RELIGION AND SCIENCE: TACKLING COVID-19 WITH SYNERGY

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By: Yusuf Abdullah

The germ of this article developed from a comical art I saw recently in the course of this Covid-19 pandemonium. The artiste depicted the representatives of the two major world religions, namely, Christianity and Islam, looking on morosely from a backseat position while the representative of science- a man in a lab coat- competently took the wheel in an effort to steer humanity out of the current crisis. The message was clear: religionists retreat behind the fence of timidity and leave scientists to bell the cat in times of crises. The said graphic was displayed on a friend’s WhatsApp status and it elicited within me a mixture of pity and embarrassment. I couldn’t help keying in the reply tray: “Do they have to be rivals?”

Despite the comical tone of the graphic, it reveals a widespread, deep-seated perception about religion and its place in a world increasingly dominated by science and its accoutrements. This perception, I must say, is a perversion that emerged from the confusion of equating the aggregate of religious figures with religion on the one hand, and science with scientists harbouring atheistic prejudices on the other. The sensational quality is heightened by the conditioning of religion as a wholly superstitious phenomenon and the deliberate massaging of media information to highlight only those aspects where religion seems to be at odds with science.

The blame for this invidious characterisation of religion does not rest at the feet of scientists alone. It must also be admitted, frankly, that the conduct of certain religionists in matters involving the use of reason and common sense when faced with hard facts, leaves much to be desired. The blatant violations being committed by many religious institutions against government restriction on public gathering as a measure to curb the spread of the Covid-19 disease, in the name of worship, is one of the many instances of a disservice to religion by its adherents.

This muddling up calls for an understanding of religion and science and the identification of their respective domains. Further, a distinction should be made between the identities of men wielding religious authority and religion itself; between science and representatives of the scientific community; and lastly, between true religion and false religion. When this has been done, it will be easy to recognize religion for what it is and science for its essence and to be able to explore what gains can be reaped from the complemental fusion of the two.

RELIGION: the Oxford Dictionary defines religion as the belief in and worship of a superhuman controlling power, especially a personal God or gods.1

It is often argued that there is no definition of religion that will satisfy a universal conception as it applies in all cultures. Records that date as far back as 5000 years ago, when writing was invented, identify ancient cultures with a system of moral codes and rites aimed towards establishing a relationship with the Supernatural. While the understanding of religion may vary from culture to culture, it is enough that the thrust of religion is essentially a distinction between God and man, with a view to glorifying and establishing a relationship with Him through a system of rites called worship.

SCIENCE as defined by the Oxford Dictionary is the intellectual and practical activity encompassing the systematic study of the structure and behaviour of the physical and natural world through observation and experiment.2

Science as an enterprise has survived for more than 5000 years, since Ancient Egypt. It embraces a broad spectrum of disciplines and has passed through several stages of evolution to become what it is today. The most notable contributors to the scientific enterprise include: the Ancient Egyptians, the Greeks, the Muslims and the Westerners.

From the foregoing definitions, we can tell that religion is primarily concerned with the relationship between man and God while the domain of science is the natural world. The characterization of religion and science in terms of ‘conflict’, ‘harmony’, and ‘interdependence’ did not occur until the scientific revolution when science began to take a more prominent role in shaping cultures. This is partly due to the fact that religion and science, as understood in earlier times, are quite different from the way they are understood in modern times. Both are complex social and cultural endeavours that vary across cultures and change over time. Each remained in its domain and served its need.

Reason and empiricism, the primary instruments of science, are upheld by many religious traditions, although with the understanding that the domain of religion is broader. Where science can explore no further, religion takes over. Spiritual knowledge which springs from religious belief is accorded a higher place than knowledge arising from physical observation because of the obvious limitation of sensory perception. In fact, religious societies played a pivotal role in advancing scientific innovations in the pre-scientific revolution era.

It would be tedious to enumerate all the instances when science flourished under the patronage of religion. However, the advances made in science during the Islamic Golden Age stand out because it was a civilization in itself and science played a very crucial role in its development. It is even interesting to note that the person credited with the formalization of the scientific method, Roger Bacon, was a Franciscan Friar.

