There is nothing that anyone can say that will get under the skin of the science-worshipping militant new atheist movement and have them all riled up, like questioning the validity of evolutionary theory. So much anger and aggression by some, and dismissal and mockery by others. Yet they present themselves as the so-called “rational” ones. This type of reaction does nothing but raise more suspicion about the validity of this theory. May be more of these guys need to read some Alain de Botton for some spiritual inspiration so they can relax, and by spiritual I mean seizure activity in the temporal lobes within the hippocampal formation and increased neuronal activity resulting form dopamine and serotonin and possibly oxytocin released in different circuits. Until they experience that from Alain de Botton or whoever else that caters to religion-like systems for atheists, they might want to temporarily put the advice of Bishop Desmond Tutu’s father to him into action: “Don’t raise your voice. Improve your argument.”
Why does evolutionary theory draw up so much emotion from science-worshipping militant new atheists? Is it really about “science” as they say? Are they upset because “religion is backwards and what the Scriptures say is nothing but false descriptions of the World that were only so due to the technological limitations of the people who wrote them”? Is it true that “denial of evolution will result in halting our scientific progress”?
This subject is quite complex and would require a very lengthy exposition, which is not really the purpose here. The reason for writing this piece is the recent event held on January 5, 2013 by The Deen Institute titled “Have Muslims Misunderstood Evolution?”. Surprisingly, although this event was advertised as a “conference”, it actually turned out to be a debate between Muslim scholars on the subject of evolution and whether we should accept its validity. I spoke with a friend who attended it and I saw online the part where Shaykh Yasir Qadhi stood his ground and defended the Islamic position when it comes to the creation of Adam peace be upon him, who we believe was a unique creation and not a descendant from a common ancestral ape as other primates.
Unfortunately, in this part of the debate, Shaykh Yasir after giving such an elegant performance refuting the arguments of Dr. Usama Hasan (based on what Shaykh Yasir said about what Dr. Usama claimed and how he backed it up), he ended his time by giving a blanket approval for anything else that evolutionists will claim about the world. This was an unwise move and its negative consequence was exemplified in the mass confusion many Muslims were left in at the end. In fact, some Muslims were apparently a little embarrassed to admit they still didn’t fully accept the pro-evolution panel’s positions and they just had “faith” that the Quran is True. It’s not a surprise they were embarrassed. How can they not when they’re presented with data, figures, graphs, observational accounts, all of which seemed to fit in perfectly with the evolutionary account that’s used to describe how we humans came about. On the opposite end they had the Muslim scholar saying we shouldn’t have a problem with that account except when it comes to Adam peace be upon him and we just have to believe because the Quran said so. To us, the creation of Adam peace be upon him was a miraculous event.
There is a small problem though. How would such an assertion about the miraculous creation of Adam peace be upon him be perceived by the listeners if the pro-evolution side presented no more than a couple of evolutionary theory-based predictions that were experimentally verified and fit in exactly with the narrative proposed by evolutionists? Because that can be done quite easily, and without fail it will put you in a very uncomfortable position as a Muslim and might shake your faith. In fact, many Muslims have left Islam precisely for this reason. At some point, telling people they just “have to have faith” doesn’t sell anymore. So either an intellectual defence needs to be presented, or just surrender and given in.
Evolutionary theory is not just about science. If it was, it wouldn’t have such implications on belief and religion in general, let alone specific religions such as Islam or Christianity. What’s troubling about the way it’s handled by the various religious groups is the point at which they enter the discussion. Everyone seems to want to talk about the evidence for or against it. No one is interested in the foundation that it’s built upon, and the subsequent logic and coherence of the theory itself. For God’s sake, what makes science “science” is not even addressed. What is evidence? The weakness in how Muslims engage with this subject is in the fact that they enter it based on the terms of evolutionists. Without realizing it, they accept the foundations the theory is built on, and then proceed to point out whatever holes the theory has and what it doesn’t explain. Well, if history is any guide, those holes will be filled at some point as the theory goes through the normal scientific course of being re-worked, and some clever scientists will come eventually to explain those things that haven’t been explained. Then what? Will you finally disregard the Quran at that point?
Science, as a field, is being paraded around as the fact-finding activity that only deals with “objective reality”. As if people, who are subjective by nature, aren’t involved. While this is not an article about the philosophy of science and the various discussions about the scientific method, a little point needs to be made about evidence, because too many people, including the majority of these science-worshipping militant new atheists don’t differentiate between the various types of evidence in science. Two important categories of evidence are “material evidence” and “inferred evidence”.
Material evidence is the hard data. It’s the observed phenomena. It’s the findings anyone would get if they followed the same exact procedure followed by another individual. When I train volunteers and undergraduate students doing research projects in the lab, I go through what to do and what not to do, and literally within a week they’ll generate exactly the same findings that I had. They don’t actually need to know what it all means and even what they’re doing does exactly to generate that same set of data; they just go through the motions. Material evidence presents no problems for Islam.
