideas that in the West is totally unexpected, for it has mainly been caused by strictly materialistic data. In spite of what one might say, scientific knowledge does indeed seem to lead to reflections on the existence of God.

The prodigious organization presiding over the birth and perpetuation of life; an evolution that is governed by the accumulation of new information recorded in the genes; the evolution of the universe within which these events take place all of these factors argue strongly in favour of a methodical organization of phenomena that developed in perfect order.

In this context, the basic compatibility between religion and science emerges very plainly. Although for many centuries difficulties existed for Christians, due to the presence of scientific errors in the Bible, modern explanations have dispelled this profound uneasiness, for they are., based on the conclusions that arise from detailed study of the texts.

The declaration issued by the Second Vatican Council (1962 1965) acknowledges that the Books of the Old Testament may contain material that is ‘imperfect and obsolete’. From a Christian point of view, this admission has or certainly ought to have put a stop to a problem that has persisted since the seventeenth century.

Fifteen centuries before the Council, however, Saint Augustine who naturally thought that God could not possibly impart to man ideas that did not correspond to reality was perfectly willing to banish from the sacred text any statement that he considered worthy of exclusion for this reason.

The controversy that raged during the last century between those who upheld the fixity of species as stated in the Bible, and those who opposed it, might have turned out very differently indeed, if the Christian authorities had earlier admitted the existence of scientific errors in the Bible ‘the errors of mankind, for long ago man was like a child, as yet ignorant of science; to repeat J. Guitton’s phrase. In such circumstances, the objections to the far-fetched theories of Darwin’s followers concerning the supposed simian origins of man might well have been countered by more solidly based arguments. Instead, however, Darwin’s opponents doggedly defended the fixity of species as presented in the Bible, refusing to consider any other way of approaching the texts.

As a result, they lost the battle before it had even started (Without the above decision of the Second Vatican Council, critical studies of the Bible would probably still suffer from the kind of ostracism that greeted Darwin’s theories).

It should be noted that this was not the situation in the Muslim world. At a time when Western science, though still in its infancy, was already at odds with religion, such controversies did not exist in Islam. The reasons for this lie deep in Islamic history at its very origins in fact.

A Muslim tradition dates back to this period, according to which the increase of knowledge must always be encouraged. The Prophet indeed ordered the believers to: “Search for science from the cradle to the grave”, “search for science, even in China”, by which he meant that no journey could be too long, if it served this purpose. Many verses in the Quran urge man to seek for signs of God’s omnipotence through his contemplation of natural phenomena of all kinds. It is no exaggeration to state that this early command of nascent Islam to cultivate science;’ was the religious driving force behind the blossoming of Islamic civilization, which flourished in the Middle Ages and from which Europe reaped such tremendous cultural benefits.

Along with recent discoveries concerning one of the aspects of the general relationship between science and religion, this reminder of events from the distant past should help, bring together the points of view of the members of each religious community who all believe in the same God, just as other questions from other fields should help create points in common between them.

Although the terms in which the idea was expressed may have changed over the course of time, the Scriptures nevertheless remind all believers that they share a single God. Throughout the present study, emphasis has been laid on the fact that the concept of a Creation was not at all incompatible with the latest scientific data.

Moreover, it has been repeatedly stressed that the process of Creation must logically have taken place over the course of time through the increase in genetic information, which would appear to be the necessary explanation of the transformations undergone by living beings.

It is therefore somewhat easier today to reply to the question: “What is the Origin of Man?” In order to arrive at this, however, we have had to proceed to a scrupulously objective analysis of science and the Scriptures of the monotheistic religions. Along the way, we have encountered some surprising ideas: for example; the discovery of certain texts which have traditionally been considered definitive and which have recently been proclaimed partly obsolete.

At the same time, we have seen that the progress of science and the increase in our knowledge of the history of science make it quite impossible for certain other sacred texts to be of human origin. This is indeed a dramatic change in our approach to an examination of the Holy Scriptures It is particularly overwhelming for people in the West, who often know very little indeed about religions that are not common to their part of the world; and who are often provided with irrational, sentimental arguments that have no place in a study of such questions.

We can only hope that these misguided attitudes will henceforth cease to interfere with the analysis of the subjects that appear in all three of the monotheistic religions and which form the theme of the present work. If these attitudes are abandoned, then men of goodwill can approach the question from the point of view recommended by the Second Vatican Council:

“Today as never before perhaps, thanks to God, there is a clear possibility of profound agreement between true science and true faith, both of which are servants of the one and only truth.”

In the present comparison between religious teachings and scientific data, a compatibility has indeed emerged which strongly contrasts with the passionate controversies of the past. It indicates that the investigation of a subject such as the one studied in this book becomes much clearer when people set aside ideological hypotheses and, as their sole criteria, rely on established facts, logical deduction and the power of reason.