In principle, there’s good cause to counter the allegation that, historically, Islam impeded the development of modern science in the medieval Muslim world. In practice, this must not translate into the belief that scientific progress is an absolute value upon which the credibility of Islam must actually rest.
In principle, a Muslim scholar possessed of sound theological learning has every right to declare a particular act or utterance to be disbelief (kufr), if the textual proofs necessitate this. In practice, this is very different from declaring a specific individual who may have ignorantly, mistakenly or coercively committed such an act, or uttered such a profanity, as being a kafir; a disbeliever. The rule of thumb here is: laysa kullu man waqa‘a fi’l-kufr sara kafir – ‘Not everyone who falls into disbelief [necessarily] becomes a disbeliever.’1
In principle, the believer ought to have a calm loathing for liberalism and its attempts to dismantle an engendered world. In practice, one must have pity for the shrunken victims of this insane, ungodly monoculture and help them back to the path of sanity and Adamic humanity: But God has endeared faith to you and beautified it in your hearts, and has made unbelief, immorality and disobedience odious to you. Such are the rightly guided. [Q.49:7]
In principle, anyone who does not declare the shahadah in this world is considered to be a non-Muslim in this world. In practice, some non-Muslims (kuffar) shall have an excuse or an amnesty in the Hereafter for only having heard a distorted message of Islam while in this world. The Qur’an says: Nor do We punish till We have sent a Messenger. [Q.17:15] The Prophet ﷺ said: ‘Anyone from this nation, be they a Jew or a Christian, who hears of me and dies without believing in what I have been sent with, will be among the denizens of Hell.’2 An-Nawawi explains: ‘In its explicit meaning is a proof that those to whom the call of Islam does not reach, are excused.’3 Imam al-Ghazali ecumenically wrote about those who only heard a distorted message of Islam; filled with lies, half-truths and propaganda: ‘These people knew the name ‘Muhammad’ ﷺ, but nothing of his character or qualities. Instead, all they heard since childhood is that a liar and an imposter called ‘Muhammad’ claimed to be a prophet … This party, in my view, is like the first party [which is excused]. For though they’ve heard of him, they heard the opposite of what his true qualities were. And this doesn’t provide enough incentive for them to look into [his true status].’4
In principle, an atheist may feel smug by countering the supposed theistic assertion that: ‘Everything must have a cause for its existence’, with: ‘So what caused God?!’ In practice, no Muslim theologian (nor any Jewish or Christian one) has ever asserted this. Rather the theistic belief is: ‘Everything that comes into existence, from non-existence, must have a cause for its existence.’ God, however, did not ‘come into existence’. He necessarily exists. God’s eternal attribute of life is intrinsic to, and inseparable from, His holy Essence.
In principle, it is not against Islam to believe that Adam, peace be upon him, was created over a period of time, in contrast to instantaneously; or even that other human-like bipeds walked the earth before him. In practice, this must never lead us to believe that Adam had biological parents, or to somehow imagine that he was the offspring of two proto-human bipeds of the homo genus.
In principle, the sirah teaches us the socio-political importance of forming an “Alliance of Virtue” with non-Muslim seekers of social justice, as per the hilf al-fudul saga. In practice, the sirah also tells us that alliances of this sort must not come at the cost of compromising Islam’s core tenets or blurring the unchangeables. Thus, even as Quraysh’s big whigs put Abu Talib, the Prophet’s dear uncle, between a rock and a hard place, to get his nephew to tone down his message before they forcefully made him do so; and even as the Prophet ﷺ may have been torn between seeing his uncle under such pressure, on the one hand; and his duty not to compromise the message, on the other, we hear this from the nephew to his beloved uncle: ‘I am no more able to stop this [message] as you are to snatch a piece of flame from the sun.’5 And in a popular wording: ‘O uncle, if the sun were placed in my right hand and the moon in my left, I would not give up this affair until either God grants me success in it, or I perish in its pursuit.’ The Prophet ﷺ then broke down in tears.6
In principle, Allah’s earth has been made for the whole of humanity’s use and enjoyment, not just for the privileged few: God created for you all that is on the earth. [Q.2:29] And: Eat and drink, but not excessively. For God loves not the excessive. [Q.7:31] In practice, partake of the earth’s fruits for our needs we must; partake of them for our wants we surely may; but partake of them excessively and irresponsibly, or in a way that upsets the balance, we may not: And He has raised the heavens and has set a balance, that you may not upset the balance, but observe the balance and not fall short therein. [Q.55:7-9] Currently we are not doing so well on this score; heading, as we are, to the brink of ecological disaster.
In principle, we are proud to be Muslims; pride born, not of the ego’s arrogance (kibr), but of joyous gratitude for God’s gift of guidance: We would not have been guided had God not guided us. [Q.7:43] For we can rightfully be proud if it’s without the ego; if it is godly and not worldly. In practice, it is rare for such pride to be without ego – even when it relates to pride in Islam’s revealed truths. Al-Ghazali once said: ‘How much blood has been spilt to promote the causes of the masters of the law schools!’7 So whilst truth and the details of ritual correctness are indeed important, it must not be driven by sectarian pride, nor come at the cost of one’s own salvation: ‘Whoever has an atom’s worth of pride in his heart will not enter Paradise’8 Hence if you know someone has opposed the Book, Sunnah, or ijma‘, ensure that your state is one of gratitude to Allah for your guidance.9 Or better still, let us pray as Imam Ahmad would pray: اللَّهُمَّ مَنْ كَانَ مِنْ هَذِهِ الْأُمَّةِ عَلَى غَيْرِ الْحَقِّ وَهُوَ يَظُنُّ أَنَّهُ عَلَى الْحَقِّ فَرُدَّهُ إِلَى الْحَقِّ لِيَكُونَ مِنْ أَهْلِ الْحَقِّ – ‘O Allah, whosoever from this community is upon other than the truth, believing himself to be upon the truth, return him to the truth, that he may be from the People of the Truth.’10
In principle, we may incline to measured political activism, or to a principled apoliticism; there is leeway in the prophetic Sunnah for either. In practice, if we wish to thrive and not just survive, we must each grow in inward and outward godliness and in practical degrees of worldly detachment (zuhd), in humility, in respecting neighbours and serving the poor; whilst also choosing our battles wisely and fussing less about Islamophobes, not being so antagonistic, seeking to win peoples’ hearts while sincerely working for their welfare.
5. Al-Hakim, Mustadrak, no.6526, with a hasan chain. See: al-Albani, Silsilat al-Ahadith al-Sahihah (Riyadh; Maktabah al-Ma‘arif, 1995), no.92.
6. Ibn Hisham, Sirah, 1:303. The chain is missing two successive links between the Prophet and the narrator, Ya‘qub b. ‘Utbah. Hence the chain is da‘if mu‘dal. See: al-Albani, Silsilat al-Ahadith al-Da‘ifah wa’l-Mawdu‘ah (Riyadh: Maktabah al-Ma‘arif, 1992), no.909.
