For some reason, Salon is on a crusade to bash the hell out of atheists, living and dead. Their editors might want to question what the deuce is going on (unless it’s a deliberate editorial decision), for the proliferation of anti-atheist pieces is eroding the site’s credibility. It makes Salon look like an apologist for religion. And the latest atheist-bashing piece is particularly bad, because it’s not only written very poorly, but its argument is so incoherent that I can barely even summarize it.
The new piece is by Sana Saeed, and although it might pain you to read it, it’s not too long, and I’m curious what readers make of it: “Richard Dawkins is so wrong it hurts: What the science-vs.-religion debate ignores.” Its point seems to be that there is no conflict between science and religion, but I don’t understand how Saeed’s arguments support that view.
Here’s Saeed’s profile from the Guardian:
Among the tangle of dreadful writing, I think I discern these points:
- Saeed was an observant Muslim girl who also liked science.
- Islam has a distinguished history of scientific achievement. Saeed does not mention that this is a thing of the past; that not much new science comes out of Islamic countries, particularly those in the Middle East. This is likely due to the religious influence on education (despite Saeed’s claims, in many places evolution is simply not taught at all), as well as to the poverty of the countries—or rather, the oil wealth that supports the potentates rather than science. Saeed extolls the past and neglects the present:
“In my own religious tradition, Islam, there is a vibrant history of religion and science not just co-existing but informing one another intimately. Astrophysicists, chemists, biologists, alchemists, surgeons, psychologists, geographers, logicians, mathematicians– amongst so many others – would often function as theologians, saints, spiritual masters, jurists and poets as much as they would as scientists. Indeed, a quick survey of some of the most well known Muslim intellectuals of the past 1,400 years illustrates their masterful polymathy, their ability to reach across fields of expertise without blinking at any supposed “dissonance.” And, of course, this is not something exclusive to Islam; across the religious terrain we can find countless polymaths who delved into the worlds of God and science.”
- The science-vs.-religion debates focus on Christian creationism. More recent Muslim creationism, such as Harun Yahya, actually borrow from Christian creationism. Ergo it’s not Islam that’s anti-science, but Christianity, which infected Muslims. (Even if this were true, those Muslims didn’t inoculate themselves against this infection.)
- Islam is congenial to science. Here Saeed’s arguments—and prose—become extremely convoluted:
“The absence of a centralized religious clergy and authority in Sunni Islam allows for individual and scholarly theological negotiation – meaning that there is not, necessarily, a “right” answer embedded in Divine Truth to social and political questions. Some of the most influential and fundamental Islamic legal texts are filled with arguments and counter-arguments which all come from the same source (divine revelation), just different approaches to it.
In other words: There’s plenty of wiggle room and then some. On anything that is not established as theological Truth (e.g. God’s existence, the finality of Prophethood, pillars and articles of faith), there is ample room for examination, debate and disagreement, because it does not undercut the fabric of faith itself.”
The problem is that a lot of things are established as “theological truth” in Islam, or at least in many Islamic countries. These include the extreme marginalization of women, the criminalization of homosexuality, and extreme penalties for blasphemy and apostasy. (I’m surprised that Saeed, a woman, doesn’t recognize this.) How can intellectual progress occur in a country dominated by a faith that issues fatwas for merely writing about the Prophet the wrong way in a book (viz.,The Satanic Verses)? Science progresses most swiftly when there is freedom of thought; and when that’s suppressed, as Mendelian genetics was in Soviet Russia, science suffers. This is one reason, I think, that the former glory of scientific achievement in Islamic countries is no more. There have been only two Muslim Nobel Laureates in science, and one of them spent his entire scientific career in America. Whatever the reasons, it’s clear that Islamic countries are no longer hotbedfs of scientific progress.
And Saeed waffles, and then descends into obscurantism, when it comes to the evolution thing:
Muslims, generally, accept evolution as a fundamental part of the natural process; they differ, however, on human evolution – specifically the idea that humans and apes share an ancestor in common. In the 13th century, Shi’i Persian polymath Nasir al-din al-Tusi discussed biological evolution in his book “Akhlaq-i-Nasri” (Nasirean Ethics). While al-Tusi’s theory of evolution differs from the one put forward by Charles Darwin 600 years later and the theory of evolution that we have today, he argued that the elemental source of all living things was one. From this single elemental source came four attributes of nature: water, air, soil and fire – all of which would evolve into different living species through hereditary variability. Hierarchy would emerge through differences in learning how to adapt and survive. Al-Tusi’s discussion on biological evolution and the relationship of synchronicity between animate and inanimate (how they emerge from the same source and work in tandem with one another) objects is stunning in its observational precision as well as its fusion with theistic considerations. Yet it is, at best, unacknowledged today in the Euro-centric conversation on religion and science. Why?
