Ever since the ushering of the Enlightenment in the early 18th century, religious dogma has increasingly been questioned. In the contemporary era scientists offer clear and logical explanations for the evolution of life, the formation of the solar system, etc. In the face of such indisputable scientific evidence, it is no longer possible to accommodate religious dogma. Religious fundamentalism or the literal interpretation of scriptures offered a degree of solace to primitive people when their lives and livelihoods were under constant threat from natural disasters, epidemic diseases and barbaric warfare. But as civilization has progressed, modern societies are reasonably well-equipped in regulating nature and offering protection from its extremes. Therefore, there is no longer any necessity to hold on to blind faith as a source of consolation in a brutish world. If I was invited to a public debate on the conflict between religious fundamentalism and the methods of science, I would strongly defend science and its centrality to civil discourse. The rest of this essay is an elaboration of this position.
Richard Dawkins has been an inspirational public figure since the 1970s. With his ground-breaking work The Selfish Gene, Dawkins brought irrefutable evidence and importance to Darwin’s Theory of Evolution through Natural Selection. All along he has contrasted the simplifying beauty of scientific rationality to that of mystifying and mythologizing tendency of religions. One of his later works The God Delusion is an extensive treatise on this debate. In it, Dawkins rebukes and rebuts several of illogical assumptions and false inferences made by proponents of major religions. Taking a polemical approach to erasing the God delusion, Dawkins quotes copiously from canonized religious scriptures and systematically exposes their inconsistencies, logical fallacies and contradictions. I strongly side with Dawkins and his brand of atheism which issues a clarion call to people to embrace science. What Dawkins is actually encouraging is to look and admire the beauty and complexity of our cosmos and the life forms within it. Therein lay the most intricate, the most delicate, the most wondrous of nature’s beauty and order.
To Dawkins’ defence are several leading scientists of the day. Steven Weinberg, for example, has written a detailed defence of the contents of The God Delusion in his article for the Times Literary Supplement dated 17th January 2007. Weinberg offers a historical perspective on the conflict between religious fundamentalism and scientific advancement. And in each of these conflicts, religion either rejects, modifies or misinterprets scientific fact to suit its ends. One of the classic instances was the controversy surrounding the Copernican understanding of the cosmos – which put the Sun and not the Earth at the centre of the cosmos. The Church got threatened by this theory which went against the geo-centric view noted in the holy texts. Likewise, Newton’s discovery of gravitational force upset the Church, for it dispelled the myth that it was God’s will that kept the universe in proper order. But each time, there is only so much resistance religious institutions can create in the light of overwhelming scientific evidence. Hence, eventually many theologians accepted the helio-centric view of the immediate Universe and the existence of gravitational force regulating heavenly bodies. Herein lies a message to religious fundamentalists of today. Just as preceding generations of literal interpreters of scriptures eventually realized their folly, so too will the current generation come to realize its ignorance soon. This will be one of my key messages to religious fundamentalists in this important public debate.
Even the popular astrophysicist Stephen Hawking has come strongly in support of methods of science. Though he was believed to be a believer in God at the time of publication of his bestseller ‘A Brief History of Time’, Hawking has now unequivocally made his atheism clear. He states that all the answers to naturally occurring phenomena can be found in the laws of physics and that there is no need to resort to religion for seeking answers. For example, Hawking proposes that the Universe came into existence spontaneously at the moment of the Big Bang and there is no ‘designer’ or ‘will’ behind the occurrence of the Big Bang. So I will urge religious fundamentalists to heed to the words of the leading thinkers of our time like Stephen Hawking. Ignoring their views and arguments and blindly adhering to the literal understanding of the scriptures will create social fissures and communal conflicts.
If we take a cursory glance at history, we find numerous examples of warfare and destruction that is motivated by religion. The scripture so each of the monotheistic religions in the world are full of instances of war in ancient times. Some of the scriptures even urge followers to invoke ‘holy wars’ in the name of defending their religion. It is easy to see how this invocation has resonance in the current geo-political atmosphere, where terrorism has become the most ghastly form of human tragedy. The connection between religious fundamentalism and global terrorism is undeniably. This is not to indict only Islam as prone to fundamentalist discourse and action, most other religions of the world (including Christianity, Judaism and Hinduism) have fallen into this vicious mire. Hence, I would urge the participants of this debate to refine their view of religion and take it for its spirit of peace. As the history of the last two millennia has shown us, any fundamentalist interpretation would inevitably lead to conflict, suffering and unspeakable loss.
Coming back to the proposition of leading public intellectuals of the day such as Richard Dawkins, Steven Weinberg, Stephen Hawking, etc, there are viable alternatives to religion. People usually seek refuge in religion due to their insecurities, their fears and the uncertainties of the future. But there are other avenues through which these human frailties could be addressed. Art holds great potential in this regard. As Richard Dawkins expresses eloquently in The God Delusion, there is infinite joy to be derived from sublime classical music. At one point in the book, Dawkins asks readers to imagine how if Mozart or Beethoven had composed an opera in celebration of natural wonders! What Dawkins is suggesting is that religion may not be the only motivation for composing divine music – even devotion to the beauty, complexity and grandeur of nature can produce great masterpieces like JS Bach’s Passions. Similarly, as late Christopher Hitchens noted in one of his public debates, literature can be a great source of consolation and philosophy. By extension, disciplines such as philosophy provide insight and guidance for conducting human affairs just as religious texts do. Hence, celebrating and revelling in human excellence is a great motivation in life. There is absolutely no need for religion in the modern world. The practice of fundamentalist versions of religion in contemporary times is particularly incongruous. There cannot be any mutual existence between science and religion anymore. With each advancement in science, religion will have to take a backward step.
Hence I implore the participants of this public debate to keep away from religious fundamentalism. Religion is no relevance in the modern world, especially the vicious fundamentalist variety. Religion is no more capable of offering solutions to human problems than what science and civility cannot. Hence I strongly urge you all to take up the cause of science and promote its practice and spirit. Instead of religion, people can embrace the arts and find the divine and the sublime by excelling in it.
Stephen Hawking: God did not create Universe, 2 September 2010, retrieved from
Steven Weinberg, On God, Christianity and Islam, Times Literary Supplement, January 17, 2007, retrieved from < http://pierretristam.com/Bobst/07/wf011907a.htm>
Richard Dawkins Quotes, retrieved from
God? – how science and religion rub along, 21 September 2010, retrieved from