A Devout Scientist: How Neuroscientist Naweed Syed Reconciles His Belief In Science And The Existence Of God

This article is part of a collection of stories about the existence of God. To read the others, go here.

As scientific director for the Alberta Children’s Hospital Research Institute and a professor at the University of Calgary, Naweed Syed spends his days pondering complex questions that have elusive answers:

How does the brain function? And how do you cure diseases like Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s?

The question he has no difficulty answering is: Does God exist?

While growing up in Pakistan, Syed’s father would take him to mosque on Fridays, synagogue on Saturdays and church on Sundays. Today, he’s a devout Muslim, a founding member of his local mosque and a pioneering neuroscientist, the first to facilitate communication between brain cells and a microchip. Now, Syed is on the cusp of testing the technology in humans for the first time. It has the potential to one day reverse memory loss, restore vision and control prosthetics.

To Syed, the worlds of his research and religion are complementary. “I could scientifically, or I could academically, write the best essay or paper, but if you take the light away from me, I cannot read it,” he said. “And so my faith actually is the one that provides true meaning to my knowledge.”

Ahead of Syed’s appearance at this year’s Festival of Faiths, we asked him even bigger questions than he’s used to answering: How does he know God exists? How does he believe in both science and scripture? And has he ever doubted himself?

Syed appears twice at the festival in two sessions: “Connection and Disconnection” on April 26 and “Wonder & Awe” on April 27.

LEO: How do you practice religion in your life, and how important is it to you?
Naweed Syed: So, that’s an interesting question, because I always tell my medical students, I say, ‘Look, Jesus never went to medical school, but he could still heal and cure.’ It’s not the Ph.D. or M.D. — it’s the passion and compassion. So, I think from my faith perspective, I believe that the only place where the word Muslim is described in Quran is a service to humanity. We believe the service is the rent to be paid for the privilege of being part of a great society. So, I think, at that level then, I believe that my faith is really no different than Christianity, Judaism or other faiths that all share the Ten Commandments, which is very similar. And I always jokingly say that Muslims and the Christians and Jews are all children of the same grandfather, so hematologically they’re identical, genetically… Muslims may be the youngest brother; that’s why we are rowdy and out of control at times, but, you know, there is really no difference per se from that perspective. And I think all faiths teach us to serve humanity at that level.

And the difference is that I could scientifically, or I could academically write the best essay or paper, but if you take the light away from me, I cannot read it. And so my faith actually is the one that provides true meaning to my knowledge. So, it’s the light that really enlightens that my job is to serve humanity, and if I can put a smile on someone’s face or a child can breathe, it is what the religion really teaches us to follow.

You’re a scientist — someone who, I’m sure in your professional life relies on evidence to believe in something. So, does God or Allah exist, and how do you know?
I would always say that the absence of evidence is not the evidence for absence, right? If I close the door of provision that there is no entity, or there is nothing out there, I am actually not doing myself a favor; I’m closing all the doors of provisions of inquiry.

And if there is God, what kind of god would there be where mine exists, and how did he actually put it all together? Because, scientifically, when I actually think about this, things just could not have happened. I can take a barrel, and I can put all car parts in it and shake it for a bazillion years. There’s no way a car will ever come out or two screws will fit. So, I know when I look at everything around me, that there is a smart design for whoever actually designed it. And people could say, ‘Well, it could be explained by physics.’ I don’t think so. I think, you know we went from Big Bang Theory to String Theory. Now all of a sudden we realize that 70 percent of it is all Dark Matter.

So, these people who are atheists and who don’t have faith or believe in any type of god, they are in no better position than I am in terms of having a god, which actually I think is all-knowing. And he created me so that he could be discovered and not really to pray or worship (the angels are doing all of this) and that is to live among human beings like a human being and to be able to really serve the greater cause, which is the service to society, the service to humanity.

There are things said in the Quran and the Bible that some might say are at odds with accepted science. So how do you believe in both your holy book and scientific theory such as evolution?

