Has Religion Made a Comeback?

Giant Turtles, Big Bang Cosmology, and the End of Materialism

I remember sitting in my world history class as a nine-year-old learning that the silly and primitive people of the past used to believe that the earth rested on a giant turtle. I vaguely recall being taught that these simple and primitive people used this turtle to explain earthquakes: anything that sits on the back of a turtle will be unstable, so when the turtle coughs, sneezes, or burps, the earth that sits on it will shake and quake, and there you have your earthquake.

Historians have traced these giant turtle stories to Hindu mythologies in the Indian subcontinent. In some versions, the turtle supports an elephant, and it’s the elephant that supports the earth. In other versions, a cobra is thrown into the mix as well.[1]

This is an example of a cosmology. Cosmology is the study of the origin, evolution, and eventual fate of the universe. In ancient times, cosmology was the exclusive province of religion. Polytheistic religions like Hinduism had exotic cosmologies like the one I have just described. The earth was, for them, the entire universe, and, like everything else, it had to sit on something else in order to avoid falling into “the void.” Giant turtles helped explain why it didn’t fall. These turtles had some ambiguous role in the origin of the universe (behind this ambiguity lies a philosophical problem, whose solution is central to this article, as I will explain shortly). And the various gods that Hindus worshiped were responsible for the rain, the wind, the agricultural produce, for life, and for death. This cosmic evolution was perpetual and never-ending. Every living creature that died was reincarnated into another form, and the cycle continued forever. Taken together, these beliefs were their cosmology–their explanation for the origin, evolution, and eventual fate of the universe. 

***

We now laugh at these cosmologies because we know that the earth does not, in fact, sit on a turtle (or an elephant or a cobra). Earthquakes are the result of tectonic plates colliding, not an animal sneezing. The earth doesn’t need to sit on anything to stop it from falling to a cosmic void. It is in constant free-fall in a vast cosmic void that we call “outer space”: the sun’s gravity pulls the earth inward perpendicular to its line of motion, causing it to fall towards the sun while constantly missing it, resulting in an elliptical planetary orbit. 

The dominant scientific narrative takes these exotic cosmologies as its point of departure to tell us a larger story. It says that the reason why these silly and primitive people had such beliefs was that they didn’t use the scientific method to discover facts about the universe. Instead of hypothesizing, experimenting, observing, measuring, and concluding, they simply made up a bunch of primitive beliefs and treated them as facts based on religious dogma rather than on scientific evidence.

One of these primitive beliefs was that the earth rested on giant turtles. Other primitive beliefs, this story says, were that the rain, the wind, the agricultural produce, life, and death were all the actions of spirits, fairies, and gods, who could be prayed to in order to bring about more favorable circumstances. If these primitive people had used the scientific method–hypothesized, experimented, observed, measured, and concluded–they would have developed natural explanations for all of these phenomena. They would have explained rain and wind using rising and falling air pressure, agricultural produce using photosynthesis, and life and death using human biology. But since they were primitive and unscientific, they developed supernatural explanations by ascribing natural phenomena to the actions of spirits, fairies, and gods (in the dominant scientific narrative, these three words have the same meaning).

***

My high school physics teacher was cool. He would have us call him “Mr. Z”, and I still remember his excitement as he talked about electrons gaining and losing discrete amounts of energy, showing us the resultant lines that appeared in the diffracted spectra of light after it passed through various elements.

One day, he noticed that I was discussing the existence of God with my friends. So he walked up, sat on a desk, pulled up a chair, put his feet on it, leaned over with the same excitement that he had when he talked about electrons and diffracted spectra, and talked to us about the difference between religion and science. 

