Science and Religion

Does Faith Constrain Progress and Use of Science


Salman Ahmed Shaikh

Does faith require abandoning reason, reflecting on the matter, searching for physical answers and finding physical solutions? As per religion, one can use material means, experimentally proven knowledge and medication by all means. For instance, in psychological disorders and problems, the cure needs to be searched in medication rather than spiritual exercises alone.

Religion is not just concerned with psychological and spiritual medication and meditation. It is concerned essentially with the question of why life and for what purpose. The religious answer based on historically transmitted knowledge is that we are created by the Creator and Who will reward us justly in the afterlife. The afterlife will actualize the cause and effect in ethical matters and establish absolute justice which we desire for every action and intention. Qur’an repeatedly reminds of the blessings of Allah in the form of matter and intelligence which we use for our comforts and cures. After using the matter and intelligence which exists not because of our efforts, how rational and ethical it is that we remain not only thankless, but negate the one Who is to be thanked altogether.

The sole purpose of religion is not to be a psychological panacea or just a little bit more numerous, better and different social set of norms. It is concerned with questions of why life and for what purpose. Both matter and intelligence exist without us creating them. We merely use them without being the original creators of those things.

Internal to us, we have an urge to find meaning to life and our existence. Our consciousness asks for a suitable explanation. Have we come to exist by chance? It is highly unlikely given the extremely accurate conditions required in numerous factors for the life to exist. The human mind suggests that there should be a creator for everything which is not its own creator. Therefore, faith in God is not based on speculative conjecture of ‘god of the gaps’. Taking a position that there must be a Creator of this universe is a logical answer instead of believing in existence due to blind random forces by chance.

To complement our internal urge to believe in a Creator, we are also provided guidance external to us. Allah has introduced Himself through His books and messengers (pbut). Qur’an, the last divine book in presenting the basic premise of Islam focuses our attention on some aspects of nature. Modern science instead of undermining faith has actually found nothing inconsistent about these statements with established facts of science.

Nowhere in Islam, is it said that one should replace physical efforts with mere supplication. Islam urges Muslims to explore and use nature for societal well-being and pursue economic sustenance. Tremendous advances in science happened in the heyday of Muslim civilization which stopped partly due to genocide and massacre carried out in Crusades and in the invasion of Baghdad by Mongols. Those who took science further in the West were also mostly religious people for a long period of time.

Prof. Pervez Hoodbhoy, a noted Physicist, asks that if Salat-e-Istasqa is performed, then why it does not rain often. He wrote: “The equations of fluid flow, not the number of earnest supplicants or quality of their prayers, determine weather outcomes.1” The answer is that Salat-e-Istasqa is a voluntary prayer to ask Allah’s blessings. The collective performance of this prayer is not the replacement of physical efforts or understanding of physical phenomena. It only serves as a moment of reflection and reminder for the people who pray. For instance, when Qur’an says that Allah provides sustenance, it does not imply that we sit idle and do not engage in Kasb-e-Halal (legitimate economic enterprise). Likewise, if physical efforts or physical understanding can help in dealing with physical problems, then all efforts towards these ends shall be undertaken.

Prof. Stephen Hawking once said: “I have noticed even people who claim everything is predestined, and that we can do nothing to change it, look around carefully before they cross the road.2Religious faith does not mean that after accepting faith, one can walk on water, fly in the air or defy physical limits in any other sense. Religion concerns with moral content in choices made with free will. Repeatedly, Qur’an asks people to strive for knowledge, discovery, exploration and virtuous livelihood. Nowhere there is a restriction on planning or in using material resources bestowed by the Creator.

Religion allows economic endeavours and scientific endeavours to achieve economic livelihood and convenience. It does not ask one to sit idle and expect to be fed naturally or automatically. It does not ask to avoid medicines and cures to treat illnesses. It does not discourage intellectual and scientific pursuits to discover cause and effect relations in the universe and make use of such knowledge. Even in religious knowledge, religion does not feed religious knowledge in brains automatically, but it asks to seek that knowledge by reading, deciphering, thinking and reflecting. Seeking knowledge is regarded as an obligation rather than fed as an effortless gift in humans. In fact, every endeavour which brings comfort, convenience, social good and welfare is an act of virtue and religion encourages one to cooperate in virtuous endeavours (Al- Maida: 2). Thus, in pursuit of livelihood or finding cure of a disease, religion does not prescribe some religious rituals alone.

