You’ve heard it all before haven’t you? Being racially or religiously profiled for your beard, skin colour or clothing. Only recently was a Muslim individual stopped on the streets by a Caucasian woman, because of the clothes he was wearing. These highly deplorable images sail their way onto social media, consequently being met by thousands of protesters in the form of angry Emojis on Facebook.
While such incidents are deplorable, racist and xenophobic they are nonetheless identifiable because of the peripheral nature of its manifestation, that is it can be seen by all individuals. The real issue facing society today however isn’t these rather conspicuous incidents, but rather those that hide under the curtain, disguised and almost perfectly hidden. What I am referring to is the new age academic bias that has been created amongst the intelligentsia, that religious folk can never be quote on quote ‘objective’.
This brings into question the idea of ‘What is objective’ and why religious people seem to be targeted more than any other group. Consider the following example, how many people would you hear pointing out atheism as a cause of one’s bias, or their upbringing and experiences ? The social image constructed regarding religion – post enlightenment period – is one of frustration and religious antagonism. Phrases such as religion being backward, a barrier to progress or the biggest of plight in the twenty first century, are part of the enlightenment narrative.
Dick Gregory in his provocatively titled autobiography ‘Nigger’ says that “I was learning that just being a Negro doesn’t qualify you to understand the race situation any more than being sick makes you an expert on medicine.” What stems from Dick’s quote is the fundamental distinction between “experiencing” something and “understanding” it. This logic can further be applied to any group, faith or ideology regardless of its key tenants and laws.
Members of opposite political thought – even though they can overlap from time to time – are most likely to support the political points that are embedded within their respective philosophies. However time and time again, they find themselves on national television debating one another – (insert Theresa May pun here) – in the vain hope of trying to convince the public why their manifesto and party position is more effective than the other.
The question one has to ask is why, if at all, should people consider anyone else’s position if they are to be biased from the first place. To address this issue we actually have to first analyse the most abused word in the English language when it comes to debates: bias.
The definition of bias, according to the oxford dictionary, is as follows: “Inclination or prejudice for or against one person or group, especially in a way considered to be unfair”. What needs to be particularly taken from this definition, is the distinction between having an inclination towards something and on the other hand accepting something as true without any justification and consideration, in other words to be inclined but in a way that is unfair.
Everyone has some form of inclination due to their religious beliefs, life experiences, political affiliation, school, college, family values, upbringing, location, culture and a variety of other things. The fundamental difference between these and religious impetus is solely based on two things: (I) the laws and commandments of religion, are clearly set out and (II) that religion has always had a set biased created against it. Note that on this occasion I use the term bias with its full intended meaning, that is to say, with a sense of unfairness.
It becomes useful at this point to define in context, what we actually mean by ‘unfairness’. In this context we will consider it to be the complete negation of any idea, solely on the basis that it has an association with religion based on the assumption that the individual has no reason other than religion to justify it, or that the individual is trying to superimpose their religious beliefs on others. The problem with this type of thinking is that it assumes (a) religious beliefs are without reason and (b) that specific beliefs within religion are only justifiable by religious cannon and tradition, and not by means other than that, such as pure reason, logic, cause and effect etc.
The hypocrisy in the one making the claim can beautifully be summarised in a incident regarding Professor John Lennox, where he was once told by his opponent during a debate, that he only believed in God because his parents were believers. Lennox later asked his opponent what belief their parents followed, the individual replied “atheists” to which Lennox appropriately responded by saying “really!”.
What Lennox revealed is the blatant hypocrisy that is made in regards to religion that it is neither rational nor capable of being objective. What one doesn’t realize is that every individual can be considered guilty of being under some influence and inclination due his own beliefs, the only difference is we never mention those things to dismiss a particular view because we believe that somehow atheists can be objective while religious people cant. This is definitely not the case.