He said he respected religion–I’m not sure if he only said that because I was visibly religious–but it was important to keep religion out of science. Belief in God was the domain of religion, not the domain of science. Bringing it into science would stop us from being able to think scientifically. He didn’t say it explicitly, but what he was getting at was that science leads to facts whereas religion leads to superstition, and if we think religiously when doing science, our scientific conclusions will be populated by giant turtles, spirits, fairies–and God.[2]

The scientific narrative that natural explanations lead to facts whereas supernatural (or religious) explanations lead to superstitions dominates science education in schools and colleges. Like Mr. Z, almost every high-school science teacher believes this narrative, and they will pass it on to their students, either gently–as Mr. Z did with me–or aggressively–as is now becoming the vogue because of the proliferation of New Atheist propaganda. Even religious Muslims have been affected. Let me give you an example: 

The Messenger of Allah once asked his Companions, “Do you know what your Lord says?” to which they replied, “Allah and His Messenger know best.” He said,

He says, ‘Some of my servants have entered into the morning as people who believe in Me and others have entered into the morning as people who disbelieve in me: those who say, ‘We have been given rain by the generosity and mercy of Allah,’ have believed in Me and disbelieved in the stars, whereas those who say, ‘We have been given rain because of such-and-such a star,’ have disbelieved in Me and believed in the stars.’[3]

This hadith is popularly cited as evidence for the fact that Islam is not a superstitious religion. The Messenger of Allah , some Muslims claim, commanded us to disbelieve in astrology because it is baseless superstition. Unlike other religions, which believed in giant turtles and tied our human fates on earth to the positions of stars in heaven, Islam completely disassociates itself from superstition. Not only does it refuse to make astrology part of its religious beliefs, it equates belief in astrology–belief in superstition, in other words–with disbelief in God Himself. How much more scientific can a religion get? They will then go on to say that Islam requires us to disbelieve in the efficacy of black cats, rabbit’s feet, and the number thirteen. Islam, they argue has nothing to do with superstition. Islam is a scientific religion.[4]

This is a highly problematic statement because it affirms the dominant scientific narrative that the only kind of explanations that lead to facts are natural explanations. While Muslims may not have “superstitious” beliefs about giant turtles, astrology, black cats, rabbit’s feet, or the number thirteen, they do believe in angels, jinn, resurrection, Paradise, Hellfire–and God. All of these things, according to the dominant scientific narrative, are not natural explanations, not based on the scientific method, and therefore supernatural and superstitious, no different from giant turtles, astrology, black cats, rabbit’s feet, or the number thirteen.

Don’t worry. Even though this problematic statement is commonly repeated by some Muslims, it is a mistake. The pre-Islamic belief that rain was caused by the stars was, in fact, a natural explanation, not a supernatural one, and it was based on sound scientific reasoning that is very similar to the scientific reasoning that we employ today. The pre-Islamic Arabians, it turns out, were not as primitive as we might think them to be. Let’s review our science to understand how the Pre-Islamic Arabians reasoned. 

The sun appears to rise on the eastern horizon and set on the western horizon because the earth rotates counterclockwise around its axis when you look down on it from the North Pole. As its rotation moves us towards the sun, the sun appears to rise higher in the sky until it reaches its zenith. The earth’s rotation then begins to move us away from the sun, which then appears to fall lower and lower until it finally sets and disappears.

Stars in the night sky also follow this east-to-west circular movement, making wider and wider circles around the North Star, which doesn’t move because it lies directly above the earth’s axis of rotation at the North Pole. The further a star is from the North Pole, the wider its circular movement, and when the circular movement becomes very wide, the star will rise above the eastern horizon and fall below the western horizon just like the sun.

 

Now, the earth doesn’t just rotate on its own axis; it also orbits around the sun. The earth’s orbit around the sun determines its seasons. As it goes around the sun, the positions of stars in the night sky change, and these changes are in sync with the seasons. The stars with the widest circular movements therefore rise and set at specific points on the horizon during specific seasons. The rising of a star in the night sky from a particular point thus heralds the onset of summer, spring, winter, and fall. And when rain is associated with a particular season–normally with winter–then the rising of a star from a particular point on the horizon heralds the onset of rain. And if the rising of a star from a particular point on the horizon is always followed by rain, it is a straightforward scientific inference to conclude that the rising of the star causes the rain. There is no difference between this inference and the inference, for example, that fire burns or that Advil cures headaches. 

