A recent post on the Timeline of my Facebook page which also featured a quote of Steven Weinberg, a well known theoretical physicist Nobel Laureate from Harvard, had caused a flurry of activity on the FB by friends – and foes alike- involving their take on the said quote which is reproduced below:
"Religion is an insult to human dignity. With or without religion, you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion".
Much though the quote was intended as a light-hearted banter to initiate a debate involving the serious issue of religion versus science – with quite a few of those who could see through the subtext of this quote – it had raised the heckles of many more of those who had commented but who saw it as a portrayal of religion and faith as being ugly and antediluvian. The common refrain in their comments was that atheists of the (Western) world had an inborn revulsion against everything in the name of religion and that they had a tendency to speak in generalities while commenting on religion. By way of a gratuitous advice, an across-the-board suggestion was to discard everything that these 'ungodly' scientists had to offer, including their contributions to science. They further went on to say that most of their 'bigoted views were erroneous to the core and that this was because they were devoid of divine guidance'. Without elaborating further on these and similar other pronouncements and without pronouncing judgment on them and with a view to share my thoughts with a wider audience, I wish to put forth these thoughts as candidly I can, with the hope that this effort would generate a debate on a theme that calls for introspection as much as brainstorming among those who know better.
To begin, it is not my case to nitpick on how in the perception of many, religion scores over science, or perhaps the other way round according to those holding a contrary view. The reasons offered by the protagonists in support of their contentions are invariably to be located in the light of their religious beliefs or lack of them which are, in turn, shaped by the accident of circumstances in which one has been born, brought up, educated and influenced. Whereas there are those like Weinberg who seek to bludgeon religion with the (yard) stick of science, a lot many more including hordes of religious scholars from various religions/religious denominations have devoted their time and energy, seeking compatibility of the scientific enterprise with the scriptures and the idea of God. Their 'researches' have led them to see subtle hints of all major scientific discoveries having ever been made, hidden within the subliminal text of the Quran. That is indeed an oversimplification and borders on the naiveté! As I see it, it's futile to look for a common ground between science and religion and the two should be allowed to bloom in their individual ways without seeking to justify one by means of the other. Any attempt that seeks to achieve that 'goal' and to 'unify' the two is condemned to doom and that would surely serve no purpose..
The first question that stares us right in our face concerns the idea of 'divine guidance' and an almost ubiquitous tendency amongst those with a 'missionary zeal' for religion to decree someone as being blessed with divine guidance or as being deprived of it. They do so even when they are oblivious to the fact that God alone knows who has been blessed that way and who hasn't. An obvious inference from such a mindset suggests that the person making such a claim is smug in the belief that he is 'superior' because he has been blessed with the right guidance and that the 'other' who hasn't been that lucky has an 'inferior pedigree'! The flip side of this approach, however, leads to the unpleasant situation whereby the person being dubbed as 'deviant' begins to view the other person making such claims as suffering from crass ignorance simply because he (the 'deviant') thinks- and rightly so- that we are all a product of circumstances involving our culture, environment, upbringing and most importantly the family and the society – which have shaped our worldview. A far more serious fallout of this attitude is the contempt and scorn that finds its way in the heart of the 'lesser mortal' against that holier than thou guy for the latter's verdict and for his (unspoken but) unabashed pretensions to sainthood.
Coming to the contribution to science by different civilizations over the entire period of (recorded) history, one simply cannot underplay the massive contributions to science, mathematics and philosophy having been made when Muslim power was at its zenith over a period of about six hundred years spanning the period 800-1300 AD. Whereas the Chinese and Hindu contribution to science has been no less noteworthy, the age of science that has defined the world over the past four hundred years, has evidently been powered mainly by the contributions of scientists living and working in the West. The fact that most of these scientists happen to be non Muslims and who are generally known to be antithetical to religion has caused large sections of the society, especially in the contemporary Muslim world to rubbish everything they say and do, including science, as useless and not worth emulating. Nothing could be more preposterous for the Muslim world than to hold such a view and thus to stay away from science, just because those who are at the forefront of cutting edge research in science and technology happen to be ungodly atheists from the Western world who espouse and endorse a worldview without the necessity of religion (read Islam) to play a part in their scheme of things. To me that is tantamount to 'throwing the baby with the bath water'. The need is for separating the chaff from the grain by way of benefitting from how and what they have achieved in science and education and to ignore all that they espouse but that is perceived to be inimical to our ethos and culture. Here it is important to emphasize that their (Western scientists) personal life and their belief system(s) ought to be distinguished from their contribution to science and scholarship which indeed is mind boggling. By the same logic, it should help not to discard their pronouncements about faith and religion out of hand, without pondering over them as that would lend perspective to our own approach and understanding of such issues. All this should be looked upon as part of the grand enterprise aimed at the ultimate search for truth which is the raison d'etre of science on the one hand and the very essence of religion on the other.
Whereas it's the reason that is the bedrock of science, religion has to be approached through reflection, wisdom, experience and of course through faith, without dragging reason to play a part where it has none. By the same analogy, a certain amount of faith is inevitable even in science including in Mathematics where the entire architecture of theorems is the result of a rigorous scheme of proofs which in turn are based on a certain set of 'axioms'- which have to be accepted as 'articles of faith' without proof, as that simply doesn't, in fact cannot, exist! It is because of this that there is a strong case for desisting from grandstanding on issues involving ecumenical affiliations and that what is needed more than anything else is to strive to do best one can, whatever one has undertaken as being the right thing to do, without the necessity of either imposing it on others or even of holding someone espousing a contrary view, in poor light.
The bottomline is that it would help matters if it is sought to separate religion from science- and even from politics- as these cannot be approached with the same tools. The deadly combination of religion with science and politics has resulted in the world being pitted against religious extremism on the one hand and national extremism which manifests itself in the form of 'patriotic orgasm' on the other. As a small digression and in response to the said post on FB under discussion, a California-based mathematician friend has quipped that Weinberg's quote as stated above should be modified to: "for good people to do evil deeds, it takes religion or patriotism"! This is so because the two share the common feature where reason ceases to have a say.
I conclude with yet another quote of Weinberg – which may perhaps yet again ruffle the feathers of some- which, however, is pertinent to the issues discussed above:
"Science doesn't make it impossible to believe in God, it just makes it possible not to believe in God"
Prof. M. A. Sofi is Emeritus Professor, Department of Mathematics Kashmir University, Srinagar
The need is for separating the chaff from the grain by way of benefitting from how and what they have achieved in science and education and to ignore all that they espouse but that is perceived to be inimical to our ethos and culture.