7. Ihya ‘Ulum al-Din (Saudi Arabia: Dar al-Minhaj, 2011), 8:382.
8. Muslim, no.147.
9. See: Murad, Commentary on the Eleventh Contentions (Cambridge: The Quilliam Press, 2012), 174.
10. The du‘a is cited in Ibn Kathir, al-Bidayah wa’l-Nihayah (Beirut: Maktabah al-Ma‘arif, 1990), 10:329.
In 1985, I started my degree in Astrophysics up in the north of England, at one of the only two places in the country which offered this course. It was more or less what I had set my heart on studying ever since reading Isaac Asimov’s, The Collapsing Universe: The Story of the Black Holes (1977) and Carl Sagan’s breath-taking book (and TV series), Cosmos (1980). Soul stirred, and heart and mind thoroughly infused with enchantment, I was determined to make engaging the wondrous mysteries of the cosmos my calling.
It was also in 1985 that a rumour went round among some of the students on the course that Stephen Hawking – his body now ravaged by motor neurone disease, his speech now slurred so as to barely be intelligible, but who had already outlived the predictions of his doctors by more than fifteen years – had recently been hospitalised with a life-threatening bout of pneumonia. The doctors had even considered pulling the plug on his life-support machine. It was then that a discussion began about the theoretical brilliance of Hawking. In fact, it wasn’t a discussion as much as it was one student’s passionate recollection of what he had thus far accomplished: his attempts to unify general relativity with quantum mechanics; his idea that the Big-Bang may have begun with a singularity1 – the same sort of singularities that supposedly lie at the centre of black holes; his thesis that black holes may not devour everything that falls into them, but they could leak radiation (later called “Hawking radiation”) by which they would “shine”. She was, I think, a third year student, and some of what she said flew over my head at the time. I remember this because of what she said at the end of all this. Apparently, she said, in a tone that was now quite subdued, Hawking was working on publishing a book that would explain all this incredible physics. What’s more, she said, the book is being aimed, not at scientists, but at a mass market. To be sure, I was beyond euphoric!
A Brief History of Time came out in 1988. Using minimal technical jargon, it was a thrilling book and an instant international bestseller. It swiftly became a modern classic, turning Hawking into an iconic celebrity, a household name as well as the most famous scientist in modern history. In spite of being wheelchair-bound or not being able to speak save by means of a speech synthesiser, Hawking continued to push the boundaries of cosmology and theoretical physics up till his death two weeks ago. His wit, grit, charisma, and good writing in which he unravelled for us the universe’s cutting-edge mysteries, will continue to enthral generations of readers; while his intuitive leaps and research will continue to keep scientists busy for decades to come. If people now talk about the Big-Bang and black holes over dinner, then the late Stephen Hawking has had a large part to play in this. Such is his inspirational and intellectual legacy.
Oftentimes, whenever a non-Muslim personality who has ostensibly brought about much good to the human situation passes away, many Muslims raise the age-old question: what is the ultimate fate of “good” non-Muslims in the afterlife? The news of Hawking’s death seems to have aggravated the matter. So let me recount some staple Islamic theology – in abstract, at least – to address the question:
1. Let’s start with how a Muslim ought to align or centre themselves. The Qur’an says: But God has endeared faith to you and has beautified your hearts with it, and has made hateful to you disbelief, immorality and disobedience. Such are the rightly-guided. [49:7] Disbelief (kufr), then, is to be loathed; and the victims of kufr pittied and be given a charitable hand towards faith and right-guidance.
2. Some Muslims labour under the mistaken notion that given the enormity of disbelief in God’s sight, one cannot speak well of a non-Muslim (kafir) who dies in a state of disbelief. The prophetic teachings, however, do not require or insist upon such an approach. Many non-Muslims died during the lifetime of our Prophet ﷺ. About some, he ﷺ spoke more about their virtue than he did their actual disbelief. Mut‘im b. ‘Adi was one such person. The Prophet ﷺ was ever grateful for the support and protection Mut‘im gave him during the trying years of Islam in Makkah. When his son Jubayr came to the Prophet asking him to release some of those taken prisoners during the Battle of Badr, the Prophet ﷺ said: ‘Had Mut‘im b. ‘Adi been alive and spoken to me about the captives, I would have released them all to him.’2 As for most non-Muslims who died, the Prophet ﷺ generally remained silent about them: They are a people who have passed away; theirs is what they earned and yours is what you earn. And you will not be asked about what they did. [2:141]
3. The Prophet ﷺ would, occasionally, reveal how certain non-Muslims – known for their virtuous behaviour, but rejection of tawhid or Abrahamic monotheism – were damned in the Afterlife. The Lady ‘A’ishah once asked the Prophet about ‘Abd Allah b. Jud‘an, saying: ‘O Messenger of Allah, in the time of pre-Islamic Ignorance, Ibn Jud‘an would keep ties of kinship and feed the poor. Will any of this benefit him? The Prophet ﷺ said: ‘It will not! For he never ever said: My Lord, forgive me my sins on the Day of Judgement.’3 Of course, these words echo the Qur’an at numerous places when it says, for instance: And certainly it has been revealed to you, and to those before you, that: ‘If you ascribe a partner to Allah, all your works will be in vain and you will be among the losers.’ [39:65] Also: As for those who disbelieve, their deeds are like a mirage in a desert which the thirsty one thinks is water, till when he reaches it he finds it to be nothing. [24:39]
4. What of those to whom the message of Islam has not reached? Here the Qur’an offers a far more ecumenical scope: Never do We punish till We have sent a Messenger. [17:15] And: Whenever a fresh host is cast into it [Hell], its keepers ask them: ‘Did a warner never come to you?’ They will say: ‘Yes, a warner came to us; but we denied.’ [67:8-9] The requirement of bulugh al-da‘wah, “conveyance of the message,” therefore, lies at the heart of the issue. The Prophet ﷺ said: ‘By Him in whose Hand is the life of Muhammad! Anyone from this nation, be they a Jew or Christian, who hears of me and dies without believing in what I have come with, will be among the inhabitants of the Fire.’4 Fleshing out the theological implications of the hadith, Imam al-Nawawi stated: ‘It contains [a proof] that all religions are now abrogated by the prophethood of our Prophet ﷺ. Also, in its explicit meaning is a proof that those to whom the call of Islam does not reach, are excused.’5 The details of this excuse or amnesty, and the scholarly differences about how this amnesty plays itself out in the Hereafter, can be read in the relevant works of Muslim theology.
