By Naseer Ahmed, New Age Islam
22 September 2016
Can Science and Religion ever reconcile? In popular imagination, Science is based on reason and Religion is based on faith. Speaking historically, belief without a good rational basis or evidence may have been a necessity in the past, but today, this is neither necessary nor a good thing. Today blind belief is more harmful than blind rejection but acceptance on a rational basis is not only good but indispensable to leading a truly “moral” life with values that are transcendental and not merely utilitarian.
Religion gave us concepts and moral principles that were far beyond the capacity of human minds to fully comprehend their utility and role in leap frogging their society on the scale of civilization. However, once these were practised as a religious duty and the benefits became obvious, the concept became understandable from hindsight and over a period even self-evident. These ideas or concepts or moral principles then became a part of rational inquiry in philosophy and helped develop what came to be known as “practical ethics” or ethical values based on practical or utilitarian considerations. In religion the same principle of say honesty is absolute and without practical or utilitarian considerations but simply in reverence for the law of God. A person will thus be honest even if he stands to lose and has everything to gain by being dishonest if honesty is a moral value. The fact that it also has a practical value is secondary. If it is only an ethical value then he may compromise after weighing the pros and cons of honest behaviour in a given situation. Without first practising honesty as a religious duty, its practical value may never have become known to mankind. Therefore belief in religion helped mankind to practice moral principles before the practical value became evident.
To us who have grown with the moral/ethical precepts, the principles may look self-evident but imagine a person who has not been taught about right and wrong, good and bad, truth and falsehood etc. If he is watching a movie and sees a scene of snatching of a gold chain, the scene is perfectly understandable to him. Even a monkey snatches what takes it fancy. However, if he sees a person finding a gold chain and then making efforts to find its owner and return it, this would not make any sense to him at all unless he can associate such behaviour with moral principles. If he has not learnt those moral principles, such a scene would make him think the person is stupid. Criminals and psychopaths are such persons who have for whatever reason never imbibed moral principles.
Consider for example, the golden rule “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”. This is an idea which to my mind transformed us from the state of living as savages into a civilization. Religions taught us not only “moral behaviour” but gave us shared values which built trust and cooperation among people sharing the same religious beliefs. Speaking generally, to this day we trust coreligionists and distrust people from other religions. That is the reason we need inter-faith dialogue with people from other religions to find common ground which helps build trust from knowledge of what is common and shared.
We know for a fact that many civilizations co-existed in different parts of the world and may have lived without contact with each other for a long period before they developed the means to venture out and make contact with people in distant lands. Then if the golden rule is what transformed every such society, then it must be common to all people and all religions. Indeed, this appears to be a fact. It is found in all major and minor religions in all parts of the world.
Was this golden rule given by religion? Why is this question important? If religion is thought to be a construct of the human mind, then the question is unimportant but if we are to investigate the claim of the theists that their scriptures are divinely inspired or revelations from God, then the question is relevant. All academic disciplines are based on “reason” and take it as axiomatic that there is no God and that everything is just a result of the evolutionary process. With such an “axiom” as the starting point, the claim of the theists is never taken seriously or put to a scientific test. We will depart from such a stand and investigate the claim in as scientific a manner as possible since Science by its very nature is bound to pursue any theory that holds a promise of leading to the truth - else it is not Science but superstition.
We will also rely on the Quran for our investigation because it makes claims that no other book of scriptures makes which makes it eminently suitable for a scientific analysis. The claims are:
1. There is only one God and that the Quran is a revelation from the one and only God.
2. It confirms previous scriptures and religions and says that Islam is not a new religion but the religion of God all through the ages.
3. It says that prophets have been sent to all nations at different periods in history for the guidance of the people and that many of these prophets were contemporaneous.
4. The followers claim that the Book is preserved as it was revealed.
5. It is in a language that is still spoken.
6. It claims that Muhammad is the last of the Prophets.
7. It confirms that the Quran has given the complete “Deen” or the Islamic way of life or the “Moral way of life”
8. It provides a method to test whether the scripture can be from any other source other than God.
The verses that provide the test criteria are several but the test is the same:
(2:23) And if ye are in doubt as to what We have revealed from time to time to Our servant, then produce a Sura like thereunto; and call your witnesses or helpers (If there are any) besides Allah, if your (doubts) are true. (24) But if ye cannot- and of a surety ye cannot- then fear the Fire whose fuel is men and stones,- which is prepared for those who reject Faith.
(17:88) Say: "If the whole of mankind and Jinns were to gather together to produce the like of this Qur´an, they could not produce the like thereof, even if they backed up each other with help and support.
What is being compared in the challenge to produce a Sura or chapter like thereunto? Every scholar of the Quran has only talked about the linguistic excellence of the Quran but that is a subjective criteria and not amenable to any scientific inquiry or testing. There has to be something of substance to compare. Otherwise the challenge is meaningless.
(10:37) This Qur´an is not such as can be produced by other than Allah; on the contrary it is a confirmation of (revelations) that went before it, and a fuller explanation of the Book - wherein there is no doubt - from the Lord of the worlds. (38) Or do they say, "He forged it"? say: "Bring then a Sura like unto it, and call (to your aid) anyone you can besides Allah, if it be ye speak the truth!"
