Complementary Forces

How religion and science can work in unison 

I was always equipped with apologies and explanations following terror attacks. Growing up in a town where I was the only Muslim student in my class year, I was well-acquainted with rapid speed “Q&As about Islam.” I believed that my purpose as a Muslim growing up in the United States was to beg for forgiveness for the wrongdoings of the select few who turned my religion into justification for horrendous acts. 

Since I entered the higher academic space of Tufts, I have taken to declaring my practice as entirely personal—it no longer serves as an exemplar for non-Muslim onlookers to gawk at or to aggressively question. Yet, the very fact that I am a practicing Muslim and a fierce believer in empirical data as a student studying engineering and economics is often thought of as entirely contradictory. In the liberal arts, religion is typically thought of as an idea practiced only by those who are inferior—and this thought also extends into STEM fields. But in reality, religion and the pursuit of the sciences can work hand-in-hand, and should not be thought of as distinct and mutually exclusive. 

The understanding of religion and science being mutually exclusive has roots as far back as the 19th century, when the idea of the “conflict thesis” came to light as a way to justify the creation of institutions separate from the religious elite in pursuit of science. This is where the foundations of the anti-Muslim liberalism at Tufts historically locates itself. Tufts was created in 1847 as a liberal arts university for members of the Universalist church who were barred from expensive colleges

Once at Tufts, I decided to study two heavily quantitative subjects. I was drawn to these subjects because I believed there was little possibility of being asked about my religion—or even aspects of my identity, period, to distance myself from the traditional liberal arts. I reasoned that in these spaces, only my quantitative intellect would truly matter. I could somehow separate the parts of me that endured trauma, the parts of me that believed in God, and simply be a completely neutral entity, here to solve mathematical problems and nothing else. 

Though I have yet to be explicitly asked by someone in my classes to explain an aspect of Islam—I have also been unable to untangle my identity from the complexities of the liberal elite academic space. I still hesitate to explain to my professors and peers when I miss class because I’m fasting, either because of Ramadan or in order to honor the loss of a loved one. 

The dehumanization of Islam by popular media outlets has been a constant in my childhood, and now adulthood. Throughout my life, religion has been conceptualized by those around me into a hypothetical overarching entity that only those who need religion practice: those in times of crisis, those in lower-income countries—those that are vulnerable. And I’ve routinely heard in academic spaces that through this vulnerability, people are often radicalized.  These fear-mongering tactics are more of a chip off of my shoulder now as I face a new challenge of navigating a liberal elite academic space that views those that actively practice religion as othered. 

I applied to Tufts because I thought that it was a progressive institution. I was drawn to the university as a result of being repeatedly silenced by my high school administration. I believed such a progressive institution would enable me to engage in meaningful discussion about my faith and the faith of others without fear of being undermined. On campus, the majority of people I’m surrounded by in classes or in social circles rarely—if ever—discuss religion, and if that, it is about religions other than their own, or the media’s interpretations of these religions. I find myself stuck in a gray space.

These personal feelings of isolation have roots in research conducted on the relationship between religious beliefs and educational attainment. A study done in 2014 found that 66 percent of individuals surveyed who had high school level education attainment or less had a certain belief in God, compared to 52 percent of individuals surveyed who pursued a postgraduate degree. Moreover, 14 percent of individuals surveyed who went to college and 15 percent of individuals surveyed who pursued a postgraduate degree believed religion was not important at all. These statistics reflect the distancing of individuals from their religion once they enter an academic institution. 

This tendency could be due to being away from their familial unit or religious community, or due to exposure to content decided to be “fact” that conflicts with religion. Regardless, in these institutions we are forced to work much harder to maintain our religious identity; these ties that once held great importance in our life disintegrate. 

Much of the literature I have read about the interactions between religion and science concludes that the two are fundamentally incompatible. This literature is written by well-known scientists such as Richard Dawkins, and the sentiment extends to the general public. Another study done by the Pew Research Center found that 59 percent of Americans surveyed believed that science and religion are often in conflict. 

In the 19th century, an anonymous author submitted an article to The Reader entitled “Science and ‘Church Policy,’” where they state, “Religion has her unshakeable throne in those deeps of man’s nature which lie around and below the intellect, but not in it. But Theology is a simple branch of Science…” Fundamentally, theology is the study of religious faith, practice, and experience, whereas religion is defined as a personal set or institutionalized system of religious attitudes, beliefs, and practices. In short, the author makes the claim that while theology and science are rooted in intellect, and thus, can conflict, religion is not. 

Through literature and passionate debate, I have grown into accepting this gray space that I’m forced into by the majority of those who believe science and religion to be incompatible. My practice holds deep inherent value that science simply cannot. The statistics regarding educational attainment and religious beliefs reflect the lack of necessity for religion due to scientific advances that provide rationalizations for inconsistencies that religion once explained. 

I am able to cope with existential uncertainty, while still being able to program code that will create predictive models for years ahead. For me, my religion allows me to be comfortable with the fact that some of my loved ones have passed, or are going through slowly debilitating diseases. Without religion, I would be attempting to reconcile trauma and pain through a cynical lens, as I once did. Without religion, I would not be able to connect on an inexplicable level with those who have already passed away. 

These aspects of my life cannot be explained entirely by science, but through my faith. I am able to find the strength to preserve and make advances in the quantitative realm. As Evolutionary Biologist Stephen Jay Gould describes it, religion and science are “complementary forces, each answering a different set of human needs and using different methods and languages.”

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