Religion guides about ethics and morality in all human endeavours including scientific endeavours. For instance, religion would not allow using technology to kill someone, harm others and destroy resources and environment. As a matter of fact, 200 million people died in 20th century wars alone, which is equal to all of human population on earth living at the time of Jesus (pbuh). WWF reports that humans have destroyed half of all animal life in the last 40 years alone. Humans just make up 0.01% of all life but have destroyed 83% of wild mammals, according to a report published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences3. Scientists had termed the current age ‘Anthropocene’ due to the unprecedented loss caused by human activities in the modern age4. In this kind of involvement of religion in scientific endeavours, religious values play a positive role in emphasizing responsibility, care, preservation and cooperation.

The second possible point of contact between religion and science can come in answering questions of origin, existence and meaning. These questions do not come in the domain of science. Nonetheless, still some scientists who do not believe in any Ultimate Creator and divine religion tend to argue for their held beliefs from some scientific theories. It is conveniently forgotten that any scientific theory has no concern whatsoever with the ‘will’ behind material cause and effect relation. Science can explain chemical processes, physical processes and biological processes involving material causes and effects. But, science does not concern with the purpose behind material processes.

Growing crops through chemical processes can be explained through science, but what end they are used for does not come under the domain of science. Chemistry can help in increasing productivity of food crops as well as making chemical weapons. Abortion of a baby without putting life of mother at risk can be explained through biology, but science does not answer whether it is right or wrong. Weapons of mass destruction can be made through knowledge of disciplines like nuclear physics, but using this knowledge to decimate entire human population in a city or country is a decision whose correctness or incorrectness cannot be judged or answered from science.

If there is a will to produce something or make something happen, then as long as the process of production involves material process, then it can be explained through science. If not all such material processes are comprehensible through science, they still potentially can be with advancement of science in future. However, the will and purpose to start the whole process does not come under the purview of science.

From where did all the initial matter and material processes through which we explain the recipe of life come from? All that we have done through science is to use the pre-existing matter inside the universe in ways that benefit us by exploiting the cause and effect relations from observation and experimentation.

When we play video games, through experience, we learn the rules of the game and make progress to the advanced stages. We do not infer from this experience that the game was not developed by someone. We know that someone will have made the rules. If we come across a computer software or application, then after observation and careful thinking, we can decipher how it was made. By having grasp of computer programming, we can identify the recipe – the code and algorithm – which is behind that computer application. However, it does not mean that discovering the programming code and algorithm of an existing computer program proves its self-existence without any developer.

In our conscious experience, we do not find ourselves like other inanimate objects in the universe. Our bodies might be having the same inanimate matter that is also part of non-living objects, but we have consciousness. Other life-forms also have consciousness.

We know that we are not our creators. If we had the power to create ourselves, why would we be not able to avoid pain, illness and death? Another alternate conjecture is that we have come to exist in this universe by accident. But, science has shown that it is next to impossible to have life by accident in its most sophisticated manifestation as we see it, experience it and then die after at most few million breaths under the sun. Life exists on a knife’s edge. Other life-forms and inanimate objects are also composed of the elements that exist in the universe and their existence cannot be explained through self-creation.

Furthermore, we humans in particular have conscience apart from consciousness. We have ability to differentiate right from wrong. We have self-awareness. If we are result of genetic mutations alone without any Creator and we have come to exist as the fittest species, then is there any harm or anything wrong if we mutate or destroy other life-forms. If water is scarce and we do not want to change our lifestyles and industrial production of unnecessary goods, then what is wrong if we kill few thousand camels instead? For that matter, even human populations. Why is that wrong in the evolutionary biology story where we start from inanimate matter and then decompose into a debris of matter again eventually.

In fact, we have only speeded up extinction in the last 50 years when the science has been on its peak. Morals do not come from evolutionary biology. Towards that end, it is the depressing story of survival upon survival through destruction upon destruction. No wonder we are now seeing tremendous loss to ecology, environment, bio-diversity and forests after setting aside values and morals.

