Friday, February 20, 2015

Religious Science

Ever wonder why the Muslim world has contributed relatively few scientific breakthroughs since the 13th century?  Or that the number of Nobel laureates from Trinity College, Cambridge (32) is far greater than the total from the entire Islamic universe (10)?

If we were aiming for a show at MSNBC (there are vacancies), or a spokesperson gig at the State Department, we could offer the usual blather about centuries of colonial occupation, oppression, and lack of access to education.  However, this doesn't explain the large number of Muslims who have earned advanced degrees in a variety of fields--and often use their education and skills as a ticket to places that are less oppressive and violent.

Maybe the real answer lies in how some Islamic states utilize their scientific talent.  In countries like Pakistan and Iran, nuclear physics and rocket science have been the "hot fields" for decades, to advance the cause of developing nuclear weapons and the means to drop them on your enemies.  If all of your R&D efforts are focused on creating a thermonuclear device and an ICBM, there won't be much left over for new cancer cures.     

Or perhaps a better explanation can be found in the influence of religious leaders who have dominated the Muslim world since the days of the prophet.  Folks like Saudi cleric Sheikh Bandar al-Khaibari, who recently told a university audience in the United Arab Emirates that the earth does not rotate, and sits at the center of the universe.  According to Al Arabiya, students were "stunned" by al-Khaibari's discovery, including his assessment that planes could never reach their destination if the earth rotated on its axis.  Take that, Galileo and Copernicus!

Watching clips of the exchange, it appears that al-Khaibari received only the mildest of challenges from his audience.  We're guessing the absence of derision or outright laughter wasn't the product of ignorance--it was the fear of ridiculing a respected Saudi cleric and the consequences it might generate. So, students and faculty members stayed quiet.

To be fair, every religion has its share of crackpots and idiots.  And there's never any hesitancy in calling out Christians, Jews, or members of other faiths who offer theories that defy scientific fact (and no, we don't include climate change in that category).  But a different standard applies to the leaders of Islam, and there's the rub: if you can't criticize your theological scholars for something as basic as the earth revolving around the sun, how can you challenge them on scriptural foundation for beheading non-believers, or strapping a bomb to your child's body, so they can kill the infidels? 



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