To illustrate an example of an individual who was a religious scholar, yet was highly objective and met his opponents at an equal footing without the need to retort to revelation, let us take a look at the famous Islamic theologian and philosopher Imam Abu Hamid Al-Ghazali (R.A). During his time one of the major intellectual onslaughts that occurred against the Muslims was that of Greek Philosophy.
Its intricate use of logic and syllogisms was a powerful force in the academic world and the philosophers of that that time were no less famous than figures like Richard Dawkins are today. To counter this issue one could not simply refer to revelation as a defence, rather Imam Ghazali had to counter their arguments using the same methodology his opponents used as well as understanding the relevant fallacies in their arguments. This led to his famous work The Incoherence of the Philosophers (تهافت الفلاسفة Tahāfut al-Falāsifa) that served to become a powerful refutation of these philosophers for centuries. The imperative point about Al-Ghazali’s work wasn’t the quality of his work, but rather his ability to utilize the methodology of his opponent and debate them using reason in their own field.
This demonstrates a religious figures ability to be able to argue rationally – and non-religiously- regarding an issue while remaining as objective as possible. The assumption that religion requires the negation of reason is fundamentally misleading because reading revelation requires reason! It comes as no surprise then that this ability to deal with reason can also be applied in arguing points outside of a religious context.
This brings me to the next concept that I wish to clarify, which is the separation of the divine essence within particular rulings and the social effects that they have. Many Islamic rulings can be thought of like a cross with the vertical axis representing the divine manifestation, and the horizontal axis representing the worldly manifestation of that particular ruling. This is essential in helping people understand that while a particular point has a divine reason for it, it may also have some kind of material manifestation, that can be seen in the real world in the form of cause and effect.
For example take the ruling on giving charity (zakat) in Islam. The vertical aspect involves pleasing God and spreading provision (rizq) that he has bestowed upon you. The horizontal manifestation however can be argued from a purely non-religious and scientific way, using pure reason. We can talk about how it is morally right to help fellow human beings, how someone might desperately be in need, and how doing this can build better and more interconnected societies while reducing poverty. The same sort of examples can be applied to things such as alcohol, music, dress code and even fasting. This sort of materialistic dialogue that is solely based on logic, depends on whether the speaker is interested from a religious point or view or a purely secular one.
We now continuously find non-believers (and ironically believers) that oppose any view by a religious individual based solely on the view that believing in a particular religion will make him/her bias. But as Dr. Mohamed Ghilan mentions in one of his lectures, rather than being apologetic one should rhetorically ask the individual making such claims what makes them more objective than you are ? Surely they are just as influenced by their experiences, upbringing and own thoughts just as much as you. Assuming one is influenced by some ideological force in their lives, (which most of us naturally are) it makes no difference to the point being made. If the individual makes a claim based on pure logic and reason then bringing their religion into the question without acknowledging their point is simply a form of discrimination.
Rather one should recognize that everyone is prone to being somewhat inclined but being part of a particular group, faith, race or ideologically does not make their points less objective than the other. Appealing to your religion and why a particular point in your religion are two very different things, with latter being arguable through completely irreligious means.
A perfect example of this sort of form of duality is presented as one unique concept can be seen in Imam Al-Ghazali’s magnum opus The Revival of Religious Sciences (Ihya’ Ulum al-Din or Ihya’u Ulumiddin) in which he discusses many different religious actions but also acts as a spiritual psychologist, dissecting and discerning different rulings laying bare their effects. While the full sweetness of the text (or its aim) cannot be tasted without its religious aspects, the book also serves as a monument of scientific observation, application of pure reason and analytical psychology to the point that non-Muslim readers can also greatly benefit from his work.
This objectivity is not limited purely to Islamic intellectual thinkers but actually famous Christian ones as well. To quote Lennox “God is not an alternative to science as an explanation, he is not to be understood merely as a God of the gaps, he is the ground of all explanation: it is his existence which gives rise to the very possibility of explanation, scientific or otherwise. It is important to stress this because influential authors such as Richard Dawkins will insist on conceiving of God as an explanatory alternative to science – an idea that is nowhere to be found in theological reflection of any depth. Dawkins is therefore tilting at a windmill – dismissing a concept of God that no serious thinker believes in anyway. Such activity is not necessarily to be regarded as a mark of intellectual sophistication”.
