An Answer to Unbelief | Part 1: The Atom and Eve – Why Science Cannot Kill God

ASIDE FROM Harry Potter, the first book that I ever bought with my own money and read of my own free will was Physics of the Impossible, by theoretical physicist Michio Kaku. I don’t remember why. I can, however, remember bouncing around the house, chattering about room-temperature superconductors and space elevators to my parents and brothers. My homemade birthday card to my mother that year had a pencil drawing of a Black Hole on the front; I don’t think I was implying anything.

The science craze lasted more than that year for me. For much of my early teens, I couldn’t be held for too long by a conversation if there wasn’t an atom smasher involved. Luckily for me, I wasn’t the only one who had read Kaku’s book.

Popular science has emerged in our era as a formidable genre of writing and media, with a large and loyal audience. A whole generation inspired by the pioneering voice of Carl Sagan has since reached maturity, and has turned the work of easily and engagingly communicating heady and daring advancements in the scientific world into an industry. What great news not only for appreciators like myself, but for everyone alive. Few are the areas in our existence that science can’t touch, and then improve. It has brought glory to the ordinary. It has made life easier. Most excitingly, it will never stop doing either.

So of course, with so much to access and so little downside, I raced through as many books and videos as I could. Those who have already read the introductory episode to this series will recall that this was also the period in my life when I was working my way through the writings and lectures of the popular antitheists. Being exposed to these two genres in parallel, I began to notice a surprising amount of overlap in attitude toward religion.

This is not to say that the whole scientific community has quiet designs to discredit and destroy the domain of religious belief. Though some personalities in the fundamentalist world seem to take this prospect seriously, the rest of us know that this is absurd. After all, science—like religion—is not a monolith. It does not operate like a government, whose civil servants all report back to one center of authority with a stated agenda. “Science,” instead, refers to a community of trained, curious people who want little more than to learn something new about the natural world, and who check and balance one another democratically through peer review.

What is true, however, is that some within that community—a minority, but with shrill voices—take advantage of their platform to condescend to religion and the religious. It is not enough for the members of this small-but-toxic corner of the scientific world to criticize religious belief on intellectual grounds. More often than not, they’ll complement their arguments with sour, sneering jabs at the intelligence, sanity, and character of those who disagree.

Take, for instance, Richard Dawkins, an evolutionary biologist who has called religion “folly,” faith a “cop-out,” and religious people “delusional,” while referring to atheists like himself endearingly by the term “brights.” All of this, of course, with absolutely no background in the academic study of the field he’s so fond of singling out for its supposed closed-mindedness.

It might momentarily satisfy us to return this arrogance in kind. It’s understandable to feel defensive, and to want to react emotionally with our own insults and condemnations.  This, however, would not be noble, and it would do nothing to convince the watching world that those casting aspersions on us are mistaken.  What we can do is look at their arguments, which they’ve so kindly shared publicly for us, and point out exactly where they are lacking in logic.

Nowhere in my experience have I seen the position of this brand of science-driven antitheism more clearly expressed than in the “God of the gaps” argument.  Here is the gist of it: religious people tend to find evidence for God in the crevices of natural phenomena which science has yet to explain. Where there is still mystery, there is God.

The problem that people like Dawkins point out is that science, by the day, continues to grow in its insight into the natural world. The fact that science is unable to explain a natural phenomenon today does not mean it will be equally inadequate tomorrow. Given ample time and the right genius, any question about nature can be answered. So, presumably, if science will continue indefinitely to shed light on the inner workings of nature, the areas in which we need miracles of God to explain the unknown will continue to recede until, theoretically, there will be a day when God is no longer necessary at all.

Of course, this does pose a problem—if you believe in a God of the gaps. The huge assumption made here by Dawkins, Neil DeGrasse Tyson, and others who have used the above argument is that any human who has ever proclaimed a belief in a higher power must have existed in a constant state of ear-plugging, ignoring all scientific advancement for fear that it would hopelessly crush her or his faith.

Ironic that these people accuse others of ignoring indisputable truth. Even the quickest, most prejudiced look at history will prove that this charge against religion is based on nothing.

Especially when we consider that it was Ibn al-Haytham, a Muslim philosopher, mathematician, physicist and theoretician of the 10th and 11th centuries CE, who first proposed what would become the modern scientific method. This comes from his book Kitab al-Manazir (The Book of Optics), where he also responded to and successfully tested a theory of vision first proposed by Aristotle 1,000 years prior.

Of course, this is only one man.  It would take a whole book to do justice to the victories in science, reason, and skepticism during the Islamic Golden Age.  [1]  A few of these are the founding of the field of Trigonometry (Nasir al-Din al-Tusi), significant developments to medicine and anatomy, such as the surgical removal of cataracts and tumors (Ibn Sina, Ibn al-Nafis), determining the length of the solar year (al-Battani, ‘Umar Khayyam), and the founding of modern robotics (Ismail al-Jazari).

