Sunday, October 25, 2009

Boston Globe on Islamic Creationism

Today's Boston Globe has a long article on Islamic Creationism that does a fantastic job of summarizing the issues while bringing up nuanced points about social and cultural factors that are playing a role in this debate. Talking about Islamic creationism it writes,
The phenomenon has raised concerns among scientists and educators - especially those in Muslim countries and in countries with growing Muslim minorities - who see in it a threat to scientific literacy, a drag on the potential for Muslim countries to build up their languishing scientific research sectors, and as another flashpoint in the Muslim world’s long-running struggle between religion and secularism. Unlike in the West, creationist beliefs are not associated in the Muslim world with religious fundamentalism, but instead are often espoused by members of the mainstream intellectual elite - liberals, by their own lights, who see the expansive, scientific-sounding claims of creationism as tracing a middle way between the guidance of religion and the promise of modern science. Critics of the movement fear that this makes it more likely that creationism will find its way into policies there, especially when the theory of evolution is portrayed among Muslim thinkers, as it often is, as an instrument of Western intellectual hegemony.
I will leave the rest of the article for you to read. But towards the end it brings up two interesting points that I want to highlight. First, it brings up Iran and the lack of strong creationism movement there:

A similar theological rapprochement explains why creationism has gained little purchase in Iran. Unlike in Sunni Islam, Shia Islam, Iran’s majority religion, has an established clerical hierarchy to interpret the Koran, making Shia’ism structurally similar to Catholicism. Iran’s clerics, like the Vatican, have decided that evolution needn’t conflict with Holy Scripture.

“What happened in Iran is that the ayatollahs decided that evolution is OK, and that there was going to be none of this nonsense about creationism, and therefore there isn’t a lot of it in Iran,” says Taner Edis, a physicist at Truman State University and author of “An Illusion of Harmony,” a book on the relationship between science and Islam.

Edis is quick to point out that the Iranian clerical establishment’s vision of evolution, in which a divine hand guides the process, is closer to intelligent design than to the mainstream Western version of evolution. Still, according to Hameed, it is this relative friendliness to modern biology - and one of its central ideas - that has allowed Iran to pursue an aggressive, state-sponsored stem cell research program unmatched anywhere else in the Muslim world.

I think Taner and I agree on the basics - but he is seeing the glass half-empty (that the details of this form of guided evolution may be very close to ID) and I'm seeing it half-full (that they are at least willing to learn and apply evolutionary biology). Given the clerical support to evolution in Iran, it would be fascinating to know the level of public acceptance of evolution there. Unfortunately, we don't as yet have any data from Iran on this topic (we are working to get this information in the next year or two - so stay tuned).

The article concludes by bringing up a crucial point: While we may be worried about Islamic creationism and a misunderstanding of evolution, many in the Muslim world have not even heard of evolution. Thus, the fact that there is a growing controversy over the topic is in itself a sign of increasing education levels:

And in those places where the theory of evolution is seen more warily, the fact that there is a creationist debate at all can be seen as a sort of progress - a symptom at the very least of a newfound interest in science. In the most conservative parts of the Muslim world, creationism isn’t a political or philosophical force because it doesn’t need to be - there aren’t enough people who believe in evolution, or have even been exposed to it, to require a counter-doctrine.

The rise of Islamic creationism, then, may be a sign that more of the Muslim world is at least wrestling with the idea of evolution, and more broadly with the power of scientific explanations. Much though it may alarm Western scientists, creationist thought may offer people an acceptable point of entry into a science-driven world.

“It’s modernizing Muslims, Muslims who want to say they have mastered the modern world and do well in the globalized technological economy and at the same time retain traditional values and so forth,” says Edis. “It’s this sort of audience that creationism appeals to.”

Good point! I completely agree here but I would replace "creationism" in the last sentence with "some sort of religious explanation" - as that includes both creationist accounts (God directly created the species) as well as guided evolution (God guided the evolutionary process). The debate over evolution's compatibility with Islam is still in its early phases. Some in the Muslim world are also ok with a separate sphere for religion and science (we don't know what fraction supports this view). But it is quite clear that an association with atheism will decisively turn the opinion against biological evolution - without even a debate.

Read the full article here.


Roxblog said...

Interesting site. I have one similar. Try it Fair Science bye.

Tom Heneghan said...

Salman, many tks for this link. BTW, Steve Paulson of Wisconsin Public Radio has just posted some interesting impressions of his recent interview with Harun Yahya in Istanbul. It's on Slate here. He gives a wonderful description of the atmosphere at an interview like this. It reminded me very much of my own meeting with Harun Yahya there last year. Fascinating stuff.

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