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Ignorance and progress

August 12, 2013

Dawkins, for all his abrasive ways, has popularised the Darwinian evolutionary theory through his TV programmes and his books.
Dawkins, for all his abrasive ways, has popularised the Darwinian evolutionary theory through his TV programmes and his books.

For a Darwinian biologist, it is remarkable that Richard Dawkins has practically made a career out of atheism. Books like The Selfish Gene and The God Delusion have elevated him to the position of high priest of non-believers. Many who share his beliefs – or their lack – are put off by his strident advocacy of atheism, and his virulent attacks on religion.

Never far from controversy, Dawkins was at the heart of a Twitter-storm recently when he sent out this tweet to his 777,000 followers: “All the world’s Muslims have fewer Nobel Prizes than Trinity College, Cambridge. They did great things in the Middle Ages, though.”

Quoted by the Guardian, Owen Jones sent this tweet in response: “How dare you dress your bigotry up as atheism? You are now beyond an embarrassment.” Faisal Islam, Channel 4’s economics editor added: “I thought scientists were meant to upbraid journalists for use of spurious data points to ‘prove’ existing prejudgments.”

Just for the record, Trinity College at Cambridge has 32 Nobel Prizes, as against 10 for all Muslims. This number would go down to nine if, as many Pakistanis assert, our Dr Abdus Salam was not a Muslim because of his Ahmadiya belief. So, Dawkins was being quite factual in his tweet.

Defending himself against the charge of racism, Dawkins said: “Am I surprised (by the accusation)? Only at the number of people who seem to think Islam is a race, rather than a religion. I regard that view as racist. Anything you can convert to, or convert from, is NOT a race.”

In point of fact and belief, a Muslim cannot convert from Islam, although new converts to the faith are always welcome. But Dawkins does have a point: the Muslim ummah comprises around 1.5 billion people from virtually every nation and every continent. So comments questioning Muslim achievements should not, logically speaking, be ascribed to racism.

But then the first casualty in discussions about faith is usually logic. Muslims tend to be very touchy about even implied criticism of their economic and scientific backwardness. So when Dawkins pointed out, again quite accurately, that if we were to compare the number of Nobel prizes won by Jews with those awarded to Muslims, the contrast would be even more striking, the reaction was one of outrage.

Sadly, we are just not prepared to face reality. The reason Muslims have been left so far behind is their refusal to embrace modern education, and to cling to rote learning and dogma. By confusing Western thought and influence with rationality, we think we are better Muslims by rejecting modernity. As a prime example of this, consider the Ottoman refusal to install printing presses when they were first invented. The reason given was that this would result in the mass production of holy texts by machines instead of being calligraphed.

While this can be defended on aesthetic grounds, it set back learning and ultimately, weakened the Ottoman Empire. In Nigeria, Boko Haram, the extremist terrorist group, has been attacking schools and killing students because it opposes ‘Western’ education. Our own jihadis have been doing the same thing. When they were in power, the Afghan Taliban decreed that only ‘Islamic’ subjects could be taught in schools, and then only to boys.

With these attitudes still widely prevalent in the Muslim world, it should hardly surprise us that Muslims have won only 10 (or nine, depending on your level of tolerance) Nobel Prizes. Unfortunately, many Muslims do not understand that scientific knowledge is neither ‘Western’ nor ‘Islamic’, but is part of our collective inheritance, no matter what faith we follow. It is a steady accumulation of observations and theorising, and has nothing to do with religion.

Another factor impeding our progress is the patriarchal and authoritarian structure of most Muslim societies. Both in the classrooms and at home, young people are discouraged from asking questions and challenging the established order. And yet this sceptical attitude is at the heart of scientific progress. If mankind as a whole had accepted received wisdom as the immutable truth, we would not have made the progress we have. Dawkins, for all his abrasive ways, has popularised the Darwinian evolutionary theory through his TV programmes and his books. Partly as a result, this is now the accepted explanation for how life evolved on our planet, at least among rational, well-educated people.

And while many Muslims in the UK and elsewhere were upset by his comments on their scientific backwardness, the fact is that he has been attacking all religions for years. Christians in the UK are bitter about the fact that while his criticism has often been given a public platform by the BBC, issues relating to Muslims have been soft-pedalled.

I find it slightly odd that while so many Muslims reject modern education as being ‘Western’, East Asian countries like South Korea, Japan and China have made remarkable progress by embracing the same ‘Western’ education. I suppose if you believe that we need to focus on the after-life, our physical existence on this world is of secondary importance. This makes it acceptable to have a second-rate educational system that is somehow ‘Islamic’.

Today, we take our phenomenal scientific progress for granted. From medicine to engineering to astrophysics, we are truly blessed by the enormous possibilities opening up before us. As we pursue the quest for discovering the nature of the universe at the gigantic particle collider at Cern, or invent an instrument that will predict the length of our lives (as has just been announced), we are in the midst of a scientific revolution.

In such exciting times, it is a source of constant amazement that we should squander so much time and effort in debating – and fighting over – religious differences. And yet, as we in Pakistan know only too well, our killing fields are populated by zealots who use faith to justify their murderous ways. As long as they have public support, there can be no progress.