5. As for the question of those who have heard about Islam, but in a garbled or distorted form, Imam al-Ghazali seems to have given us the definitive word on the issue. He wrote that in terms of people coming into contact with the message of Islam, they are of three types: ‘[i] A party who have never so much as heard the name ‘Muhammad’ ﷺ. They are excused. [ii] A party who knew his name, character and miracles he wrought; who lived in lands adjacent to the lands of Islam and thus came into contact with Muslims. These are blaspheming unbelievers. [iii] A third party who fall between the two. These people knew the name ‘Muhammad’ ﷺ, but nothing of his character or his qualities. Instead, all they heard since childhood is that a liar and imposter called ‘Muhammad’ claimed to be a prophet; just as our children have heard that an arch-liar and deceiver called al-Muqaffa‘ claimed Allah sent him [as a prophet] and then challenged people to disprove his claim. This party, in my opinion, is like the first party. For even though they’ve heard his name, they heard the opposite of what his true qualities were. And this does not provide enough incentive for them to investigate [his true status].’6
6. As much as peoples’ waywardness from God should both grieve and sadden believers, because of nurturing in their hearts something of the prophetic concern for humanity, the discriminating sword of truth must do what it must. Some to whom the message of Islam is communicated refuse to believe in it out of juhud or wilful “rejection” of it, or takdhib, “belying” it. Others choose not to seriously entertain the message, but instead turn away from it (i‘radan ‘anha) whether out of arrogance, hostility, prejudice, or sheer indifference towards it (in some cases, doing so knowing it is the truth). Such are not considered to be truth-seekers. It’s quite possible that many non-Muslims today fall into this predicament, in that some of them are capable of investigating the truths of Islam and discerning their correctness. But whether out of not desiring to forsake familiar habits; or for fear of losing their standing among people; or out of contempt for Muslims; or not wanting to give up following their own whims and desires for a revealed code of morality, many turn away from even looking into the Qur’an unbiasedly. Unless there are other factors to mitigate this kufr of theirs, such people will have no excuse on Judgement Day.7
7. That some non-Muslims will be excused for their disbelief in the Hereafter doesn’t mean that they are not judged as disbelievers in this world. All who have not declared the Two Testimonies of Faith, the shahadah, are judged as non-Muslims in this worldly life. Some are actively hostile against Islam and Muslims; most are not. While it behoves a believer to wisely and sincerely seek to guide into faith those who disbelieve, it does not befit a believer to blur the distinction between faith (iman) and disbelief (kufr). Al-Ghazali gives us this guiding principle: ‘Disbelief is to reject the Prophet ﷺ in whatever he came with, while faith is to affirm as true all that he came with. Therefore the Jew and the Christian are disbelievers due to their rejection of the Prophet.’8
8. Is it lawful to declare a specific person who dies as a non-Muslim, that he or she will be in Hell? The answer is that while some scholars hold it to be lawful, it seems the majority of Muslim theologians do not allow it. They say that not only will some non-Muslims have an amnesty in the Afterlife; not only do we not always know in what state a non-Muslim may have taken their last breath, but also those specific non-Muslims whom the Prophet ﷺ described as being in the Fire, was not from his personal judgement; but one that was revealed to him by God. Thus the correct position in this is: While one can make general declarations that Muslims go to Paradise and non-Muslims go to Hell, one cannot declare a specific Muslim to be in Paradise or a specific non-Muslim to be in Hell, unless there is textual evidence to say so. That textual evidence being either from the Qur’an, the Sunnah or a scholarly consensus (ijma‘).
9. Since we Muslims are a textual community; since our theology, law and spirituality are derived from revealed texts – as opposed to fluffy sentiments; emotions; personal whims; or what one’s own intellect, decoupled from Revelation, thinks to be good – let’s engage with a few such texts from which the above rule is culled. So as a general rule, the Qur’an says: Surely those who disbelieve among the People of the Book and the idolaters will be in the fire of Hell forever. They are the worst of people. [98:6] In contrast, the Prophet ﷺ said: ‘No one will enter Paradise except a Muslim.’9 As for the rule that applies to individuals specifically, Imam al-Tahawi wrote in his famous creedal tract about Muslims: ‘We do not specify anyone among them to be in either Paradise or the Fire … We resign their inner states to God, exalted is He.’10 Meaning, unless there is a textual proof, we cannot declare a specific Muslim to be damned or saved. The same goes for specific non-Muslims.
10. Finally, as I said earlier, our Prophet ﷺ usually kept quiet about the end state of most non-Muslims who died during his lifetime. Surely it would be best if we too did the same. Let us learn to be content, knowing that such end matters are in Allah’s hands in terms of whether those who die as non-Muslims receive divine amnesty, clemency and salvation; or encounter divine rigour, justice and chastisement. In fact, it’s possible that if we spent less time being concerned with such specific end matters, and invested more time trying to deepen our own faith and reach out to non-Muslims with that faith, the world may yet be a better place.
There’s one last point I’d like to discuss. I left my degree course for personal reasons and a religious calling in early 1986. And although I had intended to come back to complete it, perhaps after a year or two, it didn’t quite happen. My passion for the subject, however, has never abated; and I try to keep up with the latest theories and findings in the field via books, papers and science magazines. Yet I recall when I read the opening words of Carl Sagan’s Cosmos -: ‘The Cosmos is all that is or was or ever will be’11 – I felt something was amiss. My religious convictions aside, even then I questioned whether such a materialistic assertion was actually science or merely what individual scientists brought to the table as their personal beliefs and biases? In fact, Naturalism – the belief that the natural order is all that there is, and that there is no transcendent or divine realm – is a philosophy which is brought to science. It is not the outcome of science, nor something science necessarily entails. Given that science proceeds by inference from observed data, how can anyone be so scientifically certain that the natural order, or the cosmos, is all that there is? Science can, of course, say that the cosmos is all that it can observe and know. But that is not the same as saying that the cosmos is all that there was, is or ever will be!
In the last book he co-authored, The Grand Design (2010), Hawking tackles the question of our universe’s apparent “grand design”: is it evidence for God, or does science offer up an alternative explanation? As per form, Hawking dismisses God as the ultimate explanation of why there is something rather than nothing, and offers – not just the usual the “it just happened” riposte, or the “multiverse”, or even the “fluctuations in a quantum vacuum” answer. Instead, he says: ‘Because there is a law such as gravity, the universe can and will create itself from nothing … Spontaneous creation is the reason there is something rather than nothing, why the universe exists, why we exist. It is not necessary to invoke God to light the blue touch paper and set the universe going.’12
His theoretical genius aside, Hawking seems to suffer from the same faulty theology that many other atheists of today are struck with. For Muslims, as with Jews and Christians, we do not believe that God is an alternative to a scientific explanation. We don’t believe that it’s a case of either God created the universe or that x, y, or z scientific paradigm created it. Instead, Revelation permits us to believe that God is the agent who created the universe, and that x, y, or z is the mechanism by which He did so. Thus, just because science may have revealed a mechanism for how the cosmos kicked-off, it doesn’t deny God’s agency in the matter. Allow me to illustrate the point with this example:
Take the iPhone, for instance. Just because one may have deciphered the inner workings of an iPhone, it does not logically follow that we can now deny the existence of Steve Jobs as the originator of this tech. That would be a failure to distinguish between mechanism and agency. ‘Since we know the mechanism behind a phenomenon, there is therefore no agent that designed the mechanism’ is a logical fallacy. In philosophy, it’s a fundamental category mistake.
As for Hawking’s optimism that the laws of gravity created the universe, this is false. Laws of physics themselves don’t create things, any more than Newton’s laws of motion move snooker balls. It is not laws that create or move a thing; it is an agent, a person, that does that. The laws of physics are merely mathematical equations that describe what happens under certain conditions.
