Baha’is champion rationality and science as essential for human progress. The harmony of science and religion is one of the fundamental principles of the Baha’i Faith, which teaches that truth is one and that religion, without science, soon degenerates into superstition and fanaticism, while science without religion becomes merely the instrument of crude materialism.
It’s National Science Week across Australia, and here on Baha’i Blog we’re exploring the harmony of science and religion. I caught up with Dr. Robin Mihrshahi, PhD in molecular immunology. Robin has published in peer-reviewed scientific, as well as religious studies, journals and academic textbooks. He is a Baha’i engaged in service in the community, father of two, and a considered thinker. We chatted about science, service, atheism, and more. The interview below is lightly edited for readability!
What led you to the PhD in immunology?
One of the things that I thought a lot about when choosing my field of study was how I could be of service to society and contribute to human progress. Perhaps if I go into biomedical research, I figured, I can generate the knowledge that others then apply to help people suffering from disease. So I set out to Oxford to do a PhD, and I was interested in the immune system because it’s at the heart of almost every disease process that can affect the human body.
All throughout those years I stayed active in the Baha’i community, with junior youth programs, children’s classes, and serving on various Baha’i administrative bodies.
When I returned to Australia, I initially thought I would be applying the scientific knowledge and experiences I had gained. I applied, and was accepted for, a postdoctoral fellowship with a well known scientist in the field. But as the position was to start in a year, I thought ‘well I’ll just do a year of service in the meantime’. As it turned out that one year became ten years of full-time voluntary Baha’i service.
How do you think about service in a ‘faith’ context, vs service as a scientist?
One of the things that motivated me to continue in my full-time service rather than rush back into academia was the realisation that we already have a lot of the science we need to address most medical problems. If you look at the global disease burden, that is morbidity and mortality caused by disease–it’s largely preventable with our current medical knowledge. In some places we consume ourselves to death, and in others we starve or lack access to the most basic sanitation and medical care. In countries like Australia we’re assailed by cancers and chronic diseases–and many of those are preventable or containable with responsible lifestyle choices. In other places, people die because clean water, sanitation, and basic healthcare are not available. In the final analysis, many of these issues would seem to be not really scientific problems, but more matters of morality, justice and people’s choices.
Ultimately I felt that if I dedicate myself to service, especially in the field of empowerment of young people, I may be better able to help advance humanity. If new generations make better choices, perhaps we can work our way out of some of these problems.
I still believe, of course, that science has a very important role to play in solving the problems faced by humanity today and encourage anyone interested in pursuing a career in scientific research to give it a try.
Like me, you have two young boys. Recently my kids have been watching ‘Young Sheldon’ about a ten year old scientific genius, who ‘naturally’ rejects the religion his family subscribes to. Do you think it’s fair to say that for most people, they would think being scientific means being an atheist?
I think from a scientific perspective you can’t really argue that you are convinced that there is no God. At best, you could be an agnostic, which is a person who states that they don’t know if there is a God because there is insufficient evidence one way or another.
For an atheist, there’s positively no God. That’s difficult to justify as a scientist. It’s certainly not a scientific statement to say there’s no God.
I actually believe that it is even possible to come to God through science. For many they see the makeup of the universe and find God there. Probably the strongest scientific argument for the existence of God is commonly called ‘the fine-tuning argument’. That’s the idea that in the universe there are all these laws and constants, that are all perfectly tuned in such a way as to make life and the universe as we know it possible. If any one of these were out by just a tiny fraction, the whole thing would collapse. This leads one to conclude that either there’s some intelligent creator at work, or there must be countless other universes, and this one randomly is the only one that works. In terms of probability, I personally find the idea of an intelligent creator more plausible.
As someone with a scientific background, what unique perspective do you think that brings to your investigation of religion, spirituality and faith?
I’ve always felt that the approach of the Baha’i community towards its work is quite scientific in nature. The writings of the Faith provide us with certain spiritual and social principles and a vision for a materially and spiritually prosperous and united society. Baha’is are engaged in work at the grassroots that aims to bring these principles to life and help create such a society. In doing so, we apply the scientific method and operate in a mode of learning.
The Baha’i Writings give us a vision as to what we are hoping to create, and experimentation in the field of action helps us learn how to do this. We make plans for action, take action, and reflect on the action in an analytical manner and adjust our approach based on the insights gained through this process.
