VIEW: Moderation, faith and science —Saleem H Ali
The only avenue for moderation in religious doctrines exists where there can be accommodation for equal respect and coexistence of other faiths, an acknowledgement of scientific inference and differentiating societal law from personal belief. In the case of Islam this would require some radical revisionism
My article on alcohol abstinence (Daily Times, December 16) brought a wave of emails that merit some analysis and reflection. Most readers were appreciative that I had presented the facts without dogmatic exhortations and recognised that alcoholism was a growing problem in Pakistan. However, a few irate readers felt that I should be calling for ‘moderation’ (perhaps of the enlightened variety) rather than abstinence. Some implied that whenever there is a prohibition, there is likely to be violation, hence we should simply let people make their own choices.
Even in the West, such debates rage on between liberals and conservatives. My own approach to these matters is to focus on the facts and let them be our most pragmatic guide to policy formulation. In order to do this we need to be nuanced and non-linear in our approach. We must be careful not to get carried away with analogies and our own predilections and cultural presumptions.
First, let us consider the larger issue of moderation — a tempting invocation for most human endeavours. Even in our own cultural and religious traditions miyana ravi, (following the middle path) has been a frequent refrain. However, moderation is applicable to human phenomena when two preconditions are met:
i) the behaviour itself is not predisposed to addictive excess,
ii) the impact of that behaviour does not lead to involuntary risks on others.
What I had argued in my article was that alcohol consumption fails to meet either of these tests as exemplified by the data. Despite many campaigns for moderation, alcohol abuse continues unabated because the bio-chemical impact of ethanol on human body defies moderation — as is the case with all intoxicants. This is why I tried to differentiate alcohol consumption from private cigarette smoking.
Now let us consider the second critique in matters of prohibition — that is depriving people leads to desire and consequent indulgence. Does deprivation always lead to depravity? This line of reasoning is used most often in matters of sexual morals. We hear arguments presented frequently on how sexual abuse of children by religious clerics is tied to theologically imposed frustrations. Pornography and prostitution are defended by some on the grounds that they provide a vent to relieve the fantasies of the frustrated. However, the data suggests that sexual crimes are actually more common in places where there is license than in places where there is prohibition. Crime is more a consequence of distorted power structures than of deprivation — this was apparent in subsequent analysis of the sexual abuse scandals in the Catholic church. While it is true that all individuals cannot practice self-denial and should not be coerced to do so, disparaging discipline is not the solution either. Indeed, many great personalities such as the Dalai Lama, Gandhi, Mother Teresa or Salahuddin Ayyubi were able to win the minds of millions through self-denial and discipline.
Let us now consider the most common exhortation for moderation from the Pakistani government these days — religious doctrines. Can we apply moderation to religious doctrines? If we apply my two tests for applicability to religion we find that for many exclusionary doctrines, reform is a losing battle because of systemic issues in the theology. Hence the only avenue for moderation in religious doctrines exists where there can be accommodation for equal respect and coexistence of other faiths, an acknowledgement of scientific inference and differentiating societal law from personal belief. Contrary to many secularist ideologues, I believe these criteria can indeed be met for religious doctrines as well.
However, in the case of Islam this would require some radical revisionism and a departure from many mainstream belief structures, and reinterpretation. No matter how difficult this transition might be, it must take place and indeed many Muslim organisations worldwide are struggling with these challenges. These struggles for reform must be supported without disparaging the believers. It would be strategically fatal for both scientific humanists and theologians to think that either science or religion are obsolescent and will simply fade into oblivion. Sensationalistic and linear monographs such as The End of History or The End of Science, and most recently The End of Faith are generating more heat than light on these issues and must be read with some scepticism.
I had an opportunity a few years ago to interview the late Steven Jay Gould, an eminent evolutionary biologist at Harvard about the confluence of science and religion and finding some moderating channel between the two. He referred to both as ‘non-overlapping majesteria’ — each having its own locus of operation which should not compete with the other. Gould admitted that scientists and theologians alike can be a trifle arrogant in their approach to these matters. Religion, after all, could itself be an important evolutionary strategy that has sustained human societies through many adversities and brought much-needed meaning to our existence. While many individuals can transcend this need for meaning, no one should show condescension towards those who need spiritual sustenance, which happens to be a majority of the world’s population. As a politician in Carl Sagan’s novel Contact (also a notable movie) asks the central character, an atheistic scientist, “do you really think that 90 percent of the country’s population is delusional simply because of their beliefs?” It should be mentioned that Sagan was himself an agnostic but one who appreciated uncertainty and the value of respecting religion so long as it did not infringe upon science.
Similarly, theologians must not disavow science for lack of understanding and should always remain steadfast to the search for facts and consequential truth. The alcohol issue, though shows how conventional wisdom about moderation in religion might in fact not be applicable in the larger context when we apply objective measures of policy evaluation. Thus a call for religious moderation implying alcohol consumption is likely to backfire on both accounts of doctrinal persuasion as well as societal good.
Finally, we must not confuse three related but different issues: moderation, tolerance and neutrality. Tolerance must be reciprocal and hence tolerating the intolerant is a recipe for disaster. Similarly neutrality is only appropriate when subjective opinion that does not impose risks on others in society is at play. When I am asked to mediate a conflict, I always make it clear to all parties that I will be neutral only when the debate is operating within mutually agreed rules and never neutral on matters of process. Thus if the voice of one side is not being heard, in order to be fair I would have to show a measure of advocacy to ensure that that voice is heard. As a mediator it is my role to ensure that existing power structures do not subvert neutrality. As the famed holocaust survivor and Nobel peace prize recipient Elie Wiesel once said: “neutrality often favours the oppressors.” The many travails of ostensibly neutral Swiss foreign policy in recent years exemplify how hollow neutrality can be in the face of oppression. Thus in our quest to be balanced, moderate, tolerant and neutral when necessary, let us be discerning and nuanced in our approach.
Dr Saleem H Ali teaches environmental planning and conflict resolution at the University of Vermont in the United States. He can be reached via email at: email@example.com