Is Mathematics a Religion?

For many numerically illiterate people out there, the film The Man who Knew Infinity (released September 2015) was, if atheists will pardon the expression, a godsend. It describes the life and achievements of renowned Indian mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan. It did this in a way which not only made his passion for and staggering discoveries in Mathematics entirely accessible, but it also managed to express the very soul of the man.  In a particularly moving scene, the great mathematician G.H. Hardy asks Ramanujan where his ideas come from, the latter’s reply, “they come from God” clearly puzzled and would probably have angered Hardy the arch-atheist. Yet, one cannot escape the fact that Ramanujan’s work whilst supremely original was also highly intuitive and undisciplined, and this was clearly a source of skepticism in the minds of many of his contemporaries. How he managed to win over his skeptics is a significant part of his story. One of TOK’s great strengths is to force us to examine the possible connections between all spheres of human knowledge including those which, at first sight, appear to have absolutely nothing in common.

Is Mathematics a Religion? Before one dismisses the idea as altogether absurd let us first outline the traditional characteristics of Religion as identified by Philosopher Ninian Smart. He suggested that all/most religions will exhibit the following features. Rituals (prayers, festivals etc…), the Numinous (experiences of God, spiritual trances…), narratives (stories, myths, a literature… ), doctrines (a set of accepted beliefs…), ethics (rules on behaviour…), institutions (organisation, hierarchies…) and material expressions (mosques, temples, churches…). Now, it is not too difficult to see how many of these features could not possibly be applied to Mathematics, but is this true for all of them?

For example, one could suggest that Mathematics definitely has a history and its own ‘sacred texts’, as well as having a distinct experiential dimension. In the latter, practitioners of Mathematics experience esoteric and heightened states of mind during which they perceive deep and hidden truths inaccessible to ordinary mortals. Could not axioms also be compared to the unquestionable beliefs or dogmas of religion? After all, the very foundations and methods of Mathematics are based on a collection of ideas which are to be accepted as true without proof. Mathematics’ descriptive and explanatory power in relation to the physical world could also be said to be the equivalent of the etiological tales of religion, providing an explanation for why things are the way they are. I also rather liked Ken Roebuck’s remark  that, it is in the creation of great mathematics that humans are most like God and that maybe that’s what it means to have been created in His image (, retrieved 06/11/16). If Mathematics is a Religion then it is certainly a pretty unusual one, and one peopled by many non-believers at that. One the other hand it would surely be inaccurate to say that these two spheres of human thought are different from each other in every possible way.

In the Europe of the Middle Ages, Theology (the study of God and religion) was seen as the Queen of all the Sciences. This title, and it seems the challenges and burdens that come with it, have now passed to Mathematics. The story of Ramanujan, his faith in Mathematical ideas as expressing the mind of God and the ancient idea of God as Mathematician seemingly making a comeback in contemporary discussions on the nature of the subject, both seem to support the idea that Maths and Religion are not as incompatible as some would have it. However, one clearly cannot have two so seemingly different disciplines share the supreme accolade of Queen of all Sciences. Maybe Mathematics is not a Religion after all, but maybe, it is a kind of Theology.

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