Sabtu, 08 Januari 2011

On Islam and Intelligent Design: Fusion?


Honorary Currator

These days, science and religion are widely perceived to be at logger heads, that is, by the ill-informed and by fundamentalists of all sorts. For the religious right, at least for Christian fundamentalists, the battle lines are drawn between creationism and evolution. Herein, intelligent design has become a weapon for inserting creationism back into the science classroom - a guise for advancing a fundamentalist agenda in America and elsewhere. In contrast, in the Muslim world, intelligent design is currently either little known or of little consequence except as engaged by Harun Yahya and perhaps some other Islamic scholars of whom I am as of yet unaware. Fortunately Yahya helps us to see how very much in common all Abrahamic fundamentalists have, especially when it comes to their opposition to Darwinism.

Every group has a book that gets its goat, a tome that becomes a monkey on its back. For the Christian Right it is Charles Darwin’s The Origin of the Species, for liberals it is Samuel Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations and for Islamists it is Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses. The striking thing about this getting of the goat, across the board, is how humans insist on behaving like ideological lemmings, nay mental dinosaurs. While each of these groups incessantly bray about these books, they rarely if ever actually read them. For those liberal Westerners engaged in development, politics and Islam, the worst example of this is the case of Huntington. Let us begin then with Huntington, dwell for a spell on Darwin and Intelligent Design (ID) and conclude by holding upon high Rushdie’s so called Satanism.

Liberals, and others of indeterminate politics, especially those involved in development, abhor Huntington’s book. A few brief examples of my experience in comparing Westerner’s reactions to Indonesians reactions to Clash as given below are perfectly symbolic. Interestingly enough, while highly educated Westerners dismiss Clash out of hand, all the Indonesians I have worked with who have actually spent the time to read the book find its central thesis to be rock solid.

Once in a meeting with a group of parliamentary economic advisors, for opening chit chat, I raised Clash with their garrulous advisor, a senior cold war warrior. He exhaled the smoke slowly from his Cuban cigar and declaimed: “If we burnt books in America, that is the first book that would have been thrown upon the pyre”. In another similar case, with an even more educated, but far younger expatriate, a specialist on Islam and politics, I noticed that she had delivered the usual uninformed castigation of Clash in her doctoral thesis. Suspecting as much, I asked her if she had actually read Huntington, to which she replied: “Why bother!”

In contrast, when I asked JIL’s Hamid Basyaib what he thought of the book, he quickly replied: “Huntington is absolutely correct!” This was exactly the same response I got from my P3I (parliamentary research) group. In contrast to these thoughtful Indonesians who have actually taken the trouble to read Clash, the simplistic and automatic rejection of ideas that do not conform to one’s own view of the world is typical. It shows how there is a broad fundamentalist streak even amongst highly educated liberals. By fundamentalism, I mean a stubborn resistance to entertain anything other than one’s own preconceived and narrow view. I suppose we are all guilty.

There are a few key books that are causing a clash of ideas within today’s collective consciousness, a clash which has been ongoing since 1859. These are The Origin of the Species and the Abrahamic monotheistic doctrine as handed down through the Torah, the Bible and the Koran. Darwinism, the theory that man evolved by chance from an ape-like ancestor is unacceptable to those who believe that God created man in his image -- for obvious reasons. Stimulated by the raging contemporary debate in America over evolution itself, a fascinating conjunction is taking place in which Abrahamic fundamentalists are finding common ground. For example, Harun Yahya in his Quick Grasp of Faith embraces Christian creationism, namely the intelligent design movement, and transforms it into Islamic terms, if only simplistically so. Religious commentators such as Yahya reject Darwinism for the same ideological reasons as Christian fundamentalists do, instead of doing the harder work of trying to understand modern day biology on its own terms. Nevertheless, Darwin is not the real bogey man for Islamists. The real unread bogeyman is Rushdie. But we are not yet finished with monkeys and men.

