Ever since the ushering of the Enlightenment in the early 18th century, religious dogma has increasingly been questioned. In the contemporary era scientists offer clear and logical explanations for the evolution of life, the formation of the solar system, etc. In the face of such indisputable scientific evidence, it is no longer possible to accommodate religious dogma. Religious fundamentalism or the literal interpretation of scriptures offered a degree of solace to primitive people when their lives and livelihoods were under constant threat from natural disasters, epidemic diseases and barbaric warfare. But as civilization has progressed, modern societies are reasonably well-equipped in regulating nature and offering protection from its extremes. Therefore, there is no longer any necessity to hold on to blind faith as a source of consolation in a brutish world. If I was invited to a public debate on the conflict between religious fundamentalism and the methods of science, I would strongly defend science and its centrality to civil discourse. The rest of this essay is an elaboration of this position.
Richard Dawkins has been an inspirational public figure since the 1970s. With his ground-breaking work The Selfish Gene, Dawkins brought irrefutable evidence and importance to Darwin’s Theory of Evolution through Natural Selection. All along he has contrasted the simplifying beauty of scientific rationality to that of mystifying and mythologizing tendency of religions. One of his later works The God Delusion is an extensive treatise on this debate. In it, Dawkins rebukes and rebuts several of illogical assumptions and false inferences made by proponents of major religions. Taking a polemical approach to erasing the God delusion, Dawkins quotes copiously from canonized religious scriptures and systematically exposes their inconsistencies, logical fallacies and contradictions. I strongly side with Dawkins and his brand of atheism which issues a clarion call to people to embrace science. What Dawkins is actually encouraging is to look and admire the beauty and complexity of our cosmos and the life forms within it. Therein lay the most intricate, the most delicate, the most wondrous of nature’s beauty and order.
To Dawkins’ defence are several leading scientists of the day. Steven Weinberg, for example, has written a detailed defence of the contents of The God Delusion in his article for the Times Literary Supplement dated 17th January 2007. Weinberg offers a historical perspective on the conflict between religious fundamentalism and scientific advancement. And in each of these conflicts, religion either rejects, modifies or misinterprets scientific fact to suit its ends. One of the classic instances was the controversy surrounding the Copernican understanding of the cosmos – which put the Sun and not the Earth at the centre of the cosmos. The Church got threatened by this theory which went against the geo-centric view noted in the holy texts. Likewise, Newton’s discovery of gravitational force upset the Church, for it dispelled the myth that it was God’s will that kept the universe in proper order. But each time, there is only so much resistance religious institutions can create in the light of overwhelming scientific evidence. Hence, eventually many theologians accepted the helio-centric view of the immediate Universe and the existence of gravitational force regulating heavenly bodies. Herein lies a message to religious fundamentalists of today. Just as preceding generations of literal interpreters of scriptures eventually realized their folly, so too will the current generation come to realize its ignorance soon. This will be one of my key messages to religious fundamentalists in this important public debate.
Even the popular astrophysicist Stephen Hawking has come strongly in support of methods of science. Though he was believed to be a believer in God at the time of publication of his bestseller ‘A Brief History of Time’, Hawking has now unequivocally made his atheism clear. He states that all the answers to naturally occurring phenomena can be found in the laws of physics and that there is no need to resort to religion for seeking answers. For example, Hawking proposes that the Universe came into existence spontaneously at the moment of the Big Bang and there is no ‘designer’ or ‘will’ behind the occurrence of the Big Bang. So I will urge religious fundamentalists to heed to the words of the leading thinkers of our time like Stephen Hawking. Ignoring their views and arguments and blindly adhering to the literal understanding of the scriptures will create social fissures and communal conflicts.