Stump the Scientist Scenes from AAAS Science After Hours

February 16, 2001

Fundamentalist Religions and Science:
When science is seen as a subversive activity

by Liza Gross

Dr. Pervez Hoodbhoy
Click to hear a RealPlayer video clip of Dr. Pervez Hoodbhoy describe what fundamentalist Islamic science is.

With the recent election of a president with close ties to the religious right and the moves by local school boards in Kansas to adopt creationist textbooks, science teachers have reason to be nervous. While science has often presented a challenge to traditional cultures, these recent examples in a western democracy suggest the problem transcends national boundaries—and will not easily be resolved.

Perhaps the most dramatic illustration of this challenge, however, is found in Islamic fundamentalist states such as Pakistan. Speaking to an overflow crowd at an early-morning symposium, Pervez Hoodbhoy, a professor of high-energy physics at Quaid-e-Azam University in Pakistan, described the historic and current climate for scientists in his homeland. Hoodbhoy admitted even he was surprised that “four hundred years after the scientific revolution, we are still fighting the forces of unreason.”

In an Islamic state, he explained, religion is the absolute law of the land, above any political constitution, and above all knowledge, including scientific knowledge. The first thing a child learns to read in Pakistan is the

Koran, which says God uses meterorites to punish sinners and that earthquakes happen to people because they are bad. The Koran can never be wrong because it is the word of God. “Several hundred people languish in prison under the accusation of blasphemy,” said Hoodbhoy, “for which the minimum penalty is death.”

It is under this climate that scientists pursue their work. But how do such religious ideas relate to the natural world? “Orthodoxy sees science as a pathogenic substance,” rejecting any possibility that diseases have material causes, said Hoodbhoy. Sounding eerily like Jerry Falwell’s declaration that AIDS is “God’s punishment,” fundamentalist Muslims, Hoodbhoy said, insist that AIDS is a “divine recognition of immoral behavior and is, therefore, incurable.”

But if science is a pathogen to fundamentalists, to Hoodbhoy it is a Trojan horse: “Science has an attractive exterior, with cell phones and other modern conveniences, but inside lies the means to attack the germs of orthodoxy.” And so with the protection—and perhaps distraction—that the trappings of technology afford, Hoodbhoy hopes that scientists stand their ground and resist fundamentalists’ attempts to control the pursuit and teaching of scientific knowledge. “Science can only be a Trojan horse,” he said, “if there are Trojans inside us.”

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