Has Science Rendered Religion Obsolete?
By Dr. Syed Muhammad Tahir Nasser, Warwick UK.
Article from Review of Religions, April 2015, Vol 110 – Issue Four
Religion today is increasingly mocked and those who hold religious views are often represented as an endangered species, holding fast to tradition rather than reality. Yet, the history of science abounds with believers in God. Were such religion scientists as Al-Haytham, Ibn Al-Nafis, and others like Newton, Einstein and Kepler, contradictory people? Are the scientific truths they believed in at odds with their belief in religious truths? What differentiates a ‘religious’ truth and a ‘scientific’ truth? Most importantly, is it true as is alleged by many, that science has rendered religion obsolete?
Why Can’t I See God?
“Eyes cannot reach Him but He reaches the eyes. And He is the Incomprehensible, the All-Aware.”
At the heart of the scientific method is empiricism, which refers to whether something is observable. If a thing is not observable, it is not empirical and cannot be objectively measured, tested and thereby falsified – the second hallmark of the scientific method. In science, we observe a phenomenon; while in religion, God makes Himself manifest to us. This is the meaning of the verse above, which clearly and definitively explains the respective spheres of science and religion. The question then arises why the “eyes cannot reach Him”? This is explained by the words “He is the Incomprehensible”(Lateef). Lateef means “the most subtle, small, delicate” or refined of all things. In this verse, Allah has referred to Himself as subtler, more refined, and more delicate than all else, thus implying that the reason that “eyes cannot reach Him” is because God lies beyond the capabilities of any tool of measurement, and therefore, of direct observation. As every attempt at measurement is an attempt to break a thing down to its constituent parts and define it by the sum of those parts, God here explains that He is not made up of any subtler or smaller thing, by which He may be measured.
The Centre of the Milky Galaxy. © Garau | shutterstock.com
When asked why it is that a person cannot physically see God, Hazrat Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, the Promised Messiahas and Founder of The Review of Religions, explained another aspect of this issue. He wrote that “to insist that the mysteries of that [spiritual] world should be wholly revealed through reason would be like shutting one’s eyes and insisting that visible things should become perceptible through the sense of smell.” He explains here that direct physical observation of God is an unsuited method for detecting God, for the nature of the objective must be sought through a means appropriately suited. If one were to insist on hearing a sight and seeing a sound, one may well consider that the individual is more interested in the method rather than the knowledge. What does it matter if you enter a house via the door or the roof, as long as you get in? Though God is beyond our physical means of measurement, God fills us from within to the degree of our capacity to receive Him. This is the meaning of the phrase “He reaches the eyes.” Thus, in religion too, there is a measurement of a sort – only it is God who measures our capacities and manifests Himself appropriately in accordance with them, rather than our measurement of Him. The Promised Messiahas explains this point further when he writes that: “God Almighty has created the human species as possessing great diversity in their overt and covert faculties. For instance, some people possess very good sight, others are weak sighted and some are altogether blind […] Men also differ in respect of their covert capacities. The capacities of some are of a low degree and are covered up by veils. Some have from ancient times possessed high and clear souls and have been the recipients of divine revelation. For the former to deny the personal characteristics of the latter would be the same as if a blind one, or one with weak sight, were to deny the observations of one with excellent sight, or as if a person lacking the sense of smell should deny the experiences of one with a sense of smell.”
It is not, however, simply the nature of God that makes Him unmeasurable in a material sense; our relationship with our own physical senses prohibits it as well:
“And even if We opened to them a door from heaven, and they began ascending through it, They would surely say, ‘Only our eyes are dazed; rather we are a bewitched people.’”
As humans, we know that our eyes and our senses can fool us. Do the onlookers of a magic trick ever believe that the trick is actually real? As such, God presenting direct physical proof of Himself to prove His existence would be ineffective, as we “would surely say, ‘Only our eyes are dazed’”. This explains why God manifests His existence in a manner and form that is unique to His communications, namely, through interaction with the soul, also known as ‘revelation’.
