On the Merits and Limitations of the Istanbul Declaration on Islam and Science

As a daily practitioner of science, I am routinely horrified by the interactions between religious and scientific institutions. The idea of religiously-affiliated universities is one which is particularly toxic to me. Of course, the global institution of higher education owes much to organised religion and indeed the first such organisations in Europe were housed in churches. But in modernity, names like “Australian Catholic University” and “Islamic University of Indonesia” arouse not a sense of prestige, but of suspicion. Such a situation can so easily precipitate the “input” of theologians into what should be purely scientific matters. It is clear that for the best research to occur, religious ideologies must take a back seat.

Usama Hasan (et al.)’s recent Istanbul Declaration is a welcome departure from long-standing pan-religious rhetoric that sets the default stance of the conservative-religious individual as being one of anti-science. The succinct document espouses the benefits of critical thinking and scientific thought and strongly advocates for a separation of religious and scientific process, even going so far as suggesting that the Qur’an is not a book of science or scientific facts. This is immeasurably commendable and adoption of this view can only be constructive in the global pursuit of rational inquiry.

There are, however, a couple of relatively minor flaws in the declaration. Firstly, it is argued that “the relationship between religion and science is one of complementarity and each can help elevate the understanding of the other.” Now, it’s certainly true that an enhanced understanding of science can influence spiritual thought — there have been books written on the topic — but I’m not so sure that it’s a two-way street. I cannot conceive any theological revelation which would impact scientific thinking in any substantial way. Outside of the realm of psychology, religion is generally irrelevant to scientific pursuit. How does it help me, as a scientist performing clinical research, that some religious authority claims that they have found a revelation in the book that they claim was written by a God that they claim exists? I have no need for religious input to gather data in an objective way.

The latter, much more obvious error is in the declaration is the statement that “science cannot prove or disprove the existence of God.” This is true, but only in a scientifically philosophical sense. Science can never conclusively prove or disprove any statement, only provide evidence for or against it. If, for example, you observed five hundred swans and noted that they are all white, you might establish a hypothesis that “all swans must be white.” Well, you’d be in for a shock if you were to visit Australia only to be greeted by hordes of angry Cygnus atratus. Unless you have seen every swan in the world — that is, unless you have every point of data — you cannot claim to have proved anything with a set of observations.

IGNORE US NOT, HUMAN, OR SUFFER OUR ENDLESS WRATH. Photo: Fernando on Flickr

A more accurate statement would have been that “current scientific techniques cannot demonstrate the existence or non-existence of a supreme being.” There must be potential avenues by which scientific processes could make a statement regarding the existence of God, it’s just that the specifics of these processes are yet to be conceived. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that if the statement “there is a God or higher power of some kind” can be ascribed a truth value (and clearly it can), it is something that is answerable by the institution of science. Just not in the context of current limitations.

Ultimately though, the Istanbul Declaration is indicative of the future of religious attitudes towards science. The only remaining obstacle is its adoption in the Muslim community, which I imagine will be troublesome. The Quilliam Foundation (the organisation with which Dr Hasan is associated) is widely slandered within and outside the Islamic community, for reasons which its opponents never quite make clear. The truth, I fear, is simple resistance to change and fear of the perceived impurity of progressivism.

In any event, it’s hard to argue with Hasan’s work from any angle. He should be congratulated and accepted as a leader in reconciling traditionally conservative Islamic ideas and practices with modern democratic ideas, and both the Muslim community and the wider population are collectively shooting themselves in the foot by rejecting his sentiments as that of an incendiary heretic.

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