Indeed many scientific figures including Galileo, Maxwell, Newton, Pascal, Kepler and numerous others were driven by their belief in God to do objective science. This is summarized succinctly in a quote by C.S Lewis in which he says ‘Men became scientific because they expected Law in Nature, and they expected Law in Nature because they believed in a Legislator.’ Rather than halting scientific progress, religion played a tremendous role in informing the scientific method and the application of logic and rationality. The Quran makes and sets a epistemological impetus for the scientific method in the verse “Do they not look at the Camels, how they are made? And at the Sky, how it is raised high? And at the Mountains, how they are fixed firm? And at the Earth, how it is spread out? Therefore do thou give admonition, for thou art one to admonish.” (Al-Ghashiya – The Overwhelming/The Pall, 17-21). Far from curtailing it, the Quran vigorously commands believers to use their intellect and apply their reason in understanding the universe and all that is in it.
An excellent example showing how the dynamic of being bias and objective can quickly be reversed for the religious and non-religious, can be viewed in the history of the big bang theory and the events that led up to its formulation. The Christian priest and professor of physics Georges Henri Joseph Édouard Lemaître published a paper in 1927 titled A homogeneous Universe of constant mass and growing radius accounting for the radial velocity of extragalactic nebulae. The paper was translated into English from Belgian in 1931 shortly after which during a meeting at the British Association, where he was invited to talk on the relationship between the universe and spirituality, Lemaître conceived Of an initial starting point called the “Primeval Atom” from which the universe expanded. Hence giving birth to the idea of the big bang theory.
What gave Lemaître and his ideas solid evidence to further his case was the observations made by the famous American astronomer Edwin Powell Hubble. In 1929 Hubble was able to show that, there was a direct relationship between a Galaxy’s distance and velocity, in what came to be known as Hubble’s law. The implications of this however were that the universe must have begun as a small condensed state and has expanded ever since. Lemaître took this as evidence for his big bang model of the universe. Perhaps what most evidently shows Lemaitre’s success is when Einstein, who once opposed Lemaitre’s ideas and said: “Your calculations are correct, but your physics is atrocious”, came to support his views and adopted the big bang model of the universe.
Scientists however continued to support the idea of a eternal universe for a variety of different reasons that included scientific objections to the Big bang Model such as the inability to explain the formation of galaxies and absence CMB (cosmic background radiation). This led physicists Fred Hoyle and Hermann Bondi proposed the Steady State Model of the universe, which in very simple terms suggested that, the universe could be eternal and unchanging whilst still having galaxies move away from each other as Hubble has predicted. The Steady State Model itself also had problems such as the inability to explain the distribution of galaxies, age of the universe and the observed abundance of light atoms. Much like Smackdown vs RAW – but much more realistic – there were two competing theories in the physics world namely, The Steady State Model and The Big bang Model.
What’s important to observe here is that that many of the scientists who continued to support the Steady State Model of the universe, did so because it was in line with their philosophical presuppositions that the universe was indeed eternal, and did not require a creator. The Big Bang Model implied the universe had a beginning and that necessarily implied it must have some first cause (although in the modern day that is debated). Scientists did indeed – whether you accept it or not – have an underlying inclination, and it caused them to hold tight to a theory that came under increasing scrutiny from emerging evidence. This is a perfect example of how even the non-religious can sometimes be swayed by their philosophical inclinations, and how the religious, in this case Lemaitre, turned out to be right and in line with the evidence. Although one cannot definitively prove that the scientists were biased – since we can never know peoples intentions and thoughts – we can see that their ideas were taken seriously, and that’s what should happen i.e. someone shouldn’t be judged for who they are or what ideology they claim to support, but rather merit ones idea on the basis of its strength and coherence.