The nature of the Book is described as a confirmation of what was revealed before and a fuller explanation thereof. We may therefore expect in the Quran a complete explanation of the one-line Golden Rule which must be as old as civilization itself.
(11:13) Or they may say, "He forged it," Say, "Bring ye then ten suras forged, like unto it, and call (to your aid) whomsoever ye can, other than Allah!- If ye speak the truth! (14) "If then they (your false gods) answer not your (call), know ye that this revelation is sent down (replete) with the knowledge of Allah, and that there is no god but He! will ye even then submit (to Islam)?"
It is replete with knowledge of Allah (about the best way of living for mankind as we shall shortly discover)
So What Is To Be Compared?
Here we need to consider what is the main objective of the Book. The first Sura has 7 verses of which verse 6 and 7 contain a prayer and the rest of the Quran is understood to be an answer to the prayer.
(1:6) Show us the straightway, (7) The way of those on whom Thou hast bestowed Thy Grace, those whose (portion) is not wrath, and who go not astray.
The Book essentially shows mankind the straight path(moral way) to success in this world and in the hereafter.
5:3 This day have I perfected your dinakum for you, completed My favour upon you, and have chosen for you Islam as your dina.
The main objective of the Book is therefore to give mankind a complete way of life. It is also the straight way or the “moral way” of life.
In 12:76 Dini malikimeans Law of the King. So it also means the law. The day of judgment is called Yaum-i-din or the day mankind will be judged by his deeds or by the way he lived his life. In 16:52 And to Him l-dinu constantly. I-dinu is translated as “is due the worship”. What can constant worship mean? If every action of man is in accordance with the din-e-islam or according to the moral way of living, then it becomes constant worship.
The Substance of the Book is therefore the “moral way of life”
Since scriptures were revealed before, it is a confirmation of what was revealed before and a fuller explanation of the same but also abrogation of a few instructions of yore and replacement by what is better in keeping with the times.
(2:106) None of Our revelations do We abrogate or cause to be forgotten, but We substitute something better or similar: Knowest thou not that Allah Hath power over all things?
The Moral Way of Life is living a life based on “moral principles” which is the main objective of the Quran to give to mankind. So what is claimed to be inimitable in the scriptures must be the moral principles in general, irrespective of from which scripture or religion since the same principles were revealed before. What may also be inimitable is the form in which these appear in the Quran which is claimed to be the last Book.
In what we are discussing, the hypothesis of the theist can therefore be framed as:
The scriptures are inspired/revealed by the Divine. These are not a construct of the human mind.
The Falsifiability Test
The claim in the Quran appears to be that the scriptures in general have given mankind moral principles to live by and these are revelations from God or inspired by God and beyond human capability to produce.
If we can find durable moral principles produced by man, then this claim of the Quran as understood by us is falsified. Then either our understanding of what is claimed to be unique is defective or if we can find enough moral principles as a result of human thought, then there appears to be no need for religion and we can rely on reason alone.
Are Moral Principles Good Criteria For Testing?
For religions to succeed, these moral principles had to make mankind take a qualitative and quantitative leap on the scale of civilization. The starting state being living as savages. The fact that the “moral principles” have civilized us is uncontested since philosophy supports these and even the atheists observe them as long as it serves their self-interest. Without them, we will be back to the days of living like savages.
Adherence to the moral principles initially may have been only out of reverence to God but once these were practiced and the advantages to both the individual and the society became obvious, these became understandable in hindsight and even self-evident. Human laws were then framed based on these principles and even today, legal judgments are based not only on the laws of the land but sometimes based on the universally accepted moral principles. These therefore continue to be followed for their positive value even without a belief in religion.
The obvious choice for testing the claim of the theists therefore is “Moral Principles” because:
1. Everyone recognizes their value
2. The main object of the scriptures is to guide mankind on “moral living”
3. If man could produce moral principles through an evolutionary process, then clearly we never needed religion.
4. If we can now produce our moral principles for living in the 21st century, then we don’t need religion anymore and discard it as baggage from the past.
The test is therefore to see to what extent we have got our moral principles from religion and to what extent from human effort. If we have even a single good example of a durable ‘moral principle” from human effort, then the hypothesis of the theist is doubtful. The falsifiability test is therefore to find at least a single good example of a durable “moral principle” that has come from human effort.
What Is The Testable Prediction?
The Quran describes Muhammad as the last prophet and the “moral way of living” as having been completely defined for mankind. The testable prediction is therefore that we should not be able to find a single moral principle after 632 CE from any source – religious or secular.
The following argument does not require more than an understanding of plain English for the readers to understand the complete argument. And let there be no doubt that the method is both sound and in the best traditions of science although never before applied to such a question. It meets the important falsifiability test as well as makes a testable prediction that any sound theory must satisfy. Such a method has never been employed for such a question simply because what makes the scriptures inimitable by man has never been defined before. Once defined, the theory becomes both testable and falsifiable.
Research Question: Are moral principles important to us?
