By Naseer Ahmed, New Age Islam
Richard Dawkins, the evolutionary biologist has become the poster boy for atheism. I hope he is good at his subject of evolutionary biology but when it comes to religion, he appears to be as irrational as the Church was once upon a time regarding science. I suppose, his rejection of religion is related to the way the question of evolutionary biology and creation is presented. Either you choose evolutionary biology and therefore science or you choose creation and therefore religion. Evolutionary biology and creation are not treated as equally valid models of the reality. “My personal feeling is that understanding evolution led me to atheism” is what he says. He further says that “the theory of evolution by cumulative natural selection is the only theory we know of that is in principle capable of explaining the existence of organized complexity”.
I would think that organized complexity can be better explained as the work of a Creator just as the works of Shakespeare are more easily understood as the work of a person rather than as produced through some process of `natural selection’ by a computer. We can grant the possibility that a computer can be programmed by a linguist to produce intelligible works comparable to the works of Shakespeare, but there is a difference between what is deemed as conceivable and fact or even a possibility in the next trillion years. It is necessary that all works of literature are composed of building blocks (words and rules of grammar) that make it possible to express almost anything. That does not mean that every work of literature just happened by itself! Also, we need human beings to do the programming even if we can use machines to generate intelligible text. So why Dawkins should reject the idea of creation and hold as true the idea of evolution of higher life forms from the lowest? Just because fossils are available that date hundreds of thousand years ago and the Bible says that life began a few thousand years ago? The Church may have erred in a number of ways but that is not true of every religion. He is entitled to his preferred view but rejecting the idea of creation is a personal whim rather than a rational conclusion.
Religion And Morality
Evolutionary biologists glibly talk about morals and moral emotions, without pausing to wonder, why religion has been the sole source of all moral precepts. Why philosophers, who have dealt with the subject and have defined morality, been unable to generate any moral precept? Why secular thinking has not produced a single moral precept? Religions, with their claim of divinely inspired messengers of God or avatars have on the other hand, contributed richly and exclusively. These moral precepts form the basis for the civil and criminal law of nations with necessary additions of a juridical nature. To borrow the words from the Quran, in this is a sign of God for those who think. The Quran gives out a challenge to humanity as follows:
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.
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.
The challenge holds good for all that was revealed to every messenger, sent to every nation, from the beginning of time. My alternate challenge would be - Produce three moral precepts that do not owe their origin to religion or even one if you can!
Let us look at some possible arguments against divinity as a source of all durable moral precepts. Are these precepts self evident which religion appropriated and since all the self evident moral precepts were already appropriated by religion there was nothing left for the secular thinkers? As De Bono would say, every valued creative idea has to necessarily be logical in hindsight. If it were not so, we would reject it as without value. As the creative idea is logical in hindsight we are tempted to think that it should be equally accessible to logic in foresight. This need not be so. What chance does an ant on the trunk of a tree have of reaching a specified leaf? At every branch the chances diminish. In an average tree the chances are one in eight thousand. Now if we have an ant sitting on a leaf what are the chances of reaching the trunk of the tree? There is no forward branching in the journey so the chances are one hundred per cent. It is exactly the same with creative ideas. Once the idea has been reached then it is logical and obvious in hindsight. But reaching the idea is a different matter. The fact that no moral precept has come out of secular thinking and all moral precepts have come from only Religion is a good reason to believe that these are divinely inspired as claimed. There is evidence that every major religion, through its moral and social precepts, has pitch forked the followers at least a thousand years ahead of the rest and different civilizations have therefore enjoyed pre eminence at different points in time. A link is provided below to my article covering the Islamic principles whose application had taken Islamic society (tribal Bedouins) to great heights.
Response To Common Arguments Against Theism
a) Morality is not the preserve of the theists alone
What makes it easy for even atheists to imbibe and follow the moral precepts? Man is endowed with reason, capable of understanding and discerning, and enjoys freedom by virtue of his reason to make moral choices ignoring his instinct and conditioning, his likes and dislikes and can act in accordance with the highest moral principles. That the moral precepts promote happiness and disregarding these has undesirable consequences for self and the society is self evident. We recognize what we must do and what we must avoid to promote the good of society and self. Hence, a rational human being will accept moral precepts that promote well being of self and the society irrespective of where these come from and without necessarily believing in any of the religions.