The following excerpt from the book ‘Big bang’ by Simon Singh perfectly the underlying attitudes of scientists making the assumption that religious figures cannot be objective: “Like Galileo, Lemaître believed that God had blessed humans with an enquiring mind and that He would look fondly upon scientific cosmology. At the same time, Lemaître kept his physics and his religion separate, declaring that his religious beliefs certainly did not motivate his cosmology. ‘Hundreds of professional and amateur scientists actually believe the Bible pretends to teach science,’ he said. ‘This is a good deal like assuming that there must be authentic religious dogma in the binomial theorem.’ Nevertheless, some scientists continued to believe that theology had negatively influenced the priest’s cosmology. This anti-religious faction complained that his primeval atom theory of creation was nothing more than a pseudo-scientific justification of a master creator, a modern version of the Book of Genesis.” (Simon Singh Big Bang 2010).
One other myth that pervades the social sphere is this idea that all religious figures and thought, are homogenous, static, unchanging and without critical debate and dialogue. Early Islamic theologians debated creed vigorously in a science known to them as Kalam which erupted an atmosphere of intellectual thought and debate. Islamic Law (Fiqh) is most certainly the product of different legal methodologies and thought processes that involved challenging the status quo. Interestingly the four major legal schools of Islam (Hanafi, Maliki, Shafi and Hanbali) were begun by figures who were either students or teachers of one another.
A keystone event in history that defines the ability of religious thinkers to oppose the clergy in pursuit of objectivity and truth, can be seen in the life of someone who is regarded as the father of science, namely Galileo Galilei. His scientific curiosity was like an adult who saw everything with the amusement and excitement of a child discovering the world. He made many different scientific observations which included using a pendulum as a timing device and proved that the common assumption that heavier objects fall faster than light objects was wrong. Galileo in 1609 has built the most powerful telescope in the world allowing him too far beyond what the average man could in that time.
In 1610 Galileo made observations that supported the sun-centred model. While evidence for the Sun-centred model of the universe continued to grow in evidence, people still found themselves adhering to the earth centred model of the universe. The religious establishment of the time, The Catholic Church, was unapologetically opposed to the idea of accepting the sun centred model because it contradicted their interpretation of the bible. So much so was this opposition that in 1616 it was declared that holding the Sun-centred view of the universe was heretical. Galileo however remained unperturbed by these events and went where his rational insight took him. A trial against him had begun in April 1633 and left him under indefinite house arrest with much of his work blocked. Later after his death the Sun-centred model of the universe would come to be accepted by most astronomers.
Galileo represents the ideal figure that stood up to the establishment. He preferred truth over comfort, objectivity over subjectivity, rationality over irrationality and reason over dogma. He showed how religious individuals are neither homogenous nor static, and most importantly that some of them, when required, were willing to stand up to their co-religionists when they felt they were tampering and misinforming people of God’s creation. Perhaps Galileo’s beliefs can be summarised in his own words when he said: “I do not feel obliged to believe that the same God who has endowed us with sense, reason, and intellect has intended us to forgo their use.”
The above is just a drop in an ocean of religious scholars, all of whom were the leading thinkers of their time. Much to do with the distrust in religious figures, stems primarily from the birth of modernism occurring between 18th and 19th centuries. The nature of what modernity did to religious thought and prestige goes beyond the scope of this essay, however it should be noted its effects have had a riveting effect on our perception in a way that is constantly reinforced by a liberal and secular worldview, that maintains its assertion that divorce from God is the first step towards reason.
Much of what has been discussed above is simply a close examination of the genetic fallacy. But the aim of the essay is not invoke an exclusive justification for religious folk, rather it is meant to knock on peoples conscious and erupt an awareness that, no matter what colour, race, religion, hair style or brand you decide to wear, the ultimate authenticity of your point lies within the point itself, not in someone’s perceptions about who made that point.
Truth has no partner, it chooses who deserves itself, and it doesn’t care about who says it.