This is what people really believe, that there is contradiction. There is absolutely no contradiction. You know, the Quran says that the ink of scholars is more precious than the blood of martyrs. And that really spells out for me that scholarship is far more important than blowing yourself up or dying for your faith for any particular reason. Because you can really make an impact on the lives of other people through scholarly activity. I’ll give you an example. According to the Quran, the birth of Jesus Christ just from Mother Mary, or Miriam as they call it, without father — was the first experiment in human cloning. So, God could create another human being from just mother. And this is what we are learning now. In one of the stories, Prophet Solomon wanted to get Bilquis, one of the ladies who was another queen, along with her throne, to be brought to him in a jiffy. And somebody said, ‘I can bring her into your court before the blink of an eye.’ And this was Barkhiya who had only small, very little knowledge of the book. So that really relates you to the ‘Star Trek’ story, and then the theory of light, and all of these aspects. Prophet Uzair and also one of the prophets, he asked God, ‘How would you resurrect people?’ And God put him to sleep for 100 years, and then he woke him up. And we have these frogs in Alaska, they sleep for eight months during winter… But, wait until the spring comes, and they come alive. So, life can be preserved that way, and because they have a specific protein in their body that doesn’t allow water molecules to crystallize.

So, I think all of these many miracles that you see in the holy books are, you know, if nothing else, they are imaginary incentives for you to really go and explore these possibilities, the expanding galaxies, the way the Quran and the Bible describe the way the universe is created. So, there’s nothing unscientific: There is absolutely no contradiction between science and religion. It’s only the clergy that have really separated it. I’ll give you an example. In the 8th century, and also I think up to 12th century, Muslims were performing cataract surgery 600 years before Europe. They knew human anatomy 1,000 years before Europe — irrigation, astronomy, chemistry, physics… And then when the mullahs and the clergy saw that these guys were stealing all the limelight, they brought in the trump card of religion being the driver of everything else, pushing the science really back. And as a result, science took the backseat, and those aspects were really never revealed or explored further. But there is absolutely in my mind no contradiction, because I think both support each other.

Religion will give you hypotheses, and it will not allow you to test because religions are eternal for long term. As your technology develops, you will then test those hypotheses with experimentation, and I think that experimentation component is the science that is coming to validate hypotheses that were created. You know, the Big Bang Theory. God said ‘So be it,’ and it happened, and the Dark Matter itself, the universe is expanding… All of this is actually in the holy books, in Bible, in Torah and Quran. And so you just have to ponder. You just have to really think about it, how God created all of these things. And whether he described the principles underneath; those were left ambiguous. And this is what is exploited by these clergy that, ‘Oh, there is no room for science to be part of it.’ In my view, both things support each other, and they also provide moral ground on which to stand on.

Have you ever doubted your belief in God, and if so, how did you come back to where you are now?

The interesting thing is that the faith and beliefs are unequivocal, right? Once you have accepted that scientifically you demonstrated, and you thought really hard that it just could not have happened, so there becomes a faith or a belief that there must exist an entity that is all-knowing, all-mighty and has created all of the things. And, then, you go in search of it. Some people will find it in their mosque, some will find it in temple, but God doesn’t actually live in mosque, temple, church or synagogue. God lives in the hearts of people. And he has said that in Quran, too, that I am so close to you; I’m closer to you than your jugular vein. And if you bring a piece of paper close to your eyes, you can’t actually see it. And he says, ‘I’m so far that you cannot really see me.’

…  And, you know, somebody, when Prophet Muhammad had Baysat upon him and announced his religion, they came to him and said, ‘We will give you the woman that you want or a kingdom or money,’ and he said, ‘You can put sun on my right hand and moon on my left, I will still not really back away from what I believe in.’ Because many a times, God reveals himself to you, and you begin to see him in the shadow of a smile of a child and a blooming of a flower. You see, actually, him in a cry of a mother or the tears of somebody else. You cannot embody God in a shape or a form that’s humanly possible.

And God doesn’t also make things the way we humans do, and we perceive him in that context, that show me the evidence [context]. God doesn’t sit there with bricks and mortar and cement to build a building. He empowers a sperm and sperm has the ability to fertilize an egg, and he doesn’t sit and take every sperm and fertilize every egg.

… So I think the doubts really never come. And somebody asked at one of our things in Imam Ali, ‘How much knowledge should I acquire?’ He’s asking the extreme of the knowledge. The Imam Ali said, ‘You should acquire at least that much of a knowledge that you begin to recognize your ignorance’ — so how ignorant you really are. So, as the circle of our knowledge is expanding, actually, so is our ignorance. And most people do not like becoming ignorant, and they don’t really like to think or go in that area.

… So, I think you don’t see God from the perspective of an ordinary person in an ordinary way, but it is concealed in your heart, and whenever you want to see it, you just peek in, and it shows, it reveals itself to you.