Acceptance of science – dangerous for some

In the UK The Independent is reporting that a Muslim scientist is being threatened for his acceptance of evolutionary science (see Scientist Imam threatened over Darwinist views). The scientist is Dr Usama Hasan, a physics lecturer at Middlesex University and a fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society. His “crime” – he delivered a a lecture on “Islam and the theory of evolution” at his East London mosque, Masjid al-Tawhid.

Dr Usama Hasan, a physics lecturer, has received death threats from extremists - Credit The Independent

His lecture was disrupted by fanatics who distributed leaflets claiming that “Darwin is blasphemy”. Dr Hasan told The Independent: “One man came up to me during the lecture and said ‘You are an apostate and should be killed’” .

Hasan has now been forced to retract his claim that evolutionary science is compatible with Islam. His father has also issued a statement to the mosque saying: “”I seek Allah’s forgiveness for my mistakes and apologise for any offence caused.” And his family has urged him not to return to the mosque, where he is a prominent imam, because of their concern for his safety.

Memories of Galileo

This reminds me of the Galileo affair, where the Roman Inquisition extracted a retraction from Galileo of his support for a heliocentric solar system – and then placed him under house arrest for the rest of his life.

Dr Hasan’s situation is possibly not so common in democratic societies like the UK. But I imagine that even amongst some of the less extreme Christian communities there could well be more subtle pressure applied to prevent scientists honestly expressing their views on such questions. For example, recent surveys indicate that many science teachers in the USA are pressured not to teach evolutionary science, or to substitute creationism. Even in New Zealand I have heard of clergy who are unwilling to clearly express their acceptance of evolutionary science because of the attitudes of their congregations.

These sort of modern day examples of religion interfering with scientific ideas should not be ignored. Currently there are Christian apologists actively promoting the idea that there is no conflict between science and religion. Even rewriting the history of the Galileo affair. And one of their tactics is to talk about a discredited “conflict hypothesis” or “conflict myth.” Anyone discussing the conflicts between science and religion is accused of claiming  “religion is and always has been at odds with science.” And the inevitable examples of conflicts, like the above, are blamed on “atheist scientists.”

Science – religion conflict

Currently I am reading Elaine Howard Eckland’s book Science vs. Religion: What Scientists Really Think. It basically deals with the situation in the US describing examples of scientists with different religious beliefs, their numbers, experiences and attitudes. My impression is that it is more sympathetic to the  religious scientist than the non-religious (hardly surprising as it is based on research funded by the Templeton Foundation). However I will hold off my judgements for my review in a few weeks time.

But from my own professional experience I am aware that some New Zealand scientists are religious. Not just Christian – I worked with scientists who were Christian, Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim, agnostic and atheists. And those were only the owns I was aware of. We rarely discussed these beliefs and they usually did not interfere with our work. Discussions were always respectful. (The only clear conflict I saw was the case of a Christian who came to work with us on one of the unemployment relief schemes. He didn’t last long because he couldn’t accept anyone who “took his Lord’s name in vain.” This may have also explained why he was unemployed to begin with).

So clearly our experience in New Zealand is that there is not an inevitable conflict between science and religion. Religion and science are not “always at odds.” In fact many scientists are capable of holding religious views – they just don’t introduce them into their science. This is unsurprising. After all there are scientists who hold all sorts of beliefs inconsistent with science. I knew scientists who believed in astrology or who fancied their chances in Lotto. Maybe there are even scientists who support Ken Ring’s non-scientific ideas. I even knew one scientist who was a member of the ACT Party!

Humans are certainly capable of holding contradictory beliefs in their head at the same time. We just use compartmentalisation. We probably all do it.

But conflict inevitable

However, there is a sense in which there is an inevitable conflict between science and religion. After all they differ in their approach to reality, their epistemology. Science is based on evidence and reason, and testing of ideas against reality. Religion is based on faith and revelation. Ideas may be tested against dogma, but generally not against reality.

Many people are capable of compartmentalisation such different beliefs systems – but obviously not all. Consequently we do get cases like the threats to Dr Hasan and interference with children’s’ education in the US and elsewhere. There is public criticism of scientist who don’t acquiesce to the demands of some religious leaders – the theological attacks on Stephen Hawking over his recent book (with co-author Leonard MlodinowThe Grand Design are an example.

So despite the fact that normally religious views don’t intrude into scientific research there will be areas of conflict from time to time. There will also be times when people can honestly discuss or debate their difference, express this conflict, without being offended or disturbed by it.

The real situation is not a simple-minded as that which the Christian apologists wish to portray. There is a conflict between science and religion. That is inevitable given their different epistemologies. But that conflict is not manifested in every situation and always. People do get along.

The apologists “no conflict thesis” is false. Just as is their portrayal of a mythical “conflict thesis” in which “religion is and always has been at odds with science.”

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5 responses to “Acceptance of science – dangerous for some

  1. A mosque does strike me as a spectacularly inappropriate venue for delivering a lecture on evolution though, a bit like teaching ID in school science classes.


  2. Pingback: Weekly Links Roundup… March 7 | A biologist's view of science & religion

  3. It would seem that somebody didn’t get the memo that there is no conflict between religion and science.


  4. The main difference is that in a Christian congregation, it would be very unlikely that the speaker would be threatened with death. He may be shunned and kicked out of the church, but an apostates life would not be in danger.


  5. It is nice that Christians congregations don’t usually kill people nowadays over science. It’s a step forward.
    Yet refraining from stoning people to death at the city gates after they’ve talked about science at the local place of worship does not somehow make everything nice and reasonable between science and religion.

    There really is a conflict between science and religion and it manifests itself in a multitude of different ways.


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