Religious scholars should either leave science to the scientists or learn something about science before they climb onto the facile anti-Darwinist Intelligent Design bandwagon. For example, virtually all of Yahya’s objections to evolution are erroneous. He claims that natural selection cannot produce new species without having the first clue about the new field of Evo-Devo or the Founder Principle, that complex systems like the eye cannot evolve though they do, that all mutations are harmful though many are advantageous, that aquatic beings cannot evolve into terrestrial beings though the fossil record clearly shows how this is so, that birds and mammals did not evolve from reptiles though we have incontrovertible evidence of how they did, that no transitional fossils exist though a whole slew of such fossils exist, that all the fossils of early man are fake though only two were, and that Neanderthals were fully human which is utter garbage. He concludes that the theory of evolution has no scientific validity which reveals a paradoxical respect for science. Worse still he demonizes scientists by stating that they hold on to their beliefs in evolution so strongly because they want to deny the existence of God. Apparently their real aim is to pervert people through teaching them that they do not have to follow any moral code because they are not responsible before God.

The tragedy of this is that potentially intelligent people are being and will be denied the intellectual and professional opportunities science education offers through turning them against science before they even have a chance to understand it. Think of all the time young Muslims in conservative Islamic contexts will spend slavishly if piously memorizing the Koran instead of learning about math and science and one day - God be willing - actually becoming doctors, scientists and physicists and healing the world rather than stubbornly holding it back in the darkness of the Medieval mind. In any event, there is no necessary conflict between science and religion and many scientists are religious people as Yahya himself acknowledges.

A remarkable scientist who has written a great deal of accessible and interesting material on evolution, and who also happens to have been Jewish as so many eminent scientists are, was the Harvard biologist Stephen Jay Gould. Gould wrote a special book which anyone interested in learning about science and religion should read -- Rocks of Ages: Science and Religion in the Fullness of Life. There Gould advances the theory of NOMA, of non-overlapping magisteria. This simply means that science and religion are two separate fields of logic, two separate domains of teaching authority in which the former explains the natural world and the latter, provides a guide to the moral and spiritual world. According to NOMA, they should be kept respectively separate. However, fundamentalists always have to totalize. The sacred hegemonic text, whether it be the Koran, the Bible or the Torah, has to explain everything literally, the same way in all places and at all times. What to do?

There is no solution to this simplistic rejection of science by fundamentalist thinkers. Fortunately, on occasion, enquiring young minds break free from orthodoxy against all odds. Embracing critical reflection and learning for the sake of seeking knowledge beyond the prison of religious doctrine, they discover liberalism, and hopefully science and literature in the process. As I see it, what matters here, in this reading context, is that liberal minded Muslims in Indonesia study religiously, read more, question always, that they seek knowledge for its own sake. Should they do so by actually reading Darwin and Rushdie and studying science instead of simply accepting facile reactions to Darwin and scientific thought gleaned ironically from the Christian Right, should they critically read Huntington instead of aping knee jerk liberal reactions, and should they read Satanic Verses and Rushdie’s defense of it as a literary venture as given in Granta, they will feel the divine creative spirit glowing within them, that holiness fundamentalists seem to consider Satanic. The Indonesian liberal agenda to expand pluralism and tolerance as national virtues should also involve helping to open minds to science and literature, doors to knowledge and opportunity that fundamentalists are constantly seeking to close.

The Value of Intelligent Design?

These days, science and religion are widely perceived to be at logger heads, that is, by the ill-informed and by fundamentalists of all sorts. For the religious right, at least for Christian fundamentalists, the battle lines are drawn between creationism and evolution. Herein, intelligent design has become a weapon for inserting creationism back into the science classroom - a guise for advancing a fundamentalist agenda in America and elsewhere. In contrast, in the Muslim world, intelligent design is currently either little known or of little consequence except as engaged by Harun Yahya and perhaps some other Islamic scholars of whom I am as of yet unaware. Fortunately Yahya helps us to see how very much in common all Abrahamic fundamentalists have, especially when it comes to their opposition to Darwinism.

