Black holes, believers and religious texts


The science versus religion debate revisited

The more things change the more they remain the same. Since it’s the same old issues that people keep debating over and over, the radio-telescopic image of the black hole in M87 has predictably triggered another round of the old science versus religion debate. There were memes on the social media showing men in thobes and ghutras scanning the Quran to find something in there so that they could claim that their book had predicted it 1400 years ago. As if on cue, some Muslims did indeed post self-congratulatory posts very similar to the above parody.

Of course, Christians had found themselves obliged to defend their religion against the unrelenting scientific onslaught much before the Muslims. Throughout the Age of Reason and beyond, the areligious folks kept confronting the Christians with scientific discoveries and how the Bible was erroneous in this or that matter. By the middle of the 19th century, as the scientific optimism was reaching its peak, it had become impossible to reconcile the Bible with science, let alone claim that the Bible had predicted those very discoveries a long time ago. A new approach was needed to safeguard religion, which was provided by the German theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher. He told the Christians that the next time somebody came to taunt them for believing in false and unreasonable things, they should avoid debating him. Instead, they should simply tell him that their truth was subjective, and it didn’t depend upon external facts or observations. Those who heeded the advice were able to avoid more embarrassment, but this was achieved at the cost of shying away from facts.

Now, for several reasons (which there is no need to enlist here) the Quran is a very different sort of book from the Bible. What is relevant to the discussion at hand is that the Quran doesn’t command its reader to believe in certain things as much as it invites belief in them. A recurring advice that can be found in it is, ‘Ask men of knowledge, if you don’t know’. This is what makes it unique among all religious texts. The identity of the men of knowledge being referred to depends upon the context, of course; but when it comes to physical matters, they are men of science. So, far from encouraging its reader to shy away from facts, it makes him face facts, a much healthier approach.

Unlike the Bible, the Quran gives no hostages to its detractors in the form of logical or scientific errors, and that is something justifiably gratifying for the Muslim. Anything more than that, however, s not only unjustified but counterproductive

However, the Quran is not a book of science. Even the scientific or physical facts mentioned in the Quran are there not for the sake of science per se, but by way of inviting recognition of God’s Oneness, the fundamental theme of the Quran, in which respect it is the last word. When it comes to science, the Muslim, for many centuries now, finds himself in an embarrassing position. He believes science to be outside his grasp, and since he won’t put in the hard work collecting empirical evidence (the scientific method), he is often tempted to give the Quranic verses that appear to talk about cosmology or the like the meanings (or details) taken from contemporary science. When he is ridiculed for doing that, he is then tempted to hate all science, only to realize later that that is not an option either. This triggers a fresh cycle of trying and ‘owning’ science. He needs to realize that scientific excellence requires hard work and there’s just no way around that.

That said, for a Muslim who takes his religion seriously and who can give an account of it if required (as opposed to being merely a Muslim by birth) there’s a lot of value in the fact that there’s nothing that has conclusively been demonstrated to be untrue in his book. This is what he expects from a book he considers to be a dictation by God: it shouldn’t be rendered outdated by scientific discoveries if it’s from the Creator of the universe. (Compare the Quran with any other book, and one realizes that whole portions of books– sometimes the complete works– become dated within a couple of decades after their publication.)

The Muslim, then, need not be insecure about his religion in the face of any scientific discovery. Unless it can be conclusively shown that there’s something in the Quran that’s factually erroneous or logically inconsistent or absurd, any of which has yet to be shown. Unlike the Bible, the Quran gives no hostages to its detractors in the form of logical or scientific errors, and that is something justifiably gratifying for the Muslim. Anything more than that, however, especially bragging after each new scientific discovery that their book had predicted it long ago, is not only unjustified but counterproductive.