Pay careful attention to this last statement: “There is no difference between this inference and the inference, for example, that fire burns or that Advil cures headaches.” We now know that it is scientifically incorrect to say that the rising and setting of stars is related to rain whereas it is scientifically correct to say that fire is related to burning and Advil is related to curing headaches. But I want you to put this fact aside and focus on the form of the inference: 

A is always followed by B,
Therefore A brings about B. [5]

This inference form is the same in all three cases. It is in this sense that there is no difference between the ancient Arabian inference that the rising of a particular star on the horizon causes rain, and between the modern inference that Advil cures headaches. And it was this inference form that the Messenger of Allah (Allah bless him and give him peace) was talking about when he said, “those who say, ‘We have been given rain because of such-and-such a star,’ have disbelieved in Me and believed in the stars.’” 

To say it again, the Messenger of Allah was not talking about the scientific inaccuracy of the ancient Arabian belief that the rising of a particular star on the horizon causes rain. Rather, he was talking about the religious inaccuracy (and, as we shall see, philosophical inaccuracy) of the inference,

A is always followed by B,
Therefore A brings about B.

The Messenger of Allah was teaching his Companions that no one apart from God does anything in the universe. He is the one who makes the sun rise into day, He is the one who makes it set into night, He is the one who moves the wind, He is the one who sends the rain, He is the one who makes vegetation sprout forth from the earth, He is the one who gives life, and He is the one who gives death. To believe otherwise vitiates the pure tawhid taught by the Messenger of Allah . And that is why he said that God says, “Those who say, ‘We have been given rain because of such-and-such a star,’ have disbelieved in Me and believed in the stars.”

To put all of this in the words of the dominant scientific narrative, the Messenger of Allah was not saying that the association of the rising of stars with rain is scientifically incorrect (superstitious, in other words). He was saying something more general. He was saying that the belief that anything apart from God has any effect whatsoever violates tawhid, the central Islamic tenet that “there is no movement nor power except with the help of God” (la hawla wa la quwwata illa billah).

***

Now let’s go back to giant turtles. Recall that, according to ancient Hindu mythology, we needed to posit a giant turtle because the earth had to sit on something to prevent it from falling into “the void”. But that raises a problem. If the earth is propped up by a giant turtle, what is the giant turtle propped up by? Well, it must be an even larger giant turtle. Then what about that giant turtle? Well, it must be propped up by another even larger giant turtle. Then what about that one? A larger giant turtle. And that one? A larger giant turtle still. And so on. It’s turtles all the way down.

 

The phrase, “it’s turtles all the way down” has now become a humorous expression for the philosophical problem of infinite regress. There are many different kinds of infinite regress. The Giant Turtle Problem illustrates one particular kind of infinite regress–an infinite regress of dependencies, where one thing depends on another, which then depends on another, and so on, ad infinitum

It is impossible to have an infinite regress of dependencies. Let me illustrate this with a thought-experiment. Imagine a man who is lame and has to lean back on someone behind him to prop him up. Now suppose that the man behind him, too, is lame and has to be propped up by someone behind him. But that person, too, is lame and needs to be propped up by someone behind him, and the line of lame-man-leaning-on-lame-man continues as far as the eye can see and then disappears below the horizon. You will conclude that the line ends with someone (or something–like a wall or a mountain) that is propping up everything else but does not itself need to be propped up by anything. If that were not the case, all the lame men would fall to the ground. 

“It’s turtles all the way,” in other words, is a mistake. It can’t be turtles all the way. Each time you bring a larger turtle (or, in our thought experiment, another lame man), you aren’t solving the problem; you’re merely passing it on to someone else (the next turtle or lame man) who cannot solve the problem either and therefore passes it on to someone else who cannot solve the problem, and so on. By positing more turtles (or lame men), you aren’t solving the problem; you’re actually making the problem worse! Before you posited that extra turtle, there was only one less turtle that needed to be propped up. Now, with a supposedly infinite number of turtles, there is a supposedly infinite number of turtles that need to be propped up! The way to solve the problem is not to posit more turtles; the way to solve the problem is to infer the existence of something that props up everything else but does not itself need to be propped up by anything.

Everything in the universe is a turtle. And it all depends on God. Everything in the universe is a turtle because it is dependent–the sun needs something to make it shine, the wind needs something to make it blow, the rain needs something to make it fall, and so on. When scientists give natural explanations for these dependencies, they are merely positing another turtle. In order for everything in the universe to exist and be the way that it is, there must be a being on whom everything depends but who Himself does not depend on anything. That is God. (You can watch a fuller explanation of this argument in this video: God Exists.)  