From the perspective of direct empiricism then, science can never render religion obsolete and can never disprove the existence of God, for God lies beyond our capabilities of physical detection nor are these capabilities reliable enough to be depended on. If God is not directly observable however, is it impossible to know or experience God as an objective certainty? Is belief in God then an irrationality that can never be reliably experienced and thus never be truly known?
Science is Rational & Religion is Irrational…right?
‘Dark matter’ makes up some 85% of the total matter of the universe. It is matter that has never been observed directly by physicists. We know it exists because we observe the gravitational effect it has upon light travelling from distant galaxies. Thus, we witness its attributes rather than the matter directly. In fact, there are many things that we believe exist after witnessing their effects, rather than observing them directly. For example, we take medication because of its effects that we have previously experienced or been informed of. Similarly, anaesthesia is built upon a triad, two pillars of which are ‘unconsciousness’ and ‘analgesia’. These are observable only in their external effects rather than their actual states. When we analyse this further, we see that extrapolating belief on the basis of witnessing ‘signs’ – as one does in religious belief – permeates every aspect of our lives. How many students refuse to learn what is taught to them at University on the basis of testimonial or authoritative evidence from their professors, until they have conducted each experiment personally and empirically? On a more personal level, trust – or what some people call ‘faith’ – permeates our very identity. For example, how many men truly know if they are the father of a child, with direct, empirical proof? Most men accept their children as their own on the basis of trust in their wife’s honesty and integrity. Yet how many men would say that they have an ‘unsubstantiated belief’ that their children are their own, rather than that they ‘know’ their children are their own? This shows that what we consider as knowledge is not only confined to empirical and falsifiable data, but also to convictions and beliefs built on the bases of high probabilities.
Although Dark Matter makes up approximately 85% of the matter in the Universe, it has never been directly observed by physicists. Yet we still know it exists. Photo: The Hubble Space telescope observes deep space while in orbit above earth (Elements of this image furnished by NASA.)
© MarcelClemens | shutterstock.com
The aforementioned examples above show that every field of knowledge has its ‘prophets’ who have directly witnessed the results of an experiment. The ‘signs’ they provide form the basis of the belief of others who trust in them. For example, we trust that our professors and lecturers at university are not teaching nonsense, because they have credentials as their ‘signs’ and have a proven record of expertise in a field. For atheists to single out religion and represent it as directly undermining the scientific method because it relies upon trust of what another has witnessed of God’s existence, while scientific discoveries themselves reach the general public through a relationship built upon faith and trust, reminds one of the exhortation of the Prophet Jesus Christas:
“And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother’s eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye?”
Thus, direct empirical observation of God is not necessary for a rational belief in God. The ‘signs’ of His existence, which place it in the realm of greater probability, are all that is required. The second aspect of scientific knowledge is whether such ‘signs’ of God’s existence are falsifiable. Can a test be applied in any way to demonstrate that such ‘signs’ are actually false and not from God? For if there is no possibility of it being proven false, then there is automatically no possibility of it being proven true. Interestingly, the Holy Qur’an agrees with this principle, and gives its own falsifiability test:
“And if you are in doubt as to what We have sent down to Our servant, then produce a Chapter like it, and call upon your helpers beside Allah, if you are truthful.”
Here the test is given in the form of a challenge: if this book seems to bear the hallmarks of a man’s writing and not the dictation of God, then other humans should be capable, at some point, of producing the equivalent of even one of its chapters. Bearing in mind that the smallest chapter of the Holy Qur’an is ‘Surah Al-Kauthar’ (‘the Abundance’), comprising of only four verses, that such a challenge has stood the test of time is an extraordinary sign. That this test of falsifiability should appear in the very beginning of the second chapter, at the opening of the Qur’an, is a further indication that the methodology of the Holy Qur’an encompasses all fields and tests man could devise for it. It has applied the most stringent test to itself, and emerged as the victor.
