Science that works and Religion that doesn’t

As a twenty-year-old Air Force wireless operator in Car Nicobar, I had plenty of spare time to stroll by a narrow jungle trail to an endless beach and stare at the expanse of the clear waters of the Bay of Bengal. The sea- heaving rather calmly –  reflected a dynamic image of the blue sky. Colourful shells of many sizes and designs crawled slowly by. Beige-shaded, almost transparent, crablike insects hurried from one hole in the wet sand to another. Now and then the rainbow-crusted shell of a large lobster swept ashore. The sea was an amazing vision, its colour changing by the hour. One never felt lonely nor bored on a Nicobar beach.

The dense forest at the back echoed the roar of the sea. I had nothing to fear – no wild animals in Car Nicobar; no thieves. Young, pretty bare-chested girls looking for mussels had gone home before twilight set in. The huge pythons that did live in the island had no history of swallowing humans . As the sun began to set on the distant, invisible shores of India and the other celestial lights began to make their appearance one by one and suddenly there was no sun, only a million stars, I wondered : surely, someone designed it all. Who?  God?  Which God?

I didn’t believe the answers given by religions –including my own. Those answers seemed naïve, illogical, almost stupid. Solutions derived from no data inputs. Once, while fiddling with a transistor radio that I had borrowed from a friend to listen to Cliff Richard from a Malaysian radio station, I thought I found the answer : science will find that God. Or Gods, The One or the Ones who designed the sky, the earth, the million-light-years-away stars. At least the one who designed lives and beauty on our planet. He could probably be a result, not the creator, of the Universe. But a creator of things in our world. If science can make me hear the voice of a man who sang a song in faraway London in the West and then relay that song to me from Malacca in the East, that science can one day find God.

Luckily , I lived more than half a century since then to see many more things than a mere transistor radio, many armaments far more deadly than any Ram-ban or scorpion bite that religion could fantasize, many theories of creation that were nobler than the concept of a six-day work of a jealous God.

My Corporal-friend Joseph was a friend of the Bishop of the island. Not one of those overdressed bishops you find on the mainland, but a middle-aged man, short but with the marvelously carved muscular body that all Nicobari men possessed.  When I met him he wasn’t wearing the robes of a priest, but just  the multi-striped shorts of the kind that the rest of the islanders wore. Erudite, and well spoken in somewhat halting English the genial man with a brown Mongolian face inspired respect despite his apparel. He spoke of many things but religion. As we ate lightly spiced pork and pickled raw fish,  I steered the conversation to the beauty of the sky, the distance of the stars, closeness of the moon. Somehow I wanted religion and faith to be brought in.

“Father, do you really believe that the sky is a firmament, that it is an expanse separated from the waters of the earth?” I had learnt those words from the Bible before I set off for the meeting.

The Bishop paused. “I believe that God’s designs are too difficult for man to understand. So one must go by faith.”

That was a clever answer, coming from a gentle, naïve-looking  islander-priest.

“Don’t you know that there is no such thing as sky, that it is an optical illusion?”

“Now you give me a reason to worry,” said the Bishop, guffawing without malice. I said I was sorry.

While saying goodbye, the noble Bishop patted my shoulder.

“You don’t have to be sorry,” he said. “You didn’t give me the reason to worry, but to think.”

I hoped, in my heart, that the good Bishop would think and find how stupid Genesis was. Day and night made a day before the sun – give me a break.

I believe in God. There is too much of design which cannot just be the outcome from the aimless spinning  of flying rocks broken away from an accidental big bang. There has to be a well-thought-out plan to what is happening on our earth (at least in peaceful times). If you find a beautiful poem scrawled on a lonely spot in the middle of Sahara desert, you know that a poet has been there. The poem is the proof of the poet. Don’t mistake me for one of the Christian sects that call themselves Intelligent Design.

Stephen Hawking, the foremost thinker of our times recently said, “I regard the brain as a computer which will stop working when its components fail. There is no heaven or afterlife for broken down computers; that is a fairy story for people afraid of the dark.” There is, dear Stephen. Most parts will be recycled. The BIOS chip and the hard disk might be used in another computer – you could even think of it as rebirth!