Why? Because al-Tusi is only one lone figure, and somebody whose theory can be forced to comport with modern science only by twisting it into the Procrustean bed of apologetics. But it’s still not a theory that contributed anything to our modern understanding of evolution.
I’ve read a lot of Qur’anic apologetics, and they often consist of taking verses from the Qur’an and showing how, if you interpret them judiciously and squint hard, you can show that the Qur’an not only comports with modern science, but anticipates it. (See Islamic Awareness for some truly dreadful examples of this practice.) Why do we ignore Al-Tusi? Because, although he had a rudimentary theory of evolution, it was largely wrong, excepted humans, and did not become a part of modern evolutionary biology. Wikipedia translates some of his theory. Al-Tulsi’s words:
“Such humans [probably anthropoid apes] live in the Western Sudan and other distant corners of the world. They are close to animals by their habits, deeds and behavior. […] The human has features that distinguish him from other creatures, but he has other features that unite him with the animal world, vegetable kingdom or even with the inanimate bodies. […] Before [the creation of humans], all differences between organisms were of the natural origin. The next step will be associated with spiritual perfection, will, observation and knowledge. […] All these facts prove that the human being is placed on the middle step of the evolutionary stairway. According to his inherent nature, the human is related to the lower beings, and only with the help of his will can he reach the higher development level.”
Saeed’s entire argument, in fact, seems to hinge on the West’s ignoring of Al-Tulsi’s wonky theory of evolution, and she really gets worked up about this perceived Islamophobia:
My point here in this conversation about religion and science’s falsely created incommensurability isn’t about the existence of God – I would like to think that ultimately there is space for belief and disbelief. I would like to also believe, however, that the conversation on belief and disbelief can move beyond the Dawkinsean vitriol that disguises bigotry as a self-righteous claim to the sanctity of science; a claim that makes science the proudly held property of the Euro-American civilization and experience.
Hoisted into popular culture by the Holy Trinity of Dawkins-Hitchens-Harris, New Atheism mirrors the very religious zealotry it claims is at the root of so much moral, political and social decay. In particular, these authors and their posse of followers have – as Nathan Lean characterized it in this publication back in March of last year – taken a particular penchant for “flirting with Islamophobia.” Instead of engaging with Islamic theology, New Atheists – the most prominent figurehead being Richard Dawkins – are more interested in ridiculing Muslims and Islam by employing the use of the same tired, racist talking points and images that situate Muslims in need of ‘enlightenment’ – or, salvation.
This is not judicious thought but a mind-dump of hatred. What is it doing in Salon?
I’m not at all sure how this tirade goes any distance towards making Saeed’s point that science and religion—Islam in her case—are compatible. In fact, in the following paragraph—and note how horrible the prose is—she makes the point that while Evangelical Christianity may be incompatible with science, Islam is not–it’s just misunderstood!
The Evangelical Christian Right is a formidable force to be reckoned with in American national politics; there are legitimate fears by believing, non-believing and non-caring Americans that the course of the nation, from women’s rights to education, can and will be significantly set back because of the whims of loud and large group of citizens who refuse to acknowledge certain facts and changing realities and want the lives of all citizens to be subservient to their own will. This segment of the world’s religious topography, however, does not represent Religion or, in particular, Religion’s relationship with science.
That first sentence would be a good example in a manual of How Not to Write.
But really—Evangelical Christians don’t represent religion? What do evangelical Christians think they are—a social club like the Rotarians? And of course they represent a major portion of religion’s relationship with science, for they’re responsible for resistance to evolution in much of the world. (Remember that 46% of Americans are young-earth creationists when it comes to humans.) Here Saeed is simply making false statements to buttress her bizarre ideas. What’s worse is that she willfully ignores the fact that her own faith sets back women’s rights and make sthe lives of Muslims subservient to the will of the mullahs. Such is the doublethink of Muslim apologists.
There is no reason for us to engage with Islamic theology beyond showing that it’s studying a nonexistent subject—and that it’s oppressive and pernicious as well. I, for one, don’t really want to spend a lot of time studying Al-Tulsi’s theory of evolution so long as Muslims are throwing acid in the face of schoolgirls, executing gays and imprisoning blasphemers, stoning adulterers, and giving women’s testimony in the courts only half the value of a man’s. Saeed’s religion is oppressive, retrogressive, and an impediment to free thinking. And it’s inimical to science, as we can see by its rejection of human evolution.
Yes, I know I’ve gone on too long about someone who doesn’t deserve the attention. But really, this was published in Salon. Have they no standards for publication, no requirement for clear and interesting writing, no need for coherent arguments? All they really want, it seems, are articles that bash atheists.