Science, Religion, and the Tyranny of Authenticity

There has been a general paucity of quality scholarship on “Islam and science/evolution,” making Hameed’s work a welcome addition. That said, his work suffers from some of same problems as other work in the study of “science and religion.” To explain what I mean, some background on the field is in order.

It’s been a quarter of a century since the label “complexity thesis” was first given life by Ronald Numbers in a review of John Hedley Brooke’s Science and Religion: A Historical Perspective (1991), yet the rush to go “prospecting” for complexity, to use Numbers’ turn of phrase, continues full steam ahead.   Put briefly, the complexity thesis suggests that multiple relationships exist between science and religion. Instead of asking “What is the relationship between science and religion?” a complexity theorist asks “What are the relationships between sciences and religions?” The underlying desire to make such differentiations and the practical implications of such work are, however, much older than that.

Discourses surrounding “science and religion” first became popular in the late nineteenth century, primarily through the work of the so-called conflict theorists. The two men claimed by history as the exemplars of this group are John William Draper and Andrew Dickson White, with some historians referring to the notion of conflict as the Draper-White thesis. Draper and White, however, never suggested that science and religion were entirely irreconcilable. Instead, they argued that science was incompatible with something more specific: dogma, theology, or Catholicism. For both of them, “true religion” was constructed as perfectly benign, which usually meant it was nothing more than a vague sense of ethics. Even so, many, if not most, current complexity theorists are eager to redeem one or both of these figures as being misunderstood advocates of complexity. This is part of the larger project of nullifying or moderating discourses of conflict that exists as a central aspect of the field as currently conceived.

Given this tendency, it might be said that it is common for those working on “science and religion” to regularly cross the boundary that Russell McCutcheon has outlined between critic and caretaker, or to be caught up in what Aaron Hughes has called the tyranny of authenticity. Even if it is not the primary or secondary goal of scholarship to produce a discourse that legitimates and delegitimates certain beliefs, institutions, etc., when this happens, and insofar as it happens, scholarship is not being done. It is worth noting that this is not always, and perhaps not even often, in defence of religion, as Draper and White both make professions their claims about a legitimate religious domain for the sake of particular scientific agendas, not for the benefit of religion. White, for example, as the first president of Cornell University, considered perceived religious interference into the work of his faculty as a frustrating roadblock to overcome. For him, the legitimizing of one space for religion was first and foremost about the delegitimizing of another space. Increasingly, these discourses seem to be geared towards supporting a sort of status quo intended to preserve the hegemonic status of secularism within scientific research without fully delegitimizing religion.

Hameed professes to be “less interested” in establishing a normative relationship between Islam and evolution, which needless to say is not the same thing as being uninterested and is not the same thing not making normative claims. Now, I appreciate that Hameed wears different hats, one of which openly and explicitly promotes a normative ideological vision based on Gould’s Non-Overlapping Magisteria (NOMA). His work demonstrates no neat division between critic and caretaker, however, which is perhaps unsurprising, if other scholars of religion who attempt the same are any indication. Despite his claims to its practical efficacy, NOMA is more aspirational than descriptive, as the neat separation of an apolitical religious space distinct from a scientific space breaks down in practice, not just in theory as he suggests. The same “messiness” he speaks of to explain the varied reactions/responses to evolution within Islamic communities is also part of the reason why neat separation is not possible here: people do not compartmentalize so neatly. As Craig Martin has pointed out in Masking Hegemony, “there could never be a ‘separation of church and state’ in a liberal democracy unless the state forbade churches to produce and distribute ideology, to produce conditions of persuasion, to socialize subjects into regimes of normalization and privilege, and so on. As long as there is ‘freedom of speech’ and ‘freedom of religion,’ churches will be legally permitted to do these things” (2010: 164).

This does not mean that all religious scientists will behave like the Catholic biochemist Michael Behe, who gained notoriety for his work on “irreducible complexity.” Matthew Stanley’s recent work, Huxley’s Church and Maxwell’s Demon, offers a compelling account of work being done in science prior to the rise of scientific naturalism, where he suggests that the work of theistic scientists and early scientific naturalists was often indistinguishable. They amicably coexisted in many ways, giving positive reviews of one another’s work and building on one another’s research. Further, all scientists throughout history have carried some sort of baggage, religious or otherwise.

Fitting neatly within a complexity thesis tradition, Hameed employs what might be called normativizing nuance. By this I mean that by demonstrating the complexity/messiness of things “on the ground,” one version of a tradition can be delegitimized and/or another version of the tradition can be legitimized. In this sense, “Islam and science/evolution” has a great deal of resemblance to work on “Islam and violence.” That said, one does not need to even go as far as suggesting that ISIS or evolution deniers are bad or false Muslims and that peaceful, science-affirming Muslims are the legitimate ones, because the very act of prospecting for this complexity already functions to place “true Islam” at arms length from these concerns, making it entirely rise above what now becomes a non-Islamic issue. True religion, or I n this case true Islam, becomes something far vaguer, more personal, and less political. It may even be reasonable to call this a sort of secular apologetics, in that it produces a vision of an Islamic core that is completely amenable to a specific set of “secular” political interests.

Part of this can also be seen in the way Hameed points out that Islam has, “no Pope-like authority.” This strikes me as a sort of misleading Islamic exceptionalism. This is not only because it might be argued that many/most traditions that have been identified as “religion” have no Pope-like authority, or that certain “Islamic” traditions do have authorities that bear some similarities, if not exact correspondence, to the Catholic Pope. Instead, it seems that all traditions claiming large swaths of humanity within their membership will have considerable diversity of opinion among those members, regardless of whether or not there are institutional authorities seeking to enforce uniformity.

Further suggestive of this is Hameed’s apparent disinclination to extend this type of “messiness” to science. In discussing a science textbook, he claims that after providing a Qur’anic quote, the book could simply offer “science as is.” I am not certain what it would mean for someone to declare themselves to be teaching “religion as is,” yet the label makes little more sense when applied to science. Science is not the sort of thing one might find in a second-hand shop where “as is” labels might abound. Instead, it is a human activity with politically motivated boundaries that speak more to the interests of those who do, fund, and control science than it does about the inherent uniqueness of scientific endeavour. Whether or not he intended to do this or not, I cannot be fully certain, but the way that Hameed establishes a contrast between the messiness of religion/identity on the one hand and the matter of fact nature of science on the other is certainly troubling.

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