Is it the case however that belief in the existence of God should merely be a game of probabilities and unfulfilled challenges? Is this the limit and extent to which belief in God can be substantiated, or are there more certain, cogent, and powerful evidences in support? Is there ever a physical event or incident to which we can point to as objective evidence of God’s existence, or is at all left to subjective interpretation? The Promised Messiahas addressed this issue when he elucidated the various levels of spiritual realisation:
“…God Almighty has indicated three types of knowledge, namely knowledge by certainty of reason, knowledge by certainty of sight, and knowledge by certainty of experience. This might be illustrated thus. When a person perceives smoke from a distance, his mind conceives that smoke and fire are inseparable, and therefore where there is smoke there must be fire also. This would be knowledge by certainty of reason. Then on a nearer approach he sees the flames of the fire and that is knowledge by certainty of sight. Should he enter into the fire, that would be knowledge by certainty of experience.”
It is to these categories of evidence we shall now turn our attention.
God Should Exist – Certainty of Reason
“Those who remember Allah while standing, sitting, and lying on their sides, and ponder over the creation of the heavens and the earth: ‘Our Lord, Thou hast not created this in vain; nay, Holy art Thou; save us, then, from the punishment of the Fire.’”
© gosphotodesign | shutterstock.com
There cannot be smoke without fire. The Promised Messiahas uses this analogy to explain the types of knowledge in God, knowledge of reason, knowledge by sight and knowledge by experience.
The study of scientific phenomena – particularly in the field of cosmology – has led many scientists to the realisation that a Creator of the universe is not only probable, but is a logical necessity. Prior to the discovery of the Big Bang as the origin of this universe, it was widely believed that the universe was eternal in space and time and an eternal universe has no need for a Creator. With the discovery of the ‘red shift’ of galaxies and the ‘Cosmic Microwave Background Radiation’ (a leftover popping sound from the explosion of all matter in the universe) it was demonstrated that the universe had an origin. The ‘Kalam’ cosmological argument, developed by Imam Ghazalira and Christian theologians, states that anything that begins to exist, must have a cause. That the universe began to exist is a powerful argument as proof of God. If an uncaused cause does not exist, then the universe must have an infinite chain of causes preceding it. If this is the case, then we would never have reached the origin of the universe, as we would still be on that infinite train of causes, never reaching the destination, since an infinite series of sequential events can never be traversed. Thus, an ‘uncaused cause’ is an absolute necessity for the Big Bang to have occurred.
The question naturally arises as to whether this ‘uncaused cause’ is conscious or not. If there was an unconscious physical beginning to the universe, this still would not explain the fact that our universe is exquisitely finely tuned to produce life. For example, the mass density of the universe is finely tuned to 59 decimal places; the expansion rate of the universe, finely tuned to 18 decimal places; the ratio of protons to electrons in the universe, finely tuned to 37 decimal places; the cosmological constant (a value in the universe that determines the density of empty space) finely tuned to 120 decimal places. Had the cosmological constant, for example, been finely tuned to only 119 decimal places, it would have resulted in the collapse of the universe back in upon itself. An unconscious physical law can have no knowledge of the degree to which another law must be set; only a conscious Being can make such a judgment. These are examples of how science has, inexorably, been leading to the conclusion that a conscious designer should exist. Such conclusions that pointed to a designer seemed better suited to a chapel or a mosque, rather than a laboratory, and many scientists did not like where the science was pointing. A competing theory soon emerged, which claimed the territory of a non-faith based explanation of the origin of the universe: the ‘multiverse’.