First one should be clear about what intelligent design (ID), a contemporary form of creationism, actually is. ID simply proposes that the emergence of life and the mystery and complexity of the natural world supercedes mere chance – that life itself presupposes the existence of a designer. ID “scientists” are actually philosophers of science because they do not propose to offer up any science which can prove intelligent design in that their credo is a matter of faith though they strategically eschew the use of the word God. Harun Yahya, on the other hand, boldly inserts Allah into the equation and thus reveals ID for what it is - Creationism. In short, the proponents of ID argue that the Darwinian theory of the survival of the fittest cannot explain the majesty of creation and life itself, nor the sheer intricacy and complexity of biological structures. Indeed, if you read Darwin, you will find that he would not have entirely disagreed with this objection. In addition, let it be noted that Darwin explicitly stated that he was an agnostic and not an atheist.

In order to promote the importance of intelligent design to Islam and monotheism more generally, rather than to simply dismiss the idea, it would be necessary to first salvage the concept from the religious right and the political uses for which the concept has been used. ID is essentially an IUD in the womb of science education. It has been used to distort public perceptions of science and scientists as the enemy of God. Though this is a recent phenomenon connected to the rise of the religious Right and the emerging political power of the moral majority, the Creationist idea has probably been around for as long as we have had language and even before. Since Neanderthal times at least, that is 40 000 years ago, we have been burying the dead and reflecting upon the mystery of life.

In this century, a mere flickering moment in the billions of years preceding man’s emergence, we have turned into Homo sciencies. We have become obsessed with those magical proteins - that fantastically intricate world of composite structures, and with DNA activity, with how genes function to produce the world as we know it. How mysterious, how amazing is it that we have discovered the exact nature of the extraordinary molecular structures which allow life to flow, the microbe to move and insects and animals to see, to fly and to flee. We only know about such things because of the gift of consciousness and critical scientific thought, God given if you prefer. Indeed! Why are we here? What happens if anything after our deaths? One does not have to be a fundamentalist to ask such questions. But one does have to be a fundamentalist to believe that one has the only acceptable answers and that everyone who disagrees is damned. We all stand in awe of the mystery of life. In fact, biologists and scientists have an even more profound sense of awe for life itself as they are uniquely privileged to be so intimately aware of nature’s complexity, of its processes, structures and its remarkable evolutionary history.

Intelligent design is both useful and natural, if you are a deist, as it simply assumes as an article of faith that life itself the complexity of the world presupposes a creator. Therein the natural world and the soul itself exist for a reason and that such things cannot be explained through the workings of chance. This is the crux of the matter. Hence it is true that ID can stimulate one to better appreciate design in nature and foster spiritualism over materialism. In my interpretation, if ID focused exclusively on natural theology, it could more effectively promote a simultaneous belief in God, in science as well as accept what it currently cannot - the unassailable fact of evolution. To do so, ID would have to be re-conceptualized and separated from its ideological and political moorings. Then we could return to Henri Bergson’s concept of Creative Evolution with the benefit of hindsight and consider where a reconsideration of Bergson’s complex deist thought on evolution and the strange nature of internal time could take us in the light of 21st Century science.

It is no secret that Einstein, and many of the most profound scientists of this and past ages, have been perfectly able to reconcile their faith in both science and God. In contrast, while atheist scientists clearly do reject the notion of a designer, they seek laws which explain that design. They have every right to do so. In the middle ground, there is a huge silent majority who believe in a higher power and that there are supernaturally ordained reasons for our existence. These people invariably respect science as an autonomous domain of knowledge just as vital to humanity as is religion to our hopefully immortal souls.