b) Even Animals show pro social behaviour
Looking at animal behaviour, the evolutionary biologists think that altruism and reciprocity evolved among animals because these behaviours provided better survival benefits whereby those who learnt, did better than those that did not. They contend that all social animals, from ants to elephants, have modified their behaviours through an evolutionary process, by sacrificing self interest for the benefit of their group. Whether such behaviour is instinctive, or whether it evolved over a period as part of an evolutionary process is a controversial topic in evolutionary theory. While animals have shown their limited altruistic and pro social behaviour, and are not known to prey on and kill their own kind, it has taken much longer for man to learn the same behaviour, until which time, they lived in small communes and treated every other commune as hostile and preyed on and killed each other. The savage man of 10,000 years ago is known to have preyed on, and killed other men not belonging to their own group, with great predictability and regularity. The instinctive pro social behaviour was perhaps limited to the maternal bond, the immediate family and their commune. Man continues to kill other men, which is proof that it is learnt behaviour, and not biological instinct or behaviour modified by the evolutionary process that drives man to a greater extent. A man can be raised to be moral, amoral or immoral and his morality is shaped by the values that he imbibes. Abraham Maslow argued that what is called instinct is often imprecisely defined, and really amounts to strong drives. For Maslow, an instinct is something which cannot be overridden, and this is not true for humans. What man comes equipped with biologically are the emotions of happiness, sadness, pleasure, pain, disgust, ecstasy, anger and fear. Emotions and feelings are automatic physiological responses to external stimuli and help us take split second decisions such as fight or flight when facing danger or in simpler contexts like or dislike. Using reason is far slower and a very conscious and deliberate process. We are often too lazy to exert our thinking and let emotion or feelings decide for us. However, reason is capable of overriding instinctive and conditioned responses.
Morals are what help us in pro social behaviour and in propagating and preserving our species. Since pro social behviour is common for all living beings and seen among animals also, is no reason to believe that the process by which these skills are acquired is identical.
c) Man possesses conscience or a moral compass which guides him to what is moral
Has evolution provided human beings with an internal moral compass or a conscience which guides him to make correct moral choices and is that the secret of man’s moral behaviour?
“Human beings are a species splendid in their array of moral equipment”. They can through their reason alone, recognize, appreciate and accept all good moral precepts no matter from where these come. They can be trusted to enact good laws based on these and also support their effective implementation by setting up necessary institutions for detecting violations, prosecuting offenders, and for punishing the convicted. You therefore saw millions turn out in support of setting up of the Lokpal. People pointed out that cine actors, and many others like them, who accept black money in compensation, also came out in support and therefore, the show was sheer hypocrisy. I disagree. Yes, people who cheat on their taxes etc came out in support, but there was nothing insincere about their support. People look for a level playing field and will be happy not to cheat provided no one else cheats. They will therefore sincerely support the setting up of institutions that can prevent cheating and corruption. The government can make good use of the “splendid moral equipment” of people to create incorruptible institutions or institutions that are independent and share responsibility with other independent institutions so that each of these independent institutions is a check on the misuse of power by the other institutions and together, they effectively curb corruption and misuse of power.
However, when faced with a situation, the very same people easily violate the laws they helped enact, if they think that they can get away with it. What about the moral compass and conscience? When presented with a situation that involves making a moral choice, our first impulse is to obey our feelings. The feeling generated is in accordance with our beliefs of what is right or wrong. If reason is applied, then there is a chance that we may subvert our `moral learning’ to do what we think is better suited for our self interest although not for the society. However, we experience unease and discomfort when our actions are not in accordance with our feelings or beliefs. This is nothing except the cognitive dissonance or a feeling of unease when our actions are not in consonance with our beliefs. The reasoning mind is however capable of rationalizing our preferred action and resolves the cognitive dissonance through a process of redefining or discounting the discordant factors. Robert Wright in his book the Moral Animal writes, “Human beings are a species splendid in their array of moral equipment, tragic in their propensity to misuse it, and pathetic in their constitutional ignorance of the misuse.” They do not even acknowledge to themselves that they have done any wrong. The next time the cognitive dissonance felt is even weaker and the person breaks the law without feeling a twinge.
The effective way to make people follow the law is to have an all pervasive surveillance system to detect violations. People do have a threshold for crossing the line. They can be expected to follow the rules until the temptation to break the rule becomes stronger than the desire to conform or the fear of the consequences of getting caught. This threshold depends upon our relative position in life. A prosperous person has more to lose than to gain if he cheats for small amounts and gets caught. He can be expected to remain honest and even show generosity while dealing with people less fortunate than him, and in transactions involving small amounts. All other factors remaining the same, the people of a prosperous country will show a higher standard of morality in ordinary day to day life, since the consequences of cheating are more harmful to such people than the gain from cheating. In prosperous countries therefore, you find little or no corruption in the day to day life of a citizen and all frauds and corruption are for very large amounts mostly.
Difference between the Pro Social Behaviour of Animals and Humans
Animals are hard wired and are largely guided by their instinct and to some extent by conditioning. Mammals with complex neural system exhibit a greater role of their cerebral cortex and depend more on social learning and less on instincts. Lionesses and chimpanzees raised in zoos away from their birth mothers most often reject their own offspring because they have not been taught the skills of mothering. Such is not the case with simpler species such as reptiles. Animals display a range of very limited capacity to learn through conditioning which makes it possible to domesticate them. Although the larger mammals are capable of learning, their responses are guided by either instinct or conditioning and not from reasoning. They are not moral agents making moral choices through reason. Man on the other hand is guided by instinct, conditioning as well as by reasoning and his reasoning can overrule both his instinct and conditioning. While animals are mostly pre-programmed, man is entirely programmable and even reprogrammable. Animals instinctively show pro social behaviour. Humans need to learn the concepts of empathy, kindness, generosity, giving, sharing, nurturing, modesty and humility. If these are not learned early enough, man will grow without the capacity for feelings and moral emotions and will exhibit psychopathic behaviour. The earlier, the moral precepts are learnt, the greater their chances of making an indelible mark on the person. Up to the age of 3 years, a person accepts all that it is taught without filtering. Beyond the age of 3 years, a person filters new messages through what he/she has already learnt. Noam Chomsky’s most powerful single idea is that there is a universal capacity for language but it is expressed in different ways in different cultures. Every baby has the capacity to learn all the world’s languages but what the neurologists call synaptic pruning in the early years reduces that child’s capacity to the languages around her. A songbird which does not hear other songbirds singing at the crucial stage of its development can never sing. That account of language can work for morality too – indeed the two are closely related, depending as they both do on human interaction.”