The misconception prevalent these days that science and religion have always been in conflict is the work of contemporary scientists with atheistic prejudices, prominent among whom are: Richard Dawkins, Lawrence Krauss, and Peter Atkins. The archetypal historical reference for their conflict thesis is the Galileo affair. While it is true that Galileo was a victim of religious opposition, this attitude of religious opposition to scientific observation never held true for all religions, nor did it mean that the explorations of all scientists led them to the inevitable conclusion that there is no God. The Galileo affair was a specific episode of resistance by a dogmatic religious order, namely the Catholic Church against scientific discovery. Moreover, there were to be others after him who suffered similarly but who remained unwavering in their belief in a Transcendental Deity, despite their rejection of the Catholic Church dogma. Isaac Newton figures prominently on the list.

Put in another way, it has always been a conflict between false religious conceptions and intellectual liberty, and the primary culprits are the men who employ religious authority to suppress scientific exploration and discovery. 

RELIGION AND MEN OF RELIGION

Just like all instruments that are subject to abuse, religion can be employed for righteous or unrighteous purposes. More often than not, religion is itself a victim of human manipulation when it falls into the wrong hands.

Religion in its pristine form is to be encountered at the hands of men raised by God for the purpose of reforming the people they are sent to. They are paragons of modesty and refinement. Their advent, as evidenced from the study of history, opens avenues for development because the teachings they bring accord with human nature and consequently puts their followers at an advantage over their adversaries. That is why the names of the Great Prophets such as Abraham, Moses, Jesus, and Muhammad have survived until today on the lips of the generations that inherited their legacies. With their teachings, they raise people from the depths of depravity to the pinnacles of refinement. It is after their demise that opportunists take over their hard-earned legacies and turn religion into a tool of deception.

 The majority of faults attributed to religion can be traced to men who pervert religious teachings for ego and personal gains. The primary purpose of religion is to entrench belief in God and instruct men on morals, while promoting the utilization of the faculties and resources bestowed by God for the progress of mankind. It is unthinkable that God would create man, adorn him with intelligence and yet stifle his intellectual growth without rhyme or reason.

Therefore, whenever religion is observed to have deviated from the aforestated purpose, the blame lies with men and not religion.

 SCIENCE AND CONTEMPORARY SCIENTISTS

Science is a heritage of the whole of humanity. It is an accretion of many generations of exploration and discovery. While the loudest voices in the scientific community today seem to be those of the atheists, it would be scandalous to wipe out the profound contributions of several generations of men who promoted the scientific enterprise and yet remained under strong religious influence.

It is instructive that even though many among the heroes of Western science, notably Isaac Newton, Albert Einstein and Charles Darwin (Yes, Darwin!) drifted from their original beliefs as regards God. Isaac Newton remained an avowed theist (though an unconventional one in his time) throughout his life, and the rest remained somewhere in between, never completely rejecting God as do contemporary high priests of atheism who are wont to preach that faith in God and belief in science cannot be accommodated in the same mind.4,5,6 Their withdrawal from religion, I suspect, was due to their revulsion with false and inconsistent religious beliefs prevalent in their time. Who knows what their attitude would have been if they had encountered the right religion? Perhaps they would have seen the light.

TRUE RELIGION AND FALSE RELIGION

The subject of true versus false religion is controversial enough to call for a large volume of book. It is arguably the most debated topic in the ring of religious contest, since most religionists, by default, assume an exclusivist stance regarding their faiths. But this write-up is not a polemic targeted at any particular belief. Its aim is to highlight the fact that not all those who hold the banner of religion are its true representatives.  There are certain qualities which a true religion should possess, among which are:

  1. Noncontradiction- true religion should be free from all elements of internal and external contradiction. The word of God must not conflict with the act of God, neither should it conflict with itself.
  2. Harmony with nature- the prescriptions of religion should not be at odds with human nature. It should promote good living and the proper use of human faculties.
  3. True religion should be based on sound moral principles and practicable laws.

From the explanation made so far, we can tell that science and religion are different endeavours that pertain to separate aspects of human social, intellectual and cultural involvement. Both are instruments with distinct areas of primary concern:  science is an intellectual endeavour serving physical needs while religion is more of a socio-cultural endeavour serving moral and spiritual needs. Since science cannot address all the complex social, moral and psychological needs of man, it should not be contemplated as a substitute for religion. True religion, likewise, should not suppress the quest for discovery.

The conflict arises mostly when religion is hijacked and perverted by a misguided clergy that worships its ego and lacks the wisdom to interpret the wonders of God. It stifles seemingly faith-shattering discovery owing to the fear of being stripped of the sway it holds over the people, thus limiting the blessings that can be reaped from science.

I endeavour now to explore the topic further from an Islamic standpoint.

