Science as a new religion

I just got back from a trip to Berlin, and one of the most interesting discussions I had with friends there was about how science has become a new religious authority. While many people may not be aware of this, science is not a neutral or objective way of understanding the world. It, like all other discourses, is built on assumptions and presuppositions that were created by men at some point in time to suit the context they were in. Thus it is a politicized discourse, like all others, including religion.

But this is not the story we get about science. What we hear is that science is the best way to understand life today. Why is it the best? Because it is rational, objective, and neutral (coincidentally those are all European Enlightenment values – what does that tell us?). It is faultless and it is basically the truth.

Now whenever someone claims that *their* discourse is the ultimate truth, people should start asking questions. Who defined the basics of science, such as molecules, atoms, etc? Who said this is an atom and this is a molecule? Who decided all these things? Aren’t they assumptions? Why are they true?

My friend told me about how when scientists today try to publish things that go against mainstream scientific beliefs they are ostracized. Funding and grants usually go to scientists who maintain the status quo.

I would argue that science as a dominant discourse is even more dangerous than religion, for 2 reasons. One, while we can all talk about religion, to an extent, since it has become mainstream knowledge, this is not the case for science. Can non-scientists discuss science confidently? I know I can’t. So this already creates a certain exclusion and a certain lack of confidence. Science cannot easily be challenged because we don’t all know the language with which we can discuss and challenge it.

Two, we are pretty much taught to accept that science is true. It is something we don’t question, especially in the west and especially within educated circles. Science is there and beyond doubt.

For these two reasons, I believe that it will be more difficult to challenge the dictatorial authority of science than that of religion. This is not to say that when we do experiments and see results they are not happening: of course they are. But who has defined what is happening, how and why? The language, the processes…they are all based on assumptions.

I also think it is pointless to get into a discussion about whether it is better to use science or religion to understand the world. The point is to see that they are both socially constructed ways of understanding physical realities, and have both been created as authorities that should not be challenged, which is never a good thing.


The Muslim Woman

Lila abu-Lughod is one of my favourite anthropologists and scholars of Islam. She wrote an amazing article called “The Muslim Woman.” Here are some excerpts:

An administration – George W. Bush’s – then used the oppression of these Muslim women as part of the moral justification for the military invasion of Afghanistan. These images of veiled and oppressed women have been used to drum up support for intervention. Besides the untold horrors, dislocations, and violence these US interventions have brought to the lives of Muslim women in Afghanistan and Iraq, I would argue that the use of these images has also been bad for us, in the countries of the West where they circulate, because of the deadening effect they have on our capacity to appreciate the complexity and diversity of Muslim women’s lives – as human beings.

Another interesting point she makes is that these women often represent their countries:

in many of the images from the media, the veiled women stand in for the countries the articles are about. None of these articles in the New York Times Magazine, for example, was about Muslim women, or even Jordanian or Egyptian women. It would be as if magazines and newspapers in Syria or Malaysia were to put bikini clad women or Madonna on every cover of a magazine that featured an article about the United States or a European country.

It is common knowledge that the ultimate sign of the oppression of Afghani women under the Taliban-and-the- terrorists is that they were forced to wear the burqa. Liberals sometimes confess their surprise that even though Afghanistan has been liberated from the Taliban, women do not seem to be throwing off their burqas. Someone like me, who has worked in Muslim regions, asks why this is so surprising. Did we expect that once “free” from the Taliban they would go “back” to belly shirts and blue jeans, or dust off their Chanel suits?

This is similar to the surprise of European liberals when they realized that there are some Muslim women who want to wear the burqa. This surprise was not enough though: they assumed that it was husbands/fathers/Arab/Muslim communities socializing these “wants” into Muslim women. After all, who would ever choose to wear a burqa?

If we think that American women, even the non-religious, live in a world of choice regarding clothing, all we need to do is remind ourselves of the expression, “the tyranny of fashion”.

This is a controversial point, since many in the west believe they live in some kind of “free” society in which no one is pressured to do anything. Unfortunately, we all live under global capitalism, and it is screwing us all. Very few women in the world are not pressured to be a certain way, whether it is to wear a burqa or to get surgery for the “perfect” vagina.

An Islamist to America: “You are a nation that exploits women like consumer products or advertising tools, calling upon customers to purchase them. You use women to serve passengers, visitors, and strangers to increase your profit margins. You then rant that you support the liberation of women […] You are a nation that practices the trade of sex in all its forms, directly and indirectly. Giant corporations and establishments are established on this, under the name of art, entertainment, tourism, and freedom, and other deceptive names that you attribute to it.”