Another Irrational Objection Of Atheists To Religion
Dawkins also says “Many of us saw religion as harmless nonsense. Beliefs might lack all supporting evidence but, we thought, if people needed a crutch for consolation, where's the harm? September 11th changed all that.” Was 9/11 a political act or a religious one? Was it directed against Christians or the USA?
What does he think of the needless dropping of atom bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki then when the Japanese were ready to surrender but their overtures were ignored for at least 6 months, because the US wanted to test the destructive power of the bombs and also drive home a point to the USSR?
Is it possible to think of moral precepts as a product of human thought? Yes, it is possible. Is it a result of human thinking? I doubt it because if it was, then the works of secular thinking would be rich in these concepts?
Is it possible that all life began in its lowest form and the present higher life forms are a result of evolutionary process? Yes, it is possible. Is it possible that the starting point of life could have been the higher forms? Yes, I think so.
The fact that mutations according to the law of natural selection are necessary to make us adapt to our changing environment, makes it necessary for the life forms to be composed of basic mutable building blocks which in turn show us the possibility of life evolving from lower forms. However, like the self evident creative ideas which are logical in hindsight just do not happen by themselves, nor are the works of Shakespeare composed of the basic building blocks of words created by computers, a Creator may have created the higher and most complex life forms and while evolution by natural selection goes on, the starting point for life could well have been the higher forms. Does evolutionary biology rule out the idea of the starting point of life being the higher life forms? I don’t think so. What about the existence of fossils that are hundreds of thousand years old? They just prove that the beginning of life on earth dates hundreds of thousands or millions of years ago. What about creation in 6 days as per the Bible? The Quran also talks about creation in 6 days but a day is according to 22:47 and 32:5 like a thousand years and according to 70:4 like 50,000 years.
Richard Dawkins is not an exception and western education displays a very strong anti-religion slant which may be mainly attributed to the Church taking an inflexible stand on:
1. Evolution including mutations by natural selection
2. Age of living things taken as a few thousand years when fossils show that life has existed hundreds of thousand years ago.
3. Creation in 6 days whereas the big bang theory talks of a much longer periods.
4. A geocentric view of the universe with the earth at absolute rest
5. A flat earth.
The Church clearly took up positions in the past based on its world view which may not even be justifiable in the light of its own scriptures. Not every religion suffers from the same defects where what was claimed to be its divinely inspired scriptures have been proven to be wrong. Take just one case of the creation in 6 days which the Quran confirms but lest we confuse a day as 24 hours, there are verses which talk of a cosmic day which can be as long as 50000 years. The Quran does not speak about genealogy or of history or when life began or the age of the Universe. It is possible that the Church or mortals have added a number of details to make the Bible ‘complete’ providing ‘missing historical details.’ Errors are due to human accretions to divinely inspired scriptures where it has now become difficult to distinguish between inspired scriptures and human additions. Without doubt, the strong positions taken by the Church on a number of points which have been disproved have raised grave doubts about the claims of Religion as divinely inspired wisdom. However, looking at the Quran, which is claimed as the unaltered word of God, and without doubt preserved in the language of its revelation exactly as first revealed, we find none of the problems that we find in the Bible which was compiled by men, centuries after Jesus’ crucifixion.
The anti religious slant in western education however affects all those who pursue it and therefore we find even Muslims who have received western education drifting away from religion. These strata of highly educated Muslim society and its intelligentsia should have become the leaders of the Muslim masses but because of their alienation from Islam, they have distanced themselves from the people. Western education is therefore looked upon with suspicion with good reason and the Muslims to blame for it are the educated ones who are ‘lost’ to Muslim society.
I have tried to show in this article, that the anti religion slant in western education is understandable but unfortunate and not rational. While mutations by natural selection are undeniable, creation is an acceptable model of reality with a higher probability of being right than evolution of all life forms from the lowest forms. Moral precepts being the exclusive preserve of religion are further evidence of the claims of divine inspiration of the Religions which have contributed richly to these precepts. We have further explored how divine revelations and Islam’s charter of Human Rights granting various freedoms to all individuals unknown to Europe and rest of the World, pitch forked the followers at least a thousand years ahead of the rest of humanity.
This article is built on my previous article in NAI “Religion as a Civilizing Influence” which may also be read using the link below:
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.