Philosophers (and traditional Muslim theologians) give a technical name to a being who does not depend on anything else. They call it a “necessary being”. The idea that God is the one on whom everything else depends but who Himself does not depend on anything is central to the tawhid of Islam. That is who God is and that is why we place our needs at His door when we worship Him. And that is what the Messenger of Allah meant when he said that God says, “Those who say, ‘We have been given rain because of such-and-such a star,’ have disbelieved in Me and believed in the stars.”

Belief in a God who is a necessary being is therefore not like belief in giant turtles, or spirits, or fairies, or the anthropomorphic “gods” of polytheistic pantheons. Belief in God is not superstition. Belief in God is fact. And it’s based on incontrovertible evidence. 

***

Most physics teachers would nevertheless consider belief in God to be a superstition because God is not a natural explanation for the events in the universe. An explanation is natural when it explains natural phenomena in terms of other natural phenomena. When it explains natural phenomena in terms of something that is beyond the physical universe, the explanation is supernatural, and all supernatural explanations are–according to the dominant scientific narrative–superstition. 

The insistence of a physics teacher to declare that belief in God is superstition is irrational. It flies in the face of clear evidence that natural explanations are turtles and that nothing in the universe can happen without the action of a necessary being. The basis of this irrational insistence is the assumption that the physical universe–matter, energy, space, and time–is the only thing that exists. This assumption is called materialism

Materialism is not an evidence-based conclusion; it is an unproven assumption. Not only is this assumption not based on evidence, it flies in the face of evidence. Everything in the universe, as I have just explained, is a turtle, and we have clear rational (or philosophical) evidence that the claim “it’s turtles all the way down” is false. 

Why, then, do physics teachers insist on holding on to the assumption of materialism? That is a topic for another time. (You can learn something about it by watching this video: Response to a Materialist Objection). What I want to show you now is how some of the greatest discoveries of modern physics themselves entail the end of materialism and the existence of God. To do that, we’re going to return to cosmology.

Cosmology, if you recall, is the study of the origin, evolution, and eventual fate of the universe. In the past, it used to be the exclusive province of religion. Over the last century, a series of scientific discoveries have made it the province of modern physics. These discoveries include Einstein’s theory of general relativity, Hubble’s discovery that galaxies are moving away from each other (and the farther away they are, the faster they are moving away), Wilson and Penzias’ discovery of the Cosmic Background Microwave Radiation, and a host of other discoveries that lead scientists to the inescapable conclusion that the universe is expanding and that, if we turn back the clock, it gets smaller and smaller until, about 13.8 billion years ago, it becomes a singularity when the laws of physics break down. By scientific consensus, that is the beginning of the universe, and the initial expansion of the universe from that singularity is now called the “Big Bang”. 

The word “Big Bang” is a misnomer because it was neither big (infinitesimally small, in fact) nor a bang (the point of the word “bang” is not that there was a loud sound, but that there was a very rapid expansion). When all of the matter in the universe was compressed into a tiny amount of space, it was too hot for there to be any atoms. It took hundreds of thousands of years of rapid expansion for it to cool down enough for the first atoms to come into existence (mostly hydrogen, some helium). A hundred million years later, the first stars formed. Hundreds of millions later, the first galaxies formed. Every so often, stars died, exploding as supernovae, leading to the existence of most of the heavier elements in the periodic table and sending them flying out into space. It took about three generations of stars to generate the elements needed by our solar system. The process of star evolution, galaxy formation, and universal expansion continue, and scientists are using the laws of physics to speculate about the future of the universe.

Physicists who study this magnificent story of the universe are called cosmologists because they are studying the origin, evolution, and eventual fate of the universe. Because this new scientific cosmology begins with the Big Bang, philosophers and scientists call it “Big Bang cosmology”.

***

At first glance, this looks like a materialist’s dream come true–finally, a scientific cosmology that is based on natural explanations and the scientific method rather than supernatural explanations and religious beliefs. But if you examine it closely, as many philosophers and scientists have, it’s quite the opposite. Big Bang cosmology spells the end of materialism.

