An Introduction to Science and Spirituality

Taken for granted in Western culture for more than a hundred years, the dualistic view of the universe—the split between mind and matter, body and spirit, faith and reason, essentially between science and spirituality—is now being fundamentally questioned by Western science and religion alike. Why did the split occur in the first place, what has caused this rethink, and where might it lead? 

What is the difference between science and spirituality?

In the West, we think of science as a fact-based, verifiable, objective method of understanding the natural world and reality. We hold science to be a way of knowing through observation, experimentation, and data, and with conclusions based on logic, evidence, and reasoning rather than on beliefs and opinions. It is materialist at its core. A person who believes that nothing beyond material phenomena can be known, including the nature of the Divine, is called an agnostic. 

Spiritual knowledge, on the other hand, concerns itself with the nonmaterial. In the case of Western religion, the ultimate nonmaterial essence is God. God is known by faith or belief and our souls are the site of connection with, and knowledge of, this divine essence. In all spiritual belief systems, reality is knowable to humans through mysticism, often through experiences manifesting in a sense of “oneness” with the seen and unseen totality of the universe.

What is the relationship between spirituality and science?

The concepts of science and spirituality are relatively new in the history of humankind. In Western culture, the natural and the religious realms were both considered the handiwork of God, and no conflict was perceived. But by the eighteenth century and with the ascension of the rationalistic beliefs of the Enlightenment, the perception of the scientific and the spiritual belonging to separate categories took hold. By the end of the nineteenth century, Charles Darwin’s evolution theory—particularly that Homo sapiens descended from apes—created what became in many Western minds an irreconcilable conflict between scientific and religious belief. 

Today, there are many signs that that is shifting. A 2021 Pew Research Center survey on attitudes toward science and religion indicates that while only 16 percent of American Christians surveyed say that conflict between their faith and science does not occur often, those that identify as agnostic or atheist are much more likely to say there is conflict. 

Pew also surveyed Muslims, Hindus, and Buddhists and found much less of a split and resulting conflict between the scientific and spiritual realms. 

  • Muslims point to the Qur’an as containing a great deal of science, and many surveyed expressed the view that science and religion are related, rather than distinct, domains. 
  • Hindus reported that their religious beliefs have scientific elements and find the spiritual and scientific in harmony.
  • Buddhists expressed a slightly different view, holding that science and religion are unrelated but not in conflict. The basis for this belief is that even as Buddhist concepts can be correlated with empirical Western science, as a religion Buddhism is focused on living an ethical life. In fact, Buddhist meditation practices have been long studied by Western scientists such as neuropsychologist Rick Hanson, whose work on neuroplasticity shows how the mind affects the brain and vice versa. 

Only when the surveyors brought up scientific research related to creating life—including on evolution, cloning, and gene editing—did survey participants’ perception of a conflict with their faith arise. Most of the participants’ objections to cloning and genetic modification were based on the sense that such research represents a path away from the natural order and even as taking the place of the Divine Creator’s role in the universe. 

Can spirituality and science coexist?

Martin Luther King Jr. said, “Science investigates; religion interprets. Science gives man knowledge, which is power; religion gives man wisdom, which is control. Science deals mainly with facts; religion deals mainly with values. The two are not rivals.”

Fritjof Capra, whose groundbreaking 1985 book, The Tao of Physics, reveals the most basic beliefs in Buddhism, Hinduism, and Taoism to share equivalent concepts with quantum physics, is a pioneer in the shift to a healing of the rift between science and spirituality in the service of both values and facts. Today, he uses research in biology, ecology, and other life sciences to spur spiritual transformation and eco-literacy he believes we need to sustain the web of life on Earth. As the Pew researchers on science and religion highlight, “A common thread in these conversations pointed to the importance of nature and respect for living things.” Nature, as Lyanda Lynn Haupt notes in her book, Rooted, has long been the zone where spirit and science converge and co-exist.

Today, there are still scientists who believe that the scientific and spiritual viewpoints are fundamentally incompatible. At the same time, many others from a range of disciplines—such as astronaut Edgar Mitchell, neurosurgeon Eben Alexander, systems theorist Ervin Laszlo—are blending their own mystical experiences with their scientific training down a path called conscious evolution. Taking the middle ground, there is the view that scientific study of seemingly intractable mysteries, such as that of consciousness, should just be taken off the table. In other words, limit research to the material, how consciousness manifests in the neurophysical system, rather than trying to focus on the immaterial realm of awareness. 

What is meant by spiritual science?

“Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind.” –Albert Einstein

Science, for all its advances, remains unable to explain fundamental mysteries like the nature of consciousness, as well as big questions like what the universe is made of and how life began. In response, some have begun to reject the conventional materialist model of science in favor of a more expanded view of what science is. In his book Spiritual Science: Why Science Needs Spirituality to Make Sense of the World, Steve Taylor argues that science needs to a incorporate a “panspiritist” or “panpsychic” view of the world that takes into account phenomena ranging from quantum physics to astral projection to near-death experiences in order to address the big questions. Taylor explains how the notion of “spiritual science” pushes the integration of spirituality and science a step further by positing consciousness as a fundamental quality of the universe, equivalent to other fundamental scientific concepts such as gravity and mass. He notes, “Human shared fundamental consciousness means that it is possible for us to sense the suffering of others and to respond with altruistic acts.”

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