Since Yahoo! News reprinted my essay from The Conversation arguing that science and religion are incompatible, I’ve been getting lots of emails, nearly all from people who disagree with me. The accommodationists are, of course, religionists, and don’t like to hear that their faith puts them at odds with science. Many of them, like the reader below, also takes atheism to task. I’ve redacted this writer’s name because, unlike the Vatican Vice Astronomer, I don’t think the name is relevant.
This correspondent tries to make two points. First, Islam is not nearly as strongly at odds with science as is Christianity. Second, that religion gives us a moral framework but atheism doesn’t. Both points are wrong, and I’ll respond to each separately. The quotes the writer gives within his/her email are put in italics and quotation marks, for the “extra indent” feature isn’t working right now.
Read and weep:
Thank you for the article Yes, there is a war between science and religion. There are two reasons why I would argue that the article reflects atheism in denial of its own shortcomings. You write
“In the end, it’s irrational to decide what’s true in your daily life using empirical evidence, but then rely on wishful-thinking and ancient superstitions to judge the ‘truths’ undergirding your faith. This leads to a mind (no matter how scientifically renowned) at war with itself, producing the cognitive dissonance that prompts accommodationism. If you decide to have good reasons for holding any beliefs, then you must choose between faith and reason. And as facts become increasingly important for the welfare of our species and our planet, people should see faith for what it is: not a virtue but a defect.”
Here you are clearly extrapolating your own experiences with Christian apologists to followers of other religions: in particular Islam. I’d argue that Muslims have no need for “wishful-thinking and ancient superstitions” when forming a judgement about the reliability of their religion. It is common for atheists to assume that the conflicts between the Bible and scientific evidence (e.g. the descriptions of the Flood, the Exodus or age of the earth) applies equally to the Quran. However, to my knowledge there has been no serious scholarly effort to support this assumption or more generally to show that the Quranic accounts and claims are in conflict with what we have learned through science.
For example, a reading of the Quranic account of the Flood would reveal that it occurred over a short period (a couple of days), the animals preserved were only those required to support a small human settlement and there is no mention of the whole earth being flooded. In regard to the Exodus, the Moses leads a small group of people into the desert, much less in number than the Pharaoh’s pursuing army, so one would not expect to find evidence of over 1 million people roaming the desert for 40 years. In addition, the Quran predicts the preservation of the Pharaoh’s body for future generations. Finally while there is no mention of the Earth’s age, there is a description of the creation of the universe which appears consistent with what we’ve been able to learn through science.
So I think its fair to say that atheists have a lot more work to do to make their case than many are prepared to acknowledge.
The email went on, but let me stop and respond:
As I pointed out in an email to this person, there is a growing literature on the incompatibility of science and Islam. Here’s how I responded when the person asked for even one piece of literature pointing out an Islamic incompatibility between science and faith.
First, there’s Taner Edis’s book (click on screenshot):
Another book by Pakistani physicist Pervez Hoodbhoy on the stifling of scientific thought and rationality by modern Islam (and how that contrasts with the faith’s more open attitude centuries ago).
An article from Discover Magazine (click on screenshot:
A quote from the article:
“This tendency [of Muslim accommodationists] to use their knowledge of science to ‘prove’ that the religious interpretations of life are correct is really corrupting,” he tells me. Soltan, who got his doctorate at the University of Northern Illinois, works in a small office that’s pungent with tobacco smoke; journals and newspapers lie stacked on his desk and floor. “Their methodology is bad,” he says. Soltan explains that Islamic scientists start with a conclusion (the Koran says the body has 360 joints) and then work toward proving that conclusion. To reach the necessary answer they will, in this instance, count things that some orthopedists might not call a joint. “They’re sure about everything, about how the universe was created, who created it, and they just need to control nature rather than interpret it,” Soltan adds. “But the driving force behind any scientific pursuit is that the truth is still out there.”
“Researchers who don’t agree with Islamic thinking ‘avoid questions or research agendas’ that could put them in opposition to authorities — thus steering clear of intellectual debate. In other words, if you are a scientist who is not an Islamic extremist, you simply direct your work toward what is useful. Scientists who contradict the Koran ‘would have to keep a low profile.”’When pressed for examples, Soltan does not elaborate.”
I talk about this kind of Islamic confirmation bias in Faith Versus Fact. It’s pervasive and at once annoying and amusing.
I’ve personally encountered Qur’anic opposition to science—and especially evolution—many times, as has Richard Dawkins. It often comes in the form, as Pitock notes, of saying that the Qur’an is remarkably prescient about science, with its human creation myth coincident with the evolutionary scenario. If you think that’s true, just read about the Qur’anic account itself. Page 105 of Faith versus Fact shows the desperate lengths that some Muslim scientists go to comport science with the Qur’an.
The resistance of Islam to evolution is not, of course, universal, even within Muslim countries. Surprisingly, Iran doesn’t seem to have much of a problem with evolution being taught in its schools, while Iraq, on the other hand, has always had problems teaching evolution, and has dropped it from secondary-school curricula. Turkey, increasingly becoming a theocracy, did the same thing a few years ago.
The problem comes because many Muslims are Qur’anic literalists. Here are two plots from a 2012 Pew Poll: the first on the proportion of people in (mostly African) Muslim-majority countries who think the Qur’an should be read literally, and then the proportion of people in different Muslim-majority countries who accept evolution. Note that countries like Yemen, Iran, Afghanistan, and Saudi Arabia were not surveyed.
