Monday, November 21, 2005

Hard Science, Fuzzy Belief

I agree with a lot of what Richard Dawkins says, especially with his views on pseudo-science, New Age beliefs, and the current obsession with combining science and religion into one coherent, harmonious whole.

I think, like him, that it’s a load of crock. It’s bullshit, it’s stupid, it leads to bad science and even worse religion.

I’ll get to that bit a little later. Here’s the funny clincher, though—I think Dawkins, and atheists in general, have gotten religion wrong.

The Un-Nameable Cause

The ironic thing about my beliefs is that I am a hard scientist. I like my science hard and deterministic, the universe devoid of any intrinsic unifying meaning, there being no Great Bearded Being in the sky.

And yet, I am a Muslim. Yes, I hold witness to the affirmation that there is no God but Allah, and Muhammad is his messenger.

It seems like there’s a contradiction there. Let’s leave that contradiction for a bit and revisit it later.

Reason and reason alone.

Listen to the fight between the forces of Reason and Enlightenment versus the forces of Faith and Superstition and you’d think that there was only one way of seeing the world, One True Way, and all other ways were… well, stupid. Foolish. Misguided. Nonsense, meaningless.

This of course fails to take into account on what role faith and reason have in the modern world. We know reason has a role—take away reason and you can see the immediate consequences, economically, politically, militarily. But it seems that if you take away faith, nothing happens. Apparently.

Which is ironic, since religious fundamentalism and New Age quackery is on the rise, despite our best damn efforts to leave superstitious claptrap behind. The promised fruits of abandoning Old-World Superstition—the end of killing, the abandonment of war, the elimination of self-righteous blindness—seems even further than ever.

One of the arguments that anti-religious people seem to trot out—that religions inspires people to do horrible, horrible things—looks hollow in the face of this cold historical fact: that the driving force behind the the biggest human and technological catastrophes of the past 100 hundred years wasn’t even religion.

The Real Killer

It isn’t. Take the top five catastrophes. And I mean the top five, in terms of what impact it had on how many people. You’d be surprised. September 11th, however horrible it was, doesn’t even come close to what we can do to each other.

Hiroshima. Chernobyl. The Soviet Gulags. The Killing Fields. The Great Leap Forward. Exxon Valdez. While to say that religion didn’t play a part in at least some of these is preposterous—but it wasn’t the be-all and end-all. There were other causes—technology run amuck. Nationalism. Racial hatred. Ideological insanity.

Even the even that shaped our national policy today—the May 13th riots—was less about religion and more about the politics of race and economics of inequality. Religion wasn’t fashionable then, as it is now. We did not need to cry out for ‘jihad’ then as we do now.

But the parade of horrors I’ve just shown you was meant to tell you one thing—you do not need religion to justify your horrors. We thought it was, once. We were wrong.

But enough of that. Let’s talk about something else.

Meat and Bread.

But what good is religion? It doesn’t explain the universe—it’s terrible at it, and attempts like Intelligent Design and trying to justify universal events through Scripture just read like a rather pathetic attempt of stealing the throne science wrested away very recently—at least in historical terms—from religion.

You’ve lost the throne, children. Move on.

Science does a great job in giving us explanations. It doesn’t do a lot good for meaning... at least for me. Some people don’t need it, which is why they can find wonder and joy in the real world. But those people aren’t everyone, at least not yet. Maybe not ever.

For others, there’s always those nagging questions: “Why? What are we doing here? Do we need to do anything? What is the sum total meaning of my life, really? Am I here merely to exist, to breed until I cannot, and then, to merely die? Why should I?”

And here’s the moment where you think I’ll sell you religion, right?

The search of meaning

That, ladies and gentlemen, is what preoccupies us a lot these days. We look for something to anchor us, to give us context in our lives, to make some sense of it all. Yes, we are a collection of baryonic particles held together by coincidence and goo, transient and evanescent.

Try getting out of bed in the morning for that. Believe me, I tried. For two fucking years. Didn’t work. Got diagnosed with depression.

The Real Use of Religion

Religion is a tool, much like anything else is a tool. I am a Muslim, because, you know, that’s what I am. I tried atheism for a while, you know. I couldn’t do it—I was raised a Muslim, and turning away from God felt impossible. Rather than tear myself away from Him, and risk damaging something, I came back. I made peace with myself.