I believe Stephen Hawking, the man who can’t blabber and hence can think more clearly than most of us; the man who lived for nearly fifty years with an affliction worse than  what killed Christopher Reeve (the Superman) within a few years. I believe Hawking has enough data – mathematical and empirical – to support his views expressed in A Brief History Time, and in everything he has said or written since the publication of that book. When he said that there was no God, he explained that he did not believe in a God that was as propagated by religion. He had said: “We could call order by the name of God, but it would be an impersonal God. There’s not much personal about the laws of physics”.  Though a mere orderliness  of the universe is not exactly my idea of God, it is closer than any religious God I’ve  ever read about.

Stephen Hawking’s comparison of human brain with a computer reinforces my belief in God. Where there’s a computer, there has been a programmer behind it. Is that programmer an emotionally charged (“if you think I’m working with a partner I will send you to hell), selfish, jealous, blood-seeking God (whose attitude, over the centuries, has softened down a bit and those who believe that he hasn’t changed are now called fundamentalists”) Or a bejeweled man who incarnates from  time to time (“smbhavami yugay yugay”) to deliver grossly delayed justice by murdering the villain? Or is it some nebulous, intangible, all-permeating being as some Hindu philosophers visualize  when they aren’t speaking of  Krishna’s amorous adventures? Most unlikely. Hawking has my vote.

But I can’t believe that such a perfectly ordered  and organized corporate system as human body , composed of billions of living cells – each of which is perfectly  trained to do its job – supported by an amazing array of air, water and fuel intake systems, a chemical laboratory which can produce a hundred kind of proteins and vitamins from any food intake, a multi-tasking and powerful strut-and-beam structure,  a harness containing a collection of millions or more signal wires securely housed within one of those structures, hugely efficient (albeit susceptible to go wrong) internal delivery systems for fuel, water and air, exhaust systems, widely distributed  electrical battery  or batteries that can discharge electrical waves at the right time  or on command to make the motor systems called muscles to work, five-pronged communication system and a computer-server that sits on top of  thousands of workstations distributed all over the systeml and analyses and processes every internal communication (though pain, itching, sight, sensation, timely exhaust valves opening, orders an erection or lubrication at the sight of the right opportunity – ), lubricants, pressure pads, hinges and pivots –  come on, this could not have self-evolved through a tumultuous, confused, survival-of-the-fittest environment, no matter how long that evolution took to arrive at the present human body. Have you not noticed how the animal population balances itself for optimum self preservation when there is no human intervention? Have you missed the sequence of order in which laws of gravity were discovered, calculus was invented, electricity was  manually produced (billions of years after nature began to produce it),  electromagnetic waves were predicted, wire communication and then radio communication were invented just before the airplane became a reality? There was indeed a logical progression, a definitive and super-human algorithm, in the sequence of scientific discoveries and inventions in the past few centuries, but the progress looks to me somewhat the same as you would take your toddler to the nursery and help him rise gradually through the years to high school. You see a shadow of a brain behind it. That brain, perhaps a nebulous, non-physical, but cohesive form of data-processing, continually experimenting, improving and inventing system energy or a collection of energies that surely should exist, to my mind, is what can be described as God.

I believe in evolution. An evolution like that of a single round wooden block that rolled along a jungle trail to the jet plane that could take man around the earth in four-and-a-half hours, the space shuttle that could take men and women to the moon and back, to the one that would one day take my great grandchildren to Mars and their grandchildren to a planet beyond the Solar System.  Like those evolutions, I believe, evolution of man – and every surviving animal and insects on earth – is a carefully, thoughtfully, slowly engineered invention through trial and error, through sweat and tears, through mistakes that fell down by the wayside under the survival-of the-fittest and natural selection laws. Such an evolution has to have a brain, or brains, an ever-learning and researching engineer or engineers behind it. I don’t think he/she/it needs to have the rather uncomely appearance of man. I do not even believe that It (God) has to be in any one of the states of matter we know today – solid, liquid or gaseous, or a combination of all that as we living beings are.   Our concept of ‘spirit’ conforms more to some sort of such energy pack  that I fancy than the skull-and-bone monstrosities we see in movies. The word spirit is so misused and maligned that I prefer to the equally maligned, but more respected, word God.

