Sunday, June 26, 2011

Blogging from Sharjah: Belief in Dialogue - Day 3 and some final thoughts

by Salman Hameed

The conference ended on Thursday and I'm currently in transit to go to Doha. The conference was a thoroughly enjoyable experience and it was fun hanging out with the participants. It was good to see some old friends, some whom I already through e-mail, and to make some new friends. I guess we can say that for most conference. In fact, that is the reason we go to conferences. The conference ran very smoothly and we were very well taken care off. The credit here goes to Nidhal and the AUS, and Fern and the British Council. Well Done!

The last day of the conference was bit of a mix-bag. The morning plenary session was a reprise of the opening plenary session titles, Science & Religion: Two Cultures? (see the post for Day 1 here). However, unlike the earlier session, the talks in this session were not as good with the big exception of Edward Larson. Larson talked about beliefs of American scientists. He is the author of one of the major studies in this regard in 1998 that found that close to 90% of elite scientists (members of the National Academy of Sciences) are agnostics/atheists, compared to 60% of the middle-of-the-road scientists. The numbers for the latter set have not changed dramatically from two earlier studies in 1914 and 1933, but the numbers of believers have gone down amongst the elite scientists from 1/3 in 1913 less than 1/10 in 1998. All of this is dramatic when compared to the general American population, where the number of believers hovers around 85% (there are some other competing numbers, but usually agnostics/atheists are around 15%). These trends amongst scientists have also been confirmed by a recent study by Elaine Ecklund, who found 2/3 of scientists either agnostics or atheists (though she also introduces a not-so-clear category of spiritual scientists, and her scientists include economists and sociologists as well. I had a nice chat with Larson about Ecklund's book over dinner, and he agrees with her numbers but not necessarily with all her interpretations).

So what do scientists themselves say about their reason for disbelief. According to Larson, the problem of evil is at the top of the reason, followed by skepticism towards supernaturalism. And he found that the Galileo trial - with many of the misconceptions - shapes the science & religion narrative for many of the scientists. Furthermore, all of this gets inflamed when you add creation debates and politically charged stem cells controversy. None of this stuff was new, but Larson did a fantastic job of distilling all of the key issues together.

Then there were couple of odd talks in the session. One was by Noman ul Haq who declared that there is and has never been any conflict between science and Islam. He contrasted this with Christianity. This is a sweeping generalization, and a surprising one coming from a historian. He mentioned couple of Muslim scholars from the medieval times who were also workers for the mosque or theologians. Well, sure, but that was the case in Christianity as well. The categorization of both "science" and "religion" is a relatively recent phenomenon, and most scholars thinking about the natural world happened to be philosophers and theologians. This was not exceptional to Islam. Second, the relation between science & religion even today is complex. Yes, at some places there is conflict (see creationists like Zakir Naik, Harun Yahya, and others like Maududi, etc), and at others its not. Noman not only made this generalized assertion, but did so in the presence of the guy who has written one of the most sophisticated works of science & religion interaction, John Hedley Brooke (John was the session chair). Perhaps, more troubling was the fact that he gave the impression that Copernicus copied his idea from al-Tusi. While part of this is true (there is good evidence that Copernicus used a figure by al-Tusi), it is important to stress that neither al-Shatir or al-Tusi removed the earth from the center - the key step in the move away from geocentrism. Now it is quite possible that we may discover documents later that some Muslim scholars had taken that step too. But as far as I know, there is no evidence for that. I think, this clarification is important to make (also see the lecture by George Saliba on this topic).

The post is getting long, so I will add some more things later. But overall, the conference was a great experience. Some of the talks were absolutely fantastic. There was one by Rana Dajani on stem cells ethics that was great! I also have a short video of her that I will post in a day or two (along with some pictures of some of the friends attending the conference). I did not attend the parallel student sessions. Those were apparently a phenomenal success - and to be honest, that is what matters most. There was also a very productive and interesting session with the media. More on that some other time.

Related posts:
Blogging from Sharjah: Belief in Dialogue - Day 2
Blogging from Sharjah: Belief in DIalogue - Day 1

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