Another question that always strikes a person in every age is the purpose and meaning of life. This is also a question which is outside the domain of science. When some scientists not believing in God relate their atheistic philosophical viewpoint with evolutionary biology, they are making a philosophical conjecture. It is not the domain of science or any scientific theory to discuss ‘will’ and ‘purpose’ behind material cause and effect relation. Science is concerned with the recipe (how), not the purpose (why).

Religion explains that this universe had a beginning and it was created. After a long period of time, humans inhabited the planet earth in this universe. Humans were created and given this life by the Creator in order to test who among them live a virtuous and ethical life. During this life, there will be temptations to achieve short term material benefit, but unethical conduct will make humans deserve punishment in life hereafter. In contrast, virtuous actions of justice, fairness, generosity, kindness, cooperation and sacrifice will deserve deterministic rewards in life hereafter. Since this life is a trial, one cannot get deterministic rewards in this life.

But, every intentional act will get deterministic justice in life hereafter. That is the basic essence and message of religion. It does not matter whether life on this earth came to exist by whichever material process. Religion informs about the ‘will’, the source and the purpose behind creation of humans.

A reflective human mind would look at the COVID-19 pandemic and will be reminded that this life will end one day for him from one or the other material cause. But, it does not matter whether it will be due to any disease or accident. However, his life and life of others is not meaningless.

Doctors and nurses who are fighting hard to save lives of COVID-19 patients might lose their own in the process. But, if they believe in the life hereafter, then their virtuous acts will earn them rewards in the life hereafter which will begin for never ending again. Unlucky patients who die from this pandemic and those who die from other reasons may have been denied what they deserved in this life. Those who got killed, robbed, denied justice and discriminated against will get deterministic justice and rewards in life hereafter if they had lived virtuous lives given their circumstances in this life.

The lucky ones who survive this pandemic will also die one day. If they had helped the ones who were ill, who were hungry, who were deprived, who were unfortunate and who needed help, then their acts of kindness, generosity, sacrifice and devotion will transcend this world and will give those people rewards in life hereafter which will begin for never ending again.

A reflective mind will keep in mind the scientific and historical evidence that death is as much a fact as is life. The belief in life hereafter completes the cause and effect puzzle even in moral sphere of life. In life hereafter, everyone will get deterministic reward for intentional acts in this life based on the ability and freedom in the circumstances which one faced in this life, no matter whether rich or poor, white or black, male or female, strong or weak and elite or commoner. That makes life of everyone meaningful rather than a constant struggle of survival in one form of matter to the other form of matter where survival instinct is the only moral code.

Conscience is there in all humans and it gives us clear idea of good and evil. Call to conscience brings sacrifice and selfless choices. But, the life ends for many people without them getting fair reward or punishment.

Oneness of God gives us an anchor to see us as part of a universal clan of creatures. All life forms do not create or control breath in themselves or others. We inhabit universe collectively and are equal in sharing it.

Consciousness is there in animal life. Beyond animal instincts, humans also have inherent recognition of good and evil in their conscience. Belief in deterministic justice and rewards in afterlife fulfils our aspiration to have true and fair reward for every small act of goodness and evil in afterlife. Every moment of a nurse and that of a cured or dead patient is not meaningless if one believes and prepare for afterlife by achieving excellence in morals.

Imam Ghazali wrote that wealth is useful till we die, relatives till we are put in grave and only good deeds will be the currency on judgement day5. If we have good deeds to take in next life, then we can have everlasting happiness that is not infected and affected by any Corona Virus.

References

  1. Hoodhbhoy, P. A. (2014). “Does Science Make Belief in God Obsolete”, Templeton Foundation.
  1. Hawking, S., (1994). “Black Holes and Baby Universes and Other Essays”, London: Bantam Books.
  1. Carrington, D. (2018). “Humans Just 0.01% of All Life but Have Destroyed 83% of Wild Mammals”. The Guardian, May 21, 2018.
  1. Ellis, E. C., & Ellis, E. C. (2018). “Anthropocene: A Very Short Introduction”, New York: Oxford University Press.
  1. Ghazali, A. H. M. (d. 1,111). “The Revival of the Religious Knowledge”.

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