In this age of modern science, we face the question of whether we need a belief in God for our advancement. In fact, many vocal atheists today—such as Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Daniel Dennett, P.Z. Myers, Sam Harris, Victor Stenger, etc.—make heavy use of science to justify their denial of the existence of God.
These are highly intelligent and well-educated people whose statements against religion make the claim that a belief in God is both “delusional” and a “dangerous threat” to the survival of humankind, and that it provides “false comfort” in the face of danger and difficulty. They claim religious people necessarily oppose critical thinking and believe in ideas “without evidence”. A number of them have referred to the religious education of children as “child abuse”. These atheists are especially hostile towards scientists who claim evidence for intelligent design in Nature, and/or those who question whether Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection—viewed as an undirected process without a need for God to intervene—can fully explain the diversity of life on Earth. (Or, indeed, explain the beginnings of life on Earth.)
While it is true that a slight majority (60%) of scientists surveyed declared themselves as “atheist” or “agnostic” where it concerns belief in a personal God, many reputable scientists see no conflict between science and religion. Despite this, inflammatory and highly disrespectful language is used in advancing this debate.
An important point to consider in this discussion is that, despite claims to the contrary from atheists, there is a strong faith principle within the scientific discipline that is not well-appreciated by the public and needs to be expounded upon. Current theoretical physics research is undergoing a crisis, where certain physicists—mostly atheists—are adopting questionable positions about physical reality, while demanding blind acceptance from the public about their beliefs. This is especially prevalent in the areas of string theory and in some very recent origin hypotheses.
On the other side of the equation, some atheists within the scientific community are openly hostile towards colleagues who question the limitations of evolution by undirected natural selection, and those who further suggest evidence for intelligent design in the Universe. (When I speak here of intelligent design, I do not mean the specifically Christian hypotheses that extends Creationist ideas into the scientific arena, but rather the general concept that there has been some direction in the evolution of life in the universe.)
Human discovery functions best within an atmosphere of open and fearless inquiry, but the new atheists’ indiscriminate hostility and willful ignorance about religion in general (and Islam in particular) impinges on that openness by placing some ideas and dialogue off-limits and by suggesting that there is some knowledge we ought to fear. This, in turn, has the potential to cause harm for religionists who have nothing to do with extremism. I would argue that there exist potential public safety issues if the atheist rhetoric—especially around such issues as the extremist nature of all Islam or the criminality of exposing children to religion—goes unchallenged by reason.
In expounding their views on these subjects, this “new” generation atheist thinkers suggests that there is a type of knowledge that human beings should not give their children—indeed, that religious knowledge should not be considered in making decisions at the individual or collective level. I’d like to speak to that suggestion.
A Bahá’í Perspective on Knowledge and Use of Language
I am a Bahá’í. To counter the new atheist assertion that religion is anti-knowledge, I must observe that the Bahá’í Faith has from its inception valued the pursuit of knowledge and the search for truth, making it a key principle of faith. The Faith encourages its followers to achieve excellence in education with humility and respect for others, and for the service of humankind.
Knowledge is as wings to man’s life, and a ladder for his ascent. Its acquisition is incumbent upon everyone. The knowledge of such sciences, however, should be acquired as can profit the peoples of the earth, and not those which begin with words and end with words. Great indeed is the claim of scientists and craftsmen on the peoples of the world. . . . In truth, knowledge is a veritable treasure for man, and a source of glory, of bounty, of joy, of exaltation, of cheer and gladness unto him. (Bahá’u’lláh, Tablets of Bahá’u’lláh, p. 51)
To counter the assertion that religion and science are natural enemies, I must observe that there is a requirement in my faith for a correspondence between science and religion:
Any religious belief which is not conformable with scientific proof and investigation is superstition, for true science is reason and reality, and religion is essentially reality and pure reason; therefore, the two must correspond. Religious teaching which is at variance with science and reason is human invention and imagination unworthy of acceptance, for the antithesis and opposite of knowledge is superstition born of the ignorance of man. If we say religion is opposed to science, we lack knowledge of either true science or true religion, for both are founded upon the premises and conclusions of reason, and both must bear its test. (‘Abdu’l-Bahá, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 107)
Indeed, the Bahá’í Faith advances the claim that the pursuit of science requires guidance from religion, with serious consequences if the two do not work hand in hand:
If religion were contrary to logical reason then it would cease to be a religion and be merely a tradition. Religion and science are the two wings upon which man’s intelligence can soar into the heights, with which the human soul can progress. It is not possible to fly with one wing alone! Should a man try to fly with the wing of religion alone he would quickly fall into the quagmire of superstition, whilst on the other hand, with the wing of science alone he would also make no progress, but fall into the despairing slough of materialism. (‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Paris Talks, p. 142)
Atheists, meanwhile, take the general viewpoint that only material processes are “real” and anything with a spiritual dimension is “superstition.”
How are we to resolve these apparent differences and find common ground? That’s what I’d like to explore in my next posting.