Man invented the wheel. Man invented the rail engine, the motorcar, the airplane, the spacecraft. Man landed on the moon. You might have learnt that it was Newton who discovered gravity, Edison who invented electric bulb and the gramophone, Alexander Graham Bell who invented telephone. As the inventions progressed exponentially through the twentieth century, you stopped asking who invented the space shuttle, the colour television, the LCD screen, the laptop computer, the mobile phone. You know who invented Kitty Hawk and flew it a few feet above the ground for a few seconds. But you do not know, nor care, the name of the man who ‘invented’ the superjet. It was Man. Even from Edison’s time, inventions were never a one-man effort; now we have grown mature enough to recognize that fact. Who got the patent for a small part of that plane is of no significance. The plane itself is the invention of collective wisdom of all men and women who lived since the evolution. The wheel, the spokes, the air-filled tubes, the radio, the jet, the metals that wouldn’t burn at high heat, the tires that won’t wear out in the frictional heat and impact of landing, the control surfaces designed to withstand massive airflow, the fly-by-wire system, the onboard computer, the battery, the GPS-  they were not all conceived and assembled  by one man, not by a hundred men, but by millions of them through the centuries. By Man. There are, of course, leading lights that make the rest of the elements that work towards a goal. Like the brain in a single man. But that leading light has no stand-alone existence. When putting on a shirt, Einstein had wondered how many people he had to thank for it – starting from the farmer who grew cotton, the one who tilled the land, the one who spun the thread, who  wove it into cloth, who stitched it to his size – it is an endless string.   It does not matter whether God is just one elemental being or a gathering of a trillion cohesive and congruent waves of intelligence. But there has to be something of that sort – there has to be God.

Like there is Man. I believe God has to be an evolved Being, like Man is. I can even conceive a coherent energy evolving over the first few millions or even billions of years, and then experimenting to create, out of available materials, something that has a body and limbs – which God lacked. Notice how a man, incapable of moving, speaking, writing or doing anything but staring blankly and twitching his right cheek gathered courage, help and technology to propound some of the most amazing scientific theories, to lecture in colleges, to debate in renowned meetings of scientists and to work on thought processes that were not even known to man before Einstein.  I am not comparing Hawking to God; but he is a sure pointer to what a mass of intelligence can achieve through coherent energy without help of a body.  God need not have a body to create living beings with body, limbs and solidly packed brains. All that was needed was time and patience. That God had – by the present calculations, over 15 billion years of our concept of time for Its experiments on evolution.  Exactly like Man could make vehicles when he found himself moving too slow to progress,  and airplanes when he was convinced that he would never grow wings through prayers, that he could never be able to fly on his own.

When you arrive at a concept of God like that, you might want to exclaim, like George Bernard Shaw : “I am an atheist. I thank God for that.”

It took thirteen centuries for Harvey to find, through years of experiments and measurements, that Galen’s idea about blood movement was wrong, that arteries carried good blood, capillaries did the job of distributing and returning the soiled fluid and that veins carried it back to heart for purification. (What engineering, by God!). Electricity and magnetism existed since the formation of the universe, yet to know their relationship, to devise electro-magnetic gadgets, to theories electro-magnetic waves and to put them into useful practice, it took thousands of years. My daughter, a pious woman if ever there was one, tells me: “Don’t think science knows everything. That’s why you need religion.” No, babe, science doesn’t think that it knows everything. That’s why it is forever searching and researching. It’s religion which says it knows everything, it has seen God, knows God’s name and His moods, knows the words that would please Him, Knows the design of the tabarnacle to be built in its honour and loves gold, that this self-important God has delegated to it (religion) the authority over Man here and hereafter.

There is God (like in the expression Man, plural and singular has no significance here), and science will one day find that God. It could take millennia, like many scientific findings have taken to discover other facts. Stephen Hawking said : ““There’s a fundamental difference between religion, which is based on authority and science, which is based on observation and reason. Science will win because it works.”

