Ever since Cambridge Science Festival, I find myself increasingly in discussions about humanism, atheism, evolution, religion and Islam. My friend Robin Ince, asks me about some of the big questions.
A much shortened version of this Q&A is in the special Christmas 2012 double issue of the New Statesman.
RI: The media seems to encourage the idea of tension between atheists and religious people, what truth do you see in that idea?
MA: Garfield said the truth will set you free, but first it will make you miserable. And so it’s important to recognise the reality that the jarring exists however it doesn’t have to define the path of engagement or the manner of discourse for the future. It’s a matter which is very much recoverable – it just requires the will.
My weekly standing-room-only sessions as a multi-faith chaplain in one of the country’s largest sixth form colleges was open to all students, of faith or none. The most outspoken attendees were often sceptical and atheist students, many of whom were studying science or philosophy. Their near ‘evangelical’ zeal was premised on a monopoly on intelligence with a mission was to save others from a life of delusion. Religions have no monopoly on extremism and fundamentalism. This microcosm of manner-versus-substance is something I’ve seen far too often in other arenas. Whether on Twitter or in university campuses up and down the country when I give lectures and talks, I see this same truth being played out. It is very difficult to assign blame to for the tone of youthful discourse when so often we see those who we consider high profile leaders taking a similar approach. It’s perhaps entirely rational to think some young people will manifest the approaches they observe, such that they end up engaging with the terseness of Hitch or the condescension of Dawkins.
Humanism has much to offer a society which is struggling with the ‘moral vacuum’. A sensible intellectual settlement is not going to be based on a capturing of philosophical flags but rather in language of moderation, tolerance and respect. When that happens, the reflection of this debate will undoubtedly be far more palatable.
RI: Stephen Jay Gould talked of the non-overlapping magisteria, the idea that as long as science and religion remain separate they can exist together, is that possible?
MA: "L'enfer est plein de bonnes volontés et désirs", or as most of us will more commonly know it ‘the road to hell is paved with good intentions’. The NOMA provides a prima facie reasonable approach to a settlement for faith and science in a secular with neither ‘in it to win it’. It’s also a secular de minimis ensuring a mutuality for existence and advancement of aims whilst backstopping the debate from falling below a certain threshold.
Despite this, the limitations and unintended consequences of the NOMA are significant. Firstly, it’s counter intuitive and marginalises. Albeit glove like for a humanist hand, I’m not convinced people of faith consider the created garden and the science which blossoms within it, to be discrete matters. Secondly, magisterial factions create an exceptionalism that science is higher intellectually (as all of science and learning is in this sphere) and religion becomes consigned to ethics and worship, boxed-up and arguably, twee.
Science and learning has not developed in a vacuum or coincidental to faith, it has happened often times because of it. Advances pioneered during the Golden Age of Islam, was not carried out by scientists who happened to be Muslim. The Quran stands alone, virtuoso, on the disclosure of scientific evidences and truths until that time unknown; whether stages of embryology advocated by Professor Keith Moore, or going beyond the heliocentric model to inform us the Sun itself orbits around a central point. Briffault stated we owe everything of modern science and learning in the West to the Muslims of the Golden Age; Ibn Haytham, Al Razi, Al Ghazali, Ibn Taymiyyah and many others who founded modern critical thinking and the scientific and inductive approach which departed from the pre-eminence of Aristotelian logic. Science and religion have, when at their best, existed in one magisteria.
RI: In your day to day life do you see a delineation between evidence based decisions and faith based decisions? Is there a blurred area?
MA: I struggle to think of any aspect of my life which is based on faith alone – it is always supported by logic, reasoning and an evidence based approach. Islam provides absolute clarity over decision making: eating halal food, prayer, fasting, the social conditions and manners of modesty, the interaction of men and women, human rights, social justice and so forth.
I’ve heard from those who have started practicing their religion anew and from ‘reverts’ to Islam that they have needed to initially take on trust (or faith) aspects of Islam, only to have gained the knowledge and understanding later as to why those conditions exist and those decisions are made. People often come to Islam by an evidence based decision. Explaining to a six year old why halal slaughter is the most humane and healthy method available, may well need revisiting. Along with why it’s important to brush your teeth and do your homework which are no less matters of faith, to be later understood in proper depth.
Islam is open to questioning and to a critical appraisal. The Quran is known as The Criterion and it provides a very clear and compelling perspective and guidance on matters. It tells Muslims to put things to the test if they are in doubt (the Ibn Haytham inductive approach), to bring forth evidence and to use what we now consider the scientific method. It’s not merely by faith, or by scholarly injunction that Muslims are the most tee-total people on the planet as we’re told on alcohol, the “harms outweigh the benefits” (Surah 2:219). In 2012, it’s estimated to cost the UK around £30bn against a revenue of £15bn, with countless social and health harms.
RI: What do we need to do to gain greater understanding between science and religion?
MA: There needs to be far more dialogue, diversity of learning and understanding. I don’t view science and religion as mutually exclusive areas of existence or thought. The lack of diversity in thinking is determined by a narrow approach in a landscape awash with self interest and gerrymandering.
Religion and the public discourse is still viewed, understandably, though Christianic spectacles. We live in a multi-faith world and peace, if this is what is sought, needs to be founded on justice. That justice needs in turn, to be assured of an authentic and proper recognition. If those professing a belief in science without wishing to regard religion were able to acknowledge and accept the debt owed to people of religion, and in fact religion itself for the foundations upon which they work; if people of religion and faith were able to accept and re-learn those lessons of critical thinking, morality and thought which may arguably have become lost to them over time, from those of science and learning; then we have very much, the premise of a peaceful, tolerant and enlightened existence.
If this mediation is rejected, my greatest fear is that secularism becomes not a force for unity and empowerment where religion and science is set to the good of humanity but rather disunity, intolerance and intransigence. And this can never be a good settlement for either side, if indeed there are sides to speak of.
RI: Where do you stand on evolution by natural selection? (if humans are just part of the tree of life does that change faith?)
MA: Islam is entirely open to the ideas of evolution. In fact, a fifteen billion year old expanding universe, multi-verse theory and dinosaur bones all pose no problem. The early Muslim scientists would have largely recognised much of what Darwin postulates. Darwin's contemporary Sir William Draper, called it the Mohammedan Theory of Evolution and found this ‘Muslim version’ preferable to that of Darwin's.
When we come to evolution, the million dollar question I’m often asked is ‘do you do common descent?’. Well, for me the jury is in on natural selection and certainly on intra-species evolution. On common descent, the evidence doesn’t yet meet the high threshold, although I’m certainly not of a closed mind. Having read much on the subject, including more recently Coyne, Miller and the unirascible and softly treading Shermer, I’m not yet convinced on common descent.
Acceptance requires a gargantuan leap of faith and as a person of logic and reasoning, it’s not a leap I can make without the evidence. If my belief was founded on faith and not reason, blind trust and not knowledge, then perhaps that leap is easier to make.
That the tracing of the FoxP2 gene mirrors the tree of life, or that we are 98% similar in DNA to chimps is often cited as the evidence for common descent. But to say that we are all made of the same lego blocks evolved from one primordial soup doesn’t negate the argument that man was made distinct, from the same lego set, as all of creation.