Despite these failures and foibles, The Grand Design is still a tour de force of cutting-edge cosmology. There’s still so much to be held in awe at in terms of the way the late Professor Hawking illustrated the latest scientific mysteries about our universe. It’s understandable why his death has felt like such a huge loss to so many. One or two of my co-religionists have said to me, however, that should we really marvel at someone whose writings have been instrumental in trying to diminish the glory of God by driving souls to atheism? And I understand that too. So perhaps the best thing is to stick to the Quranic rejoinder: They are a people who have passed away; theirs is what they earned and yours is what you earn. And you will not be asked about what they did. [2:141]
1. A dot or point of infinite density, far far smaller than this full stop.
2. Al-Bukhari, no.4024.
3. Muslim, no.365.
4. Muslim, no.240.
5. Sharh Sahih Muslim (Beirut: Dar al-Kutub al-‘Ilmiyyah, 1995), 2:162.
The late Gai Eaton put his finger on the crux of the matter (as it seems to me), when he expressed three or four decades ago:
‘I think it must have been easy enough in earlier ages in the Christian world, and is still easy in those parts of the Muslim world which remain traditional, to hold to a simple faith without much intellectual content. I do not believe this is any longer possible in the modern world, for the spirit of our times asks questions – questions for the most part hostile to faith – which demands answers, and those answers can only come from informed and thoughtful faith, from study and meditation.’1
He then went on to note:
‘Whatever our religion, we can no longer be sure of holding onto it out of habit or by an act of will. We have to be, if not theologians, then at the very least people who study their religion and who think about it.’2
For a long while now, the monoculture’s levelling reverberations – with its underlying modern assumptions, assault on Religion, uprooting of traditional patterns of living, and its insistence on redefining the normative human persona – have radiated outward across the globe, much like how rings spread out from a pebble tossed into a pond. For much of that time, Muslims – and those parts of the globe still known as ‘the Muslim world’ – even if they did put up resistance to the political ideologies which swept over them, have tended to be far less critical concerning the philosophical and civilisational propositions modernity insists upon. These assumptions – that Man has now ‘come of age’ and is to be the measure of all things; that happiness is bound with the merciless wheel of material Progress; and that life and the cosmos are bereft of meaning, beyond what some may fictitiously confer upon them – have prised the individual away from the great transcendental and social continuities of religion, family, craft and earth that had been the setting for normative human life down throughout the millennia. Simple believers of earlier times, who knew relatively little yet possessed depth of faith, could scarcely survive in today’s world where both the senses and the intellect are relentlessly bombarded by imagery and arguments of unbelief.
If commitment to religious faith and practice it to survive such a deluge, knowledge of the core doctrines and cosmology of Islam, and the monotheistic assumptions they are grounded in, is crucial. This is not to say that a Muslim cannot love Allah unless he or she becomes some sort of philosopher-theologian. Not at all! But while less than half a century ago one could be a good Muslim and remain so without having ever heard of Imam al-Ghazali or Ibn Taymiyyah, today a Muslim who doesn’t have some grounding in the doctrines and assumptions upon which the Islamic faith is founded, stands in immense danger, unless cocooned in an impenetrable simplicity or naivety.
Of course, many Muslim saints and pietists of the past did end up turning their backs on a heedless or a hell-bent society. They took as their queue the hadiths concerning times of great political discord, social upheaval, or religious and spiritual degeneration, in which: from the best of Muslims would be one ‘who secludes himself in a valley and worships his Lord,’3 or who takes his flock of sheep to a mountain top ‘fleeing with his religion from fitnah.’4
If it were feasible for those who see the monoculture for what it is to withdraw from society and go their own way in peace, this would probably be a good course of action (not forgetting the fact that the core of Islam’s call is decisively urban and city-centred). But there is no where one could ‘opt-out’. For day by day, liberal modernity grows more and more invasive and totalising: suffocating any meaningful dissent, assimilating any consequential diversity, and bulldozing any significant divergence. Driven into a tight corner, religion has no option but to turn and fight. Hence the need to raise the dust of polemics against theensnaring myths of modernity.
Thus with intellectual and spiritual inquiry as our starting point, and God as our goal, here are some of the most significant existential challenges (in terms of ideas and isms) to now confront Muslims and their faith; as well as an outline of some basic responses to them. And by far, the most destructive of these issues to faith and to salvation of the soul is atheism:
1. Atheism: Denying the existence of God is called atheism (sometimes it is defined as: lack of belief/conviction that God exists). A growing number of ex-Muslims – not just here in the West, but also in Muslim majority countries – now self-identify as atheists. Of course, atheism doesn’t come in one strain. There is, to lift a phrase from Professor Alister McGrath, ‘apathetic atheism’ or ‘atheism of indifference’, and then there is what he calls ‘committed atheism’.5 The former tends to entail no enmity towards God, nor even actively believe that God does not exist: hence the apathy or indifference. As for the latter, it equips itself with what it sees as certain explicit arguments and concerns against theism or belief in God. ‘Sociological research suggests that there are probably fewer committed atheists than apathetic ones.’6 And contrary to the assertion of such atheists today, belief in God is neither intellectual suicide; and nor has science pushed God out of the equation. In fact, it’s quite the opposite.
The Qur’an asks: Were they created out of nothing, or were they the creators? [52:35] The crux of the matter here is that while Muslims insist that the divine ‘fingerprints’ of God can be detected throughout the universe – how it originated, how it is ordered, how it operates, and how extraordinary the odds are of complex life or human consciousness emerging in it – atheists desperately field their counter-arguments. For despite modern science revealing the universe had a beginning and came into existence at an event we call the Big-Bang; or despite the fundamental physical constants of the universe being so finely tuned down to the minutest nth of a degree, that the chances of it being mere ‘coincidence’ isn’t just staggeringly improbable, had the value of any of these constants been different by a small, infinitesimal degree, there would have been no universe and no life – despite science telling us this and more, atheists want us to believe that such things happened purely by chance; a colossal cosmic fluke.7 In other words, the entire cosmos just happened to create itself; without any purpose, meaning or intentionality whatsoever. ‘Only within the scaffolding of these truths,’ wrote Bertrand Russell on the core conviction of atheism, ‘only on the firm foundation of unyielding despair, can the soul’s salvation be safely built.’8
To be fair, not all atheists are satisfied with the ‘lucky-coincidence’ response. The fine-tuning of the universe seems far too precise to have happened merely by chance. So in order to explain the existence of a universe which fits the given physical constants and mathematical improbabilities without acknowledging the existence of a creator, many are now advocating the idea of a ‘multiverse’. Our universe is highly improbable only if it’s the only one there is. But if our universe is just one among an infinite number of universes, at least one would fit the required parameters, and it happens to be ours. Or as John Polkinghorne put it, ‘a kind of winning ticket in a gigantic multiversial lottery.’9 If this highly speculative notion turns out to be true, this just pushes back the question of who created our universe to who created the multiverse? Or one is confronted with even more incredulity than our improbable universe: that of an infinite number of self-creating universes. Either way, atheists do themselves no favour by replacing what they hold to be a single unprovable God for an infinity of unprovable universes! Moreover, can we really say that such replies have truly dispensed with the claim that our universe (or indeed, the multiverse) is far more consistent with theism than with atheism? Little wonder we find the Qur‘an saying: ‘Is there any doubt about God?’ [14:10]
That being said, the popularity of atheism, at least here in the West, is undoubtedly on the rise. As for how much of it is an intellectual phenomenon and how much a cultural one is debatable. Although it’s been said that ‘the convictions of the multitude are not so much true convictions as mental and emotional habits, conditioned by a climate of opinion’.10 While some arrive at atheism via certain rational considerations, others are led to it emotionally, with little or no rational inquiry or intellectual journey. Some are atheist just because of family or upbringing and, being preoccupied with the tiny patch of grass under their nose, haven’t given religion or the ultimate existential question any time or thought. For them, atheism is little more than an emotional ‘habit’.