Philosophers make their living on complex and difficult arguments, and if you read what they have to say on the matter, you might find them difficult to follow.[6] But you don’t need to be a philosopher to see why Big Bang cosmology spells the end of materialism. It’s very simple. 

If the universe began to exist, then it needed something to make it exist, and the thing that made it exist couldn’t have been material because there was no matter before the existence of the universe. Therefore materialism is false, and it is not possible to find a natural explanation for the beginning of the universe. If the universe began to exist, and if this beginning needs an explanation, then that explanation can only be a supernatural explanation. That is why Big Bang cosmology spells the end of materialism. And since it can’t be “turtles all the way down”, the supernatural explanation for the beginning of the universe can only be a necessary being–God.

We are now in a position to fully understand the Messenger of Allah when he said that God says, “Those who say, ‘We have been given rain because of such-and-such a star,’ have disbelieved in Me and believed in the stars.” As I explained above, the Messenger of Allah was not correcting the scientific inaccuracy of the ancient Arabian belief regarding the stars. Rather, he was correcting the religious and rational (or philosophical) inaccuracy of the belief that any material things–whether stars, fire, or Advil–actually brings about anything in the universe. He was telling his Companions that it can’t be “turtles all the way down” and the only way out of the Giant Turtle Problem is la ilaha illa Allah–the belief that God is the one who makes the sun rise into day, He is the one who makes it set into night, He is the one who moves the wind, He is the one who sends the rain, He is the one who makes vegetation sprout forth from the earth, He is the one who gives life, and He is the one who gives death.

If you have been following my argument, you will see that it has just turned the dominant scientific narrative on its head: it is modern scientific materialism that resembles the ancient polytheistic belief in giant turtles, not the ancient religious belief in God. Modern scientific materialism affirms that “it’s turtles all the way down”. The tawhid of the Messenger of Allah denies it. The ancient Arabians who believed that the rising and setting of stars bring about rain had fallen into the Giant Turtle Problem. The tawhid of the Messenger of Allah was rescuing them from it. The dominant scientific narrative plunges us back into the problem and once again, the tawhid of the Messenger of Allah rescues us. And Big Bang cosmology should lead any rational materialist to bring that tawhid into science. Religion–not just any religion, but the religion of the Messenger of Allah –has made a comeback.

***

It is time for Muslims to enter the religion-science debate, and for them to do so with complete religious confidence. It’s not our evidence-based religious beliefs that are on shaky ground; it’s the widespread and unproven materialistic assumptions that are on shaky ground–on religious terms, on philosophical terms, and now, with Big Bang cosmology, on scientific terms.

But what does that mean for science? Should scientists feel threatened that the Muslims are about to march over the modern scientific enterprise with their religious dogma and return the world to the age when we believed that the earth was the center of the solar system, that light objects fall more slowly than heavy ones, and that the earth and its creatures are no more than 6000 years old? No. 

The role of Muslims is not to hinder the progress of science, but to correct its mistakes and to integrate it into an evidence-based religious worldview, a worldview that might be foreign and unfamiliar to Christian Europe, but that should be normal and native to the Muslims who adhere to their centuries’ old scholarly tradition of evidence-based inquiry.

I have argued in this article for the correction of one particular mistake of modern science: the mistake of materialism. Correcting this mistake should lead scientists to make the following change in their scientific inquiry. Instead of inferring that material events in the universe bring about other material events, scientists should infer that material events in the universe are regularly associated with other material events in the universe. So, for example, instead of inferring that fire actually brings about burning, or that Advil actually brings about relief from headaches, scientists should infer that God regularly associates fire with burning and that He regularly associates Advil with relief from headaches.

In other words, the inference,

A is always followed by B,
Therefore A brings about B.

Should change to,

A is always followed by B,
Therefore A is regularly associated with B.