As I see it, the tragedy for intelligent design is twofold. First, it has been misused by the American religious Right. Second, it has been led by a tiny group of second rate scientists, actually ideologues, who in their zeal to express their yearning for God have confused the nature of religion and science. As activists, the ID jihadists have sought to advance a scripturalist interpretation of the origin of man and of the world. ID rejects the very basis of modern day biology and disingenuously dismisses the monumental work scientists, that is, paleontologists, embryologists, entomologists, geneticists, ecologists, biologists and astro-physicists all, have done since Darwin, that is, how they have brilliantly showed us how the world is constantly changing around us. It is altogether ironic in this regard, considering the notion of the "clash of civilizations" that Christian fundamentalists in America and Islamic fundamentalists in the Muslim world should suddenly find themselves on such common ground. The dangers of fundamentalist thought are indeed global.

The problem is that fundamentalists cannot accept established scientific knowledge because their literal interpretations of the Abrahamic texts contradict the reality of the fossil and biological record. Fundamentalism is innately anti-evolutionist. In fact, evolution, meaning change, is anathema to it for obvious reasons. Science, in contrast to religion, has no answers for questions relating to the soul and the meaning of life, nor even for the most challenging questions as to the spark of life itself. It does not pretend to. But what it certainly does do is explain the evolution of simple and complex organs and the whole galaxy of wondrous biological, environmental and solar systems through which the spirit moves.

Science has gone so far, so fast down the road of explaining the biochemistry of life that this in itself should stimulate our wonder, a sense of awe at the power of the human mind and the gift of creative consciousness which is wholly dependant on critical enquiry. Nevertheless, in defending the sanctity of reason and science, one does not have to reject the numinous and fall into an atheist trap. That being said, people must have the absolute right to reject God if that is their preference or to conceptualize God (or an Intelligent Designer) in their own way. Again, the problem facing ID is not that it is such a bad idea but that it is an article of faith that necessarily exists outside of the realm of science. In short, the worst aspect of the ID phenomenon is that it is being used by the religious right to hinder science education and pervert people’s understanding of science. The essential motivation behind ID is not necessarily entirely problematic but its wholesale rejection of Darwinism and thus modern-day biological science is deeply problematic. All this renders it specious, divisive and non-productive.

The peculiar upshot of the ID debate is that educated liberals and secularists now find themselves in a strange ethical landscape. For example, recently, in the December 2005 issue of Harper's Magazine, Stanley Fish revealed this political perversion in "Academic Cross-Dressing: How Intelligent Design gets its arguments from the left". As he shows, the proponents of ID have high-jacked the rhetoric of multi-culturalism and the post-modernist assertion of the rights of minorities to express difference through alternative discourses. This has allowed the Christian Right to mobilize and strategically infiltrate local school boards in order to change the science curriculum. Their goal is to force religion back into the science syllabus through introducing intelligent design. Fortunately, they have failed at least for now.

The recent spectacular failure of ID to legally achieve its political goals in Dover, Pennsylvania is a triumph for secularism and liberalism. The attempt to counter the theory of evolution through demanding that Creationism be taught in the public school classroom has smashed itself upon the reef of rational secularism. For some this is a triumph for the continuing validity of the principles of religious freedom upon which America was founded in the early seventeenth century when the Elizabethan Anglican Puritans rebelled against the hierarchically ordained stasis of the Great Chain of Being.

The problem raised here for pluralism today is this. If we must respect differences of opinion, then how can we exclude the Christian Right from injecting their agenda into the classroom, either in America or Indonesia? They are attempting to do this because the classroom is a key context in which future world views are formed. But in doing so, they are forcing their religious beliefs upon everyone else. In essence, to reject the Right's agenda is to reject relativism so there is an interesting quandry at hand. This has a certain relevance to the problem facing liberal Islam and pluralism in Indonesia in terms of combating fundamentalism in a state which legislates pluralism but demands deism.