Some stumble into atheism due to an uncritical acceptance of cultural influences. They think that since science has explained the big questions (the Big-Bang explains how the universe got here; evolution explains how we got here) that there is, therefore, no need for God. But a little critical thinking would reveal that just because science explains the workings of how the cosmos came into existence, does not necessitate rejecting God as the creator of the mechanism; any more than knowing about the inner workings of an iPhone should not lead to disbelieving that Steve Jobs was the author of such culturally altering tech. Philosophers call this a category mistake; confusing between mechanism and agent: since we know a mechanism that explains a specific phenomenon, it proves there is no agent that designed the mechanism. Many an atheist, regrettably, even high profile ones, fall into this fallacy. But when, for instance, Sir Isaac Newton discovered the universal law of gravity, he didn’t say: ‘I have discovered a mechanism that accounts for planetary motion, therefore there is not agent God who designed it.’ It was quite the opposite: precisely because he understood how it worked, he was moved to increased admiration for the God who had designed it that way.11
Some, repelled by bad experiences with ‘religious’ people, find their way into the arms of an often sympathetic atheism. Here they may find other embittered souls with their own horror stories to tell about religion or its practitioners. Yet people oftentimes have a very curious idea of religion. They think that merely because a person says: ‘I believe in God’ that he or she should at once become morally upright; saintly, even. If this does not happen, and very often it doesn’t, then either the believer must be a hypocrite of sorts, or else it says something dark about the religion itself. Many think that adhering to religion is the end of the path, whereas in fact it is only the beginning of a long and sometimes rough and rocky road. But whether religious, atheist, humanist or agnostic, inconsistencies abound in human souls, even if they ascribe to virtuous ideals. Yet this is not to say righteous religious behaviour should only be honoured in the breach and not in the practice. Islam, despite it not always being evident from the way some of us Muslims behave, calls to the highest moral and ethical ideals. If a believer’s ethics and conduct fail to demonstrate the beauty and attraction of husn khuluq; ‘refined’ or ‘good’ character, let it not be a cause for the crime of tanfir – of repelling people from religion: It was by the mercy of God that you were lenient with them. Had you been harsh and hard-hearted, they would surely have dispersed from around you. [3:159] That said, one suspects that for some people, casting of the constraints of religion is a matter of any pretext or excuse. Which brings me to one final point:
There’s another significant reason why some people choose atheism, and it’s one that is seldom admitted to. Some – and it wouldn’t be surprising if this some turned out to be a great many – are led to atheism, not by the careful hand of reason, but by the desire to follow their baser desires, unencumbered by moral codes. Here’s Aldoux Huxley, the famous English novelist, philosopher and atheist, on the deeper motive that fuels some people’s atheism and their desperate need for there to be no existential meaning to life: ‘For myself, as no doubt for most of my friends, the philosophy of meaninglessness was essentially an instrument of liberation from a certain system of morality. We objected to the morality because it interfered with our sexual freedom. The supporters of this system claimed that it embodied the meaning … of the world. There was one admirably simple method of confuting these people and justifying ourselves in our erotic revolt: we would deny that the world had any meaning whatever.’12 Other atheists who have reflected carefully on their motives have likewise admitted that their atheism is more emotional and self-serving than it is rational and pure following of the evidences. The American philosopher Thomas Nagel is candid when he said: ‘It isn’t just I don’t believe in God and, naturally, hope that I’m right in my belief. It’s that I hope there is no God! I don’t want there to be a God; I don’t want the universe to be like that.’13
Such atheists understand that if God exists, there are certain ramifications, particularly moral ones. They are aware that it wouldn’t be a matter of sending off a few Dawkins’ titles to the charity shop, or apologise on social media for the unintended misguidance they may have uttered. They realise that such belief necessitates a life of commitment, service and loving submission to God, by growing in knowledge of God and seeking to mould one’s life around the spiritual teachings and moral laws which He revealed – ‘in short, the waving of the white flag and the rebel’s complete surrender’.14 Yet the rebel refuses to mould his ways around the awareness of the Divine Reality that surrounds him and everything else, and is unwilling to give up his ‘autonomy’ or his pride. Instead he claims the world is God-free, meaning-free and morality-free, so he can do more or less what he desires. This is what Dostoevsky could have been alluding to when he put these words into the mouth of one of The Brothers Karamazov: ‘how will man be after that? Without God and the future life? It means everything is permitted now’.15 If such self-deceit wants to pass itself off for enlightened, rational thought, then so be it. But it will ultimately prove costly.
Some of the classical works on Muslim theology relate the following account: It is said that a group of atheists came to debate the existence of God with Abu Hanifah – one of the greatest and most famous jurist-theologians of Muslim antiquity. He said to them: ‘Tell me, before we start to discuss the matter, what you say of a boat in the Euphrates that makes its own way to shore, docks by itself, loads itself with food and other goods, makes its own way back to port, anchors and then unloads its cargo, all without anyone steering it or directing it?’ They all cried out that this is impossible; never could such a thing happen. Thereupon Abu Hanifah said to them: ‘If this is impossible with regards to a boat, then what about this whole world and all that it contains?’16
This simple, undemanding type of reasoning has satisfied many a pre-modern skeptic, although one suspects this would not be the case today. To see this argument as over simplistic is to miss the point. Atheism, to be sure, isn’t anything new; and neither are the arguments of today’s New Atheists: even if their anger and aggression are. For what the issue boils down to is this: That against incomprehensible odds this vast universe came into existence, containing sentient life that has consciousness and to whom the universe is comprehensible. And that screams out for an explanation!
Atheism serves up blind chance or a multiverse as a more reasonable explanation than an omniscient, omnipotent God who created creation with intent and wise purpose. In fact, what seems like a desperate attempt to avoid theism at all costs, Stephen Hawking insists: ‘Because there is a law like gravity the universe can and will create itself from nothing.’17 But physical laws in and of themselves cannot createanything: they are just abstract mathematical equations which are inferred from real material events. So we are now offered belief in an eternal law (gravity), rather than an eternal law-giver (God). But that, it has to be said, is the absurdity of atheism.
‘Atheism,’ writes John Lennox, Professor of Mathematics at the University of Oxford, ‘is on the march in the Western world. Noisily. A concerted attempt is being made to marshal the atheist faithful, to encourage them not to be ashamed of their atheism but to stand up and fight as a united army. The enemy is God.’1
If New Atheists are to be believed, science has dispensed with [belief in] God. Atheism is, its high priests and sermonisers tell us, the only viable intellectual position for the modern thinking person. Science and religion cannot be reconciled, they say. In fact, the following has become part and parcel of New Atheism’s central dogma: ‘Whatever knowledge is attainable, must be attained by scientific methods; and what science cannot discover, mankind cannot know.’2
Indeed, the above claim (that science is the only way to the truth and that it can, in principle, explain everything) is the third of three core arguments in New Atheism’s march against God. The first one being: that science explains how things work, so we don’t need to invoke God as an explanation. The second one: that there is nothing but nature. It’s a closed system of cause and effect. There isn’t a realm of the divine or the supernatural. There is no ‘outside’. This, in a nutshell, is the crux of the science versus religion debate.