A scientist who frees himself from the contradictions of the Giant Turtle Problem will not change the way he does science: he will hypothesize, he will experiment, he will observe, he will measure, and he will conclude, just as any other scientist does. But he will see the associations between the material things in the universe as regular associations that are upheld by God rather than natural causes that bring about their effects independently of God. If he is Muslim, his practice of science will now fully integrate with his religious beliefs. [7]

And not only will his practice of science fully integrate with his religious beliefs, it will also become philosophically and scientifically coherent: philosophically coherent by freeing itself from the contradictions of the Giant Turtle Problem, and scientifically coherent by freeing itself from the related contradictions that arise from upholding materialism while also upholding modern Big Bang cosmology.

What this means is that tawhid–the religious belief of Muslims– is good for science. Because of Big Bang cosmology, religion has made a comeback. That is good news for Muslims and it should also be good news for science. 

 

Notes & Works Cited:

[1] Eric Grundhauser, Why is the World Always on the Back of a Turtle? (Atlas Obscura, https://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/world-turtle-cosmic-discworld, last accessed July 6, 2020)

[2] This widespread belief is based on the narrative that belief in God arose from an ignorance of science. Since primitive people didn’t know the true natural causes of things, they posited God as an explanation. And then, when science discovered the true natural causes of things, they were faced with a choice between upholding their belief in God or accepting the findings of modern science. In Christian Europe, the progress of science hence led to a steady erosion in the role of God in the universe and scientists who retained their beliefs in God were frequently deists. I explain deism and the Islamic response to it in my short article How Do I Know That God Intervenes in the Running of the Universe?

[3] Ahmad b. `Ali b. Hajar al-`Asqalani, Fath al-Bari bi Sharh Sahih al-Bukhari (al-Maktaba al-Salafiyya, nd (13 vols)), 2: 522.

[4] For example, Chapter 4 of the popular book, The Fundamentals of Tawheed (Abu Ameenah Bilal Philips, The Fundamentals of Tawheed (Millat Book Centre, nd) is called, “Chapter on Charms and Omens”, Chapter 5 is called “Chapter on Astrology”, and Chapter 6 is called “Chapter on Magic”. The author correctly argues that ancient Arabian polytheistic beliefs in charms and omens conflicted with the tawhid of Islam. But nowhere in his book does he observe that belief in natural causation–far more prevalent in our times than belief in charms and omens–also conflicts with the tawhid of Islam. Instead, he cautions Muslims against Western superstitious beliefs in rabbit’s feet, black cats, and the number thirteen, implicitly placing tawhid within the dominant scientific narrative.

[5] This is a highly simplified presentation of the nature of scientific inference. What exactly a scientific inference is and the strength of knowledge that it leads to is the subject of the distinguished (albeit, in my opinion, unnecessarily complicated and unnecessarily anti-scientific) field of study called the philosophy of science. I am deliberately sidestepping those complexities in order to maintain my focus on the argument of this article.

[6] The classic reference on the topic is a series of philosophical debates between William Lane Craig (Christian philosopher and the most prominent proponent of the Muslim kalam cosmological argument or the existence of God) and Quentin Smith (atheist philosopher) called, Theism, Atheism, and Big Bang Cosmology (Clarendon Press, Oxford: 1995).

[7] Seeing the relations between natural causes and their effects as regular associations that are upheld by God also leads to good character and inner tranquility. For more details, watch The Beauty of Trust in God (Sidi Abu Munir al-Sha`ar and Hamza Karamali).

Photo Credit: fesq


About the Author: Hamza Karamali is the founder of Basira Education, an education initiative that aims to develop and deploy an original seminary-level curriculum that is grounded in the traditional Islamic sciences but fully integrates modern science and culture into an intelligent and God-centered worldview. He earned his BASc And MASc in Computer Engineering at the University of Toronto, after which he moved abroad to study the Islamic sciences full-time in private one-on-one settings with distinguished scholars in Jordan, Kuwait, and UAE, and earned Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in Islamic Law and Legal Theory from Jamia Nizamiyya in Hyderabad, India. He taught the Islamic sciences online at SunniPath.com and Qibla.com, advanced Arabic grammar and rhetoric at Qasid Institute, and then joined Kalam Research & Media, where he worked for three years designing, managing, and participating in research and education projects around the integration of modern analytic philosophy and science with traditional Islamic theology and logic. He is the author of The Madrasa Curriculum in Context, as well as a forthcoming work that presents traditional Islamic logic in the idiom of contemporary logic and philosophy.

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