The solution may be beguilingly simple and yet revealing on two counts. First, no one group, even if it is the dominant group, has the right to control either the national religious agenda nor the syllabus in the public classroom – at least in a plural society and all society’s are plural. In this regard, the First Amendment is a historic document of extraordinary import and global application. Yet it is fascinating how it has no corollary in Indonesia which in fact legislates the very opposite – the conjunction of religion and the state. In any event, the First Amendment and the Constitution are written documents which are open to interpretation and it is not entirely clear as to what the relation between church and state actually should be. This is a matter of social and political evolution forged through debate and is a separate matter too complex to follow up on here. Second, relativism, though it is much touted as sacrosanct, particularly by liberals, should be qualified within moral brackets. Relativism can only be morally acceptable when the values and principles espoused do not contravene the rights and dignity of others. This is a form of liberal relativism which is not value free. Moreover, relativism should be strictly limited to the domain of morality, that of civil society and religion – and physics if you must.

Science has its own self-correcting logic and is arguably methodologically value free-that is what makes it work. Yet pluralism does apply in the realm of science as scientists vigorously debate explanatory principles, rigorously test their models against their data and constantly contest each others claims. In fact, it is interesting that the intellectual motor in science is the same critical investigative mode that liberal Islam values.

Yet what is one to do when Islamic scholars portray Darwinism as being a Satanic denial of God and when one knows so little about evolution and biological science that one cannot soundly reject Harun Yahya’s flirtation with ID as nonsense? This solution is so simple. Read Darwin, read Rushdie, read Huntington. Read up on the amazing things that biology has discovered since Darwin. Read about Evo-Devo (evolutionary developmental biology) and the genetic tool-kits or body building genes which explain how major structural changes occur for example how the structure of the human face is determined by the same genes which determine the shape of a bird’s beak. Most amazing of all, Evo-Devo explains a host of remarkable facts such as the simple stepwise expression of a gene that results in the growth of six legs rather than eight. Don’t take Yahya’s word for it. Read for yourself how the ever emerging fossil record continues to reveal intermediate extinct forms of life. This plethora of evidence makes a complete monkey out of Creation science and its latest manifestation in Christian and Islamic Intelligent Design.

As odd or as natural as it might seem to fundamentalists caught unaware by the sudden conjunction, there is a potent elective affinity between Christian, Islamic and Jewish and even Hindu Creationism. The result is that Huntington's "clash of civilizations" implodes into a global plural clash of liberal versus fundamentalist tendencies in which religious extremists, or perhaps more fairly – conservatives, find fertile common ground. On a more local level however, and as it concerns evolution and literature in Indonesia, if Darwinism is apostasy and Rushdie Satanic then the MUI should indeed issue another fatwa. This time they should expand the ban on Godless tomes for this is a country in which it is strictly illegal to blaspheme the Lord. Is Darwinism not an infidel science?

Fundamentalist Muslims and Christians might well even find themselves side by side with those American liberals and weird convoluted cold war warriors who would burn Huntington’s book as some of my esteemed colleagues would do after a few too many bloody Mary’s - if I let them get near my copy of Clash. Considering that Rushdie and Marx are already banned here, why not add Darwin and even Freud to the list? Then Indonesia could become more like Iran – and Kansas or heaven forbid - Arkansas. But sarcasm and book burning aside, Islamists and Christian conservatives consistently react the same way to Rushdie and Darwin, as liberals do to Huntington. They all vilify these books without ever having even read them. On the other hand, sometimes liberal authors are accorded heroic status also without having ever been read. For Indonesia, the penultimate example of this is Max Havelar’s Multatuli, an atrocious book totally undeserving of its literary status despite its accrued prestige which came about because of Havelar’s structurally deranged expression of anti-colonial moral outrage. Read it. You will see what I mean.

This life of books beyond the text is fascinating as it shows how the spirit of a book can become a platform or a context for the clashing and meeting of ideologies across space and time. And there, through uniting against Darwin, fundamentalists from different faiths might wake up only to find themselves in bed with the enemy. Imagine that! (Sumber Komunitas Tikar Pandan)

1 komentar:

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