Conflict of religion with science and free-thinking

Published on Tuesday, July 21, 2015

by Quamrul Haider(1) and Anisur Rahman(2)

Science and religion are two distinct and disparate strands of human thoughts, each operating under its own epistemological position. Ever since the dawn of civilization, religion never existed harmoniously with science and free-thinking. This is because they lie at the opposite ends of the spectrum of rational human inquiry and human intelligence.

Scientists and free-thinkers throughout the ages had been persecuted when their discoveries and thoughts were in conflict with religious edicts. One of the earliest victims of religious persecution was a Persian polymath, Muhammad ibn Zakariya al-Razi (854‒925). A liberal scholar, scientist and a prolific writer credited with more than 200 scientific publications, al-Razi was ostracized for his belief that religions "forbid rational speculation, and strive to kill their adversaries." The most well-known case of religious persecution was the trial of Galileo Galilei (1564‒1642) by the Catholic Church for his support of the Copernican heliocentric model of the cosmos. Unyielding in his conviction, Galileo said, "I do not feel obliged to believe that the same God who has endowed us with sense, reason and intellect has intended us to forgo their use."

The recent medieval-style killings of free-thinkers and humanists like Avijit Roy, Washiqur Rahman, Ananta Das and many more by religious terrorists in Bangladesh are stark reminders that our relationship with religion is still tumultuous, locked in an "irreconcilable conflict between knowledge and belief." The killings have also reinforced our notion that religion is a poisoned chalice that has done more harm to the people than uniting them under the moral edifice of its God(s).

Many scientists and almost all the free-thinkers are skeptical about the existence of God and believe that science and free-thinking are incompatible with religion. They argue that religion preys on simple and gullible minds, and buys their blind allegiance with promises of a blissful afterlife in heaven or threats of an accursed life in hell. As Albert Einstein said sarcastically, "If people are good only because they fear punishment, and hope for reward, then we are a sorry lot indeed."

According to the free-thinkers, science embraces reason, evidence and open inquiry while religion demands faith and blind submission to the divine revelation from an omnipotent omnipresent Supreme Entity. Science enlightens us with knowledge; religion makes us victims of intellectual obfuscation. Science fosters free thinking; religion censors free thinking. While science is breaking new frontiers, major religions of the world are deeply embedded in the past.

Founded on received wisdom and dogma, religion is one of the most divisive forces in the society. Although most religions extol the virtues of love, peace and humility, the bloodstained history of religious conflicts provide little evidence for universal application of love and moral fortitude. Today, many religions misinterpret their teachings and preach hatred, violence and brutality in the name of God. They have channeled the religious zeal of their faithful into violent conflicts, thereby perverting our tolerance and unleashing barbaric cruelty. Indeed, the venomous sermons delivered by the guardians of the religions gave birth to terrorist groups that are engaged in reprehensible abomination.

Members of these fringe groups, the yellow-bellied cowards, have been targeting the free-thinkers because of their skepticism to blind faith and renunciation of reliance on revealed truth as opposed to scientific truth. They dread to stand up to the veracity of scientific truth and they realise that free-thinking frees our mind from the God-based thought process. Hence, they silence the voices of reason by killing with cold-blooded savagery the Avijits, Washiqurs and Anantas of the world. Unfortunately, these terrorist acts will persist unless we get rid of their patrons who are criminals and terrorists in disguise.

We whole heartedly share the view of Avijit Roy, the humanist murdered in Bangladesh only a few months ago (Feb 2015) when he said, "Our aim is to build a society which will not be bound by the dictates of arbitrary authority, comfortable superstition, stifling tradition or suffocating orthodoxy but would rather be based on reason, compassion, humanity, equality and science." Albert Einstein lamented in his lifetime when confronted with Nazi brutality, "The world will not be destroyed by those who do evil, but by those who watch them without doing anything."

In his book "The Anti-Christ," Nietzsche expressed his disdain for religion by writing, "Christianity remains to this day the greatest misfortune of humanity." Steven Weinberg who shared the 1979 Physics Nobel Prize with Abdus Salam went a step farther. According to him, "Religion is an insult to human dignity. With or without it, you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing bad things, but for good people to do bad it takes religion."

Since science has so radically altered our lives and reoriented our society, scientists and free-thinkers believe that there is no immediate need for traditional religions to provide any real assistance in coping with contemporary personal and social problems. Stated simply, the metaphor of a supernatural power in the heavens is no longer required. Religion should accept this reality and let us think freely.

(1) Professor of Physics at Fordham University, New York, USA (2) Retired Nuclear Safety Specialist and a Fellow of the British Nuclear Institute

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