But perhaps one of the least known, and certainly one of the least appreciated, of all developments by Islamic scientists is the positing of an early theory of Evolution by Natural Selection.  It was the aforementioned Al-Tusi who first suggested that human beings had risen from great apes (what he called “man-like apes”), and another academic named Ibn Khaldun who first acknowledged that the animal kingdom had developed and multiplied over time through competition. Al-Tusi lived in the 13th century.  Ibn Khaldun lived in the 14th. It would be another half-century before Darwin (another theist, incidentally) suggested the same idea in the west.  [2]

Meanwhile, Christian theologians of the Scholasticist tradition, such as Thomas Aquinas, recommended that all academic fields be used to push the study of religion forward, including the natural sciences. Aquinas’ contention was that theology should not be based on mere speculation and fantasy—that if the sciences could contradict a passage of the Bible, then our understanding of that passage ought to change.

How could such open-mindedness and objectivity be possible from lowly theists? It is very simple: science does not threaten the claims made by the major holy books. Belief in a “God of the gaps” is not the only option available to believers. Far more plausible is a God whose Presence is displayed as much within the moving parts of the creation as above them. This is probably why there is no shortage of passages in the Abrahamic books encouraging believers to go out and study the world with a skeptical eye (Proverbs 14:15, Psalm 111:2, Qur’an 13:3).

And the irony never ends: “God of the gaps,” though popularized by antitheists, was a phrase first used by a Christian minister, Henry Drummond, during the American Age of Reformation.  He first coined the term when discouraging his audience from focusing too much on “[scientific] gaps which they fill up with God,” arguing instead in support of “an immanent  [3]  God, the God of Evolution, [who is] infinitely grander than the occasional wonder-worker, who is the God of an old theology.”

Even other atheists are critical of the approach taken by the science-motivated antitheists. Thomas Nagel, a philosopher and professor of law at NYU, recently published a book entitled Mind and Cosmos, in which he criticizes the simplistic understanding of evolution and the origin of life held by cynics and reductionists like Dawkins. What is most interesting is that he argues this point from a position of unbelief, not lobbying in favor of God, but instead against the hard line of materialism that leaves no room for other forces aside from pure matter and energy that could account for the emergence of things like mind, consciousness, and meaning.

This much is clear: religion and the objective sciences pose no existential threat to one another. Not only may they co-exist, they may even enrich one another. How? By speaking different but complementary languages. By following completely different lines of inquiry. As Imam al-Ghazali said about mathematics in Deliverance From Error, “None of its results are connected with religious matters, either to verify or falsify them.”

Am I denying that literalism has existed—that there have been religious people and groups that have tried, at various points in history, to undermine the work of honest, well-meaning scientists, all based on too rigid a reading of their religious texts? No. This would show a Dawkins-level inattention to history. What I am saying is that religion—like science—is not a monolith, and to judge all of religion for the incidental, personal faults of its fundamentalists and extremists is intellectually irresponsible. Not to mention that these facts are irrelevant to the argument. The point made recklessly by the Boys’ Club of Science-says-no-God is that faith is innately incompatible with rationality and objectivity. To have mentioned one religious person who has also successfully taken part in scientific inquiry is to have already disproven that claim.

Though this is by no means perfect across the board, one can imagine that science is asking the “how” of existence, whereas religion is asking the “why.” To my friend, the atheist: you are bound by nothing and no one to believe that there is a “why.” This is not, like questions of science, a matter that empirical evidence can help to answer either way. But you cannot hide behind supposed scientific “evidence” as a justification for your doubt. Your choice to believe that there is no “why” is as much a groundless leap of faith as my choice to believe that there is.

So, how about those atom smashers?

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[1] For those interested in such a book, I would recommend Islam’s Quantum Question, by Nidhal Guessoum.

[2] I acknowledge that the relationship between religion and the Theory of Evolution by Natural Selection is, in some individual cases, a complicated one.  This is a subject that deserves a much more detailed examination, and I plan on giving it its due in a future article.

[3] Defining “immanence,” in this context, is difficult.  What Drummond may have been suggesting is a Panentheistic approach to understanding Divine Nature.  He may also have been suggesting a kind of Pantheism or Process Theology.  The purpose of my quoting Drummond here is not to suggest one of these schools of thought over another, but rather to demonstrate that there exist many schools of religious thought (more than I have just mentioned) that hold science in its deserved esteem while also maintaining a theistic belief in God.

Written By

James Campbell is a convert to Islam. He has written for Elite Daily, The Young Ummah, and now Aljumuah on the subject of his experience as a Muslim American convert. You can find him at https://twitter.com/TheReelJCamp. He is currently working on his first novel.

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1 Comment

  • OMG *bursts out crying* *runs off to sob off her excitement in a corner* *recovers* *bounces back* I have his “The Future of the Mind: The Scientific Quest to Understand, Enhance, and Empower the Mind” in my Kindle. Man, we seriously gotta meet up in Jannah and exchange writing tips so that we can write our 3D hologram virtual reality novels with our wand-pens. Have you taken the wand quiz on Pottermore? (I’m a Hufflepuff and Horned Serpent [Hogwarts and Ilvermorny houses, respectively].)

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