Objectivity and Religion

One of the most pervasive confusions about religious belief is that it is purely a matter of subjectivity, as opposed to objective disciplines like the hard sciences (physics, chemistry, etc.) and mathematics.

Believing that religion is a subjective matter causes many people to have a very casual attitude about religious thought and religious authority. The most salient example of this among Muslims is how many modern Muslims will scoff at the notion of an “official Islamic view.” For them, virtually everything is simply up for interpretation. “Sure,” they argue, “So-called ‘orthodox’ Islam might hold the position X, but that is just the function of a certain class of people (namely, ulama) in positions of power simply interpreting the religion to suit their interests. Even if these scholars were making their religious pronouncements without ulterior motives, at the end of the day, it would still just be their personal opinion. Ultimately, there is no fact of the matter when it comes to religious positions. It’s all just opinion.”

While it is true that traditional Islam acknowledges the existence of a plurality of opinions on certain topics and questions, that does not mean that there is no fact of the matter when it comes to certain issues. But this point is lost on those who maintain that religion is purely a subjective affair. To them, science and math are about true vs. false, right vs. wrong. But religion can only ever be about, opinion A vs. opinion B.

But if you press people to further define what they mean by “objectivity,” they quickly falter. For example, what is it exactly that makes physics objective? we might ask.

Typically the thought is that physics is objective because regardless of one’s cultural background or other beliefs about the world, one comes to consistent conclusions. It doesn’t matter if you are an American or an Indian or an Italian, when you solve a physics problem, you get the same answer as everyone else. Same with mathematics. 2+2 equals 4 no matter what. Religion, on the other hand, and even “soft” subjects like social studies for example, are not like that, or so it seems. Depending on one’s cultural perspective or even one’s personal background, one’s answers to simple religious questions can widely vary from those of other people. If religion or philosophy, say, were objective, why have religious and philosophical debates been raging for centuries? Science and math, in contrast, have enjoyed relative stability and unanimity.

These are the kinds of thoughts that motivate this idea of the subjectivity of religion. But there is much that can be problematized with this account.

First and foremost, it is simply not true that people from all walks of life, from all cultures, can sit down to a math or physics problem and independently arrive at the same answer. In reality, to be able to do such problems requires many years of training, many years of learning, many instances of trial and error and correction. This is what we call education. To master a discipline like physics requires…discipline in the sense of following a strict path of learning and repetition such that your mind acclimates to the underlying concepts, the latent logic that, once you have grasped, will then and only then allow you to consistently and correctly solve problems.

This kind of regimen was most apparent to me as a physics major at Harvard. At the beginning of the semester, you read a problem or study an experimental result and it is hard to know how to even proceed in attempting a solution. But then you see how the professor approaches it, how the teaching assistant works it out. You practice it for yourself and you complete problem sets. Then you’re tested on it until, by the end of the semester, you look at the same problem with different eyes, disciplined eyes. And it is perfectly expected that every other student “successfully” going through that educational process will be able to answer those physics problems the same way. That is, in many ways, the whole point of the entire exercise: to get a random assortment of students to consistently answer physics problems the same way, i.e., the “correct” way.

The same training happens even in grade school. Students have to learn that 2+2=4, but it takes time to understand these symbols and to grasp the underlying rule. You can memorize 2+2=4 but without understanding what’s really going on, you won’t be able to correctly solve 4+4. Again, training is needed and, no matter what, some students never get it. There are examples of autistic children who, when shown a basic pattern like 2,4,6,8,10,… cannot extend it. They do not know how to proceed as expected. And if you explain to them that 12,14,16 come next, they might memorize that, but then still won’t know how to continue the series 100,102,104,106,108… What is it that most of us have that these autistic children don’t have? What prevents them from receiving the intended mechanism that is conferred to everyone else by way of an education in arithmetic?

The point is, these objective subjects require training to get people to the level where they can “proceed as expected.” But the same is true of the religious sciences. As far as the Islamic sciences are concerned, to be qualified to give rulings on religious matters requires years of training, studying with and being certified by the experts. Only with that kind of education can a student of knowledge acquire the underlying logic and principles that will allow him or her to make the correct judgment, i.e., to give the right answer. Obviously, there are uneducated people that can give their uneducated opinions on any given religious matter, just like you can have uneducated people give uneducated opinions about any subject, including physics and math. But, we are not surprised that people who haven’t gone through the training in physics are going to give divergent answers to physics questions. That in no way takes away from the objectivity of physics. Why then is it significant that people who haven’t gone through the training in the religious sciences are going to give divergent answers to religious questions? Why should that take away from the objectivity of the Islamic sciences?

Another idea many people have is that religion cannot be a matter of objectivity since there are so many different religions, yet there is only one science and only one mathematics. This is also incorrect. What we call “modern physics” for example is a large collection of separate fields of study, many of which do not overlap or may even be fundamentally in contradiction. A good example is the conflict between Einstein’s General Relativity and Quantum Field Theory, two mutually contradictory treatments of physical phenomena. Of course, theoretical physicists believe that there is an underlying connection that will unify these two independently successful theories. But as of yet, they have not been successful. At the cutting edge of physics, there are also different competing theories that scientists treat independently, e.g., Quantum Loop Gravity vs. M Theory, etc. For physicists to be able to choose between these theories, they have to go beyond the confines of the individual theories themselves. This is what the philosopher of science Thomas Kuhn called “revolutionary science,” where paradigms have to be transcended in order to answer bigger questions that cannot be addressed with the tools of the paradigm itself.

To extend this analogy to religion, if we are trying to compare Islam to Christianity for example, it wouldn’t make sense to delve into, say, usul al-fiqh. There are higher order considerations that need to be made to evaluate questions on that level. But that doesn’t mean that the subject of usul al-fiqh or any other sub-discipline in the Islamic sciences is not objective and procedural, in the same sense as any scientific subject.

One final point. Objectivity in the sense that people mean when they try to distinguish religion from science is not that telling of a characterization. Even something as trivial as chess can be considered an objective discipline in the sense that there is (often) a fact of the matter about the correct chess move. Sure, for any board position, there are usually different options a player can pursue. But there is always at least one wrong move that just doesn’t make sense. If you know the rules of the game and you have attained a certain level of skill, gone through a certain amount of training, then you know how to proceed correctly in a game and it doesn’t matter where you’re from, what’s your background, or anything else. But chess is just a made-up game, so maybe the fact that we can describe it as objective in many senses of that word simply tells us that objectivity is not as important to truth and reality as we might otherwise suppose.