By now, you are all used to the headline style. Some online rag finds a religious defender who writes an article wholly unrelated to Richard Dawkins and anything he actually said or did, but leads in with a headline that screams his name like a cat in heat (and later in the article lists the other usual suspects) just to set up a big, fat strawman to rail against and gain clicks while ranting and spouting inanities.
Salon writer Sana Saeed; Muslim and budding Islamic apologist, has picked up this bad habit rather quickly in a rambling article whining against ‘New Atheists’ (as opposed to what? Old atheism? Did the ‘old’ atheists refer only to Zeus or something?) and claiming (through nothing but a one-person anecdotal story) that religion can’t possibly be in conflict with science because she liked science fairs as a kid or something.
Ok, Saeed ‘busts out’ a bit more than that. She also drags out the trope that Islam was once a vast center of science and culture (yes we know; then it entered into its own Dark Ages a bit later than we in the West did and began to spend lots of time blowing all that culture up. Today that trope is pretty irrelevant. Lets not forget that much of that science and philosophy was developed by Western slaves, servants and dhimmis in the ’employ’ of Islamic courts). Sure, there are shiny modern parts of the Middle East, and they are something to be rightfully proud of…and every one of them is modern in spite of Islam and big, fat targets for extremists everywhere. Then there is Turkey, a nation that had to ban Islam outright to achieve modernity.
Regardless, the idea here is a pretty common claim; that science actually owes its advances, if not its very existence to religion, and early scientists were all religious.
Well, so what? Budding proto-scientists had to be religious. There simply wasn’t any other choice in the Middle Ages, and new ways of thinking were just re-emerging. If you lived in the West in western science’s formative years you had to be a Catholic (or a Protestant in later ages, although for some time that was a death sentence if the authorities found out) and in the Eastern world one was more or less either Greek Orthodox Christian or of one of the Islamic sects. A few slaves and scattered communities of other faiths (and the Jewish people of course, and look how both cultures treated them) were exceptions that proved the rule. But original thinkers of all stripes were persecuted and killed by both religions, and when a coherent voice for atheism was formed, that too was immediately attacked and atheists were persecuted and even killed wherever they were found, right up to the enlightenment and beyond. The list of great men killed in the name of original inquiry by Christians is profoundly sad, but the number of nameless men and women not remembered in the timeline of history is truly appalling. Whole towns of original thinkers were slaughtered in the name of religion, such as the Cathers of the south of France. Whole nations were decimated by the missionaries and conquistadors. Whole cultures were converted by force, such as parts of Eastern Europe and the Mediterranean by Islam and Saxon tribes by Christians.
Science itself was of course, just beginning to develop its methods during the Middle Ages, after suffering a bit of a set-back since the Greeks and Romans began developing it. It disappeared almost entirely in Europe, replaced with secretive guilds that hoarded knowledge for the Church’s exclusive use, and the rote learning of fixed and officially-approved knowledge taught at universities (such as certain aspects of the blood circulation system which people could see for themselves was dead wrong every time a corpse was dissected. But to say so meant imprisonment, torture, death). All of this was controlled and regulated by the Church (Islamic universities were somewhat better but again, their ‘little set-back’ came later).
Italian universities for example, were strictly controlled; only teachers were allowed to even touch books from the Index of Forbidden Books, and could teach from them only to refute them. The inquisition strictly monitored both teachers and students, demonstrated by the fate of Pomponio Algerio (1531–1556), a civil law students who was killed by the inquisition for his attitude of free inquiry. In a time when early forms of Protestant movements were growing in number, he wrote that:
“… the Roman Catholic Church is a particular Church and no Christian should restrict himself to any particular Church. This Church deviates in many things from truth.”
At his trial, he wore his student’s robes to remind the Church that as a student, he was supposed to have the right to free expression. Apparently, the Church saw things differently. They boiled him in oil. It is said that he took 15 minutes to die, and kept his composure the whole time.
The point is that both in the West and in the East, people were in the middle of a process; a process of growing away from strictly religious thinking and towards a more secular world view. This left many people trapped in two worlds, so to speak. To say that these people were ‘Christian’ or ‘Islamic’ is to oversimplify what was happening. Many of these people had heretical ideas of what Christianity or Islam was all about. Others may have been outright unbelievers, but for the sake of their heads, they kept their silence. Still others were perfectly devout, but understood that religion alone couldn’t provide the answers to their inquiries, and that’s the key to understanding how one could be religious and still work in fields that conflict with religiosity. It’s the ability to compartmentalize different ways of thinking, just like an anti-capitalist can still operate in a capitalist society–because they have to.
