It was just before Christmas, so Jerry Coyne’s latest article “Yes There is a War Between Science and Religion“ was right in time to ruin the festivities.
Somehow, I wasn’t surprised.
Coyne, the noted evolutionary biologist and atheist preacher, makes two essential claims:
Firstly, that while science sees faith as a vice, religion sees it as a virtue. Science is thus based on empiricism, while religion is based on “dogma, scripture and authority” and as such, only an irrational mind can hold both scientific and religious positions simultaneously.
Secondly, that religion has been rendered redundant by science since religion has never provided proof of its claims like science has, and because science successfully achieves what was previously the purview only of religion, namely “purpose, value and meaning”.
Is Coyne right?
Faith: A Virtue or a Vice?
Coyne’s first sin is to take us for fools. Like a lazy post-grad, he lumps together all religions into a simple Christian definition of faith as per St. Paul’s definition, that faith is: “The substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen” (Hebrews 11).
From an Islamic perspective, this is pure anathema since it describes nothing but a state of blind faith, and is denounced in the Quran numerous times. In fact, the Quran explicitly states that God is displeased with those who don’t make use of their reason.
Indeed, if faith is nothing more than what St. Paul has stated above, then yes, religion and science are fundamentally incompatible. Instead, the Prophet of Islam gave the following definition when asked, “what is faith?”
Tamim Dari relates that the Holy Prophet, peace and blessings of Allah be upon him, said: Faith is goodwill. We asked: Towards whom? He answered: Towards Allah, His Book, His Messenger, leading Muslims and the general public. (Sahih Muslim)
To reject a person making a claim to a religious experience, is to claim that they are either self-deluded or lying. To accept their testimony is to give them the benefit of the doubt that they may have experienced something beyond the scope of one’s own experience, and that they are rational, intelligent individuals who are neither self-deluded, nor lying. It is to show them “goodwill”.
The flip-side to this definition is also true – to be an atheist, one must believe that every person who has ever had a religious experience in human history (and that number surely runs into the billions) was either self-deluded, or a liar. There is no other option.
When we look at “Faith” through this definition, we see that it is not exclusive to religious belief. Faith is everywhere. Fathers trust in their wives and girlfriends that their children are truly theirs. Children similarly trust the word of their mothers as to who their fathers are. In fact, every single fact that is not individually empirically verified, is taken on the basis of faith or goodwill. This includes more than 99% of the things you think you “know”. And yes, that goes for scientists too. Scientists do not re-test every experiment of the past. How many scientists have personally tested all the foundational claims of their particular field?
From the perspective of trust then, science and religion do not contradict each other. Both use trust as the basis of belief, for both scientific and religious claims.
Where Science and Religion Do Differ
Religion and science do however diverge, in the arena of how one can empirically verify a religious or scientific claim. The Quran defines the separation of the two nicely:
Eyes cannot reach Him but He reaches the eyes. And He is the Incomprehensible, the All-Aware. (Qur’an 6:104)
“Eyes cannot reach God” because He is “Incomprehensible”. Since science is based on observation, scientific observation can never give definitive empirical proof that God exists, because God lies outside the realm of physical observation. Materialists like Coyne would stop here and say “Well there you go – they say it themselves! How can God be believed in if you can’t measure, test and observe God?” The answer comes in the next statement: “He reaches the eyes” because God is “All-Aware” of who is seeking Him. And how does God reach the eyes? At one level, through manifesting his effect on the physical world around us. Hence the well-known arguments from causality and design. But at another, much higher level, God manifests himself to the souls of those who seek Him. He gives them powerful spiritual experiences, and to His Prophets, he gives them prophecies that confirm His reality.
That, fundamentally, is the difference in the methodology of science and religion. Science is about systematically observing and recording material phenomena. Religion is a system of calling God to manifest Himself. Thus, while science uses the tools of observation, measurement and calibration to ensure the reliability of observations, religion makes use of tools such as humility, prayer, charity, good deeds – all actions intended to please God, and thereby attract God’s manifestation.
The fundamental difference is in the nature of scientific and religious truths. God is not like His Creation and so we shouldn’t expect the same approach to be applicable. You don’t use a thermometer to test blood pressure and you don’t use a stethoscope to assess a bone fracture. For as Hazrat Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, the Founder of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, writes: can a person see with their ears or hear with their tongue? One who insists on truth being attainable through a particular means is foolish. Why insist on entering a house through the roof when there is a door?
Has Science Rendered Religion Obsolete?
Coyne obfuscates this by taking the best face of science and contrasting it with the worst face of religion. He presents scientific establishments as bastions of rationality, reason and equity. He doesn’t tell you about the “replication crisis” in science. He doesn’t tell you about the New Sokal Hoax, where three scholars deliberately had seven papers accepted for publication in peer-reviewed science journals, by using fashionable jargon to argue for ridiculous conclusions. And what about the experiment done by two Cambridge scientists who took already published journal articles by prestigious authors in their field, changed their names to more ordinary ones and re-submitted them, resulting in their rejection by 90% of peer-reviewers for containing “serious methodological flaws”. And what about the failure of the peer-review process as related to Wakefield’s fraudulent publication in the Lancet (one of the world’s most prestigious medical journals), arguing that the MMR vaccine and autism are causally related, resulting in the death of children worldwide?
Where is Coyne’s “reliability”, “empiricism” and “rigour” now?
Coyne should realise that wherever humans exist and in whatever field of activity they pursue, “dogma, scripture and authority” will always be there. Because humans are flawed. That goes for religion, and that goes for science. If Coyne wants to be taken seriously in his critique of religion, then he should assess the validity of real, authentic religious claims, not by straw-manning religious belief as “blind faith” and then arguing against it.
For example, he (wrongly) speaks of Plato as an atheistic philosopher, but says nothing of the father of Western philosophy, Socrates, his teacher, who in Plato’s own writings claimed divine revelation and is seen by many Muslims both past and present as God’s prophet to the Greeks. Why? Or what does he have to say about a more modern religious figure, Hazrat Mirza Ghulam Ahmad and his prophecy in 1905, three years before his death, of an approaching unprecedented, worldwide calamity as a result of which, in his words, “even the Czar of Russia… will be in a pitiable state”?
And here’s the nub of it. If Coyne’s critique of the religious methodology is to be taken seriously, then he needs to undertake the experiment himself. What would Coyne say of a religious person who neither accepts the scientific consensus on climate science but also refuses to undertake the experiments themselves? What difference is there between such a person and an atheist like Coyne who refuses to accept the testimony of common religious experience, and yet refuses to undertake the methodologies different religions propound, so as to test their claims? Different religions offer different experimental methods. It is for the individual to test their claims and see whether their purported benefits manifest themselves.
After all, a truly rational sceptic puts even those ideas and theories that they are most sceptical about, to a deliberate and honest test.
About the Author
Syed Muhammad Tahir Nasser is a writer, moonlighting as a medical doctor. He also serves as the science editor for the Review of Religions (one of the oldest English-language magazines on comparative religions), writes for national and online media, and is a speaker on University lecture circuits on issues relating to Muslim youth and Islam in the modern world. He has written for the Huffington Post, Patheos and the Guardian.