According to the standard secular story that’s been repeatedly told to us for the past century or so, just a few short decades after the start of modernity, science was able to defeat religion with its sheer brilliance and power to explain. We’ve been led to believe that for centuries religion had been doing some extremely bad science. It tried to tell us how the universe began, how old the earth is, or where the sun sets each night, or why rainbows exist. But such lamentable attempts were finally put to bed when science came along and investigated reality with reason and evidence, thereby driving religion into near oblivion. As such, and as a result, we can put our worries aside, rest comfortably and enjoy the fruits of science and all the astonishing tech it spawns. At least, that’s what we are meant to believe.
As seductive as the story is, and as triumphant as it sounds, the story isn’t quite true. It intentionally and cleverly misrepresents the actual purpose of Religion, by first setting it up as something whose chief aim has been to do pretty much what science does: understand the natural world as well as the cosmic order, and then pointing out that it has done so very badly. Whereas science proceeded with its telescopes, microscopes, pipettes and equations, religion tried to interpret the workings of the physical universe with just an ancient holy book.
In truth, however, religion was never really interested in doing the things modern science does. It might have pointed out the odd fact or two about some aspect of science. It might have occasionally hinted at other facts. Its focus, though, was not really about explanations of the physical world or the physical workings of the cosmos. Its care and focus is altogether very different and profounder: guidance, self-knowledge and salvation; and the ways to actualise our core humanity and inner life. The framing of religion as a flawed, draft version of science needs to be seen for the myth that it actually is.
LIMITS OF SCIENTIFIC & RATIONAL PROOFS
Now this might seem something of a party pooper to some, but there is nothing in the logic of the created order that can irrefutably point to beyond itself. Be it scientific observations, philosophical arguments, mathematical equations or rational proofs – they cannot point to beyond themselves. They are part of the material world. It’s one of the greatest blunders in religion to think we can come up with a watertight, rational argument that proves Theism irrefutably, beyond any shadow of a doubt. That’s just not possible. Materialist arguments can prove material things. It’s a closed system. The physical cannot encompass the metaphysical, but the metaphysical can encompass what is physical. The Holy Qur’an says: Vision encompasses Him not, but He encompasses all things. [Q.6:103] That is, our fallible physical perception (basr) cannot encompass Him, nor can our fallible rational argument (nazr). Why? Because they are from the created order. What they can do, however, is cogently ‘point to’ Theism, rather than irrefutably ‘prove’ Theism.
What you can do with scientific proofs, cosmological observations, or rational arguments, is point to the coherence of Theism and demonstrate how it best fits the evidence: how it’s by far the best available explanation. This is what rational theology in Islam has sought to do for over a millennium.
And Allah knows best.