Science works. Its findings fly airplanes, drive cars, help Ramshree the maid take leave at short notice via her mobile phone. It lets my grandson shoot enemies on his television screen  without  hurting himself and without shedding any real blood.  It teaches a man to take off, fly and land  the latest passenger plane  and handle emergencies in any airport in the world without getting off the ground.  It lets me write this piece, grammar and spell-check it without a pencil, paper or eraser. It lets me see and talk to my daughter thousands of miles away without spending an extra penny. It lets Dr. Reddy drill a small hole on a patient’s body, put in a narrow tube and a couple of miniature tools and mirror at its probing end, thrust it way down into her organs and cut out cancer cells inside the patient without even putting her to sleep.  Like a bad side effect of good medicine, it also lets the Hindu Baba, Christian preacher and Muslim cleric spread their sermons to gullible audiences across the world through radio and television while deriding the science that has made such an audience available. Because science works.

Religion does not work. Gods in temple cannot help find the burglar who stole God’s own jewellery and murdered the priest. God of religions have proved incapable of preventing stampedes, fires, riots , bomb explosions and killing of His devotees in His own Church, Temple or Mosque. My wife’s prayer-group (who call themselves  Amrita vani – deathless voice) end their prayers with Loka Samastha Sukhino Bhavandu – “May the whole world be joyful”. That’s a prayer said by millions over the centuries ever since Hindus began to pray. Yet there is more misery than joy in the world. ”Thy kingdom come”, is what Jesus taught his listeners to pray. I suppose the kingdom he prayed for, and Christians have been praying for through two thousand years,  meant ” and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.” (Micah 4:1-3 RSV). That meant a world full of peace (swords into ploughshares), justice and prosperity.  Yet the world is full of wars, misery and hatred. Swords have turned into bombs, machine guns and suicide bombers instead of ploughshares.

“Have you not heard how I punished those who disobeyed my orders through Moses with floods, locusts and misery”, asks a scripture. Floods, earthquakes and misery appear to be largely reserved for believing Asian nations – Pakistan, Afghanistan, Indonesia and, of course, India. In Japan, a huge catastrophe involving a combination of earthquake, tsunami, flood and nuclear radiation resulted in far fewer casualties than a single flood in Pakistan because Japanese go by science and Pakistan mostly by prayers.

Ever since Ravan’s airplane was grounded, no god nor demon appears to have produced an airplane. Smallpox, plague, cholera, leprosy – or any disease for that matter – has no working remedy in religion. Indians tried to ward off the dreaded smallpox by appeasing Mother Kali. Sacrifices, bhajans and material offerings failed. European and American Christians -Catholic as well as Protestant – caught and burnt on stakes neighbouring women for witchcraft when disease or  misfortune  came to a household; sometimes women were persecuted even for conjuring natural   calamities. They had the Holy Bible (“Thou shall not suffer a witch to live – Exodus 22:18)  and Malleus Maleficarum (Manual for witch-hunting 1484-1485) by Kramer and Sprenger, sanctified by a Papal Bull, to support the heinous crimes against innocent women. This book was a bestseller for several decades since Gutenberg invented printing press.  Nonetheless, diseases and misfortunes plagued  Europe through 15th to 19th centuriesOther religions held organized prayers to ward off evil spirits. Yet smallpox raged year after year through centuries,  killing thousands, blinding and scarring tens of thousands. A single invention of vaccination by science eradicated the curse. Strenuous scientific research of the last two centuries, not religion, helped eradicate the horrendous maladies of the middle ages.  Window-dressing and false witnesses might be used to prove that religion has produced miraculous healing, but you can’t produce them  in a statistical trial with a reasonable set of samples any more than a third-rate magician can.

That brings to mind young Brother Philip, a Christian preacher, whose entourage had a member dressed as a conservative Maharashtrian Hindu.  The man wore a Marathi cap, a red bindi on his forehead and a bunch of twisted red strings worn like a bracelet on his forearm. Like a true Marathi villager’s ,  a corner of his white  dhoti was girdled between his legs and tucked behind him.  I wondered why a candidate fit for Shiva Sena  was going around with an evangelist.