Finding: Very much so. These are what have civilized us and are extensively studied and emphasized. Literature is replete with stories with a moral.
Research Question: List Moral Principles from religion and Moral Principles from Human thought/endeavours outside religions
Finding: The history of Philosophy begins around 600 BC when man started applying reason to the moral principles from religion and producing “practical ethics” or showing the practical value of the moral principles. Since the moral principles are logical in hindsight, philosophy assumed that these could be produced based on reason. However, philosophy has failed to produce a single durable moral principle. All Moral Principles have come from Religion and none outside religion.
Research Question: What does Philosophy do as far as moral principles are concerned?
Finding: It shows how to use them and how to resolve moral dilemmas
Research Question: What has it produced?
Finding: It has produced Ethics theories such as Utilitarianism
Research Question: How is Utilitarianism different?
Finding: It is very much different. Utilitarianism is centred on what is good for self or the individual and morality is centred on what is right or wrong and what is just with no consideration for self but to do what is morally right. Utilitarianism is amoral. Utilitarianism can be rationally justified; Moral Duty can only be justified as conformance to the moral code out of reverence for the code or for the love and reverence of the giver of the code which is called God. These are often against self- interest and will therefore appear as irrational to those who are not trained to be moral. Utilitarianism is rational and human. Moral duty is based on reverence for the moral code and not based on what appears to be rationally the best choice in self-interest. Kant who proposed “The Principle of Supreme Morality” concedes that moral behaviour is irrational without a belief in an immortal soul and consequences beyond this life of our deeds measured on the scale of morality”. This explains the strong connection between religion and moral principles. Moral Principles appear to be not only found in religion but make sense only with “religious beliefs”. Ethical precepts are the same moral precepts but only of a practical nature.
Research Question: What about atheists who also display “moral behaviour”?
Finding: Many people have moved away from religion and become atheists. However, they realize the importance of moral principles since the society values these. Disregarding these entirely would harm them personally and professionally. For example, honesty is a good business principle for businesses that thrive on custom, customer or repeat business. Dishonesty would make the customer not come back. The percentage of repeat business in the turnover exceeds 90% for most businesses. Honesty for such businesses is therefore an extremely strong utilitarian principle.
At tourist spots where repeat business is rare since a tourist rarely comes back, cheating is rampant because honesty is only a moral principle and not a utilitarian principle.
Research Question: Are all religions alike?
Finding: Not every religion has scriptures claimed to be divinely inspired.
Research Question: Why is there such great variety in beliefs and practices if there is only one God who has sent revelations to all the people?
Finding: Taking Islam as an example, there is the religion in the Quran. The Ahadith compiled some 200 years later which are purported to be the sayings of the Prophet distort the message of the Quran and therefore the practice of the Muslims on every subject. Each religion has a part that is “divine” which in course of time is corrupted by humans with their own understanding and “interpretations”. Every religion therefore has a human component which unfortunately gets frozen at a certain distant point in time making these anachronistic. The human part is mostly superstition. With the part that makes sense having been adopted by even atheists, what appears to remain is only superstition. Also every religion appears to have degenerated into worship of ancestors over a period. The great variety is because the human component now dominates every religion including Islam.
Research Question: Why is religion necessary then?
Finding: The transcendental and absolute values of morality that religion gives us have never lost their importance. These can exist only within the framework of religion. The concept of God as the giver of the moral code for whose love and reverence the moral way of life is practiced is indispensable to morality without which we are left only with “practical ethics” in which we play the game of “catch me if you can” or “cheat if you can get away with it”.
Research Question: Is there an alternate hypothesis that explains the facts better?
Finding: The alternate thesis is to suggest that the founders of the religions which gave us the moral principles were only great visionaries who saw what was good for mankind and proposed a moral code. Realizing that there was no way to attract human beings to these moral codes since these contradicted the utilitarian thinking of man, they invented utilitarianism beyond this life and therefore talked about God, Heaven, Hell, Judgment day etc.
The problem with the alternative theory is that it makes all such founders of great religions liars and the foundation of their moral code based on a lie which by definition is immoral. The alternative thesis leads to a paradox and must thus be rejected.
Is there any new moral principle since the revelation of the Quran which claims that Muhammad was the last prophet and the guidance to mankind on the “moral way of living” was completed implying that there cannot be any new moral principle after that?
There is no new durable moral principle after the revelation of the Quran.
Conclusion: The scriptures contain moral principles that human thought has been unable to produce despite Philosophers spending considerable effort on the subject. The hypothesis meets the falsifiability test.
The alternative hypothesis leads to a paradox and is rejected.
The hypothesis also meets the predictability test
The claim of religion that their scriptures are divinely inspired/revealed has not been disproved despite the ease with which it could have been disproved if the claim was false. It is therefore more likely to be true than false. The belief of the theists in their scriptures as divinely inspired is justified based on the findings.
Naseer Ahmed is an Engineering graduate from IIT Kanpur and is an independent IT consultant after having served in both the Public and Private sector in responsible positions for over three decades. He is a frequent contributor to NewAgeIslam.com
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