On Thursday 15th March 2018, iERA CEO Hamza Andreas Tzortzis was invited by the University of Southampton Islamic Society (ISOC) to deliver a lecture on whether ‘Science leads to Atheism’. The auditorium was packed with students, academics and people from the wider community. Many Muslims and non-Muslims were in attendance. iERA have been visiting the University of Southampton for a few years now and the experience has always been positive!
Hamza’s lecture focused on two main questions:
1. Does science lead to atheism?
2. Has religion killed religion?
Addressing the first question, Hamza explained that the assertion “science leads to atheism” is based on four false assumptions:
- Science is the only yardstick for truth
- Since science works, its conclusions must be true
- Science leads to certainty
- Adopting the non-scientific assumption of philosophical naturalism and misunderstanding methodological naturalism.
The fact that science does not lead to atheism, is attested by a majority of the philosophers of science. For example, Hugh Gauch correctly concludes: “insist that… science supports atheism is to get high marks for enthusiasm but low marks for logic.”[i] Gauch makes perfect sense because the method of thinking that relies on observation cannot deny what cannot be observed. What science can do, however, is stay silent on that matter or suggest evidence that someone can use to infer that God exists. To learn more how Hamza explained and broke down the above four assumptions during the video here:
The second question was addressed by expanding on c. above. Since scientific conclusions are inductive in nature, and inductive arguments do not lead to certainty, it follows that what we call scientific facts should not be considered absolute. There are no Moses tablets in science. There are, however, some things that we should not be sceptical about, such as the roundness of the Earth, the existence of gravity and the elliptical nature of orbits.
Many atheists mock religious scripture for its inability to represent the facts. There are many online and offline discussions on science and religious orthodoxy. Even mainstream television programmes host debates on religious perspectives on the natural world. However, in light of the discussion above, we have created a false dichotomy of religion versus science. It is not as simple as accepting one over the other.
Science is the application of reason to the natural world. It seeks to understand how the world works. The Qur’an also refers to natural phenomena, and inevitably there have been direct conflicts about scientific conclusions. When a conflict arises, there is no reason to panic or to deny the Quranic verse that is not in line with science; nor can anyone use this situation to claim that the Qur’an is wrong. To do so would be to assume that scientific conclusions are true in an absolute sense and will not change; this is patently false. History has shown that science revises its conclusions. Believing this does not make one anti-science. Imagine how much progress we would make if scientists were not allowed to challenge past conclusions: there would be none. Science is not a collection of eternal facts and was never meant to be.
Since there are good arguments to justify the Qur’an’s claim of being God’s word, then if the Qur’an conflicts with limited human knowledge it should not create massive confusion. Remember, God has the picture, we have just a pixel. Until the 1950s, all physicists, including Einstein, believed that the universe was eternal; all the data supported this, and this belief conflicted with the Qur’an. Yet the Qur’an explicitly states that the universe had a beginning. New observations using powerful advanced telescopes made physicists drop the ‘steady state’ model (eternal universe) and replace that with the Big Bang Model (universe with a beginning, possibly about 13.7 billion years ago). So, science came into line with the Qur’an. The same thing happened with the Quranic view of the sun. The Qur’an states that the sun has an orbit; astronomers disagreed, saying it was stationary. This was the most direct contradiction between observations of scientists and the Qur’an. However, after the discoveries of the Hubble telescope, astronomers revised their conclusions and found the Sun was orbiting around the centre of the Milky Way galaxy.
Yet this does not mean that the Qur’an is a book of science. It’s a book of signs. The Qur’an does not give any details concerning natural phenomena. Most of the things it refers to can be understood and verified with the naked eye. The main objective of verses that point towards the natural world is to expose a metaphysical power and wisdom. Their role does not include elucidating scientific details. These can change over time; however, the fact that natural phenomena have a power and wisdom behind them is a timeless reality. From this perspective, a conflict between the Qur’an and scientific conclusions will probably continue, as they are two completely different types of knowledge.
This discussion should not, however, encourage Muslims and religious people to deny scientific conclusions. To do so would be absurd. Rather, both well-confirmed scientific theories and the revelational truths should be accepted, even if they contradict each other. Scientific conclusions can be accepted practically as working models that can change and are not absolute, and the revelational truths can be accepted as part of one’s beliefs. If there is no hope of reconciling a scientific conclusion and a statement of the Qur’an, then you do not have to reject revelation and accept the science of the day. Conversely, the science should not be rejected either. As previously mentioned, it is within your epistemic right to accept both scientific and revelational truths. The balanced and nuanced approach concerning science and revelation is to accept the science and allow the evidence to speak for itself. However, this should be in the context of not making massive epistemic leaps of faith and concluding that the evidence we have acquired and the conclusions we have made are the gospel truth. Science can change. In addition, this approach includes accepting the revelation. In summary, we can accept scientific conclusions practically and as working models, but if anything contradicts revelation (after attempting to reconcile the two), you do not have to accept the scientific conclusion into your belief system. This is why Muslims should not need to deny Darwinian evolution; they can accept it practically as the current best-working model, but understand that some aspects of it cannot be reconciled with orthodoxy. Remember, just because something is the current best-working model, it is not the absolute truth.
The question and answer session was lively and friendly. Everyone was engaging with each other in the spirit of mutual respect and tolerance.
To learn how to share the message of Islam with compassion and reason, visit iera.org/training.
[i] Gauch, H. G, Jr. (2012) Scientific Method in Brief. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, p. 98.