Then my correspondent goes on about morality:
The second way in which the article highlights atheist denialism an shortcomings, is in failing to tackling the issue of morality. What are the consequences of a world where ‘moral judgements’ are mere ‘value judgements’ to be decided by each individual. Magnas Bradshaw’s From Humanism to Nihilism: The Eclipse of Secular Ethics (CMC Papers, No. 6) addresses this question. One the one hand we have the teachings of New Atheism, such as Richard Dawkins who writes “‘the universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is at bottom no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but pointless indifference’.” and Francis Crick who is even more explicit, “you, your joys and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behaviour of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules… ‘‘you’re nothing but a pack of neurons’’.”
On the other hand we have its practitioners, the rationalists, those who take this stuff seriously, such as Ted Bundy, trained lawyer and serial killer, who reasons thus
Then I learned that all moral judgments are ‘value judgments’, that all value judgments are subjective, and that none can be proved to be either ‘right’ or ‘wrong’. I even read somewhere that the Chief Justice of the United States had written that the American Constitution expressed nothing more than collective value judgments. Believe it or not, I figured out for myself – what apparently the Chief Justice couldn’t figure out for himself – that if the rationality of one value judgment was zero, multiplying it by millions would not make it one whit more rational. Nor is there any ‘reason’ to obey the law for anyone, like myself, who has the boldness and daring – the strength of character – to throw off its shackles…I discovered that to become truly free, truly unfettered, I had to become truly uninhibited. And I quickly discovered that the greatest obstacle to my freedom, the greatest block and limitation to it, consists in the insupportable ‘value judgment’ that I was bound to respect the rights of others. I asked myself, who were these ‘others’? Other human beings, with human rights? Why is it more wrong to kill a human animal than any other animal, a pig or a sheep or a steer? Is your life more to you than a hog’s life to a hog? Why should I be willing to sacrifice my pleasure more for the one than for the other? Surely you would not, in this age of scientific enlightenment, declare that God or nature has marked some pleasures as ‘moral’ or ‘good’ and others as ‘immoral’ or ‘bad’? That is the honest conclusion to which my education has led me – after the most conscientious examination of my spontaneous and uninhibited self
Bundy’s reasoning is impeccable and based on the teachings of atheists. “Why is it more wrong to kill a human animal than any other animal?” or, “Why shouldn’t Trump tear down the institutions supporting U.S. democracy if he wants?”. Care to answer?
Yes, of course I could answer, but would this person listen? Not a snowball’s chance in hell! But wait! There’s more!
Atheism is leaving people with no guidance on how they should conduct themselves, and what they should expect from others. That’s the reality. And logically, that is what one would expect when people do not believe in a soul capable of oppressing itself through its oppression of others or even simply contemplating words of repentance and aspiration such as : “You that turn stones to gold.. change me.”(Rumi). If you want to claim that such notions are the result of “wishful-thinking and ancient superstitions” then first offer the scholarly work that demonstrates that the Quran is indeed incompatible with what we have learned through science, and hence unreliable.
Where to start here? First of all, neither Dawkins nor Crick would deny that there is a morality that can be derived from humanism; Dawkins, as well as his colleagues Dan Dennett and Anthony Grayling, have been quite explicit on this point. Indeed, unless you’re one of the few “moral objectivists”, even religious morality must come from “value judgements.” This is the crux of the Euthyphro argument: if you say that God is good, and wouldn’t give us bad moral guidance, you are assuming there are criteria for “good” and “bad” that are independent of God. (Theologians such as William Craig, who adhere to “divine command theory which stipulates that God is the sole determinant of good, are exceptions, and their morality isn’t so hot anyway. Craig doesn’t oppose the many genocides in the Old Testament, since God ordered them.) Even religious moral judgments, then, are almost always based on “value judgments”. But so what? Different judgments have different consequences for society. You can, for example, be a utilitarian, and base your morality on what acts will do the most good or cause the least harm. Other criteria lead to other moralities, but all of them are superior to the “morality” of the Catholic Church or Islam.
Further, there is a long history of writing and philosophy on secular ethics and morality, beginning with the Greeks, extending through Kant and Hume down to Rawls, Russell, and Grayling in modern times. It is not at all true that atheists haven’t grappled with the problem or morality. To use Ted Bundy as a secular arbiter of morality is simply ridiculous!
And, of course, humanistic morality is far superior to religious morality. The latter has given us things like dictates about genital cutting, the oppression of women and gays, the diktat to kill apostates and infidels, the terrorizing of children with thoughts of hell, the abnegation of modern medicine (Christian science and other faith-healing sects), the prohibition of divorce and regulations about how to have sex and when, and the propagandizing of innocent children, who get turned into little Amish people or Orthodox Jews, deprived of opportunity and education—all because of religious morality.
When I reread the email above, I realized that the writer hadn’t really investigated the rich tradition of secular ethics, and was also woefully—and perhaps willfully—ignorant of what many Muslims think about science. I’m not sure why, but I did write him/her a summary of what I’ve said above.
You should feel free yourself to address the writer’s remarks, and I’ll call that person’s attention to this thread tomorrow.