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An irregular exploration of the ongoing struggle between the power of rational discourse and the scientific method on one hand, and the forces of superstition and dogma on the other.

The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark
by Carl Sagan
(A review)

The Doubter's Companion:
by John Ralston Saul (Excerpts)

Skeptic Magazine:

Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal:

A poem by Yehuda Amichai:
The Place Where We Are Right

Other Blogs
Carl Zimmer
Chris C. Mooney
Chet Raymo

The Meaning of
  the Island of

Author's site:


2005 Archives

May 3:
  Climate of Bias

May 10:
  Repent or Resign

May 17:

May 24:
  Vector of a Weird
May 31:
  Museum Piece

Random Douglas Adams quote

June 7, 2005

Islam blew it.

So argues Wasim Maziak, director of the Syrian Center for Tobacco Studies in Aleppo, in an essay in last week’s issue of the journal Science (Vol 308, Issue 5727, 1416-1418; abstract is here). His primary thesis is that Muslim researchers need to get with the program -- the scientific method, that is -- and reclaim at least some of the ground they lost to Christianity 700 years ago.

There is little need to recap the historical fundamentals. One excerpt will do. "The early Abbasid Caliphs ... who reigned from 754 to 833 -- embraced science as a state's defining policy, ushering in a golden era of Arab-Islamic civilization." Too true. Where do you think "algorithm" and "algebra" come from? Just drop a hyphen between the l and the g in each term.

But there is a bigger lesson in the essay, one of particular interest to the world beyond Islam. I refer to fears that Western civilization, the one spawned by Christendom, is headed in the same direction as Islam of old. Consider some of Maziak's observations.

For most Arab societies today, the tides of inputs coming from all directions -- from their conflict-ridden present, from the unjust distribution of wealth, and from their tyrant-controlled regimes that tolerate no dissent -- have been confusing, relentless, and exhausting. The resulting frustration has been channeled outward toward the West in the form of disdain and hostility, and inward in the form of an antagonistic view of the world.
Reverse the references to Arab societies and the West, and you’ve pretty much found yourself back in Kansas. Conduct the same transformation with this paragaph:
From a psychological standpoint, such an attitude is understandable. As a proud people, Arabs turned to their golden past for a refuge, and as a threatened culture, they turned to their native thought system (Islam) for answers. More than that, however, this reaction has proceeded to the point where the past has become distilled and purified, and Islamic teachings have been selectively used to embrace and abet the emerging anti-Western sentiment.
One more:
Science was caught in the cross-fire.... As a result, the pathway to the future shifted from one involving science to one based on the return to true Islam. Left unanswered in this choice was what a shunning of science would entail and how to face the challenges of the inevitable technology gap that would come with the choice.

The news of late from Christendom is not good. The leaders in the most promising advances in biomedial research, embryonic stem cells, work not in the U.S. or Canada, or even Europe, but in South Korea, (Most Koreans, as Buddhists, are not hobbled by the dogma of monotheism.) The Dutch education minister recently suggested that advocates of "intelligent design," the idea that some higher power has been tinkering with life, be given a hearing in her country’s classrooms. And in Canada, the Anglican Diocese of the Arctic has just come out against same-sex marriage, despite plenty of scientific evidence that sexual preference is not a learned behavior.

This is not to say that all Muslims or Christians should abandon their faith. (Many would argue that such a move would also make the world a better place, but that's not my point, at least, not this time.) Indeed, I am aware of a certain degree of irony in the fact that I am writing this from the main library of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Without a doubt, religion and science can co-exist.

What we must do, if we are to salvage any hope of closing the ingenuity gap that has led us to the edge of ecological ruin, is relegate religion to the personal, and let science retake the public sphere.

Not surprisingly, Maziak's conclusion is also worth lifting:

Certainly, the highest standard of piety should become once again the individual's contribution to the welfare of his society, and the greatest sin, the acceptance of a continuing and avoidable backwardness and dependence.

James Hrynyshyn

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