Science and Religion: Two Kinds of Superstitions

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Note: This vignette originally appeared as a topic of discussion in Andalus Book Club.

The Western mind has been intellectually conditioned through the education system to by and large equate science with rationality and religion with mythology and superstition. The appeal of this set up lies in the idea that science deals with tangible material objects, whereas religion speaks of another world beyond our direct sense experience.

There is an alluring attraction to being able to observe an immediate effect of a specific manipulation of a phenomenon vs. taking on faith a belief in a grand scale plan we do not have a grasp of. Such an attraction may be rooted in the human desire to have a sense of control over ourselves and our environment. Ironically, in our quest to satisfy this desire and dismissal of religious superstition we may be falling for another type of superstition – the scientific one.

Towards the end of the chapter “Ideas and Reality” in his book Islam between East and West ‘Alija ‘Ali Izetbegović dedicates a section to discuss how religion and science become transformed from legitimate aspects of human experience when balanced and directed to their areas of concern into pursuits of superstitious explanations that appear different in form, but are similar in kind:

Two kinds of “superstitions” are to be found: the first, science trying to explain man’s inner life; and the other, religion trying to explain natural phenomena.

When explaining the world of spirit, science analyzes it objectively by turning it into an object, into a thing. When explaining nature, religion personalizes it – that is, turning it into a non nature. We are faced with misconceptions of the same kind, but in a “reciprocal,” reversed relation.

According to Islamic theology, all religion began as revelation from God to His Prophets and Messengers to call mankind to their Lord. Superstition and attribution of mysterious metaphysical powers and agency to the natural world are later innovations that were rebuked by every Prophet and Messenger until the Beloved ﷺ and the Quran. On the question of how these innovations become incorporated in the first place, Izetbegović provides an insightful analysis on the transformation of religion into superstition:

Primitive religions with their magicians and taboos are close to superstition; they can hardly be distinguished from it. In fact, their religions reflect man’s inner disharmony. They emerge from the two basic preoccupations of early mankind: first, the spiritual, when man becomes aware of himself as a human being as distinct and different from surrounding nature; and second, the physical, his need to survive in a hostile world full of danger. Primitive religious conscience, under the pressure of the instinct to survive, turns to this world for its aim becomes more natural (successful hunting, rich harvest, protection from a hostile nature, sickness, wild animals, and so on), while the methods and means remain religious (i.e., magic, sacrifices, spiritual dances, songs, and symbols). Primitive religion is religious conscience oriented in the same direction, outward, toward life’s needs, instead of inward, toward spiritual desire. Since it can achieve nothing in the real world, primitive religion leaves the impression of man’s weakness and delusion.

Izetbegović further notes that a religion which has been turned into superstition not only fails to achieve anything in the real world, it will also stand in opposition to the scientific progress that will invariably suppress it:

Accordingly, a religion which wants to replace free thinking with mysticism, scientific truth with dogmas, and social actions with ceremonies must inevitably clash with science. On the contrary, true religion is compatible with science – a kind of theism known by many scientists. Moreover, science can help religion in suppressing superstition. If separated, religion pulls toward backwardness, and science toward atheism.

Though science can help in removing religious superstition, a complete separation between science and religion in Izetbegović’s analysis does not only stop at leading the religious toward backwardness and the scientist toward atheism as he posits. Rather, a different form of superstition will inevitably arise from science:

However, science also has its own superstitions, when it leaves the field of nature. Infallible on the matters related to the inorganic world (physics, astronomy, and so on), man’s intelligence is nevertheless uncertain and awkward in the field of life. Using its methods of analysis and quantification in the field of life, science has necessarily come to the negation of some important life and spiritual phenomena, reducing them to their outside manifestations. So, the sociology of religion missed the very essence of religion, biology missed life, psychology missed the soul, anthropology missed man’s personality, and history missed its inner human meaning.

Izetbegović gives an elaboration on how this takes place in science by citing an example in art, which instead of being acknowledged as an expression of human inner experience, it is equated with a psychological breakdown and disharmony:

When science describes a work of art, it reduces it to a psychological phenomenon. For science, the artist is a victim of a psychosis. Stekal, a psychoanalyst, has stated that this research has convinced him that there is no difference between a poet and a neurotic. From the scientific point of view, an artistic creation is best analyzed by another science: psychoanalysis. The result of this investigation is the paradoxical assertion that there is a congruence between creation and neurosis.

From the rationalistic point of view, no objection to artificial towns or military barracks is possible: “If we build honestly, a cathedral must not be different from a factory,” Mies van der Rohe, an ideologist of functionalism, draws a logical but absurd conclusion.

A similar case is also observed in biology:

Biological science concluded that a man is really an animal, that an animal is really a thing, and that life is in the end mechanics – nonlife. In ethics, a similar development resulted: reason concluded that morality is only a refined, “enlightened” form of selfishness – that is morality is the negation of morality. Psychoanalysis has abolished the distinctions between artistic creation and sickness. So scientific research in the human field ended with a series of negations: intelligence first denied the existence of God and then, according to a style of descending gradation, it denied man, then life, and at last came to the conclusion that everything is only a play and reciprocal interaction of molecular forces. Intelligence could find nothing else in the world but itself: mechanism and causality.


For in-depth discussions with Mohamed Ghilan on books and articles such as the one featured in this Vignette through an Islamic perspective, join Andalus Book Club.

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