Science education and religious studies

16 12 2010

Dari Syed Akhbar Ali, penulis laman OUTSYED THE BOX.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Science education and religious studies

By Syed Akbar Ali

On Wednesday 8 December 2010, Azfar sent a comment to my Blog titled “10% Versus 90% Versus Building Incapacity”. Thank you Azfar. Here is his comment in full:

“I think the problem faced by our education system is not only about the teaching of English, but also about the attitudes inculcated during the formative years. And this boils down to our culture. The Malaysian culture is made up of dimensions that hinder independent thinking, creativity, risk-taking and conviction to self purpose. Instead we are encouraged to conform with peers, avoid questioning authority and be risk-averse. I base this assertion on Hofstede’s research. This spells ‘no-progress’. When our culture encourages blind-obedience, how are we suppose to get out of the bubble of ignorance when doing so is discouraged and at worst, could incur punishment. This culture seems to be more prevalent in Malay Muslim communities than the others. We need to reform certain aspects of our culture. I believe that schools need to encourage independent inquiry. It is this attitude that drove Europe to its Renaissance after discarding blind obedience to the corrupt church. Governments too need to encourage more locally developed technology-oriented entrepreneurial ventures and risk-taking attitude. We’ve got the graduates but we don’t have the entrepreneurs. For example, most engineering graduates now work in banks or other industries unrelated to their studies. What a waste” – Azfar

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Azfar’s comments triggered my thoughts about religious education, the overbearing influence of religion, the traditional heritage of the Malays, the use of English versus Malay and a few other points.

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I have said a few times that there is too much emphasis on religion everywhere in this country. Especially in school. I would like to share my views on the use of logic, reason and common sense versus religious education. The religious people have long repeated it many times that you cannot use logic, common sense and reason when talking about religion. In Malay it goes like this, ‘bukan semua perkara itu boleh diterima oleh akal’.

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I don’t want to argue their statement because it will not be understood by them even if the cows do come home one day. However there is a verse in the Quran which goes like this:

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Surah 10:100 “And it is not for a soul to believe except by Allah’s permission; and He casts uncleanness on those who will not understand” (wayaj alu al rijsa alallazeena laa ya’qiloon).

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Laa ya’qiloon means ‘will not understand’. The word ‘qiloon’ comes from the Arabic ‘aqal’ which also means akal in Malay. In English ‘akal’ means understanding, thinking, mind, using the brain, common sense, logic, reasoning.

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So God will cast uncleanness or abomination upon a people who refuse to use their brains to reason and think. Meaning it is important to reason and think.

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It is also a fact that many Malay students are weak in science. I have made it almost a career now to point out that this weakness in science has got nothing to do with the Malay race. Almost all the Islamic countries around the world face this same problem. Science is a weak subject throughout the Islamic world and not just among Malays.

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Now we come to science and science education. Science comes from the Latin word ‘scientia’ which means knowledge. Knowledge in Arabic is ‘ilm from which we get the Malay word ‘ilmu’. Science is based on observation, reasoning, inference, thesis, experimentation and so forth. Reasoning and thinking are paramount in science. You must use your otak. Hence science must be Islamic because it does not contradict Surah 10:100 above which also insists that you must use your reasoning capacity.

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In our schools we teach children science. Primary school kids start to learn science but say at age 13 in Form 1 onwards the kids learn more science. In Form 4 at age 16 the kids learn separate science subjects like chemistry, biology, physics, mathematics and so on.

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Science requires reason and logic. Young children learn, for the first time in their lives, basic scientific concepts that ‘energy cannot be created or destroyed’. This can be proven in a laboratory (the famous experiment where we burn a piece of paper inside a glass container set on a weighing machine). In science we also learn basic agreed concepts like the ‘universe is a closed system’ (although the universe is quite huge and we don’t know exactly where the universe comes to an end). N’theless these are agreed upon concepts by the scientists so that we may all be on the same page about science and how to learn science. If we want to learn the science that we know today, we have to start from these agreed basic concepts.

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You cannot say I want to learn science but I don’t want to believe that ‘energy cannot be created or destroyed’. Kalau macam tu susah sikit lah because all the science text books are based on these agreed scientific premises.