Having a scientific background is beneficial in this work, as it provides you with helpful skills and insights. For example, identifying research questions, or what we would call ‘objects of learning’ in the Baha’i community, designing plans and projects based on insights gained through previous endeavours, collecting and analysing statistics, etc.
Some might say that religion is where arguments are settled by authority, and science is where they are settled by experiment. As someone walking in both worlds, how do you reconcile these?
Science tries to answer questions about the operation of the physical world, but it cannot answer questions of purpose and morality. Without a supernatural authority that can answer such questions, they simply become matters of opinion. If there are no universal standards and everyone has their own opinions of what is right and wrong, a society cannot function.
Science may have enabled us to split the atom, but it cannot tell us how to use this ability. Religion has historically provided these standards of morality, which were then codified into laws and legal systems.
So I do believe that we need a divine authority to educate us about how to live a purposeful and moral life. Nevertheless, the Baha’i Faith tells us that religion must not be contrary to science and that we should investigate religious claims rationally.
I think there is a lot of common ground here: in the religious sphere, we can use rationality and evidence to determine whether to accept a religious truth claim, and in science we use experimentation and reason to test a scientific hypothesis about the physical world.
You mention the proper use of technology, and this is so relevant to where we are as a society. Things are moving faster than ever, just look at AI and the discourse about implicit biases that creep in. How can religion, faith and spirituality help us explore these questions?
The more we advance scientifically, the more powerful and thus potentially dangerous we become, and the more we will need strong spiritual and moral frameworks within which to operate.
In some cases, such as nuclear weapons, scientific progress that is not properly guided by universal moral and spiritual principles can become a source of great evil. In other cases, we may not be sufficiently advanced morally to take full advantage of scientific progress. A modern example of this would be the climate crisis, where materialism and corporate greed has been preventing us from finding and universally implementing technologies that could help us solve a global crisis of enormous proportions. Much of the required technology and knowledge is already available, but universal willingness to implement them is lacking. An interesting example from ancient times was the first invention of a steam engine by Hero of Alexandria almost 2000 years ago. At the time, slaves were abundant, and there was thus no perceived need to use such a device to create labour saving machines. The industrial revolution thus had to wait another sixteen centuries before another steam engine was developed and finally used to create all sorts of useful machinery.
Artificial intelligence is an interesting topic, because it will require us to teach computers how to make sound moral choices. If we don’t do this properly, artificial intelligence may well become an existential threat to the future of humanity.
On the flip side, I often wonder how can religious communities benefit from science and the scientific approach? How does it help members of any religion explore their role in the world?
In the Baha’i Writings we have this lovely quote:
“Religion and science are the two wings upon which man’s intelligence can soar into the heights, with which the human soul can progress. It is not possible to fly with one wing alone! Should a man try to fly with the wing of religion alone he would quickly fall into the quagmire of superstition, whilst on the other hand, with the wing of science alone he would also make no progress, but fall into the despairing slough of materialism.”
We’ve talked about some of the ways Baha’is try to apply scientific approaches in their work of building communities and a just society but there’s another aspect I’d like to mention.
That is the idea that scientific knowledge can help us better understand scripture. If it is our premise that true religion and true science cannot contradict each other, which is one of the principles of the Baha’i Faith, we are protected from excessive scriptural literalism and may instead learn to discover the true meaning and purpose of certain scriptural passages. If we simply read the story of Genesis in the Old Testament as a scientific account of how our universe was created, for example, we don’t only arrive at a worldview that is in contradiction with science, but also miss the opportunity to explore the symbolism and ancient wisdom that is enshrined in this story. If we accept the scientific consensus about the origins and evolution of the universe, on the other hand, we are then able to appreciate the true nature and purpose of this scriptural story and benefit from the moral and spiritual lessons it aims to teach us.
Thanks so much Robin – this has been a really interesting chat!
National Science Week takes place in Australia between August 13 and 21. Running each year in August, the nationwide celebration of science and technology features more than 1000 events held across the country.
Hi I’m Collis! I live in Darwin, in the Northern Territory. I’m a Baha’i, designer, entrepreneur, climate tech angel investor, and engaged in philanthropy to support First Nations young people in Australia. I've been working on Baha'i Blog since its inception in 2011!