Richard Dawkins, who continues to lead New Atheism’s assault on theism or belief in God, has a rather appropriate maxim in this regard. He states: ‘Next time somebody tells you that something is true, why not say to them: “what kind of evidence is there for that?” And if they can’t give you a good answer, I hope you’ll think carefully before you believe a word they say.’3 So let’s take each of these three beliefs of New Atheism and explore just how grounded in evidence or proof they really are:
1.Science explains how things work, we don’t need God as an explanation: Undoubtedly, the achievements of science have been remarkable; utterly astounding, even. Science has improved lives and living conditions, eliminated countless diseases and unveiled the mechanics behind how our universe works. It has also helped put to rest a lot of superstitious fears. For example, people need no longer fear that an eclipse is caused by a terrible demon, or is a bad omen of sorts. Interestingly, during the lifetime of the Prophet ﷺ an eclipse occurred, coinciding with the death of his infant son, Ibrahim. To waylay peoples’ superstitions, the Prophet ﷺ announced: ‘Indeed, the sun and the moon are two of God’s signs. They do not eclipse for the death or birth of anyone. If you see an eclipse, hasten to remember God and to prayer.’4 My overall point being is that we have so much to be grateful to science for and to its wonderful conversations and conclusions.
Unfortunately, the very success of science has led many to believe that merely because we know the mechanisms of how the universe works without needing to bring God into the equation, they can confidently conclude there is no God. Now it’s true theists have often been intellectually lazy and invoked God as an explanation for all sorts of phenomena they couldn’t understand or explain. The upshot of this ‘God of the gaps’ strategy is that, as science uncovered the inner workings of these natural phenomena, it pushed belief in God further into the background. And yet, just because science has revealed a mechanism for how the cosmos or any other natural phenomenon works, it doesn’t rationally disprove or deny God’s agency in those natural phenomena. Let me elaborate with the following example:
Take, for instance, an iPod. Now just because one deciphers the inner workings of an iPod, iPhone or iPad, does not mean that it is impossible to believe in the existence of Steve Jobs as the designer of such culturally altering tech. This would be a failure to distinguish between mechanism and agency. ‘Because we know the mechanism that explains a phenomenon, there is therefore no agent that designed the mechanism’ is a logical fallacy; in philosophy, an elemental category mistake. Lennox writes that when Newton discovered the laws of gravity, he didn’t say: ‘I’ve discovered the mechanism that describes the motion of planetary bodies, therefore there is no agent God who designed it.’ In fact, it was quite the opposite. Precisely because he had fathomed the mechanics behind planetary motion, he was moved to even greater admiration for the God who had designed it that way.5 In fact, what animated many towering figures of science, like Newton and Galileo, was that they expected laws in nature because they believed in God the lawgiver.
For Muslims, as with Jews and Christians, we do not believe that God is an alternative to a scientific explanation – as Dawkins et al. wants people to believe. He is not just a God of the gaps. On the contrary, He is the very ground of all explanation; indeed, of all existence. He is the agent behind every single act, occurrence or phenomena in the universe – the ones we know the mechanics of, and the ones we do not. The Qur’an says: God is the Creator of everything. [39:62] For the faithful who believe God’s hand is behind all things and that all things bear the mark of His handiwork, and who know not to confuse mechanism with agency, explanations and conversations of science are to be welcomed, pondered over and celebrated; not nervously anticipated or narrow-mindedly ignored.
2.There is nothing but nature, there is no realm of the divine; there is no “outside”: All well and good as a claim. Now let us apply the Dawkins litmus test: ‘Next time somebody tells you that something is true, why not say to them: “what kind of evidence is there for that?” And if they can’t give you a good answer, I hope you’ll think carefully before you believe a word they say.’
So what’s the evidence for the claim? As it turns out, there really isn’t any! It might be an atheistic hope. It might be an anti-theistic conviction. But it isn’t grounded in any scientific proof. Naturalism – the view that nature is all that there is, and that there is no transcendence or divine realm – is a philosophy that is brought to science. It is not the outcome of science, nor something science necessarily entails. Given that science proceeds by inference from observed data, how can anyone be so scientifically certain that the natural order is all that there is?6
In 1980, in my mid-teens, I was one of millions of viewers utterly enthralled by Carl Sagan’s breathtaking and ground-breaking TV series, Cosmos. The series opened with Sagan saying: ‘The cosmos is all there is, or was, or ever will be.’ These words of this charismatic astrophysicist and populariser of science were, undoubtedly, the words of a scientist. But they were not the words of science. Sagan’s naturalistic/materialistic worldview was not derived from his science. It was a priori; an assumption about the cosmos that he presupposed. Whether Sagan in his personal beliefs was an agnostic, atheist, or deist is beside the point. The point is that if scientists commit themselves a priori to a materialistic worldview, then the old proverb is likely to apply: ‘To the man who only has a hammer, everything looks like a nail.’
Of course, there is another reason to keep it all materialistic – as the geneticist and atheist, Richard Lewontin candidly wrote: ‘It is not that the methods and institutions of science somehow compel us to accept material explanations of the phenomenal world, but, on the contrary, that we are forced by our a priori adherence to material causes to create an apparatus of investigation and a set of concepts that produce material explanations, no matter how counter-intuitive, no matter how mystifying to the uninitiated. Moreover, that materialism is an absolute, for we cannot allow a Divine Foot in the door.’7
This frank admission has sort of let the cat out of the bag. What Lewontin is saying is that scientists cannot, must not allow room for anything other than purely natural, materialistic explanations. For to do otherwise would run the risk that God might get a look in. This is the blind faith in materialism that so typifies New Atheism, as well as feeds into the fiction that science is the only tool to understand life and its deepest questions (as opposed to being a tool that works wonders in some places and not so well in others). And this brings us nicely on to the third and final belief:
3.Science is the only way to the truth and can, in principle, explain everything: Evidence? In many ways, this fails the litmus test more pitifully than does the above. Again, this is more a statement of faith and hope than it is hard science. The belief that science is the only path to know the truth objectively and that it can, in theory, deal with every aspect of existence, is also known (pejoratively) as ‘scientism’. Richard Dawkins claims that: ‘Scientists [are] the specialists in discovering what is true about the world and the universe.’8 While Steven Hawking states that ‘philosophy is dead. Philosophy has not kept up with science, particularly physics. Scientists have become the bearers of the torch of discovery in our quest for knowledge.’9 Ironically, the degree of faith now placed in science is uncannily religion-like.