ISLAM ON SCIENCE

The primary source of knowledge that forms the basis of all legislation in Islam is the Holy Qur’an. All attitudes, injunctions, beliefs and observances within the domain of Islamic practice spring from it. It is believed by Muslims that Islam represents the consummation of religion and that the Holy Qur’an is the unalloyed word of God. This being so, the most authentic and consistent information about the universe should be derivable from it.

It should be expected that if the religion of Islam has any relationship with science, the Holy Qur’an should have much to say on it. It should be able to instruct as well as enlighten because it is the word of the Creator to His creation. No better manual of creation should exist than the one proceeding from the Creator. With so many expectations to fulfil, does Islam fulfil these expectations?

Definitely, it does!

The Holy Qur’an specifically instructs mankind to explore nature and feast their eyes on the marvels of creation:

اِنَّ فِیۡ خَلۡقِ السَّمٰوٰتِ وَ الۡاَرۡضِ وَ اخۡتِلَافِ الَّیۡلِ وَ النَّہَارِ لَاٰیٰتٍ لِّاُولِی الۡاَلۡبَابِ ﴿۱۹۱

Translation: “In the creation of the heavens and the earth and in the alternation of the night and the day there are indeed Signs for men of understanding”; [Qur’an, 3:191]

الَّذِیۡ خَلَقَ سَبۡعَ سَمٰوٰتٍ طِبَاقًا ؕ مَا تَرٰی فِیۡ خَلۡقِ الرَّحۡمٰنِ مِنۡ تَفٰوُتٍ ؕ فَارۡجِعِ الۡبَصَرَ ۙ ہَلۡ تَرٰی مِنۡ فُطُوۡرٍ ﴿۴

Translation: “Who has created seven heavens in harmony. No incongruity canst thou see in the creation of the Gracious God. Then look again: Seest thou any flaw?” [Qur’an, 67:4,5]

These injunctions carry a tone of certitude that the exploration of the universe will always redound to the credit of its Creator.

The scientific attitude which seems so novel and exclusive to modern science did not begin with the scientific revolution, but has been a standard set by the Holy Qur’an for the acceptance or rejection of claims. The entrenchment of the culture of evidence-based argumentation in a bid to eliminating conjecture and superstition is a hallmark of the Islamic faith. It is a common feature of the Qur’an to adduce or require proof to back up a point or to condemn baseless assumptions, as borne out in these passages:

وَ لَا تَقۡفُ مَا لَیۡسَ لَکَ به علم

Translation: And follow not that of which thou hast no knowledge. [Qur’an, 17:37]

 قُلۡ ہَاتُوۡا بُرۡہَانَکُمۡ اِنۡ کُنۡتُمۡ صٰدِقِیۡن

Translation : Say: ‘Produce your proof, if you are truthful.’ [Qur’an, 2:112]

The standardization of this attitude of investigation stressed by the Holy Qur’an is what gave birth to the scientific method. So long as the primary domain of science remains the exploration of the natural world with a view to deriving useful knowledge, and employing the knowledge so gained for the benefit of mankind, it will always find in Islam a collaborator. The only enemy is an undiscriminating science that seeks to demolish all moral and religious values at the altar of intellectual liberty. In such a case religion? Perhaps they would have seen the light.

TRUE RELIGION AND FALSE RELIGION

The subject of true versus false religion is controversial enough to call for a large volume of book. It is arguably the most debated topic in the ring of religious contest, since most religionists, by default, assume an exclusivist stance regarding their faiths. But this write-up is not a polemic targeted at any particular belief. Its aim is to highlight the fact that not all those who hold the banner of religion are its true representatives.  There are certain qualities which a true religion should possess, among which are:

  1. Noncontradiction- true religion should be free from all elements of internal and external contradiction. The word of God must not conflict with the act of God, neither should it conflict with itself.
  2. Harmony with nature- the prescriptions of religion should not be at odds with human nature. It should promote good living and the proper use of human faculties.
  3. True religion should be based on sound moral principles and practicable laws.

From the explanation made so far, we can tell that science and religion are different endeavours that pertain to separate aspects of human social, intellectual and cultural involvement. Both are instruments with distinct areas of primary concern:  science is an intellectual endeavour serving physical needs while religion is more of a socio-cultural endeavour serving moral and spiritual needs. Since science cannot address all the complex social, moral and psychological needs of man, it should not be contemplated as a substitute for religion. True religion, likewise, should not suppress the quest for discovery.