The ‘multiverse’ theory postulates that there are an infinite number of universes, each one finely tuned to different degrees. We are able to observe our universe’s fine-tuning only because our universe was one of the few out of trillions of universes that happened to be perfectly finely tuned, and which resulted in the existence of conscious life forms – us. The problem with this theory is that it is inherently unscientific: the only universe we have an example of is our current one, which shows exquisite fine-tuning. Thus our default position should be to assume that any other universe would be similarly finely tuned, rather than not. The ‘multiverse’ theory is a perfect example of how science can be manipulated to pursue an agenda rather than face the facts. Science should confine itself to drawing conclusions on that which is observable. Seeking to use the ‘multiverse’ theory to banish the face of God, is an act of dishonesty, unworthy of a true scientist.
The deficiency with all the above points however is simply this: none of them prove the existence of God. Once again, they lead us to water but they do not teach us to drink. Proofs are required to indicate that God does exist rather than God should exist. In short, is there an objective means by which we may see signs of God’s existence in a palpable, manifest form?
God Does Exist – Certainty of Sight
“It is not at all correct to say that all God’s speaking has been left behind and that there is nothing in future. We cannot seal up His words and His speech in any age. Without doubt, He is ready to enrich the seekers from the fountain of revelation as He used to do before. The gates of His grace are as open today as they were at any time.”
‘Faith’ in many religions, most notably Christianity, has come to mean “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen”. It refers to a belief that remains a belief on death, without it ever passing into the realm of ‘knowledge’. The Promised Messiahas explained that while we do not see God physically, through Islam one can attain a state whereby “he is so much affected by certainty that he begins to see God in this very world.”He further explained that “the beholding of God in this world is to converse with God.” Thus ‘faith’, known as ‘Iman’ refers to such belief that, accompanied and proven by steadfastness in the way of trials, is converted into knowledge by God through observable and witnessed events. To a large extent, the apparent hostility and division between religion and science is as a result of the definition of ‘faith’ in Christianity and the usage of the word during the Enlightenment especially. This difference between Islam and Christianity is perhaps why Islam has a history of a much closer and more comfortable relationship with science than Christianity has had. The ‘golden age’ of Islamic science in places such as Andalucía and North Africa are clear examples of when science was largely embraced by the religious orthodoxy much more than occurred in Christian Europe.
The Promised Messiahas made a great prophecy in 1905 regarding a global calamity. Photo: First World War. German fleet surrendering to the English. First German U-boat near the Towerbridge. London, England, 1918.
Indeed, the fundamental reason why scientific thought appears to be replacing religion as the mainstay guide of human lives, is because the majority of religions today limit themselves to ascertaining truth through the route of ‘certainty of reason’whereby God is surmised or believed to exist on the basis of ‘faith’, without any objective proof. Such a low level of belief will always be trumped by science when the two appear to conflict, as science is built on the foundation of ‘certainty of sight’ which stands superior to ‘certainty of reason’. This diminution of evidence in favour of certain religions is the natural result of a lack of communication and experience with God. In this regard, the Promised Messiahas stated:
“With regard to the hereafter our knowledge arrives at the degree of certainty by sight when we receive direct revelation and hear the voice of God through our ears, and behold the true and clear visions of God with our eyes. Without a doubt we are in need of direct revelation for the purpose of achieving such perfect understanding for which our hearts hunger and thirst in our beings.”
If a religion cannot lead an individual to this level of revelation, then it will always be downtrodden by that which is built upon a higher level of evidence. The claim of the Promised Messiahas was that Islam was truly such a religion that leads a person to ‘certainty of sight’ and as such, gives objective evidence for its claims. As the claimant to being the representative of the Prophet Muhammadsa, as the Imam Mahdi, and the second coming of Prophet Jesusas, he too brought such evidences and signs that revealed the face of God.
Striking examples of such empirical, objective evidences abound in the life of the Promised Messiahas however one such evidence which was recognised and admitted by hundreds of thousands of his contemporaries occurred at the turn of the 20th century. In February of 1898, he received revelations regarding an impending plague that would particularly affect the Punjab catastrophically. He wrote:
“Today, Sunday February 6, 1898, I saw in a dream that God’s angels were planting black trees in different parts of the Punjab. Those trees were very ugly, black in colour, terrifying and of small size. I asked some of those who were planting them: ‘What kind of trees are these?’ They answered: ‘These are trees of the plague which is about to spread in the country.’ It remained unclear to me whether it was said that the plague would spread during the coming winter or the winter after, but it was a terrible sight which I saw.”