Inferred evidence is the explanation imposed upon the data. Several criteria of logic, simplicity, coherence and adequacy are kept in mind to come up with the best and most plausible explanation. This explanation is then used to generate hypotheses that will test its validity as an explanation. As more support for the inferred evidence is gathered through different experiments in different settings, it will become more established and accepted by the scientific community. Some findings might jeopardize the validity of the inferred evidence, but that’s where flexibility comes in because the inferred evidence, i.e., the explanation can be reformulated to minimize the amount of data that doesn’t completely fit in. Notice the use of the word “minimize”, which implies the stagnation of a set of data that still doesn’t support the explanation. Scientists call these “outliers” or “random values”, which is really code for “we don’t know what’s going on here”. Inferred evidence is where things begin to get vague, because past experience and world views can play a big role in shaping it.
This leads us to something we haven’t dealt with: the foundations of evolutionary theory. There is one important foundation that stems from an age-old debate on epistemology, i.e., how do we get knowledge. This debate is between rationalism and empiricism. Wars were started, gladiators fought to the death, and little puppies and kittens cried many tears. What the Western intellectual crowd determined for itself was that all that exists is what we can touch, smell, feel, taste, hear, and see. In other words, if I can’t measure it in some sort of way, it doesn’t exist. There’s no such thing as pure reason. To be rational means to make empirically-verifiable statements. This position was really firmly established by Francis Bacon who’s earned the title of “Father of Empiricism”. René Descartes was on the other extreme where he supported such an extreme “rationalist” view that he actually started to reject the existence of things. You might know him from his famous statement “I think therefore I am”.
The Muslim approach was never an either/or in this extremist sense. The problem with such radical assertions made by both camps is their initial unjustifiable assumption that knowledge can only be gained through a single methodology. In other words, if we can imagine a world where only two types of stimuli exist (light and sound) for two perceptive senses (eyes and ears), one side of that debate wants to perceive light and sound using the eyes, while the other wants to perceive light and sound using the ears. The Muslim would just look at both sides and shake their head in wonderment at why neither side wants to employ each one of their senses to perceive the appropriate stimuli for it.
Now, if you begin with an assumption that there is nothing beyond this physical realm, and would like to give a context to the combination of your material and inferred evidence, you cannot escape having to accept evolutionary theory as an account for where things came from. In the very first chapter of “The Blind Watchmaker” titled “Explaining the very improbable”, Richard Dawkins spills the beans about what evolutionary theory is meant for:
An atheist before Darwin could have said, following Hume: ‘I have no explanation for complex biological design. All I know is that God isn’t a good explanation, so we must wait and hope that somebody comes up with a better one.’ I can’t help feeling that such a position, though logically sound, would have left one feeling pretty unsatisfied, and that although atheism might have been logically tenable before Darwin, Darwin made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist.
So what are we dealing with here? Definitely not science in the strict sense of the definition. After studying more science textbooks than I can remember to count, and continuing to use numerous ones today, the major function of evolutionary theory in its current formulation in Western academia is to provide a pacifier for the reader who might have any inclinations to feeling any reverence towards anything metaphysical. The goal is to keep things terrestrial. If one were to take all the assertions such as “this evolved from that to solve the problem of moving from water to land”, and restrict the material to just describing structure and function and pointing out the similarities without inducing relatedness, and classify based on similarity rather than “relatedness”, it wouldn’t all of a sudden be any less scientific.
To push this point about the ideological commitment to atheism this theory supports, any criticism of it that has nothing to do with religion must also be qualified:
(Rough Authoritative Voice) Raise your hands and drop your weapon. Turn around slowly and don’t make any sudden moves. Who are you and why are you here?
(Soft Gentle Voice) I’m an atheist just like you, but I’d like to point out some logical holes in evolutionary theory as it’s currently formulated if that’s alright.
(Rough Authoritative Voice) Show me your atheist card. Alright, you can show me those logical holes, but write your critique in difficult philosophical language using terms that would require having a dictionary for philosophy terms and also write it in not so exciting style, use big words and complex sentence structures, and sell it at a high price.
(Soft Gentle Voice) But why all that?
(Rough Authoritative Voice) Oh no reason. Just making sure it’s as inaccessible as possible and that even I don’t understand it so I can dismiss it as philosophical mumbo jumbo and continue bullying everyone into fallaciously accepting evolutionary theory in its current formulation as factual as gravity.
Although this fictional conversation might seem ridiculous, it’s the sad state of literature today. The overwhelming majority of evolutionary theory critiques that deal with the logic of it, the premises its built on, the incoherences within it before addressing the evidences for or against it are relegated to philosophy journals. What makes it more ridiculous is how anyone writing about it must declare their atheism to be taken seriously. The very first statements of Jerry Fodor & Massimo Piattelli-Palmarini in their book “What Darwin Got Wrong” were:
This is not a book about God; nor about intelligent design; nor about creationism. Neither of us is into any of those. We thought we’d best make that clear from the outset, because our main contention in what follows will be that there is something wrong – quite possibly fatally wrong – with the theory of natural selection; and we are aware that even among those who are not quite sure what it is, allegiance to Darwinism has become a litmus for deciding who does, and who does not, hold a ‘properly scientific’ world view. ‘You must choose between faith in God and faith in Darwin; and if you want to be a secular humanist, you’d better choose the latter’. So we’re told.