The conflict arises mostly when religion is hijacked and perverted by a misguided clergy that worships its ego and lacks the wisdom to interpret the wonders of God. It stifles seemingly faith-shattering discovery owing to the fear of being stripped of the sway it holds over the people, thus limiting the blessings that can be reaped from science.

I endeavour now to explore the topic further from an Islamic standpoint.

ISLAM ON SCIENCE

The primary source of knowledge that forms the basis of all legislation in Islam is the Holy Qur’an. All attitudes, injunctions, beliefs and observances within the domain of Islamic practice spring from it. It is believed by Muslims that Islam represents the consummation of religion and that the Holy Qur’an is the unalloyed word of God. This being so, the most authentic and consistent information about the universe should be derivable from it.

It should be expected that if the religion of Islam has any relationship with science, the Holy Qur’an should have much to say on it. It should be able to instruct as well as enlighten because it is the word of the Creator to His creation. No better manual of creation should exist than the one proceeding from the Creator. With so many expectations to fulfil, does Islam fulfil these expectations?

Definitely, it does!

The Holy Qur’an specifically instructs mankind to explore nature and feast their eyes on the marvels of creation:

اِنَّ فِیۡ خَلۡقِ السَّمٰوٰتِ وَ الۡاَرۡضِ وَ اخۡتِلَافِ الَّیۡلِ وَ النَّہَارِ لَاٰیٰتٍ لِّاُولِی الۡاَلۡبَابِ ﴿۱۹۱

Translation: “In the creation of the heavens and the earth and in the alternation of the night and the day there are indeed Signs for men of understanding”; [Qur’an, 3:191]

الَّذِیۡ خَلَقَ سَبۡعَ سَمٰوٰتٍ طِبَاقًا ؕ مَا تَرٰی فِیۡ خَلۡقِ الرَّحۡمٰنِ مِنۡ تَفٰوُتٍ ؕ فَارۡجِعِ الۡبَصَرَ ۙ ہَلۡ تَرٰی مِنۡ فُطُوۡرٍ ﴿۴

Translation: “Who has created seven heavens in harmony. No incongruity canst thou see in the creation of the Gracious God. Then look again: Seest thou any flaw?” [Qur’an, 67:4,5]

These injunctions carry a tone of certitude that the exploration of the universe will always redound to the credit of its Creator.

The scientific attitude which seems so novel and exclusive to modern science did not begin with the scientific revolution, but has been a standard set by the Holy Qur’an for the acceptance or rejection of claims. The entrenchment of the culture of evidence-based argumentation in a bid to eliminating conjecture and superstition is a hallmark of the Islamic faith. It is a common feature of the Qur’an to adduce or require proof to back up a point or to condemn baseless assumptions, as borne out in these passages:

وَ لَا تَقۡفُ مَا لَیۡسَ لَکَ به علم

Translation: And follow not that of which thou hast no knowledge.  [Qur’an, 17:37]

 قُلۡ ہَاتُوۡا بُرۡہَانَکُمۡ اِنۡ کُنۡتُمۡ صٰدِقِیۡن

Translation: ‘Say: ‘Produce your proof, if you are truthful.’ [Qur’an, 2:112]

The standardization of this attitude of investigation stressed by the Holy Qur’an is what gave birth to the scientific method. So long as the primary domain of science remains the exploration of the natural world with a view to deriving useful knowledge, and employing the knowledge so gained for the benefit of mankind, it will always find in Islam a collaborator. The only enemy is an undiscriminating science that seeks to demolish all moral and religious values at the altar of intellectual liberty. In such a case religion will have to step in as a chaperone to guide the hand of science so that it doesn’t witlessly proceed on a mission of self-destruction.

With the scientists battling it out in the field of virological and epidemiological research against the common enemy- COVID-19- that is holding the entirety of humanity to ransom, we wish to offer them our sincerest assurances that we are committed to the same cause and that the success of the entire endeavour is still hinged on the grace of God. And we shall not cease to invoke His grace, because in it lies our collective hope.

References

1. Oxford, Religion, Oxford, viewed 14 April 2020, https://www.lexico.com/en/definition/religion

2. Oxford, Science, Oxford, accessed 14 April 2020, https://www.lexico.com/en/definition/science

3. Sir Isaac Newton, The Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy, vol. 2. London, 1729, p. 389-391.

4. G. Viereck. Glimpses of the Great. New York: Macauley, 1930, p. 372-373.

5. Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 12041,” accessed on 22 April 2020, https://www.darwinproject.ac.uk/letter/DCP-LETT-12041.xml

 

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