Why New Atheists Like Dawkins and Harris Are Dead Wrong
I’m supposed to hate science. Or so I’m told.
I spent my childhood with my nose firmly placed between the pages of books on reptiles, dinosaurs, marine life and mammals. When I wasn’t busy wondering if I wanted to be more like Barbara Walters or Nancy Drew, I was busy digging holes in my parents’ backyard hoping to find lost bones of some great prehistoric mystery. I spent hours sifting through rocks that could possibly connect me to the past or, maybe, a hidden crystalline adventure inside. Potatoes were both part of a delicious dinner and batteries for those ‘I got this’ moments; magnets repelling one another were a sorcery I needed to, somehow, defeat. The greatest teachers I ever had were Miss Frizzle and Bill Nye the Science Guy.
I also spent my childhood reciting verses from the Qur’an and a long prayer for everyone — in my family and the world — every night before going to bed. I spoke to my late grandfather, asking him to save me a spot in heaven. I went to the mosque and stepped on the shoes resting outside a prayer hall filled with worshippers. I tried fasting so I could be cool like my parents; played with prayer beads and always begged my mother to tell me more stories from the lives of the Abrahamic prophets.
With age, my wonder with religion and science did not cease. Both were, to me, extraordinary portals into the life around me that left me constantly bewildered, breathless and amazed.
Science would come to dominate my adolescent and early teenage years: papier mache cigarettes highlighting the most dangerous carcinogens, science fair projects on the virtues of chocolate consumption during menstruation; lamb lung and eye dissections, color coded notes, litmus tests on pretty papers, and disturbingly thorough study guides for five-question quizzes. My faith, too, remained operational in my day-to-day life: longer conversations with my late grandfather and all 30 Ramadan fasts, albeit with begrudging pre-dawn prayers. I attended Qur’anic recitation classes where I could not, for the life of me, recite anything that was not in English. I still read and listened to the stories of the prophets, with perhaps a greater sense of historical wonder and on occasion I would perform some of the daily prayers. Unsupervised access to the internet also led to the inevitable debates in Yahoo chat rooms about how Islam did not subjugate me as a woman. At the age of 16, I was busting out Quranic verses and references from the traditions of the Prophet Muhammad to shut up internet dwellers like Crusade563 and PopSmurf1967.
It never once occurred to me during those years, and later, that there could be any sort of a conflict between my faith and science; to me both were part of the same things: This universe and my existence within it.
And yet, here we are today being told that the two are irreconcilable; that religion begets an anti-science crusade and science pushes anti-religion valor. When did this become the only conversation on religion and science that we’re allowed to have?
This current discourse that pits faith and science against one another like Nero’s lions versus Christians — inappropriate analogy intended — borrows directly from the conflation of all religious traditions with the history and experience of Euro-American Christianity, specifically of the evangelical variety.
In my own religious tradition, Islam, there is a vibrant history of religion and science not just co-existing but informing one another intimately. Astrophysicists, chemists, biologists, alchemists, surgeons, psychologists, geographers, logicians, mathematicians -- amongst so many others -- would often function as theologians, saints, spiritual masters, jurists and poets as much as they would as scientists. Indeed, a quick survey of some of the most well known Muslim intellectuals of the past 1,400 years illustrates their masterful polymathy, their ability to reach across fields of expertise without blinking at any supposed “dissonance.” And, of course, this is not something exclusive to Islam; across the religious terrain we can find countless polymaths who delved into the worlds of God and science.
Despite the history of the intellectual output of, well, the whole rest of the world, contemporary discussions in this country on the relationship between science and religion take religion to consist solely, again, of Euro-American Evangelical Christianity. Thus “religious perspectives on human origins” are not really all that encompassing. Muslims, for instance, do not believe in Christian creationism and, actually, have differences on the nature of human origin. The Muslim creationism movement, headed by Turkish author and creationist activist Adnan Oktar (known popularly by the pseudonym Harun Yahya), is actually relatively recent and borrows much from Christian creationism – including even directly copied passages and arguments from anti-evolution Christian literature.
The absence of a centralized religious clergy and authority in Sunni Islam allows for individual and scholarly theological negotiation – meaning that there is not, necessarily, a “right” answer embedded in Divine Truth to social and political questions. Some of the most influential and fundamental Islamic legal texts are filled with arguments and counter-arguments which all come from the same source (divine revelation), just different approaches to it.
In other words: There’s plenty of wiggle room and then some. On anything that is not established as theological Truth (e.g. God’s existence, the finality of Prophethood, pillars and articles of faith), there is ample room for examination, debate and disagreement, because it does not undercut the fabric of faith itself.
Muslims, generally, accept evolution as a fundamental part of the natural process; they differ, however, on human evolution – specifically the idea that humans and apes share an ancestor in common. In the 13th century, Shi’i Persian polymath Nasir al-din al-Tusi discussed biological evolution in his book “Akhlaq-i-Nasri” (Nasirean Ethics). While al-Tusi’s theory of evolution differs from the one put forward by Charles Darwin 600 years later and the theory of evolution that we have today, he argued that the elemental source of all living things was one. From this single elemental source came four attributes of nature: water, air, soil and fire – all of which would evolve into different living species through hereditary variability. Hierarchy would emerge through differences in learning how to adapt and survive. Al-Tusi’s discussion on biological evolution and the relationship of synchronicity between animate and inanimate (how they emerge from the same source and work in tandem with one another) 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?
My point here in this conversation about religion and science’s falsely created incommensurability isn’t about the existence of God – I would like to think that ultimately there is space for belief and disbelief. I would like to also believe, however, that the conversation on belief and disbelief can move beyond the Dawkinsean vitriol that disguises bigotry as a self-righteous claim to the sanctity of science; a claim that makes science the proudly held property of the Euro-American civilization and experience.
Hoisted into popular culture by the Holy Trinity of Dawkins-Hitchens-Harris, New Atheism mirrors the very religious zealotry it claims is at the root of so much moral, political and social decay. In particular, these authors and their posse of followers have – as Nathan Lean characterized it in this publication back in March of last year – taken a particular penchant for “flirting with Islamophobia.” Instead of engaging with Islamic theology, New Atheists – the most prominent figurehead being Richard Dawkins – are more interested in ridiculing Muslims and Islam by employing the use of the same tired, racist talking points and images that situate Muslims in need of ‘enlightenment’ – or, salvation.
The Evangelical Christian Right is a formidable force to be reckoned with in American national politics; there are legitimate fears by believing, non-believing and non-caring Americans that the course of the nation, from women’s rights to education, can and will be significantly set back because of the whims of loud and large group of citizens who refuse to acknowledge certain facts and changing realities and want the lives of all citizens to be subservient to their own will. This segment of the world’s religious topography, however, does not represent Religion or, in particular, Religion’s relationship with science.
Religion is a vast historical experience between human communities, its individual parts, the environment and something Sacred that acts as that elemental glue between everything. Science and religion are not incommensurable – and it’s time we stop treating them like they are.