Interview with Dr. Philip Clayton on his book “Religion and Science”


Interview with Dr. Philip Clayton on his book “Religion and Science”

The relation between Religion and Science has almost always been a subject of passionate debate. This month we discussed this issue further with Dr. Clayton, the author of Religion & Science, the basics.

1. Q: You’re one of the leaders in world-wide dialogue between religion and science – what draws your attention to the question of religion and science?

A: No part of religious practice in the world today is more visible to the world than how we interact with science. People now often judge us by whether we respond in reasonable ways to scientific breakthroughs or whether we pull back into our traditional language and refuse to listen and to respond reasonably. I am drawn to this debate because as a religious person, I think I can do more for the faiths of Abraham by offering wise interaction between religion and science, than any other area that I could work in.

2. Q: What does religion and science mean to you?

A: Aside from the political significance of the dialogue, religion and science is a deeply personal question for me. As a Christian believer, I felt that the integrity of my faith was challenged by some statements that scientists make. So, about thirty years ago, I began studying the science and the ways that Christians and Jews and Muslims can respond to it. Gradually I moved from a place of great skepticism, even doubt about my faith, to a place where I could see that God’s revelation, and the knowledge of the natural world, fit together in a natural harmony. So, at the end of these thirty years, I have become much more confident as a believer and more bold to speak of my faith in the modern world.

3. Q: What are the core issues that animate the contemporary discussion on religion and science?

A: The core issues fall under four major headings: First, there are scientific developments that seem incompatible with traditional beliefs that Jews and Muslims and Christians have held. Second, there are things said about science by some spokespersons, such as Richard Dawkins or Dan Dennett, that are very hostile toward religion, and these charges need to be answered. Third is the way that we express our faith in today’s world. This task is not just about scientific topics; it’s about the way that we are present as believers in society, and in the universities. The task for us here is to understand the vibrant, powerful ways that we can speak about God in today’s world. The fourth core issue that animates this dialogue concerns ethical issues. These are issues where humans seek to give wise responses to new technologies — technologies that have the capacity to harm the world, It’s important for believers to offer wise guidance to scientists, to businesses, and to governments about how to utilize the new powers that humans have achieved.

4.Q: What are the difficulties of dialog between religion and Science today?

A: There are, of course, intrinsic challenges. For example, when we affirm that God directly does things in the world, the scientists will say, ‘no, the world functions by Natural Law, and there are no direct interventions of God.’ If we say that truth has been revealed by God’s Prophet,’ some scientists may say, ‘no, truth is only known through the sciences.’ But those direct issues —as challenging as they are — are not the ones that most people hear about. Most people hear very heated rhetoric, from scientists or friends of science, which claims that religion is a force for obscurantism, and a force that blocks the development of human culture. I believe that those negative attitudes, which are not scientific but pseudo-scientific, are actually the major difficulty in the dialogue today. We need to challenge what is called ‘scientism,’ which means the use of science to undercut religion, ethics, and human values. We need to remove those prejudices so that the real, deeper partnerships between science and religion can become visible.

5. Q: What change is needed on the side of the religionists and the scientists in order to have a productive dialog?

A: On the science side, it’s very important that scientists and the public at large don’t confuse science with materialism, naturalism, and atheism. Science, as such, has nothing to say about God, pro or con. Science reveals and explains the regularities around us in the natural world. So the first step from the science side is to remove the confusion between careful study of the empirical world and philosophical beliefs, like materialism or atheism. From the side of the religious person, it’s important to remove first the fear of science. If God is the source of all truth, then nothing we learn about the world will conflict with God. This is something that Fethullah Gulen has said in multiple writings. The second thing that religionists need to learn is to let science be good at what science is good at, and let us be good at what we’re good at. We seek to accept the words of God through God’s prophets, to teach accordingly, and to live accordingly. We are not specialists in the details of the patterns of the natural world. So, I think some humility on our part would be helpful. We need to say to the scientists, ‘thank you for telling us of those patterns in physics or chemistry or biology. Thank you for bringing new knowledge, which God has allowed you to bring. We by contrast will talk about the areas which are core to the teaching of the prophets, and the book.’

6. Q: How would religions respond to the opportunity/challenge of pluralism?

A: Each of us has grown up in a particular religious tradition, and we were taught as children that all truths about God and the world were contained in our religion. Now we know that God is more complex than that. God has sent prophets to the Jews, teaching them a Jewish way to live. God sent a prophet to the Christians, teaching them a Christian way to live. To Muslims God gave the Prophet, may peace be upon him, and the holy Qur’an, to guide them how to live. If we could let God be God, and be more humble in our obedience to the path that has been given to us, the conflict of pluralism would be reduced. I have been encouraged that people of multiple religions today acknowledge the prophets of God. If we seek to be obedient to what we know of God, and to allow God to decide how the messages of the various prophets can be fit together, then pluralism becomes a resource and not a problem. Once again, as with religion and science, the challenge is humility. Too easily, humans make themselves to be God.

