The undeniable fact is that all through the ages, in practically all cultures, human beings have behaved in modes that assume the existence of invisible forces and intangible factors governing their lives and destinies. Some of these convictions became organized, codified, and formulated in what we call the religions of the human family. Religions have flourished and evolved in practically all societies during the past six millennia or more, suggesting that they have served humanity in a number of ways.
What is remarkable is that even after the rise of what we call modern science, and the not insignificant spread of scientific knowledge some which blatantly challenge and give the lie to certain religious beliefs (in all religions), traditional religious beliefs and practices continue, in some quarters with greater intensity than ever before.
Given that science is in the business of studying and explaining not only physical but also human-related occurrences, the challenge for it is to account for this phenomenon in consistent ways. Biology may find the molecular (genetic) basis for religious and other beliefs; psychology may explain why religious beliefs are more soothing to vast numbers of people that irreligious; cultural anthropology may shed light on how religions have arisen, evolved, and spread among different peoples; sociology could explain how religions get established in new contexts; and neuroscience may be able to tell us which part of the brain triggers which kind of neurons for what is described as spiritual experience. They are all trying, with already some successes.
However, whereas physicists have been quite successful in explaining the structure and components of music, and chemists have explained the sources and structures of molecules that titillate the tongue and the nose, the other sciences have only recently begun to delve into the roots of religious belief and experience, and have been only modestly successful in their theories.
But it is important to realize that the deeper fulfillment that traditional religions provide are not to be trivialized by scientific explanations. It is okay to say that the peculiar structure of glucose is what causes sweetness, but that knowledge cannot be used to eliminate glucose from sweets. Any science that is not user-friendly to religions will be regarded as more foe than friend by a great many people. Unintelligible Latin liturgy or archaic Sanskrit shlokas will be more welcome by the majority of the people than scientific explanations that trivialize religious beliefs as abnormal brain behavior.
Granting that in its more mindless modes, religions have done havoc in human history and continue to do so relentlessly even today, it is also a fact that religions were the ones that first put constraints on our instinctive urges for self-gratification, self-aggrandizement, and cruelty towards fellow humans. Most traditional religions foster the values of caring and compassion for others, marital loyalty, restraint from promiscuity, adherence to truth, and such other wholesome virtues. Leaving aside the question of whether these values can be nurtured with or without the doctrinal paraphernalia of religions, humanity (and that includes scientists) would do well to practice some of these in whatever activity they are engaged in. It would be in our interest if scientists worked in the highest ethical framework that religions can provide – especially in the context of the actual and/or potential impact of their findings on society and civilization.
Furthermore, religions (as I see them) also provide a cosmic vision in humanity’s interaction with the world around. It is not a misuse of the term to say that anyone who lives with an understanding and deep-felt conviction of human frailties, finiteness and fallibility, and with deep reverence for the world and the universe wherein we come and go with apparently no rhyme or reason, and feels a sense of gratitude for the fleeting consciousness with its capacity for love and laughter, science and music, a consciousness that is his or her privilege for a brief span of time, and anyone who is touched by a profound sense of mystery as to what is yet to come, such a person is religious in the best sense. And yes, in that sense religion can permeate the being of thoughtful scientists also.