Their really is a conflict between science and religion (of any kind), but religionists get it completely wrong by thinking of it in terms of a war or battle (like they always do when criticized). Its the claims that are in conflict, and it is the methods that the two fields use to come to those claims that are incompatible. Revealed knowledge can never arrive at any form of truth, save by accident. This is because, at the very least, it is impossible to verify the truth of what a ‘revealer’ says. A prophet could by lying, a faith-healer may be sincere but deluded, a visionary might have been on drugs and hallucinating at the time; we just cannot know, and without some real means of independent verification, revealed knowledge can never hold a candle to the scientific method, which does provide the means of independent verification, faith or no faith.
This isn’t to say that there are no actual battles that pit the two concepts against each other. Creationists are certainly waging an organized, high-stakes battle against evolution, and we fail to take this battle seriously at our peril. Christian Evangelists did a great deal to hold back stem cell research in the U.S. costing many lives and putting us behind other countries. I don’t need to talk about Catholics and Aids, and Islamic groups target schools all over the Middle East and Africa.
We certainly can’t wax all poetic and dream that both concepts sit all chummy and comfortable side-by-side, like the way that religious moderates like Saeed want to present the situation. When Saeed and people like her present their own stories and go on about how they don’t understand where this ‘conflict thesis’ comes from, they either don’t get the concept, or they are being intellectually dishonest. What they don’t get is that they are nobodies–completely irrelevant.
When adults talk about a complex situation, they often take verbal shortcuts by making generalizations. Both sides of the discussion; if they are being honest, understand this, and come to the table knowing what main terms and concepts mean. So when we say, “science and religion’ are in conflict, we understand that by ‘science’ and ‘religion’, we are talking about the leadership and powerful, influential members of a church or scientific institutions, or the claims made by many people from these disciplines, or any official doctrines or dogma that may be relevant, but not the rank and file and moderate nobodies, although there are plenty of nobodies that have no problem supporting extremists, and plenty of useful indoctrinated idiots willing to do the work of religious leaders for them; just recently, excavations from as late as the 17th century revealed the body of an astrologer stoned to death by an oh-so-moral mob after accusations of rape and black magic were leveled at an astrologer. This type of mob law (perpetrated overwhelmingly for moral and religious reasons) was far too common in the Middle Ages and often left unrecorded. It the main though, we are talking about the small group of people with the ability to directly shape their institutions. In the case of religion, overwhelmingly, these people embody the criticisms that New Atheists level at religion. Just look at Bill Donahue or Pat Robertson. Even the new Pope, for all his liberal ideas, is almost medieval in his thinking when it comes to the right to criticize religion.
So, if you are the type who goes around wailing about how atheists ‘have childish definitions of religion’, maybe you need to look a little closer to home. Unless they actually did provide a definition, it says more about you than it does about atheists when you are the one providing that definition by accusing others of having it. If you don’t ‘get’ the generalization, you don’t deserve a place at the table yet; go back to reading. At least atheists engage with the actual religious texts directly. It seems that ‘sophisticated theologians’ of any faith just make up whatever they feel like when an atheist is in the room and then returns to the definition of religion we all know damn well once they leave. All that ‘God’ is big and unknowable malarkey is just that. Neither Christians nor Muslims believe in Pantheism, and we all know it.
Getting back to science itself, Sana Saeed all out gushes about Islamic ‘science’ as if their ridiculous claims about science are somehow better than Christianity’s outlandish claims. For her big example, she makes much of Al-Tusi’s ‘theory’ of evolution, that denies that humans are related to apes and argues some kind of learned hereditary inheritance. She further writes of Al-Tusi’s theories:
“Al-Tusi’s discussion on biological evolution and the relationship of synchronicity between animate and inanimate 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?”
I propose that the West doesn’t ignore this theory out of Eurocentric considerations. Perhaps the West ignores Al-Tusi because his theories are a muddled mish-mash of unscientific woo mixed with mythology and stories of genies and elemental monsters. Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe Western scientists are just jealous and want to engage in a vast conspiracy to suppress religious-based science (a pretty good feat of cooperation when they are all competing against one another). But if you want to be taken seriously as science, one must play by the rules of the scientific method. If Al-Tusi ever used “observational precision” to see fire-monsters, I want to know how others can verify this (or a list of ingredients from his pipe!) There were many others who theorized that organisms evolved; both in the East and West. We don’t talk much about them because they were wrong and Darwin was right.
One last thing; Saeed makes a big point about how ‘free’ she is as a woman thanks to Islam. I would really like to see those “Quranic verses and references from the traditions of the Prophet Muhammad” that ‘prove’ that Islam doesn’t subjugate women. I followed the link she provided, and just found an article about her father where she once again references her ‘rights’ as a woman (ala the Quran, of course) without actually mentioning what those rights happen to be (why should you even need the Quran if they are rights?).