I could never hope to be a good Muslim, so I settled with being just a Muslim. I relearnt the language of my religion, the cadences that spoke to me1 in a way that philosophy and reason didn’t. I moved away from the absurdity and the contradiction inherent in any religion, and found that that contradiction masked a deeper meaning that really can’t be expressed in words. You have to experience it to get it.


When you don’t have meaning, life is empty, pointless. It doesn’t have to be religion—you can believe in your fellow man, in a political ideology, in your family, in your culture, in something, anything—we’re adaptive that way. But look for something, and hold on to it.

I chose Islam, Hani and my family. centerpide chose Jesus and Christianity, and hey, that works for him. Other people choose mystical and magical paths, others choose relgion, a few adopt a philosophy of life, others devote their lives to serving others or escaping desire and pain.

Everyone has their own goddamn path, and there’s not a lot you can do to convince the other person to your way—only to guide them into whatever it is they need.

It isn’t religion that’s the danger, to be honest—it’s being blind to the truth, that there are other people around you, and that not all of them share what you believe. To live in the modern world means abandoning any kind of ideological certainty, or to be in danger of repeating the same meaningless horror over and over again.

No, it’s not pleasant or easy. But since when has life ever been that?


1 And that was the thing that people don’t get about Osama bin Laden. He used language, at least in the early days of him in hiding, in a way no non-Muslim or moderate Muslim could. They were good at it. We had a lot of catching up to do. We still do.

Blogger johnleemk said...

I believe science deals with facts and religion deals with faith. Facts and faith can never combine. You can never disprove God through facts. You can never argue a scientific theory based on faith. End of story.

6:26 PM  
Blogger T-Boy said...

johnleemk: So are we in agreement, then? Because I'm not sure what you exactly mean.

12:59 AM  
Anonymous lionel said...

I know exactly what johnleemk means. Science and religion have completely different goals, and that's why they should never be made to meet and either spar or reconcile. COMPLETELY DIFFERENT GOALS; that's why they are NOT at odds with each other.

People think they are because religion, like science, attempts to explain the universe. They're wrong - religion basically attempts to govern people, that's all. The rest is fluff.

Fundamentally, I say the goal of religion is to be believed.

10:04 AM  
Blogger T-Boy said...

lionel: See, apart from the semantic terms, you two essentially repeat the same fundamental idea—that religion and science should not be unified. Again, I’m puzzled with that assertion, because that’s exactly what I said.

That's why I wondered if he agreed or not. If he did, okay, that’s fine, so glad I could clear the air. If not, okay, which bits are we not in agreement in?

On the other hand, I note that your position is that religion is for governance, and everything else if fluff.

I detest that idea. What you seem to imply, really, is that religion serves has only one value, and, worse off, that that one value was control, control and control.

As you might imagine when you saw me take your point and mercilessly twisting it until it looks really bad, I vehemently disagree.

There isn’t… a point in religion—it self-organizes and performs different functions depending on what the society needs.

It has, in different points of history, spurred scientific exploration, inspired artistic endeavours, been a rallying call to justice, been a rallying cry for oppression, used as a way to pacify the people, used to counterpoint the prevailing administration, used to make sense out of great tragedy, used to make sense out of miraculous victories, used to spur people to greater personal and spiritual heights, been the driver for various personal insanities and wrongs, and so on and so forth.

Goal? It doesn’t have a goal. Doesn’t need one. Does art have a goal? Music?

10:54 AM  
Blogger johnleemk said...

Well, I thought it was sort of obvious I agreed with you, Tariq. :-)

2:16 PM  
Blogger T-Boy said...

johnleemk: So glad I could clear the air!

2:18 PM  
Anonymous lionel said...

t-boy: Oops, that was embarrassing... me going off on that diatribe and getting you puzzled. No need for that; as you've correctly noted, I was making no argument against your own. Perhaps you were overly anticipating a verbal beating out of this post, weren't you?

Not to say I didn't add anything new to the discussion. I do believe that religion has an unstated, implicit goal: to spread. Don't you think so? Does a gene have a goal? No, not in the sense that it has mindful motivations. But I'm sure you agree (with Dawkins) that the Selfish Gene has an implicit one: to survive and replicate. I have to put bluntly that religions are certainly memes -- the cultural equivalent of genes.

Deconstructing religion like that, I probably sound anti-religious. Nope, I'm not. I didn't say "govern" to mean "control^3" (the way you admittedly twisted it). Keeping people from stealing and murdering, that's good governance, innit?

The fluff in religion? Creationism, for one. Why men have a bump in the throat and a missing rib, another. Explaining the universe is not really religion's forte.

