“Sir, my parents are very interested in your ideas. They want a picture of you.” With this, my student gave me a pair of sunglasses and asked me to pose. For the last three weeks, I have been teaching a course entitled “Science Studies” at the University of Liberal Arts Bangladesh (ULAB). The students range from sophomores to seniors, with majors as diverse as marketing to general education. I originally intended to teach a standard philosophy of science course beginning with Carl Hempel, Thomas Kuhn, and Karl Popper and moving through a rich lineage of Anglo-American philosophy. Then, we had our first class.
I listed the major philosophical questions we would tackle, and among them included “the relationship between religion and science.” At the end of the class, by popular demand, the students asked to start with this topic. I began teaching with much trepidation. The vast majority of material I have read on religion and science concerned conflict between Christianity and the scientific worldview.
I devoted the first class to painting a historical picture, starting with Galileo, Darwin, and moving to recent debates between the “new atheists” and philosophical defenders of religion such as Alvin Platninga. This left the students curious, but unmoved. Of the fifteen students in my class, all identify as Muslim, and on further discussion, expressed strong and nuanced beliefs about the relationship between Islam and science. For a few, even the idea of a conflict seemed misplaced – after all, they argued, “Islam is based on scientific principles.” They elaborated – the Quran has predicted many natural phenomena, such as the shape of the earth, and discoveries about the human embryo.
I scrapped my entire syllabus, and looked further into writings by Islamic scholars about potential conflicts between Islam and modern science. What did students think of the history of Islamic science? Was there a conflict between the theory of evolution and the Quran? In what ways was the Quran scientific? Could it be scientific in the same way as physics or chemistry? From the last few weeks of debate, my students have pushed me to re-evaluate both my pedagogy and belief in the power of Western science. More specifically, I have learned:
1) While potentially volatile, a philosophy class should permit discussion of student’s religious beliefs. After all, why study philosophy if there is nothing personal, meaningful or universal at stake? I have learned to help students self-identify when they are speaking from belief, and then elaborate on potential arguments for positions.
2) The major loci of debate in America regarding science and religion (i.e. evolution versus creationism, atheism versus deism, prayer in schools, etc…) are not the most significant for students in Dhaka. The very idea of positivism or materialism has proven difficult to get off the ground. In other words, my students have had little reason to consider such positions tenable, as they deny a basic commitment to inner life, family, and religious truth.
3) My job is not to defend Western philosophy. At many points in class, I have struggled to convey my passion for analytic reasoning, search for universal laws, and commitment to discovering the generality of knowledge across cultures. I have come to realize that my students do not share such intellectual values. For them, one can approach texts with personal belief, and respect the richness of local knowledge rooted in specific religious traditions. As a Professor, this leaves me with a profound disequilibrium, which I am still sorting out.
4) Philosophy should occupy a central role in a liberal arts education. While I teach classes in physics and mathematics, no student has yet asked for my photo, nor debated these ideas around the dinner table. Moreover, to pose questions, take stands, and defend one’s beliefs are so central to philosophy in a way unmatched by other disciplines.
This Thursday my students will host a University debate on potential conflicts between Islam and modern science. I look forward to sharing more dialogue, and welcome comments and suggestions for further curricula.