Sunday, April 16, 2006

Science, Scepticism and Faith

This following is inspired by a post on Burning Blue Soul entitled Reflection: The Vanity of the Self. In it, Basil says, "I am a vicious sceptic... [a] side-effect of this skepticism is that I have developed an unhealthy contempt of teachers & imams that I am desperately working to overcome." Personally, I think a degree of scepticism is essential in a faith so rampant with dogged authoritarianism.

Scepticism was bred into me. Both my elder brothers were enthralled by science at school: one attended a Technical High, the other was born dismantling things. In part they were inspired by my father, himself a technician and a scientific atheist in the tradition of T H Huxley. The result was a mindset not uncommon in 21st century Britain: liberal, rational-empiricist and sceptical.

As a result, I don't 'believe' in science. Some people do, some don't. I was taught to mistrust both attitudes and, instead, study science. The science most people swallow is one propounded by the media, and it is extremely distorted version of the real thing. For example, science correspondents often headline single research studies as if they are statements of fact, which they are not.

The science people reject is one that they think promised certainty, but never did. Or they 'believe' in something else supposedly incompatible with science. In both stances of belief and disbelief, there is rarely a serious attempt to test assertions against observation or un-emotive debate. The status of science is sufficient to ensure it has plenty of unthinking evangelists and detractors.

Rational thought and observation continue to inform how I make sense of the world, although both these tools have been tempered and developed by the insights of post-structural thinking. Yet I remain a Mu'min. My faith is one which intuits a living path to truth within the Muslim fold not dependent on blindly accepting authoritarian pronouncements on Islamic orthopraxy or orthodoxy.

This is not to deride the faith of those who accept the word of the Imam as final in matters of belief and practice. For example, neither of my two daughters have shown much interest in science. As a result, they have no informed understanding of cross-infection. In teaching them to cook with raw meat, therefore, sharp words - rather than reason - were generally required!

The important thing, if one embarks on a path of reasoned exploration, is to remember what al-Qur'an has to say about those who chuck it in, and instead use their knowledge to assume a position opposing religion (4:137). There aint no way out of that dark hole. Doubt and scepticism aint the same as atheism. Sadly, poor old T H Huxley and my old dad never figured that one out.

7 comment(s):

  • rigor is compatible with faith but skepticism wouldn't seem to be - systematic doubt versus systematic trust.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 4/16/2006 06:46:00 PM  

  • Depends which faith you mean - faith in God, yes, then the trust is that that God will guide one in a God-conscious din; but surely scepticism is part of that faith: scepticism of authoritarian interpretations of 'Islam' which are presented as absolute and universal (and perhaps such interpretations are quite different from the local, interpersonal, flexible interpretations of genuine scholar-leaders).



    By Blogger Julaybib, at 4/18/2006 12:58:00 PM  

  • ah i get it. confusing though. once there is a distinction of a split between spirit and material, you have a twilight area to navigate. a place where first glance doesn't serve to distinguish shadows from material or material from spirit. i don't know that i would call the requisite navigation skills skepticism because a skeptic would never willingly walk in dusk without a source of light.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 4/19/2006 09:13:00 AM  

  • The split between the study of the material and spiritual is historical - traceable to events in 19th century England following the marginalisation of Alfred Russel Wallace by the new scientific establishment. Wallace, who jointly discovered natural selection with Darwin, went on to found the British Psychic Society (he was a Spiritualist).

    Until the mid-19th century, many scientists in Europe were also clergyman. Newton himself saw science as marginal to his theology (as did many Muslim scientists, of course).



    By Blogger Julaybib, at 4/19/2006 01:38:00 PM  

  • wait wait - i wasn't talking about scientific inquiry and neither were you - we were talking about bringing some caution to the process of finding spiritual guides - and i wasn't talking about a spirit/material split in scientific inquiry (which i knew was handled as theology after rome converted/collapsed) - i meant the strong division of spirit and material which is a core concept of the Abrahamic faiths. that there is a blurry area between the two in which dragons, sharks, and charlatans dwell.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 4/19/2006 07:33:00 PM  

  • "..the strong division of spirit and material which is a core concept of the Abrahamic faiths..."

    I think it is A concept, and perhaps the 'core' concept for many, but not me. I look upon the 'spiritual' as defined by al-ghayb (the unseen) - see especially Asad's note on this at the beginning of Surah 2 in 'The Meaning of the Qur'an'. That division is only as close as yer jugular vein, sis!



    By Blogger Julaybib, at 4/22/2006 03:56:00 AM  

  • I see what you mean, though. One can invoke facets of the unseen by imagination, which have no basis in reality. But that's the whole idea of exercising rationality, isn't it? To ensure that you actually understand what relevation reveals. I mean, text and reader - its not as simple as 'I read, I understand, I do', unless you're a literalist, of course.



    By Blogger Julaybib, at 4/22/2006 04:06:00 AM  

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