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Now we come to the Muslim kids. The Muslim kids (throughout all the Islamic countries) also attend religious classes. In religious class (in school, in the private madrassahs, at home, at the surau etc) the Muslim kids learn things that ‘cannot be explained’ by using science, reason or akal. For example the religious classes teach that the Prophet ascended to heaven riding a creature called the buraq which was a cross between a horse and a man. (In Greek mythology such a creature was called a Pegassus). Religion does not explain what energy sources were used by this creature to ascend the heavens. Yet in religious class the children are required to believe this is how the creature travelled through space.

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Religious classes also teach children about miracles. For example how a large number of people were able to continue eating dates from just one small container. Or how water poured out of one small container enabling an entire congregation to wash themselves for prayer. These are miracles that are beyond science and reason. As the religious people will say – these are among the things that cannot be explained ‘dengan menggunakan akal’. Fine. I agree with them 100%. Most certainly we cannot use reason or akal to explain these things.

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But from my observation, these divergent or contradictory beliefs between science and religion does cause confusion among the Muslim kids. On the one hand, they are required to learn science which says ‘energy cannot be created or destroyed’. On the other hand they learn in religious class that ‘dates appeared miraculosuly’, water poured out, the buraq flew to the havens miraculously and so forth. I think it creates confusion in their thinking and it may interfere in the development of their scientific thinking faculties. It may slow down their capacity to learn to think logically and rationally.

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On the other hand the non Muslim kids (except maybe the Catholics, some born again Christians and devout HIndus) are not as affected by this dichotomy. Non Muslims do not have to learn about miraculous creatures flying through space and such. Perhaps their mind is less cluttered and so they can absorb new scientific education more easily. In the West, China, Japan, Korea, Singapore there is very little or no religious education in school. So the young peoples’ minds are free and clear to be infused with logical, common sensical, scientific education only. There is less chance for them to be confused between religion and science.

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What are the effects of this dichotomy on the Muslim mind? I once met a Muslim man of my age. The Americans had just shot another Space Shuttle into outer space and we were talking about it.. The guy said the American Space Shuttle is no big deal because the Prophet had already been to Outer Space on the buraq.

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Here he obviously felt envy for the American Space Shuttle. Instead of yearning to achieve similar things he was trying to belittle the Americans. And he found his excuse to belittle the Americans by saying that the Prophet had already been to Outer Space, through means that cannot be explained by science. He was trying to imply that the Space Shuttle was no big deal.

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I was thinking to myself, could this guy go home and encourage his children to learn science so that one day they too could design and make a space shuttle that could travel in space? I don’t think so. He will withdraw into his religious cocoon where he can find comfort and safety in upholding beliefs that cannot be explained by logic and reason. I think this is part of the reasons why all the Islamic countries and our Malay children too are weak in science.

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My suggestion is this – lets reduce the amount of religious education for children at the tender age when they are just beginning to learn science, logic and reasoning. Reduce means just teach them the basics. Lets teach them the Quran instead (I will volunteer to prepare the syllabus). May I suggest that we have religious classes for adults instead. Let the school kids spend their time in school learning useful subjects based on science, logic and reason. Then when they grow up they can attend religious classes and learn about those things that cannot be explained by science.

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At least by that time when they are grown up, they may have designed and built a space shuttle. After that whoever wants to, they can learn about other means of space travel and such.

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I know this is a religious topic so please keep your comments civil. Lets not make fun of anyone or use language that is inappropriate. Lets try to be logical and reasonable.


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5 responses

16 12 2010
San Peng.

Nafs dan minda yang mahu dan suka mengenal tuhannya tidak terjejas dengan apa yang dikatakan “dichotomy” ini.

Malahan penglihatan matanya amat jelas, tajam dan menembusi. Tiada kekeliruan baginya.

16 12 2010
World Spinner

Science education and religious studies « Kempen SSS…

Here at World Spinner we are debating the same thing……

21 12 2010
batasbharu

If you believe in Allah…THE CREATOR…there’s no confusion whats so ever..

27 12 2010
Claire

If you believe in common sense, then religion and science can co-exist.
. Let science be your guide and religion be your compass.

29 12 2013
Learn Arabic

I have learn a few just right stuff here. Definitely worth bookmarking for revisiting.
I wonder how a lot effort you put to create the sort
of great informative website.

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