Monday, June 25, 2007

Science and Religion

by shamanic

For those of us who've followed the ongoing battle in the United States over (I can't even believe I have to write this in 2007) teaching evolution in schools and other war-against-sciencey items, there's a truly fascinating article in the current Discover Magazine on Science and Islam.

A brief history, for those who (like me) haven't seen the inside of a history classroom in a while: While Europe languished through the Dark Ages, the Islamic world was a beacon of knowledge and progress. Technology, astronomy, optics, and mathematics all thrived for centuries in the Islamic world, due in part to the conquest of territory and subsequent fusion of ideas stretching from East Africa and Europe to India, until around the 15th century. Wikipedia has more.

I'm going to pull two quotes from Todd Pitock's article. I'll also note that Pitock told me in e-mail that he "led with that [the fundamentalist approach to practicing science] precisely because it was interesting, and certainly to some extent representative, but it's still just one piece of the story." The first quote is from an Egyptian political scientist, lamenting what he sees as bad science from fundamentalists:
“This tendency to use their knowledge of science to ‘prove’ that the religious interpretations of life are correct is really corrupting,” he tells me. [Gamal] 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.”
The second is from a professor of chemistry at Cairo University who "does not consider himself an 'Islamic scientist'... He is a scientist who happens to be devout, one who sees science and religion as discrete pursuits."
What about, say, evolutionary biology or Darwinism? I ask. (Evolution is taught in Egyptian schools, although it is banned in Saudi Arabia and Sudan.) "If you are asking if Adam came from a monkey, no," [Waheed] Badawy responds. “Man did not come from a monkey. If I am religious, if I agree with Islam, then I have to respect all of the ideas of Islam. And one of these ideas is the creation of the human from Adam and Eve. If I am a scientist, I have to believe that."

But from the point of view of a scientist, is it not just a story? I ask. He tells me that if I were writing an article saying that Adam and Eve is a big lie, it will not be accepted until I can prove it.

"Nobody can just write what he thinks without proof. But we have real proof that the story of Adam as the first man is true.”

“What proof?”

He looks at me with disbelief: “It’s written in the Koran.”

In e-mail, Pitock warns against drawing conclusions about America's path because the circumstances that led to this state of affairs are so complicated and include so many moving parts. He notes that the governments in much of the Islamic world are so inept that it naturally fell to religious institutions to provide basic services like education, which is where science begins.

But I think this piece of the puzzle is actually what concerns me. With voucher proposals, home schooling, and privatization schemes, along with the eternal libertarian longing to abolish public education, our democracy has the option of picking a path not unlike the one that grew organically in a region once known for its intellectual excellence.

Of the second passage quoted above, Pitock tells me, "I have little doubt I could find a crank like that here -- just not one with millions of readers and viewers." At present, that may be true, but the Intelligent Design fight in Dover, Pa., and the anti-evolution stickers that were eventually thrown out in, for example, Cobb County, Ga., suggest an America that could tilt with relative ease in the direction that many scholars and scientists in Islamic nations are working desperately to move away from.

Case in point: The Discovery Institute, the think tank devoted to advancing Intelligent Design (or "God Did It! Biology") in America's classrooms and legislatures, is hailing the release of a new textbook called Explore Evolution: The Arguments For and Against Neo-Darwinism. The book's Web site proclaims "Explore Evolution is part of the continuing debate over Neo-Darwinism." The only problem here is that there really is no debate within science about the concept of evolution. Let me repeat that: among scientists, Darwin's theory of evolution is a fact. The evidence for evolution is absolutely overwhelming.

Pitock's article is a great exploration of the challenges that scientists face in Muslim nations and the ways that some have pushed the boundaries to advance scientific research there. But it's also a timely story for this generation of Americans, who have to choose once again whether to side with progress or with Biblical literalism. In a world increasingly defined by the speed of innovation, choosing even to stand still is to choose to move backward.

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