An Attempt at a Comprehensive View of Religion from a Secularist
by Arveent Srirangan Kathirtchelvan
This is one of those articles that seem divisive. It can be taken to be an exercise in thinly-veiled pontification. However, it was written for three main reasons. Firstly, to contrast the inherent philosophies in science and religion. In this endeavour, religion has been painted, admittedly, with a broad brush, where the ideas discussed might not apply to all religions, rather represent collective qualities shared by, at least, most major religions. Science, as well, might have been been explained in an idealistic way, due to an inherent bias that could not be fully accounted for. Secondly, to introduce the idea of rigorous self-criticism inherent in science as an important quality to adopt in religion. This is explained in the context of building a better society and giving enough freedom for science to grow. Lastly, I have endeavoured an initial criticism of religion to illustrate the vulnerability that should be ingrained into society’s psyche when thinking about it. I hope this article will generate further discussion on this subject, leading to a realisation that open and honest discourse should not be limited from any topic and of the breadth of factors affecting science specifically, and to a larger extent, society. Let us begin.
Firstly, let’s confront the elephant in the room. What does religion have to do with engineers? Why is YME Insider interested in this topic? Is this just a secularist trying to shove his ideals down everyone’s throat, conveniently hiding behind the guise of a science magazine? As an answer, we have to view ourselves as engineers in a broader context. For so long we have been indoctrinated with the construct of specification when it comes to thinking about our role in the world. Engineers often refrain from difficult topics of philosophy erroneously thinking that it does not fall upon them to ponder upon these. However, even when thinking about the issues surrounding engineering and the stem field, it is clear that they are steeped in questions revolving topics beyond that which are traditionally discussed. In this case, the topic we would like to focus on is religion, and its effects, from affecting political funding of research to science education and advocacy to even more subtle effects like the subconscious subjugation of women until they are discouraged from the STEM field, are as clear as day. It falls upon us as engineers to think about these issues as we are responsible for the relevance and social upkeep of our field. With that being said, let’s move deeper still.
For as long as there has been religion and science there also existed immense friction between the two. A lot of what religion attempted to explain with supernatural constructs, science grew to debunk with its exactness and constant questioning. This is not to say the two aren’t mutually beneficial to each other. In the Golden Age of Islam, for example, science flourished, fuelled by the relative stability religion made possible, with certain discoveries, in anatomy and algebra for example, directly resulting from Quranic teachings and interpretation. The relationship goes both ways as well, as can be seen with the Dalai Lama asserting science grows Buddhism and that whatever aspect of Buddhism disproved by science is a call for Buddhism to re-evaluate its stance.
Having said this, though, there have been many historical cases of religion restricting the freedom and expressive capabilities of science, especially when the tenets of dogma are questioned. Instances like Galileo Galilei being subjected to house arrest for his revolutionary writing on heliocentricity, going against the Church’s teachings of geocentricity to the complete short-sightedness of religious policy-makers who lobby against sex education in the school system shows a need within the religious to directly shape every part of their surroundings to reflect upon their beliefs. However, the main philosophical stance of most religions (at least the major ones) cannot account for a holistic, mature and robust building of society, let alone the amelioration of science. We shall analyse this through the philosophy of these two entities.
A Tale of Two Philosophies
The philosophy of science encourages doubt. Each scientific conviction has to be substantiated with proper evidence. This evidence can range from direct experimental observation to enough observation of effects suggested by a proposed hypothesis for it to be elevated to the level of scientific theory, the highest conviction that is allowed in science for any hypothesis. This level can be understood by laymen as a scientific fact (as was explained in two of our previous articles). Even then, science constantly questions its own convictions. Till this day scientists work extremely hard to disprove the general theory of relativity, one of the most robust theories in science today. Even Stephen Hawking’s theory of black-hole evaporation, one that has won him multiple awards, has not resulted in a Nobel Prize as it is of yet not fully proven, though it is perfectly compatible with modern understanding of quantum mechanics. This is the mindset, of sorts, of science. Constant vigilance, constant doubt. Where everything deserves to be questioned, however popular or seemingly correct it is. In other words, science accepts the notion that it can be wrong and works very hard to scrutinise itself to back up any claims it might be making.
Religion, by contrast, asks of its followers a submission to dogma. This closing-off of religion to scrutiny, with many religions having the caveat of vilification for questioning belief, makes it difficult for it to achieve maturity, especially in its application amongst its followers. It is well-known that the only sin that will not be forgiven by God both in Islam and Christianity is apostasy without repentance. With that stern stance against questioning, we can see how the core structure of religion is so much more different to that of science. I shall continue to justify why religion should adopt the constant introspection of science to build a better society and also not hinder the growth of science as well.
