Summary 7 March 2003: Symposium on Science, Religion and Values

IAP Programmes

Summary 7 March 2003: Symposium on Science, Religion and Values


In his opening remarks, Professor Adnan Badran, Chairman of the Symposium, introduced the theme of the Symposium by emphasizing the essential role in education of encouraging a "Culture of Peace" and respect for "the other". Following brief comments by Mr. Ehsan Masood, the Symposium Convener, regarding the central question of the development of science within societies, the Symposium began with a presentation by Professor Fraser Watts. He noted that science flourished in both Islamic and Christian societies in the past and developed his perspective that science and religion were not to be viewed as completely separate (apartheid) but rather they can have a mutually fruitful relation: "science has something to say about everything, and so does religion". He referred to Galileo's insight that "religion teaches us how to go to heaven, not how the heavens go". In developing complementary perspectives, both religion and science need to be mutually respecting of the other, avoiding arrogance. He noted particularly that science is the most genuinely international thing in the world order while religion was often the source of tension and instability. Science is, however, not culturally and value-free: "there is no view from nowhere". While science can be described as a supreme achievement of human rationality, its often narrow, overconfident and reductionist tendencies can alienate those outside of the science enterprise.
The world, seen globally, is not secular. Religions are very important and the world communities have diverse faith traditions that can differ profoundly. Professor Watts characterized a healthy religion as one that was open and flexible, socially inclusive and providing space for spiritual growth. He noted further that those aspects of science at its best can help spiritual achievement, namely the search for truth, in a spirit of openness, humility and tolerance.

In the first of the series of short presentations that followed, Dr. Karim Ahmed introduced what was a recurring theme during the Symposium, namely that Islam was much more than a passive conduit of classical science from the ancient world to the emergent European societies. The Arabic and Hispano-Arabic contributions to science were indeed profound and decisive. The scientific and cultural legacies of Al-Andalus were seen as deserving wider recognition, particularly as a period in which the three monotheistic religions could co-exist and sciences flourish. Islamic seats of learning drew students and scholars from throughout Europe. Perhaps there were lessons there that have relevance to modern times.

Several speakers noted, however, that science in the Muslim world was now weakened and in need of strengthening, a theme that had been considered at length in the discussions of the two previous days regarding Academies of Science.

A wide range of perspectives was expressed concerning the relation between the texts of the holy Quran and the achievements of contemporary science. The value of knowledge and the search for knowledge is expressed often in the holy Quran. However, in one perspective, the texts were seen as anticipating many contemporary discoveries of science while, in a quite different perspective, there was no relation between them at all. One speaker cautioned about linking the texts which are based on immutable faith with the developments of science, which are mutable and open to experimental challenge. Another strongly held view was that, in an educational context, religious education in whatever faith tradition, should not replace basic academic education, which is seen as a basic human right of each and every child.

Professor Thomas Rosswall emphasized the challenge for our globe of working together for sustainable development. He urged science to work together with religions and other value systems to support sustainable development. He noted that, to date, the Islamic world had been poorly involved in the debate about science for sustainable development. Education, in all its forms, has a key role in supporting sustainable development, or, as one speaker expressed it: "education is everything!"

Several speakers noted the extraordinary advances in science and technology in recent times. The journey of science continues, raising questions that blur the simple distinction between science and religion. In this context, Professor Yves Quere urged less arrogance for science. He noted that the more we know, the more is our ignorance: the discovery of exo-planets reveals questions we did not even imagine previously. The discovery of ice together with only a few craters on the surface of Europa, one of the satellites of Jupiter, raises the profound, almost spiritual question of the possibility of life forms that may not evolve to produce man as happened on our familiar environment of earth.

The discussions occurred at a particularly difficult time for the world community. The generally negative images of Islam and Islamic communities were obscuring an authentic understanding of this faith tradition and, furthermore, limiting the ability of Islamic scientists to engage in the global scientific enterprise. While a diversity of views was held about the relation between Islam and science, there was broad support for a continuation of this dialogue. This dialogue could provide critical support for strengthening science and scientific communities in countries with predominantly Muslim populations.

J. Webb
Rapporteur
(j.webb@unesco.org)