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Durham University

Institute of Advanced Study

Can Scientific Discovery Be a Religious Experience?

Abstract

The exploitation of science in attacks on religious belief is a familiar phenomenon and contributes to the popular but simplistic view that science and religion are necessarily in conflict. But is it possible that the experience of scientific discovery may, in certain respects, resemble a religious experience? This question is introduced by addressing the preliminary issue whether scientists are wise to devote themselves to an offensive against some generalised abstraction called religion. Historically the quest for scientific understanding has often been associated with an appreciation of beauty in nature and elegance in the theories that describe it. For scientists with religious convictions this has permitted a graduation from aesthetic to religious discourse, however problematic this may be for non-believers. The great astronomer Kepler confessed to ‘unutterable rapture at the divine spectacle of heavenly harmony', having discovered one of his planetary laws. Newton celebrated a deity highly ‘skilled in mechanics and geometry'. Einstein wrote that the emotional state that enables great scientific achievements to be made is ‘similar to that of the religious person or the person in love'. It is therefore appropriate to explore the analogies and disanalogies between moments of disclosure in science and religion. The analysis is also prompted by the observation that in questionnaires on religious belief, a crucial facet of the religious life is routinely obliterated. Those who admit to searching for spiritual meaning are assigned to an agnostic category in contrast to those who may have a definite church affiliation or hold definite convictions. The dynamics of the spiritual life are lost as a consequence. And yet it is the questing spirit that perhaps bears the closest analogy to the scientific quest, understood as a process of enquiry rather than as a set of inviolable results.

Insights Paper