We doubt that those options are exhaustive. But we do want, ever so much, to be secular humanists. In fact, we both claim to be outright, card-carrying, signed-up, dyed-in-the-wool, no-holds-barred atheists. We therefore seek thoroughly naturalistic explanations of the facts of evolution, although we expect that they will turn out to be quite complex, as scientific explanations often are.
Hold the door. I’m sorry guys, I had no idea you both are such staunch atheists. I now must recognize you as worthy intellectuals and will take you seriously!
As mentioned way above, this is not a simple topic. I didn’t even get into the problem with using the broad term “evolution” as describing one thing, when in fact, it’s actually an umbrella term that groups multiple facets of biology and behaviour under it. Hence, it’s actually fallacious to group them all together in this manner. The intricate interplay between material evidence, inferred evidence, and contextual narrative built upon this combination, has given rise to what is possibly the most interconnected web of research mankind has every come up with. Today, whole fields of study depend upon evolutionary theory as the bedrock for them to establish their departure points. Pick up a first year undergraduate text book on anthropology and right at the beginning they’ll confess that the whole discipline is built on that assumption. This theory has received so much attention and has been reworked so extensively that it achieved a scale analogous to the Titanic. Interestingly, the Titanic was so magnificent that apparently “Not even God himself could sink this ship.” Well, we all know how that ended .
In spite of all the problems seeping from evolutionary theory, it’s still promoted as an “elegant” and “accurate” account for where we came from and for all this complexity and diversity of life. It seems that its convincing powers have to do more with how it’s presented rather than the actual merit of it. Of course we can’t discount the material evidence that’s interpreted to be in support for it. But that takes us on a whole topic of theory-laden data (see Thomas Kuhn) and how in reality “it’s the theory that determines what we observe” as Einstein put it.
For Muslims, with such a vast tradition, and countless works from our scholars, so many of us having doubts and being confused is only a symptom of not having really learned what’s really important. Our tradition was never a “just have faith regardless of evidence to the contrary” tradition. Imam Ibn Al Jauzi says in his work “Confusing Methods of Iblees (Satan)” (تلبيس إبليس):
The greatest bounty for the human being is the intellect, because it’s the means for knowledge of God the Praised and the way by which we believe in the Messengers. [Since] it couldn’t conclude [on its own] all that is required from the servant, the Messengers were sent and the Scriptures were revealed. So the analogy of religion is the sun, and the analogy of the intellect is the eye; if the eye is sound and it’s opened it will see the sun.
If Muslims spent half the time they spend studying whatever else they focus on for their Western-based education to study their own theology, the alternative contextual narratives based on commitment to atheism wouldn’t phase them. More importantly, our own scholars need to be careful when it comes to subjects such as this. As Imam Fakhr Ad’Deen Ar’Razi would put it: “If the premises are fallacious, there is no need to discuss any further details.” This intellectual bullying by the science-worshipping militant new atheist crowd shouldn’t be paid any attention to once their foundations are shook. But unfortunately, our modern days seem to combine the prominence of magic during the times of Moses peace be upon him and the prominence of materialistic naturalism during the times of Jesus Christ peace be upon him. We’re too taken in by how amazing everything is and our attention is more towards sensory stimulation than rational inquiry.
A final point, I barely scratched the surface of this topic. I could go on and on. I can argue FOR evolution if I want to, but I think! I realize that I skipped over a lot of different points and completely ignored others. I have written a couple of other articles on this subject that deal with the logic of it. But I generally don’t address it much because I haven’t exhausted what I feel is a sufficient amount of material on philosophy of science, history of science, evolution, logic, and other fields relating to these subjects. What has done more damage to Islam and resulted in giving more credence to this atheism-driven account for nature is the fact that those who address it, although well-intentioned, haven’t given it careful study. This has resulted in Muslims either developing crises of faith or even leaving Islam completely, which might’ve never happened if they were presented with a carefully laid out analysis that could put their minds at ease. Yet, had they had a solid grounding in Muslim theology, they may never have had those doubts no matter how poorly this subject was addressed by Muslims.
So, should we believe in evolution as Muslims? Yes & no! If the answer upsets those looking for straight yes or no answers, then we can be equally upset for being expected to answer such a complex multilayered question with a straight yes or no answer.
p.s. I realize that this is one of those topics that a lot of people on both sides will want to debate and argue about back and forth. Experience has taught me that whenever I engage with those who want to argue, it just never ends, and it goes on and on and on. I don’t write about these topics in order to start a comment thread war. I’m also not interested in argumentations and debates. I wrote this with a goal to return some sanity to the discourse and expose how it’s being unjustifiably simplified. Many Muslims are confused about this topic so I thought I would shed some light on the underpinnings of it all and why it can be confusing.