Brother Philip  caught hold of me and prayed aloud to his Father that the pain in my knees be healed. I thought it would be impolite to announce that, despite my apparent age,  I had no pain in the knees. (Not at that time).  He beckoned an older man and, without asking him,  prayed that his prostate problem be cured. While Philip continued to get hold of men and women, predicting their diseases and praying for the cure,  the “Hindu” witness told others how he was suffering from leprosy, his wife from tuberculosis and his son from polio. No doctors could help the family. Finding Brother Philip, he said, was the turning point in his life. The Brother asked him, a mere stranger at that time, if he wasn’t worshipping the image of a human body with an elephant’s head. Yes, he said, amazed as he was. Throw that image a kilometre away, and you will all be cured, Brother Philip told him. Very reluctantly, said the man in Shiv Sainik costume, he threw away the Ganpati his family  had worshipped for years.  “Look,” he stretched out his forearm, “not a sign of leprosy.”

It transpired later, over a quart of rum,  that the healed and reformed “Hindu”, voluntary witness for Philip’s power of healing through prayers, was Daniel, a cousin of Brother Philip himself.

I am not suggesting that there are no pseudo-scientists who make false claims. They would never get entry into a science journal. They need to produce proof – by application, logic or mathematical data– or all of them. True, science does fail – airplanes crash, malaria returns, HIV still kills. Mostly because of human failures, not because of any theoretical failure on the part of science.  Yet Science is trying to find fool-proof remedies  on this earth of ours while religion is praying for good returns in another world no one has seen and from where none has reported back. Science is looking for evidence and data, religion is producing witnesses.  If science was to hand a sainthood – or fellowship – to Mother Teresa, it would be for the amazingly humane  work she had done, not for a controversial miracle that was falsely thrust upon her.

In 1968, I was undergoing flying training to be a flight signaller. Midway from Hyderabad to Delhi,  our ageing dakota got caught in a fierce dust storm and turbulence that rocked the plane as if it were a cardboard toy. The navigator of little flying experience, a part-time officer from the Air Force’s equivalent to territorial army, vomited and passed out.  Four of the eight trainees lay semi-conscious, one of them convulsing. As if that wasn’t bad enough, the remaining three among the trainees (I was the fourth) and the aged instructor  began to pray loudly. It got worse when the right engine emitted black smoke and then flames. As the rumble of thunder and flash of lightning kept getting closer, a crash seemed imminent.  The co-pilot,  a new Pilot Officer, panicked, and started to howl.

The pilot, a young Sikh Flight Lieutenant, beckoned the lone man standing – me. “While the idiots howl and pray set up the HF R/T for me,” he said, “and operate the fire extinguisher”. I have switched off and feathered the starboard engine”. His calm voice dispelled any fear I had.  I released the fire extinguisher lever and  pushed it, set up the radio. Alternatively we broadcast Mayday messages on R/T and SOS by Morse code. Since I had this occasional  stutter, we had wordlessly agreed that he would speak on R/T while I would Key in the same signals on the Morse key . Soon there was a message from Bombay – which was nowhere near our route – that Bhopal airport has been ordered to open up  in fifteen minutes and be ready for our emergency landing.

”You will make it, Good Luck” said the dot-and-dash message from a kindly soul in Bombay.

The Pilot, I think his name was Sareen,  was a good five years younger than my 28. I admired the way he fought the controls of  the crippled plane through the dust storm and turbulence while continuing to make distress calls on R/T.   In the old DC-3 there was no fly-by-wire; you had to fight the elements with your control column when they got unruly. We landed safely enough on single engine, but with a tyre-burst that made our aircraft park on the deserted runway.

After we jumped off the slightly tilted plane,  our instructor – an old Master Warrant Officer who was incidentally my namesake – walked up to the pilot,  grinning from ear to ear. Colour had returned to his face.

He said, “I was saying the Gayatri mantra ever since I saw smoke come out of starboard. Believe me, sir, Gayatri can work wonders.”

“Oh, it was Gayatri, then,” said the Flight Lieutenant, returning the grin with a tinge of sarcasm.  “I wonder what the fucks Vishu and I were doing in the bloody cockpit.”

When you’re immersed in your religious fantasy, you don’t catch the sarcasm. Nor would you accept that science works, that prayers don’t.

When a friend of mine was wheeled out of the operation theatre after a ten-hour surgery, his mother looked up and whispered,  like Sachin Tendulkar after hitting a century, “Thank you, thank you, God.” .

“You should thank the doctor, auntie,” I mumbled.

The surgeon was just emerging from the OT, his mask still in place

“I get the fees, and God gets the thanks. That’s a fine arrangement,” quipped the doctor.