At the time of the publication of this prophecy, only two districts in the Punjab had been affected by the plague. What subsequently occurred was beyond prediction. After the publication of this prophecy, twenty three districts were affected by the plague, and within ten months, 218,799 individuals had died as a result of it. The wonder of the prophecy did not stop there though; in 1902, as the plague was reaching its height in the Punjab, a glad tiding was given, that: “I will save all who dwell in the House.”
He interpreted this to mean that all those who were in his physical as well as his spiritual home and had accepted his claims to spiritual office, would be saved in overwhelmingly larger numbers as compared to other communities. He made it clear that only such of his followers would die who were followers only in name and that the majority would be spared. To make such a prophecy is a great gamble; who can be sure that they themselves would not be afflicted by the plague in a time and land of poor sanitation and poor health education? To further claim that the members of one’s physical household as well as one’s spiritual followers would remain safe is an astonishing and extraordinary claim indeed.
It is not within the scope of this article to cover all the details of this extraordinary prophecy. For that, we refer the reader to the chapter entitled ‘Plague’ in Revelation Rationality Knowledge and Truth by Hazrat Mirza Tahir Ahmadrh. What we would like to highlight is the empirical nature of how this prophecy was fulfilled; in 1898, according to the periodical Al Hakam of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, the number of Ahmadi Muslims worldwide numbered in the tens of thousands. Over the next seven years, as the Plague struck the Punjab resulting in the deaths of approximately 3-4 million Indians, the number of his followers grew. In 1898 when the prophecy was first made, the Community numbered in the tens of thousands. By 1902 it numbered approximately 100,000. By 1904 it had doubled to two hundred thousand and by 1906, as the plague began to recede, the size of the Community stood at more than 400,000.
We have left out the accounts of how in many villages, at times only Ahmadi Muslims would be willing to bury the infected dead. We have left out the details regarding how the Promised Messiahas ran a guest house in his home, situated in the Punjab, in which travellers came and went in their hundreds each week, and yet not one member of his household was ever affected. Rather, we have rather presented only the statistical data because it demonstrates that for his contemporaries who witnessed these events first hand, the fulfilment of the prophecy that his followers would be saved from the Plague by God’s grace was fulfilled as empirically as the rising sun. Had it not, within a few months of the Plague, he would have been proven false. That his following doubled almost every two years, is a testament to the fact that in the age of a prophet especially, there are empirical examples of God’s existence by which a believer is carried to the stage of knowledge by ‘certainty of sight’.
The above is a brief summary of the prophecy of the Plague, and by no means does it justice. The prophecy of World War 1, made in 1905 by the Promised Messiahas and how he prophesied the end of the Czar of Russia through it, is an equally riveting and empirical example of God’s existence. In short, we urge the reader to study the life of Hazrat Mirza Ghulam Ahmadas, for in his life one will find many such examples of the clear and documented evidences of God’s existence.
Personal Realisation – Certainty of Experience
“And as for those who strive in Our path—We will surely guide them in Our ways. And verily Allah is with those who do good.”
‘The proof of the pudding is in the eating’, so goes the saying. It is in this aspect of knowledge that religion grants a higher proof of truth than science. It is rare in science that the scientist should use himself as a test subject and indeed, in many branches of science, such as the aforementioned astrophysics, it is impossible. Islam is a religion that invites all and sundry to seek God themselves so that they may attain the highest stage of knowledge regarding God – total and perfect communion with Him. While at the stage of ‘certainty of sight’, an individual witnesses the signs of God through heavenly revelation, at the stage of ‘certainty by experience’ the individual themselves become a sign of God to others. At such a stage, a person knows of the existence of God to the same extent that they know of their own existence, which is the highest form of knowledge. Thus the Promised Messiahas explains that “at the stage of liqa’ [communion] the light of the Holy Spirit is very bright and the extraordinary manifestations to which we have already referred proceed from the seeker because the light of the Holy Spirit always attends upon him and dwells within him. He is never separated from this light, nor does it ever depart from him.”
