Enemies of Reason?
By Paul Salahuddin Armstrong
I recently watched a two part documentary film written and presented by Professor Richard Dawkins. In these documentaries he raises a number of interesting points. I was somewhat surprised to find, I do actually agree with him to a certain extent. I’ve always had a deep fascination with the world in which I live. Since childhood, I have been attracted to the sciences. I did well in science at school, and have consistently read up on scientific subjects ever since.
I have a deep respect for reason. When people moved away from blind faith, and started using their reason, science and technology progressed. Over time new technologies have eased and enriched our lives. Medical science saves lives, and allowed others to overcome weaknesses in their health. All these developments have certainly had a positive effect, improving our lives and enabling humanity to build the modern world, in which find ourselves today.
Professor Dawkins takes a dim view of religion or any form of faith. He sees these as forms of delusion, preventing us from engaging in the real world. While it is true that there are those who are deluded, and/or deluding people within various religions, this is far from a true perspective. Professor Dawkins quite rightly champions reason and the modern scientific method. However, he may be somewhat surprised to learn, that one of his predecessors who introduced the modern scientific method, was a very religious man!
The scientific method was invented by Muslim Scholar, Abū ʿAlī al-Ḥasan ibn al-Ḥasan ibn al-Haytham, known as Alhacen in the West. He lived in what is present day Iraq and Egypt between the years 965 AD – 1039 AD. Ibn Al-Haytham remained a devout Muslim throughout his life. Yet he always championed science and reason. Among the many subjects he researched, he is renowned for his studies on the nature of light, and is regarded as the father of optics.
Ibn Al-Haytham is by no means alone. There have been many scientists throughout history who professed religious or mystical beliefs. When I was studying biology at school, I was taught about the achievements of an Augustinian Monk, by the name of Gregor Mendel. Around 150 years ago, Mendel discovered dominant and recessive genetic traits in peas, during his experiments in plant hybridisation. Ironically, it was the scientific research of this devout Christian man, that enabled others to speculate on evolutionary theories, such as the one devised by Charles Darwin.
There may be truth in the idea that life arose through some kind of evolutionary process. However, this is notoriously difficult to prove or otherwise. The origins of life began in the distant past, long before the development of any kind of science. We therefore have a situation of one theory against another. Contrary to what many would like to think, there are still two prevailing ideas on the origins of life. I have very briefly summarised their main ideas here.
One of these theories, known as Evolution, is that life arose over billions of years through random coincidences. The first cells eventually organising themselves into multicellular life forms. Through random mutations, fitter genes struggled to survive. Life developed through these means, into the fascinating variety of diverse species, that live or have lived on Earth.
The second theory of how life got here, known as Intelligent Design, is based upon the readily observable design, pattern and beauty found in living and even non-living things. There seems to be an intricate design, in everything on Earth and in our universe. Logic and reason suggest, that if there is a design there could well be a designer. A plan to our existence. Needless to say, while this theory is very popular amongst religious people, it is extremely unpopular and intolerable to Atheists, as it implies the existence of God.
Some areas where I agree with Professor Dawkins, are regards to alternative medicine and superstition. While I do not altogether disregard alternative medicines, one has to be careful who one puts their trust in, especially with regards to one’s own health. Even a regular GP has to study for at least 4 years before they can practice medicine. Modern medicines have long cycles of development, and are rigorously tested. While it is true that mistakes do happen, overall modern healthcare is a good development. Without which many of you probably wouldn’t be here to be able to read this article.
Alternative medicines often don’t have the same levels of research or rigorous testing. In many cases, they may well have genuine medical benefits. But if not scientifically tested, how will we ever know? Even if we get better after alternative treatment. We may believe it was the treatment that helped us, but was it the treatment or some other factor?
On the other hand, there are people with terminal illnesses, who have been given only a short time to live by conventional doctors. In some, cases people have recovered after seeing alternative healers. I think it would be good to do more objective scientific research into this area, to see if we can find out which alternative treatments really work. If so, these could be promoted with strong scientific credentials. As Professor Dawkins rightly pointed out, if they can be scientifically proven to be effective, they would no longer be ‘alternative’.
Superstitious people have a tendency to close their minds to reason. Hence technological progress can be slow where superstition prevails. We need to let go of unnecessary superstitions and open our minds to the truth. The truths of this world are tangible and possible to discover through using our reason and the scientific method.
Where I disagree with Professor Dawkins, is his view that faith, religion and spirituality have nothing to offer. Far from it! While science is the study of the physical world around us, what its made of, the natural laws which govern it, the way elements interact etc. Spirituality concerns itself with matters of the spirit. While science can develop technologies, medicines and teach us how things in this universe interact. Science is by its very nature limited, in what it is able to tell us about our deepest thoughts, feelings and who we really are. We are much more than just a biological machine! Spirituality is custodian to the answers of these questions, not science.
As Professor Dawkins holds religion in a bad light, he seeks to point out that its religion that gave us the Inquisition, Crusades, Taliban and Al-Qaeda. While I do accept these represent the darker side of religion, science has a darker side too. As modern science has no overruling morality. How often have some scientists not considered, whether they should continue when embarking on their latest research project? While religions may in some ways, be partly responsible for the Inquisition and the Taliban, science gave us the atomic bomb, biological warfare and eugenics! Isn’t it is easy to see why some people are becoming sceptical?
Overall religion and science have been beneficial to humanity. Science has improved our day to day lives with new and improved technologies. Religions and spirituality have given us moral guidance, hope, higher aspirations and made extensive contributions to the arts. The problem is not religion or science, but where science tries to fill the role of religion, or where religion stifles scientific development. When each contributes its best to humanity, we see culture and civilisation thrive. Where the opposite occurs, we are left only with destruction.
We should take the best knowledge and use it wisely. Our goals should be to do what is good for humanity, to enrich our society and find balance in all things. The truth lies not in going to extremes, but rather walking in the middle way.