In the event, God got more than a word of thanks. Auntie went to the nearest temple and broke a coconut. A symbolic human sacrifice. (I believe the breaking coconuts became the norm in temples when cutting of f human heads was no longer allowed. Hindus in Eastern India and Muslims all over the world have the option of decapitating a lamb as a more appropriate symbol. Christian priests distribute wine and bread in Church, proclaiming that they are the blood and flesh of the  Lord Himself. Jesus is the most cannibalized son of man ever).

Asked if he got a chance to ask a question to the universe what would that be, Stephen Hawking twitched his cheek to say: ““I want to know why universe exists. Why there’s something rather than nothing.”

Kirk Cameron, a small-time actor-turned evangelist-writer retorted:

“Why should anyone believe Mr. Hawking’s writings if he cannot provide evidence for his unscientific belief that out of nothing, everything came?”-

What was scientific evidence to Cameron in his religious belief that “the earth hath existed waste and void, and darkness is on the face of the deep, and the Spirit of God fluttering on the face of the waters”? How long did that situation exist – from eternity till creation took place some 14,000 (or was it 6,500?) years ago as per biblical calculations?

Moreover, evangelist Cameron, no scientist propounds a theory unless (s)he has supporting data and logical or mathematical derivations. If you can understand them, you should ask him(her) to produce them. It is quite possible that some – even all – of Hawking’s conclusions could be proved wrong, or might stand modified some day. Scientific findings are not final conclusions as Bible, Gita or Quran are. They are subject to rigorous tests and trials and continuous improvement through years.

Apparently Pope John Paul II did believe science’s new theories about the origin of the universe with a big bang. He asked Hawking (and other scientists with him) not to enquire into time before the big bang – that belonged to God’s realm, he pleaded. The implication of it was that the noble Pope conceded that science works and that Genesis as per his Holy religion doesn’t. Hawking nonetheless did look into that as  well – and concluded that time started with the big bang. A difficult concept to comprehend, but more reasonable than to believe that God’s face kept fluttering from the endless depth of eternity to the day he split waters and separated sky from earth

Unlike religion, empirical science tends to get modified when more and more data become available to the thinker-scientist. Yet applied science is grudgingly beginning to admit that Einstein was right in his theory of relativity (which was barely understood in his time) and that no speed can exceed that of light (a faulty conclusion from a recent Nutrino experiment in CERN notwithstanding). Someone will have to prove that wrong if one day a spacecraft were to take man to a planet orbiting the nearest star – Proxima Centauri 4.22 light years away.  Apollo 10, holding the highest speed record for a manned vehicle, would take 113,904 years to reach there. Since speed-of-light ceiling is universal and not restricted to earth, you do not have to believe the alien-in-saucer stories. When you look up at the sky, what you see is an eternal time machine. The moon you see is a few seconds old already, the sun has aged seven or eight minutes when you see it, some of the stars you see tonight might have died millions of years ago.  Sky is not a firmament God erected without a single pillar.  It is the vastness of eternity in space and time. Mathematicians say that there are 11 dimensions, of which we only know four. Unless a distant alien had found a new dimension (other than distance) to tunnel through, there is no way he could reach us.  If he does, you might not find him coming from the sky in a flying saucer, but suddenly emerging out of thin air amongst us in a Ravi Shankar predictable satsang, Zakir Naik’s listing of heretic verses, Varun Gandhi’s dangerous verbosity or Brother Philip’s preaching.

Yet since science works, it could one day build a spacecraft many times faster than Apollo 10  – or devise one of those dimensions as in Star Trek – and let my grand-grand children and yours to holiday in Proxima Centauri’s planetary system. By then science would  also make sure that they’d have a long enough lifespan to enjoy that journey and return to mother earth.

That is if men of religion don’t destroy themselves and the earth, using the armaments that science devised,  in faith-wars of the kind that are raging in this our planet today.


5 thoughts on “Science that works and Religion that doesn’t

    1. Thank you, my favourite niece (as always). It’s nice to know there is someone in the family who reads my blogs. (Usually I get hate mail from others). Do scroll down and read the others when you have time. Love and Best wishes to you, Dinesh and kids. VM


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