The danger of pity, and the western need to save Muslim women:

If one constructs some women as being in need of pity or saving, one  implies that one not only wants to save them from something but wants to save them for something – a different kind of world and set of arrangements. What violences might be entailed in this transformation? And what presumptions are being made about the superiority of what you are saving them for? Projects to save other women, of whatever kind, depend on and reinforce Westerners’ sense of superiority. They also smack of a form of patronizing arrogance that, as an anthropologist who is sensitive to other ways of living, makes me feel uncomfortable.

Maybe we should consider being respectful of other routes towards social change. Is it impossible to ask whether there can be a liberation that is Islamic? This idea is being explored by many women, like those in Iran, who call themselves Islamic feminists. And beyond this, is liberation or freedom even a goal for which all women or people strive? Are emancipation, equality, and rights part of a universal language? Might other desires be more meaningful for different groups of people? Such as living in close families? Such as living in a godly way? Such as living without war or violence?


Choices for all of us are fashioned by discourses, social locations, geopolitical configurations, and unequal power into historically and locally specific ranges. Those for whom religious values are important certainly don’t see them as constraining – they see them as ideals for which to strive.

We may want justice for women but can we accept that there might be different ideas about justice and that different women might want, or choose, different futures from what we envision as best? And that the choices they see before them are in fact a product of some situations we have helped foist on them? My conclusion is that if we do care about the situations of women different from white middle class Western women, we would do well to leave behind veils and vocations of saving others and instead train our sights on ways to make the world a more just place.

She proposes what western women (and men) can do:

It seems to me that if we are concerned about women, including Muslim women, maybe we can work at home to make US and European policies more humane.


Feminism and religion

Feminism and religion have always had a rocky relationship.  I just read an excellent article by Elina Vuola called God and the Government: Women, Religion and Reproduction in Nicaragua.  She argues that a shallow or condescending view of religion on the part of feminist scholar has meant that they do not see the full picture.

On the one hand, there is a kind of feminist “blindness” of, or resistance to, the importance of religion for women. On the other hands, there is a “religious paradigm” type of feminist studies in which women are seen mainly through the lens of religion, especially in research done by western scholars on Muslim countries.

The consequences of seeing religion in these 2 ways are:

  • the real historical, social, political and ethical importance of a given religious tradition is negated, because secularization is considered to have won over religion in modern societies, even though this secularization has only happened in western Europe (wait, is that what they mean by modern?);
  • many people in different cultures ar deprived of their agency when their religious traditions are considered unchangeable and dialogue/critique inside these religious traditions are ignored;
  • if we see secularization as the inevitable path for everybody in the world, we are not able to understand the complex and often contradictory relationship between women and their religious traditions, identities and beliefs.
A main argument she makes is that religion is important to women. If feminists claim that a choice must be made between feminism and religion, then most women will choose religion. Why must a choice be made anyway? The tension between religion and feminism, in my opinion, stems from the fact that most feminists see religion as fundamentalist and traditional, instead of as diverse and having many interpretations. If we choose to see Islam as what the Taliban were doing, then yes, it contradicts feminism. But why do we see Islam that way? Why don’t we see Islam in reformist movements, progressive movements, Islamic feminist movements? Why are those Muslims not seen as legitimate or “Muslim enough” and someone like al-Qaradawi or Khomenei seen as representing the “true” Islam. What is the true Islam anyway?
A feminist perspective should also be careful about not judging religion as per se oppressive for women, without listening to different voices of real women all over the world who are balancing between their identities as women and their places in religious communities.
Of course it is important to highlight patriarchal interpretations and applications of the Qur’an. But these are not the ONLY interpretations. By focusing on them, feminists are in fact giving conservatives and fundamentalists more power, since they are ignoring reformist/progressive voices.
Many women feel the need for BOTH a non-sexist interpretation of their religious traditions – and, in fact, try to do so – AND for a feminism which would be less black-and-white and hostile about religion and which would stop seeing women for whom religion is important as the most alienated ones in need of a feminist saviour.
There are similarities between religious fundamentalists and anti-fundamentalist feminists: both tend to see women as passive recipients of brainwashing, and both see religious institutions and traditions mainly as men’s territory.
One of the most empowering ways of coming to terms with my own femininity as well as my own religious views has been the reinterpretation of Islamic texts. Reformist Islam is out there people, and their arguments and interpretations are just as valid as any other forms of Islam. They are ignored for many reasons, including Orientalism (the western need to see Muslims a certain way), geo-political reasons (many countries rely on conservatism to maintain control) and lack of research (more research is focused on conservative Islam than other types; same goes for the media).
A feminist critique of religion stresses the dismantling of religious legitimization for certain political and cultural practices; it critically analyzes the power structures of religious communities; it reminds us that there is no one Christianity of Islam but different forms and interpretations; and that the determinant role of religion in society should be questioned.
A culture’s religious traditions are its basis for meaning-making (yes, even here in the so-called “secular” and “religion-free” west). If feminism wants to be all-inclusive and effective, it must stop seeing religion as a problem.