I don't deny religion's place in human history, civilization, society, art. I deeply appreciate religion as fulcrum and inspiration for so much of human culture.

Our disagreements aren't a bad thing, but let's make sure it's not because of misunderstanding. I'm a lot like you; I'm agnostic (leaning more towards atheism), but I won't ever try to erase my being a Christian as part of my identity. I still practice the rituals, I try not to break taboos that are to me sensible. Because like you, I put family and community above idealism. Amen to that.

3:04 PM  
Blogger T-Boy said...

lionel: I wasn’t exactly expecting a virtual beating, though yeah, I have been rather aggresive these past few weeks or so.

To say that religion is a memeplex—or a collection of memes, which raises interesting questions like, “what separates a meme and a memeplex? When is a memeplex ‘fundamental’ enough to become a meme? and vice-versa”—is fine. That’s true. Memes spread.

So does religion, and more fundamentally, the ideas that are carried in religion—dogma, kerygma, extinction of the self, the cultivation of compassion, the injunction against murder, theft and the like, the condemnation of non-heterosexual sexual orientations, and so on.

And just because one deconstructs religion doesn’t make one anti-religious. Deconstruction is natural, and can lead to a better understanding of the subject matter as well. I’m a big fan of Alan Moore and Frank Miller, and they spent half a decade in the nineties deconstructing the superhero genre. Were they against the superhero genre? I’d like to think no.

Though I do like picking fights the minute people start sounding concilliatory. That’s the problem with the Malaysian Internet—there are two kinds of fights—ones that go too far, and those that don’t go far enough.

Mind you, I like how this particular ‘spat’ is going.

3:30 PM  
Blogger Jackie said...

(I didn't want to get in the middle of the "spat" because frankly both of y'all scare me!)

But I did want to agree with Lionel. Eventhough I'm ambivalent about religion, one thing's for certain: I'd never leave or denounce it as I couldn't bear to do that to my family (the community on the other hand can go to hell)

At the same time though, religious fervour puts me off big time, maybe because it's such a glaring indication of soo much blind faith: that is if you bothered to probe these (usually) self-righteous people a little further, more often than not you'd find that not an ounce of thought has gone into questioning their beliefs.

As for the purpose of religion, I think it's different for different people depending on your needs. Someone once postulated that most people find in it a comfort to believe in a God that is all loving, all knowing and most importantly ever willing to alleviate pain and suffering. For me, I don't need organised religion to tell me what to do and how to live my life, though at times it would be nice to believe that there is a greater 'Being' out there that can sort out all my problems for me. But I'm certainly not going to sit around praying and waiting for that to happen.

(..and now I've said too much, please resume your spat, heh.)

1:18 PM  
Blogger T-Boy said...

Jackie: Oh, no you don't. You've left a couple of things unanswered.

First off, why agree with lionel and not with me? I'm just curious (hahahaha! I lie! I am more than just a little curious, but shh!), really, because I want to see where you think lionel and I diverged in opinion.

2:17 PM  
Blogger Jackie said...


I did not say that I agreed with Lionel and not with you. I was merely agreeing with him on the part where he says he won't give up his religion (even if he didn't believe) because of his family. Which also doesn't mean that I don't agree with the rest of what he said. I'm still mulling it over.

Now quit scaring me already!

Where the two of you diverge?
To over simplify things (and at risk of making the wrong assumptions):
1. You both agree on the reason and logic that is science. (convergence)
2. He's not a believer in religion and possibly God, wheras you have found meaning in religion. What meaning it is you found is not clear to me, but then again I doubt it is something that would be easy to put into words or into a confined space like this.

And I don't think your intention was ever to slam the anti-religious or those who question religion, but rather to put across that the search for meaning and truth is at the core of our being irrespective of wherever we choose to seek for it. But at the same time it is of utmost importance that we allow the same freedom of choice that we expect for ourselves to everyone else as well. This is my take and with this I agree whole heartedly.

5:05 PM  
Blogger T-Boy said...

Jackie: Hee hee hee! Every time you say I'm scaring you I get this rush of insane power. Must stop, is bad for me.

I apologizing for trolling, but it's been so long since I've misbehaved! :D

And yes, of course freedom of choice paramount when it comes to this sort of thing. I'm suddenly reminded of how easily someone can advocate their viewpoint and start oppressin' the views of others.

Also, I've been hanging out in fandom_wank and its spinoffs. I've been a very bad boy. :>

5:25 PM  

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