by Joseph Liggio & Ryan K. Gangadin
Asst. Editor & Contributor
Last Wednesday, the departments of religious studies and sociology hosted an eye-opening lecture on the coexistence of science and religion, presented by Renny Thomas of New Delhi, India.
“Beyond Dualism: Anthropology of ‘Science and Religion’ in Contemporary India,” was hosted as part of the Religion Matters lecture series, and explored the connection between leading Indian scientists and religious practice within their everyday lives.
Thomas, an assistant professor of sociology at Jesus and Mary College of Delhi University, has been exploring the conscience of science and the intricacies of this relationship, a sort of “dualism” coming as a product of western modernity.
“One shouldn’t be actually surprised to see scientists religious. Because [people] think that they are different, you think that they should not be religious because they are scientists,” said Thomas. “That particular idea that science and religion is in conflict or in complementarity, that comes from particular historical misunderstanding.”
After working alongside and observing scientists who held religion in high regard within their own lives, Thomas was intrigued by the ability for both ideas to harmonize peacefully, when science isn’t applied in order to prove or disprove the existence of God. He observed how Hindu scientists would regularly attend temple services and partake in religious holidays such as Holi, the festival of colors, and even pray before submitting or presenting their research.
Thomas posits that, because all scientists are human, it is natural that we all have certain specific beliefs, which can exist separately but not necessarily in conflict with the scientific world.
“I believe that if you really want to understand science and religion, you need to go beyond this binary understanding of science and religion. […] Treat them as independent categories; then you will be able to come [up] with new ideas.”
Robert Geraci, Ph.D., chairperson of the religious studies department, helped organize the event. Geraci met Thomas while collaborating together on research in Bangalore, India, and together they have worked on a paper pertaining to the Hindu festival of Ayudha Puja, which will soon be published in “Zygon: Journal of Religion and Science.”
“[Ayudha Puja] translates to ‘worship of the machines’ or ‘rite of the implements,’” said Geraci. “This is an annual festival in south India where people clean their tools [either machines at home or their tools at work], and anoint them with sandalwood oil and vermilion powder. Often a priest is brought to workplaces and he speaks a number of benedictions to the gods. […] Dr. Thomas and I find this ritual to be particularly interesting when practiced in scientific labs and offices, and so we attended Ayudha Puja at the Indian Institute of Science and co-authored a paper on how the festival normalizes Brahminical Hinduism in the workplace.”
Geraci’s continuing relationship with Thomas helped facilitate last Wednesday’s presentation.
“He’s such an intelligent and interesting young scholar that I suggested he come to the U.S.,” said Geraci. “For our part, the department of religious studies cheerfully voted to put funds into airfare, and the department of sociology provided an honorarium to compensate him for his time and expertise.”
Thomas was happy to accept Manhattan College’s invitation to present his lecture at the school.
“I thought it would be really nice to meet the kind of academia that you have here,” said Thomas, who also spoke at The University of Pennsylvania just a day prior. “I thought it would be fascinating, because one day I’m speaking at the department of history and sociology science [at U. Penn], and the next day, religious studies.”
The crowd of students and faculty who came together in Kelly Commons to hear Thomas were intrigued by his ideas on the topic. Sophomore Molly McGough was one of the many present to hear the lecture, and enjoyed the new perspective portrayed by this discussion.
“I found it interesting that some Indian scientists thought of science and religion as two separate ‘modes of existence’ that coexist naturally. It’s a different way to think about them than most people do,” said McGough. “These events can be really intriguing.”
The religious studies department hosts several events each year, and the ‘Religion Matters’ lecture series ensures at least one event per semester.
CORRECTION (Oct. 22, 2017, 4:02 p.m.). A previous version of this article referred to Renny Thomas as an associate professor. He is an assistant professor.