7. Q: The world is in the midst of dramatic technological changes – what do you think the future of religion would look like?

A: People often think that technological developments will directly change religion. I think that’s false. Technology as such is compatible with our traditional religion, and religion has always adapted to an ever-changing world. The problem lies in people’s attitudes. The religion that can play its role of service to God in this world is a religion that offers clear ethical principles to live by. Those ethical principles are actually the best guidance for dealing with the new technologies. I’m actually optimistic on this question! I believe that there is such a depth of wisdom in Holy Qur’an, in Christian New Testament, in Jewish Torah, that we have only begun to mine it in order to address the confusing developments of technology. I’d like to see us, as believers, draw more deeply from the depth of teaching that our traditions already hold. We have been too shy in speaking about the ethics of technology. Maybe in this area, we have been too humble.

8. Q: Can you elaborate on the ethics of Technology?

A: A few years ago, heads of technology companies in the United States asked religious scholars to come together to guide them in the ethical issues raised by the pharmaceuticals. When we came to the meeting, they said that many religious scholars had turned down the offer. Many had said, ‘I don’t understand enough about pharmaceuticals to make a contribution.’ I think that’s a failure of nerve. We can learn enough about nuclear energy, weapons technologies, pharmaceuticals, neuroscience, genetic engineering, to bring the resources of Holy Qur’an, or Christian Bible, to those discussions. But sometimes we lack the intellectual courage to grapple with the new technologies. When we do this, we sell our traditions short.

9. Q: Is lack of courage, due to the fear of being exposed to something from technology that might rattle one’s faith?

A: Yes, perhaps our silence reflects an unnecessary fear, and an unjustified doubt. Maybe we doubt that the timeless teachings of the Prophet are really relevant to the details of the 21st century. Maybe technology is a call to us to have more faith, to show a deeper faith that God’s revelation includes ethical principles that will guide humanity as long as we live on the face of this planet. Jesus said once, ‘ye of little faith, oh you people, how little faith you have!’ And the Prophet also in Holy Qur’an has said similar things. Why do we not have faith that the principles in the book are right? Of course, we have to dig them out, we have to make them relevant.

10. Q: What are your thoughts on the possibility on dialog between Islam and Science?

A: One of the reasons why I began conversations with my friends who are deeply influenced by the teachings of Fethullah Gulen is that he, and they, were ready to grapple with Islam and science in the contemporary world. I had helped author the Doha Declaration on Islam and Science in 2008, and have been involved with Islam and science discussions for 20 years. I am discouraged sometimes because I see an unnecessary battle between two extremes. I see many fundamentalist thinkers who feel that to honor the Prophet is to deny everything about science, and I see ultra-modernists who seem willing to reject all traditional features of Islam for the sake of the dialogue with science. However, I find in the writings of Fethullah Gulen a more moderate answer — one that is deeply Muslim, deeply Qur’anic, and yet insightful in its willingness to engage in an open, productive dialogue with the sciences of today. That is the reason that I feel great optimism for the discussion of Islam and science.

The great Islamic philosophers of the past promoted the development of science by moving from Holy Qur’an to statements of metaphysics – that is, the view of ultimate reality that the Holy Qur’an implies. This metaphysics became a framework for reflection of the natural world.

The same thing happens today. Physicists need to move to the level of ultimate reality to find a framework for understanding this theory or that experiment. In short, the same openings of the great period of Islamic philosophy are there in the 21st century, but so few people seem willing to have both ears open: the ear for metaphysics and then the ear for careful empirical work. But it takes two ears to be successful.

11. Q: Does Islam have special advantages or difficulties in terms of having a productive dialog between science and religion?

A: The difficulties come from taking highly specific claims about nature, in Holy Qur’an, and applying them directly as scientific answers. It’s difficult not to do that, but it raises severe difficulties for faith and for science when one reads Holy Qur’an as a scientific textbook.

The advantages that Islam has are several. I’ll mention just three: First, it can draw on a period of great philosophical speculation & reflection, from Al Ghazali, Ibn Sina, Ibn Arabi even to Said Nursi an important thinker from a hundred and fifty years ago. That gives Islam a tradition of philosophical reflection that some other religious traditions don’t have.

Second, Islam has a deep mystical tradition. Not only in the Sufis, but in many of the great thinkers. One was able to take the revelation of God and to understand it in its deeper mystical sense. This is a theme that Fethullah Gulen has repeatedly emphasized. The mystical tradition raises no conflict with science whatsoever.

And, finally Islam has reflected deeply on the ethics of our life and the world. The most urgent area for the religions to contribute, is to provide ethical insight &wisdom, which will guide humanity in this incredible power that science now has. I think, for example, of the teachings of the Prophet, may peace be upon him, about water. What he taught about the use of water offers general principles for guiding us in responding to the environmental crisis.




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