BUSINESSWEEK ONLINE : AUGUST 30, 1999 ISSUE

Science and religion will find some common ground. Scientists will ask the bigger questions about life on Earth. And the faithful will accept materialist insights into spiritual ecstasy, prayer, and healing

Why are we here? What does it all mean? Human beings will always ask the big questions. And religion will provide the context. Neither economic efficiency nor scientific rationalism has diluted the overwhelming force of religious beliefs, rituals, and myths. These have bound people together for centuries and inspired humans to great creative endeavor, as well as horrific destruction and mass murder.

Today, faith in its manifold guises is both tonic and counterweight to the rush of progress. It fills a void that material comfort cannot. It affirms humans' powerlessness, even as scientific knowledge arms us to do more and more. Religion transcends the ebb and flow of human progress and events, absorbing knowledge the modern age brings and shrugging off its secularism.

In the U.S., 9 in 10 people claim to engage regularly in prayer, and 3 in 4 say they do so on a daily basis. The Religious Movements Homepage maintained by sociologist Jeffrey K. Hadden at the University of Virginia lists nearly 200 religions and cults, many of which are fast gaining adherents both in the U.S. and overseas. Through much of the world, old, time-honored religions and their fundamentalist offshoots do not seem to wane.

In the early 21st century, the pull of religion will intensify. And science and religion may find some common ground. Scientists have always sought answers about the mysteries of life. But increasingly, the narrow-bore scientific disciplines of the late 20th century will give way to interdisciplinary approaches asking the larger, overarching questions about complex patterns of life on earth. Physicists will continue to seek a unified theory that makes sense of the particles and forces that define our existence. Astronomers will search the farthest reaches of the heavens to fine-tune a cosmology that is fundamentally unfathomable. Even if they answer questions such as when or what, they can never answer why. Artificial-intelligence experts will imbue the humanoids they build with human values, emotions, and even self-awareness, ushering in what inventor Raymond Kurzweil calls the age of ''spiritual machines.''

Many branches of religion, meanwhile, will accept more of science's findings about the origin and nature of life. Theologians will welcome scientists' insights into religion's physical manifestations--the correlation between brainwave patterns and meditative states, faith, prayer, and healing. But they will not cede the role that religion plays in providing solace, in mediating ethical disputes, or in celebrating moments when a relationship to the unknowable fills worshippers with humility. No amount of scientific knowledge or material well-being can satisfy the soul's yearnings. And for that reason, in the 21st century nothing will easily attenuate the tidal pull that religion holds for most humans.

By KAREN PENNAR

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