Be that as it may, it’s been pointed out often enough that scientism is actually a self-refuting belief. The assertion that only science can deliver true knowledge hasn’t been arrived at by scientific methods. Instead, it’s a personal conviction-cum-dogma. Thus, if the assertion is true, then it is false; if false, then true.10
Between Hawking and Dawkins, not only has today’s philosophy been denigrated, but at a single stroke they’ve disparaged many other disciplines of knowledge too. For the evaluation of philosophy, art, literature, music, or even ethics lies beyond the scope of science. How can science tell us when a piece of music or art is a masterpiece, or just a cacophony of sounds or colours? How can science determine what is morally right or wrong? As the biologist and Noble Laureate, Sir Peter Medawar, has so deftly written: ‘There is no quicker way for a scientist to bring discredit upon himself and upon his profession than roundly to declare – particularly when no declaration of any kind is called for – that science knows, or soon will know, the answers to all questions worth asking, and that questions that do not admit a scientific answer are in some way non-questions or pseudo-questions that only simpletons ask and only the gullible profess to be able to answer.’ He then states: ‘The existence of a limit to science is, however, made clear by its inability to answer childlike elementary questions having to do with first and last things – questions such as: “How did everything begin?”; “What are we all here for?”; What is the point of living?”.’11
Francis Collins, geneticist and Head of the Human Genome Project, hits the bullseye when he writes: ‘Science is the only legitimate way to investigate the natural world. Whether probing the structure of the atom, the nature of the cosmos, or the DNA sequence of the human genome, the scientific method is the only reliable way to seek out the truth of natural events … Nevertheless, science alone is not enough to answer all the important questions … The meaning of human existence, the reality of God, the possibility of an afterlife, and many other spiritual questions lie outside the reach of the scientific method.’12
In 1988, Hawking announced to an entire generation in his best-selling A Brief History of Time that our universe was describable and explainable by a single unified theory in physics – a Theory of Everything. It was a dream Einstein had hoped to achieve or see come to fruition in his own lifetime. On the back of this hopefulness, Dawkins wrote: ‘I am optimistic that the physicists of our species will complete Einstein’s dream and discover the final theory of everything before superior creatures, evolved on another world, make contact and tell us the answer.’ He concludes by pushing the triumphant mood even further, declaring: ‘I am optimistic that this final scientific enlightenment will deal an overdue deathblow to religion and other juvenile superstitions.’13 The last fall of Religion, as signalled by a Theory of Everything, would soon became the gospel of New Atheism.
Professor Hawking, meanwhile, pondering over the implications of Gödel’s Theorem in mathematics, wrote a paper in 2002 where he retracted his view about a Theory of Everything, saying it was unattainable: ‘Some people will be very disappointed if there is not an ultimate theory, that can be formulated as a finite number of principles. I used to belong to that camp, but I have changed my mind.’14 In his latest book, The Grand Design (2010), he seems to have gravitated to a grand unified theory once again, this time offering the highly controversial “M-theory” as the most likeliest candidate; as ‘the unified theory Einstein was hoping to find.’15
To conclude: We saw how the three key proofs New Atheism employs to attack belief in God are nowhere near as robust or as categorical as they’re made out to be. Indeed, two of them have no evidence from science whatsoever to support their conclusions: merely aspiration, hope and dogma. So as Dawkins aptly put it: ‘Next time somebody tells you that something is true, why not say to them: “what kind of evidence is there for that?” And if they can’t give you a good answer, I hope you’ll think carefully before you believe a word they say.’
Atheists insist, and New Atheism does so far more pugnaciously, that naturalism and science are joined at the hip. But as we’ve seen, that’s not based on evidence. Instead, it’s a philosophical commitment individual scientists bring to bear upon science. And whilst it’s true naturalistic or materialistic assumptions don’t really figure at all when scientists are studying how things work, they have a more bullish role when studying why things are as they are or how things came to be in the first place. Science, rather than “bury” God, has actually given theists further reasons to deepen confidence and conviction in Him. The universe had a beginning that begs explaining, is one of them. Another is the Fine Tuning of the universe; of just how suited to the emergence of life our cosmos actually is. There’s also the question of why there’s something rather than nothing? Or why the universe is so highly intelligible to us, in terms of mathematical and physical laws? All of these point, not to naturalistic causes, but to a Divine Cause. Yet, due to the bias that shows itself in an entrenched pre-commitment to naturalism, the theistic voice is routinely undermined or muffled in today’s scientific circles.
As Professor Lennox says, it shouldn’t really be a case of science vs. religion. Rather it boils down to this: which assumption does science support – atheism or theism?. Do the findings of science best square with the belief that consciousness and rationality arose via unguided, random natural processes working upon the basic materials of the universe? Or does the theistic belief best fit the evidence – that we were put here by an intelligent Creator-God, who created an intelligible universe, finely-tuned, that we might discover His laws, marvel at His handiwork, and bend our will to His purpose for us? That’s the real issue at stake.
As said before, science on the how questions has done tremendously well. It’s when it attempts to do the why questions that it steps beyond its remit and enters the highly dogmatic zone of scientism. In a delightful illustration to help clarify the distinction, Lennox gives us the example of his Aunt Matilda’s cake. He asks us to imagine that his Aunt Matilda has baked a delicious cake, which the world’s leading scientists wish to analyse. The nutritionists start by telling us about the number of calories in the cake; the biochemists inform us about the structures of proteins and fats in it; the chemists about the elements and compounds used in its formation; the physicists analyse it in terms of its fundamental particles; and the mathematicians offer up an elegant set of equations to describe its composition and the behaviour of the particles in it. Having offered their thorough analysis of his Aunt’s cake, Lennox then asks, ‘[C]an we say the cake is completely explained?’ He says that we have certainly been given knowledge of how the cake was made, but not why it was made. In fact, he insists that no amount of scientific analysis will shed light on the purpose behind the cake; in other words, the why question. The only way we’ll ever know the answer is if Aunt Matilda herself reveals it to us.16 The point, as Francis Collins made earlier, is that science deals with the material aspects of life; religion, the meaning aspects. Science takes things apart to see how they work; religion puts things together to see what they mean.
Must science and religion arm wrestle each other? Or can they clasp hands as partners in understanding man’s material reality and meaning? There’s no intrinsic reason why the latter shouldn’t be the case.
1. Gunning for God: Why the New Atheists Are Missing the Target (Oxford: Lion Hudson, 2011), 9.
2. Bertrand Russel, Religion and Science (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997), 243.
3. Dawkins, A Devil’s Chaplain (London: Phoenix, 2004), 291.
4. Al-Bukhari, no.1041; Muslim, no.911.
5. Lennox, God’s Undertaker: Has Science Buried God? (Oxford: Lion Hudson, 2009), 45. Much of the material for this article has been quarried and adapted from the first four chapters of this book.
6. Close to this is the philosophy of Materialism – the view that all existence is matter, that only matter is real, and that all occurrences are reducible to material processes. The difference between the two philosophies is that materialism makes a claim about the ontology of the universe, while naturalism takes that ontological premise to make an argument about how science should function.
7. Lewontin, ‘Billions and Billions of Demons: A Review of Carl Sagan’s “The Demon-Haunted World: Science is a Candle in the Dark”‘, New York Review of Books, 9 January 1997 – cited in Lennox, God’s Undertaker, 35-6.
8. A Devil’s Chaplain, 242.
9. Hawking & Mlodinow, The Grand Design (London: Bantam Books, 2011), 13.
10. A similar, though simpler self-refuting statement is the following: ‘This statement is false.’ So if the statement is true, then it is false. But if the statement is false, if it is untrue, then it is actually true.
11. Medawar, Advice to a Young Scientist (London: Harper and Row, 1979), 31.
12. Collins, The Language of God (Great Britain: Pocket Books, 2007), 228.
13. Contribution to the online magazine Edge – as quoted in John Cornwell, Darwin’s Angel (Great Britain: Profile Books, 2007), 63.
