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Do We Need Another So-Called Holy War: Religion vs. Science

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According to the teachings of Islam, God has sent us 124,000 prophets so far and none of them claimed to be a scientist. Some of them, like Muhammad, were even utterly illiterate. He, Moses, or Jesus did not tell any believer who complained about a disease to seek medical treatment or go to see a doctor. Believers simply relied on the power of prayer and healing by faith. There are plenty of Hadiths in Islam recommending that followers seek faith-based healing. Even today, poll after poll shows that many people believe that faith and prayers help patients to recover from their illnesses, despite the fact that there has not been any convincing evidence proving their effectiveness. On the contrary, there are many documented cases of children suffering serious harm, even death, because of their parent's refusal to seek medical treatment for them and chose instead to solely rely on prayer for healing. I am suspect of the accuracy of these polls because I think most people do not reveal their true opinion when it comes to religious beliefs. I think this is especially true in Islamic countries where there is such a heavy stigma attached to being labeled as a non-believer. Consequently, in these societies, believing or pretending to believe is hence a lifesaving necessity that bestows social and personal benefits, often at no cost. However, the cost of not believing is quite high.

Not one of the religious holy books, Quran included, claims to be a book of science or has made any significant predictions. Nonetheless, believers insist that every story and every claim within these books are timeless and scientifically cogent, and their validity is either already established or will soon be established by science. The virtual world is inundated with video clips of these so-called Islamic religious experts and others making outrageous claims and trying to concoct proof that religious beliefs and rituals are indeed consistent with modern science. One of the most absurd claims of them all can be found at

In the clip, an Islamic government spokeswoman claims that the more science advances, the more it discovers the logic behind religious practices. She uses science to justify these practices, implying that science is finally catching up to and onto what the religion of Islam has known for centuries. Examples given are praying five times a day as Muslims do meets our daily physical exercise requirement and repeatedly reciting particular pious Islamic phrases in Arabic cures many diseases. Thankfully, this video clip is in Farsi so only a limited audience in this country will be exposed to this nonsense.

Religious spin doctors like this spokeswoman try to convince the rest of us that such claims are indeed logical and compatible with modern science. What baffles me is that some of the people doing this kind of spinning have earned terminal degrees from reputable universities. It is one thing for an illiterate person living in a rural area of a Timbuktu to believe, for example, that alcohol is unclean (najes), but it is quite mind boggling when an educated person, such as a medical doctor who should use alcohol every day to sanitize everything in his or her office, believes this is true.

Frankly, science and religion need not be compatible because they work in two unrelated domains and rely on divergent methodologies to prove their points. Indeed, they are not, in some cases, irreconcilable. Science relies on empirical means such as observations, commonsense, statistics, and laboratory experiments, whereas the religious domain is evocative. Religion relies on emotions, mysteries, superstitions, miracles, prophecies, revelations, Hadiths, resurrection, the supernatural, and a second coming, among other things. In addition, science is dynamic and its claims may be changed or modified depending on the realities being studied. Religions, on the other hand, are rigid because their claims are ingrained in archaic texts that are considered to be the words of God and one should not dare to change, challenge, or refute them.

Although science is comparatively young, it has already solved many mysteries once believed to be the work of almighty God, or it has shed some instructive light on many still unresolved issues. However, the fact that science is limited in scope and has not been able to unlock all the mysteries out there does not mean that religion or a supernatural system has a better explanation for them or can provide better insight into what may remain beyond the purview of science. Claims to the contrary have been made for many centuries; however, to this day, none of them have been scientifically validated.

Historically, we can find some distinctive eras in our history that have been known for collaboration between science and religion, mainly because the scientific discoveries sometimes were not in conflict with religious beliefs and thus they were not resisted or detested by religious scholars. Also, in the past, there was no separation between church and state as it exists now. However, scientific theories such as evolution and natural selection that directly challenge the foundations of some religions have been resolutely resisted by theologians or right-wing politicians, especially here in the U.S. Consequently, they have tried to keep these Darwinian theories out of school curricula, often successfully.

There is no question about the contributions religion has made to science historically, but attributing scientific advances to religion, as some Islamic scholars do, is unfair and utterly counterproductive. Scientific discoveries would have been made with or without the sanction of religion. Scientists do not undertake research projects because they feel obligated or motivated by their religious convictions, but because they are human beings who wish to contribute to their field of study. Religion may have served as the source of inspiration for the scientists and artists who have created celebrated works of art, or have created magnificent religious structures. However, these accomplishments are testaments to human ingenuity and not the marvels of God as some religious people tell us. God has nothing to do with buildings or works of art. Quite the reverse, one can argue that religion has often been an obstacle to intellectual progress by its opposition to scientific discoveries, its persecution of scientists, and the wars and crusades it instigated in the past and continues to instigate in the present.

Strangely, anytime religious supporters hit the epistemological hurdle, they do not give up or do not respond peacefully. As has been done in numerous cases, they offer vague arguments. For example, when the theory of evolution discredited religion's version of the origin of life on earth, they claimed that even though Darwin might be right, the evolution of life was guided by God and, and hence they made up the creation by design argument. Often, when it comes to reacting to scientific discoveries that threaten long-held beliefs, religion's defense mechanisms, especially in Muslim societies, have consisted of either resorting to medieval texts or Hadiths to repute them, or resorting to force, violence, and intimidation to suppress them.

The ruling Mullahs in Islamic countries like Iran must be thinking that that such reactions will draw more and more people toward Islam and strengthen their position and power. However, observations and reliable information show that more and more people are becoming disenchanted and some even disgusted by these reactions and are instead deserting religion because of them. Theocratic countries like Iran can control the bodies but not the minds of its people. Many Iranians have turned into staunch religious critics and/or have abandoned Islam altogether following the establishment of religious autocracy in Iran and witnessing what is being done in the name of religion in Middle East in general and in Iraq in particular. These naive Mullahs and Sheikhs have done more damage to Islam than atheists.

It is, no doubt, your prerogative to believe in what you want to believe; however, accepting something in faith simply indicates that whatever you believe cannot be accepted on its own worth, or through scientific investigation and critical thinking. It would be farcical to assume that if science cannot as yet explain something, that there is a supernatural explanation for it. Well, this may not be the case.

Just as there is no reason to accept scientific phenomenon based on mere faith, there is also no reason to believe that religious stories are scientific fact. We should not emasculate proven scientific theories simply because they are at odds with religious theology, nor should we aggrandize religious establishments simply because they have power, the financial backing of some organizations, or have a large adherent base.

Just as we espouse the separation of church and state, we should also espouse the separation of science and religion so we can acknowledge their different spheres of influence and better delineate these.

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Reza Varjavand (Ph.D., University of Oklahoma) is associate professor of economics and finance at the Graham School of management, Saint Xavier University, of Chicago. He has been an avid participant in many professional organizations and active in (more...)
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