Taner Edis

Different Faith, Same Struggle

John Gray

After a century or more of keeping out of one another’s hair, science and religion are once again locked in conflict. The claim that science is the only reliable route to understanding the world is as fiercely disputed today as it was in Victorian times, except that today’s standard of debate has been notably unimpressive. If advocates of creationism or intelligent design lack intellectual rigour, then the militant Darwinists who attack religion while knowing virtually nothing of the immense varieties of religious belief and experience are no better.

With both sides ignorant of how science and religion are understood in various traditions, public dialogue has been narrow and parochial. Taner Edis – a physicist working in America, who was born and raised in Turkey and whose early views were shaped by Ataturkist secularism – aims to rescue the debate from insularity by showing how it has developed within Islam. In doing so he has produced one of the few recent books that truly illuminates the troubled relationship between science and religion.

An Illusion of Harmony is a rich mix of intellectual history, philosophical reasoning and personal insight, which takes as its starting point the paucity of scientific discovery in Islamic cultures in recent centuries. Is this a consequence of political repression and economic underdevelopment, or has Islam itself been a factor in holding back scientific progress?

Edis argues plausibly that for Islam accommodating modern science is intrinsically problematic since it is a text-centred creed in which the Quran is the direct and infallible word of God. Islamic thought contains many disparate strands, but all face the fundamental problem of reconciling the modern belief that the world is governed by knowable natural laws with the religious belief that the world is a product of divine omnipotence.

Of course this difficulty is not confined to Islam, but plagues monotheism in all its forms. Looking back as heirs of the European Enlightenment, many people see western Christianity as hospitable to science by virtue of having absorbed Greek traditions of rationalism. But as Edis shrewdly observes, "Greek rationalism very often conceived of reason as a kind of supernatural illumination providing knowledge of higher realms of truth" – a mystical view that was shared as much by Muslim thinkers as it was by Christians. It is not an absence of rationalism that has stood in the way of science, but rather the strength of the belief that nature is divinely created.

Just as it has in the US, fundamentalist resistance to Darwinism has produced an efflorescence of pseudoscience in Islamic culture. Edis provides fascinating examples of recent Islamic theories of "guided evolution", born of the pressures of modernisation. Science has become the key to prosperity and success in war, earning it too much cultural prestige to be attacked outright, so instead religious thinkers try to ape it by developing ersatz sciences that pose no threat to faith. The conflict between science and religion is not resolved by pseudoscience, but merely evaded.

Any belief system in which human agency is central is bound to be at odds with what Edis describes as the "radically unanthropomorphic" world view suggested by contemporary science. Islamic cultures are no different from the Christian cultures in their struggle to cope with the challenge of science. The true conflict may not be between science and religion, but between science and monotheist faiths in which humans have a privileged place in the world.

From New Scientist, 24 February 2007.

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