But first, let’s look at the facts. Religion plays such a large role in the understanding of science these days, and though it seems overplayed, the most obvious example of this is the refutation of the theory of evolution. Creationism is so fundamental in religion that it is not surprising that many religious people don’t believe in evolution. This is fine, if incorrect, so long as it remains a personal belief and has no bearing on society as a whole. However, when teaching this crucial fact to schoolchildren is discouraged or even banned in some places, a theory, let’s remember, that has literal libraries of evidence to support it, that’s where we must draw the line. Science remains true whether one believes in it or not, through the rigour of it having to constantly prove itself to be true. In this regard, religion has no right to encroach into what part of science deserves to be thought of as fact. Vague, so-called ‘holy’ scripture has no bearing on how science does its due diligence.
Initial Critique of Religion
This is where this article takes a turn for the divisive. Religion is a belief, not a fact. The very unprovability of a metaphysical super-being central to most religions negates the possibility of any religion claiming to be factual. And many ‘proofs’ in religious texts that are cited as definite examples of its infallibility often come down to flexible interpretation. For example, in Islam, when it comes to birth, it is said in the Quran that during a stage in the prenatal development of the embryo, it is formed from a clot of blood (alaqa) but modern science found this to be untrue. So, the term was reviewed and was found to be understood as ‘to be suspended from’, which when thought of from the point of view of the umbilical cord, makes perfect sense. But does this prove that Islam can be a scientific determinist? Imagine watching a baby being born with a cord attached to the placenta which exits later. Will this not seem like a suspension, without the need for a supernatural being spelling it out? It seems like religion tends to be justified for the sake of its existence rather than due to any merit that it can bring.
I’m not expressly saying this is what happened when the Quran was written, nor am I saying the Islam is the only religion vulnerable to this, but religion is often sold as something unquestionable, treated as if religious stances are facts, not mere beliefs. This obsessive acceptance is what leads usually rational people to reject facts backed up by mountainous piles of evidence. And then they advocate the restriction of certain scientific theories based on their submission to a dogma. And when a large portion of society buys into a certain religious belief, they have the clout to make their advocacy a reality.
Take, for instance, the exclusion of homosexuals from society. If we take review the Buggery Act of 1533 which made buggery unlawful, and the much later Labouchere Amendment which made lesser sexual contact between men unlawful, they both have a strong religious base. Together, they were used to famously prosecuted Alan Turing, one of the greatest minds the 20th Century had produced, who played a pivotal role in the breaking of the Enigma code, essentially shortening World War 2 in Europe by more than 2 years, saving over 14 million lives, by chemically castrating him for having sexual relations with a man. This is often cited as the reason for his suicide (admittedly, this is disputed) at the young age of 41, a major blow to the scientific world. All because of the unerring, utter devotion to an unproven construct. Is this the world we want to live in?
Adoption of Introspection in Religion
We place a lot of value to the provability of a hypothesis. If someone was to say that he had met Kobe Bryant or had eaten Kobe beef, we would ask them to prove it. Why don’t we do the same for religion en masse? And so we have come to the actual message I am trying to impart with this article. Religion needs to be criticised and debated. Not just in how it can coexist with other religions and belief systems but how it can be fit into accommodation of science. In this endeavour, religion has to be seen as a set of philosophies, not independent facts. There is a niche for it to exist when it comes to talking about pure philosophy, i.e ethics, metaphysics, aesthetics etc. When it comes to ethical usage of nuclear energy, for example, religion can come in to provide much needed perspective.
However, and I have said this again and again, they need to be understood as philosophical statements and have to be judged on the merits of their stances and policies, and respect for religious beliefs should stop at where they cross into certain unalienable philosophies that have to be accepted as a collective between most of the population. In this case, this is the independence of science from religious meddling.
As long as policy-makers base funding to scientific research on religious beliefs, as long as society views women as inferior or differently abled from the eyes of religion, as long as individuals do not question religion being used to sell pseudoscience or restrictive beliefs, we will always face the problem of science not being taken as seriously as it should. Not only that, growing a society with certain topics considered untouchable by scrutiny is to promote ignorance and immaturity when it comes to philosophical stances. Scientific thinking and constant scrutiny is something that can benefit society as a whole. Through this, not only can science be unhindered in terms of growth and outreach to the public (especially young people who might develop an interest in it), everyone can develop a deeper understanding of their surroundings, inherent biases and philosophy leading to a richer life. I have no pretension of knowing the answers to any of the questions that might arise due to this. I am simply attempting to normalise this type of discourse within all of us. It’s time we stand up and be brave enough to question the most difficult and sensitive of topics if we are serious in instilling maturity into society.