Freeman Dyson, one of the world’s foremost theoretical physicists, wrote: ‘The more I exam the universe and study the details of its architecture, the more evidence I find that the universe in some sense knew we were coming,’1
Today scientists don’t hesitate to acknowledge this wondrous fact of how tailor-made to life our universe is. Or, as Anthony Flew declared in There is a God: How the World’s Most Notorious Atheist Changed His Mind, that ‘the laws of nature seem to have been crafted so as to move the universe towards the emergence and sustenance of life.’2
And what precisely is the cause of this enchantment? Or on what grounds do so many cosmologists believe that the universe is compelled, in some sense, for conscious life to emerge in it? Well, it all has to do with our universe’s remarkable fine-tuning of its most basic, fundamental forces. Let me elaborate:
Cosmologists tell us, for instance, that had the force of gravity been a fraction weaker than it is: by 1 part in 1040 (that is, one followed by forty zeros), matter couldn’t have clumped together to form galaxies or stars. The universe would have been a lifeless sea of drifting gas of interminable darkness.
Had gravity been ever so slightly stronger, the universe would be radically different than it is now. Matter would clump together more aggresively. Stars could still exist, but they would be far smaller and burn out much more quicker than the time needed for complex planetary life to evolve. If it did manage to evolve, even insects would need thicker legs to support themselves because of the increased gravitational tug; indeed gravity would crush anything as large as ourselves. And that is assuming that planets could be stable. For in a strong-gravity universe, stars will be packed far closer together, making stellar collisions frequent. Planetry existence would thus be very unlikely, or extremely unstable.
So precisely-tuned is the force of gravity in relation to the other forces which operate throughout the universe that, had the initial explosion of the Big-Bang differed in strength by as little as 1 part in 1060, then the universe would have either collapsed back on itself or expanded too rapidly for stars to form. This incredibly slim margin is likened to firing a bullet at a fifty pence coin at the other side of the universe, billions of light-years away, and actually hitting the target!
A similar story holds true for the force binding protons and neutrons together in an atom: the strong nuclear force. Had it been a tad weaker, only hydrogen atoms could have formed; nothing else. If the strong nuclear force had been slightly stronger, the nuclear furnace which rages within the centre of stars would not be able to produce heavy elements like carbon, which is critical for all biological life. Again, the nuclear force appears to be tuned just sufficiently for carbon atoms to form.
Another example of such cosmic coincidences is the electromagnetic force: the force that causes the interaction between electrically-charged particles. If it was a tiny bit stronger, electrons would be bound to atoms so tightly that no chemical interactions could take place between atoms, which essentially means no life! On the other hand, if it were a fraction weaker than it is, electrons could not be bound to the nucleus of atoms, and thus no molecules could even form to give rise to life.
That our universe seems uniquely tuned to give rise to life; more specifically, human life, is known as the Anthropic Principle. And it remains a source of intense wonder, debate and speculation among scientists, philosophers and theologians since it was fullly appreciated a few decades ago.
All in all there are fifteen cosmological constants which, because they have the values and parameters they have, allow the emergence of a universe capable of supporting complex life.
Some have imaginatively likened the anthropic principle to a series of radio dials, with each instance of fine-tuning representing one dial. Unless all the dials are tuned to exactly the right settings, life would be utterly imposible. In his Just Six Numbers, Britain’s Astronomer Royal, Martin Rees, states that such finely-tuned cosmological constants, ‘constitute a “recipe” for a universe. Moreover, the outcome is sensitive to their values: if any one of them were to be ‘untuned’, there would be no stars and no life.’3 ‘The chance,’ says Francis Collins, head of the human genome project, ‘that all these constants would take on the values necessary to result in a stable universe capable of sustaining complex life forms is almost infinitesimal. And yet those are exactly the parameters we observe.’4
McGrath tells us that the first few decades of the twentieth century were dominated by a scientific belief that the universe had always existed, and so for most scientists of the time, there was no good reason to deliberate upon what brought it into existence. Religious language about creation was seen as backwardness: mythological nonsense incompatible with cutting-edge scientific knowledge. By the 1960s, though, it became increasingly apparent to the scientific community that the universe did have an origin; a starting point – the Big Bang. Although the idea was initially met with fierce dismissal by some atheist scientists of the day, such prejudice was overwhelmed by the evidence in its favour.5
Both the Big-Bang and the growing realisation of how the universe is finely-tuned for life have seriously altered the tone of the debate in terms of God, science and reason. Nonetheless, as suggestive as fine-tuning may be, its explanation continues to stoke intense debate in scientific, theological and philosophical circles.
Three explanations are offered for the remarkable fine-tuning of our cosmos. The first is a sort of shrug of the shoulder response. That is, things are what they are, or we would not be here to discuss them. We are just very lucky. To this “it’s just the way things are” attitude, Rees writes the following: ‘Many scientists take this line, but it certainly leaves me unsatisfied. I’m impressed by a metaphor given by the Canadian philosopher John Leslie. Suppose you are facing a firing squad. Fifty marksmen take aim, but they all miss. If they hadn’t missed, you wouldn’t have survived to ponder the matter. But you wouldn’t just leave it at that – you’d still be baffled, and would seek some further reason for your good fortune.’6
The second continues to attract a growing number of advocates: There are multiple universes parallel to ours, each governed by different laws and defined by different values. Our universe is simply a result of trial and error in that it is one wherein all the anthropic constants act in concert to allow life. A setback with the “multiverse” hypothesis, its incredulity aside and its seemingly opportunistic reasoning, is that it only postpones the crucial question. Instead of asking how our universe came about, we now must ask how these multiple universes emerged. Another drawback with it has to do with Ockham’s Razor. This is the rule that insists, ‘All other things being equal, simpler explanations are generally better than more complex ones.’ Invoking an infinite number of universes lacking empirical testability or observability, because they are in a different spacetime framework, is indeed extremely complex.
The last invokes divine providence. This is the belief that a wise, omnipotent Maker made the universe, endowing it with purpose, meaning and remarkable beauty for the specific intention of producing man. Stephen Hawking remarked in A Brief History of Time – in what seems like a moment of epiphany: ‘It would be very difficult to explain why the universe should have begun in just this way, except as the act of a God who intended to create beings like us.’7
The Qur’an insists: And We created not the heavens and the earth and all that is between them in vain. That is the opinion of those who disbelieve; so woe to the disbelievers because of the Fire! [38:27]
1. Dyson, Disturbing the Universe, 250 – in Barrow & Tipler, The Anthropic Cosmological Principle (Oxford: Calarendon, 1988), 318.
2. Antony Flew, There is a God (USA: HarperCollins, 2008), 114.
3. Just Six Numbers (Great Britain: Phoenix Books, 1999), 4.
4. The Language of God (London: Simon & Schuster, 2007), 74. Cf. the account of the anthropic principle by physicist and Christian theologian John Polkinghorne, Beyond Science (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 80-92.
5. Why God Won’t Go Away (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 2011), 84-5.
6. Just Six Numbers, 164-66.
7. A Brief History of Time (New York: Bantam Press, 1998), 144. I am not suggesting by this statement that Hawkins is a theist. But simply showing that the universe having a wise, omnipotent Maker is more than within the scope of reason and sound logic.