The Duty of Muslims
The Holy Qur’an is not silent about scientific phenomena and there is much left to do and discover. There are many prophecies and aspects of Qur’anic verses that have yet to be fulfilled. This Holy Book is one that will yield fruits and secrets for the rest of mankind’s existence, and so we should continue to let this book lead us. Among its secrets, the Holy Qur’an speaks of honey as a cure for mankind, the discovery of other planets capable of sustaining life, communication or contact with alien civilisations and refers to other such phenomena destined for humanity to discover, which are currently beyond our understanding. Thus there is much still to research and to discover. It is for Ahmadi Muslims, whose hearts and souls are in this book, to uncover these aspects of its truth by delving deep into the secrets of nature through scientific research.
Muslims have a long and rich tradition of scientific endeavour. The Holy Qur’an encourages a researcher to ponder over the heavens and the earth and to witness the signs of God in them. It is a trend of thought today that the more scientific discoveries that are uncovered, the more they will lead to the renunciation of God. In truth, the opposite is the reality. As scientific discoveries have developed, they have only strengthened the case for a Living God. It is our duty to delve into the secrets of our universe, so that the face of God that is reflected in the heavens and the earth may shine brightly in the hearts of mankind.
About the author: Dr.Syed Muhammad Tahir Nasser is a junior doctor working in Warwick and graduated with a medical degree from UCL in 2014. He is currently the Religion and Science Editor at The Review of Religions. He is a speaker on University lecture circuits on social, theological and philosophical issues. He was the national president of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Students’ Association UK.
- Holy Qur’an, Surah Al-An’am, Verse 104.
- The Essence of Islam, Vol. 2, p.34.
- The Essence of Islam, Vol. 2, pp.50-52.
- Holy Qur’an, Surah Al-Hur, Verses 15-16.
- Matthew, 7 (King James Version).
- Holy Qur’an, Surah Al-Baqarah, Verse 24.
- The Philosophy of the Teachings of Islam, p. 190.
- Holy Qur’an, Surah Aal-e-‘Imran, Verse 192.
- The Philosophy of the Teachings of Islam, p.87.
- Hebrews, 11:1.
- Chashma Ma’rifat, ‘Addendum’, pp.47-48.
- The Philosophy of the Teachings of Islam, p.203.
- The Philosophy of the Teachings of Islam, p.197.
- Announcement of Plague, February 6, 1898, Majmu‘ah Ishtiharat, vol. 3, p. 5; Tadhkirah Feb 6th1898.
- Nuzulul-Masih, pp. 153–154; Tadhkirah Feb 6th1898.
- Al-Hakam, Vol. 6, no. 16, April 30, 1902, p. 7;Tadhkirah April 28th, 1902.
- Encyclopedia of Plague and Pestilence: From Ancient Times to the Present(Kohn; 2008; 3rd Edition), 184.
- Hazrat Mirza Tahir Ahmadrh,Revelation, Rationality, Knowledge and Truth, p. 643.
- Holy Qur’an, Surah Al-‘Ankabut, Verse 70.
- The Essence of Islam, Vol. 3, p.66.
- Holy Qur’an, Surah Al-Nahl, Verse 69.
- Holy Qur’an, Surah Al-Talaq, Verse 13.
- Holy Qur’an, Surah Al-Shura, Verse 30.
- Holy Qur’an, Surah Al-Muddaththir, Verse 32.
- Holy Qur’an, Surah Aal-e-‘Imran, Verse 192.