When Professor Nasser Ali Khan, Vice Chancellor of the University of Haripur, opened a social science conference in Islamabad a few days ago, one of the things he underlined was that university teachers and students in the social sciences and other fields should debate difficult issues. We should not sweep the problematic topics under the carpet and just talk about what is simple and easy. We should not live in our own comfort zones, in silos and enclaves where we would know the right questions and the right answers. Then we wouldnt do our work.

Professor Khan also read a paragraph from my column in this paper for last Thursday; I was deeply flattered.

As social scientists, we have to venture into areas where we dont know the answers to the questions we ask and questions that others ask of us to shed light on. He said we should debate risky issues both in academic forums and in dialogue with people outside the university, lay and learned. Social scientists cannot do their work if we only live within our own comfort zone. Everyone cannot always be politically correct and say the right things. If we limit ourselves, we do not do our job; we do not fulfill the role and duty we have been given.

Let me add that to be a social scientist, a student, teacher and researcher in the ‘thinking sciences’, is a privilege. Imagine being allowed to spend our professional life to think and debate, ask questions and challenge existing ways and truths, and seek new and better ways and answers - nothing could be more rewarding! Yet, it is also a difficult to be a social scientist, and we may be criticised with those who disagree with us.

Earlier, it was the theologian and philosophers who questioned issues, maybe artists, writers, poets, and other thinkers within the humanities and in other occupations. The social sciences are new; they weren’t even quite recognised a couple of generations ago. In many countries, including Pakistan, they have not yet reached the recognition and influence that they have in most other modern societies. No, that doesn’t mean that other sciences are less important. It doesn’t mean that theology and religion have a lesser place. It simply means that we must use and develop all the faculties and instruments that God has given us.

We take for granted that our religion, be it Christianity, Islam or another religion, guides our individual and social standards in moral and ethical fields. Unfortunately, that is not always the case, and religion is not always on the right side of development. This is not so because our religion is wrong or has shortcomings; it is because we interpret issues based on traditions and human thought. Religion may also be used to justify how we should live when that has little to do with eternal and sacred issues, faith and belief. It has more to do with secular issues, traditions and culture. We know from history that religion has many times been used wrongly, in some cases even to condone slavery in America, apartheid in South Africa, discrimination of women, ethnic and other minorities, and a life in poverty for the majority until it became clear to all that God has created all men and women equal.

The social sciences should be used to support the right moral and religious values the universal laws for how human beings should live together in fairness. But the social sciences should not be involved in discussing the dogma and doctrines, faith and belief. It should limit itself to the secular spheres, yes, also with analysis of the role and function of religion in society, much of it under the discipline of sociology and sociology of religion.

When I was a young student and staff member at the University of Oslo in the 1970s, social scientists began developing a deeper interest in religion; in Norway that time, religion almost exclusively meant Protestant Christianity. Today, Islam and other religions and denominations are also included.

It is fifty years since two important books by Tor Aukrust were published: Mennesket i samfunnet. En sosialetikk; in English, ‘Man in Society. Social Ethics (Vol. 1 and Vol. 2, 1965 and 1966). They were written by a politically aware, leftist theologian, who was Rector of the Practical-Theological Seminary of the University of Oslo. Through his work, the thinking and training of young theology students and pastors were broadened and politicized, making it clear that religion must not condone unfairness and inequality in society, but be part of the society at the particular time. Moral and ethical aspects, derived from religion, became important in work for greater international equality, indeed between rich and poor countries and within countries.

The Norwegian government appointed committees and commissions with social scientists, such as the Sivertsen committee on church and education, and the Herness commission with reports and books analysing power structures and democratisation. It was no longer only the social-democratic and socialist parties that debated such issues, and missionaries; also the more conservative and religious parties did so.

The Helge Sivertsen Committee (in the early 1970s) on church and education, and the Professor Gudmund Hernes Commission (in the mid/late 1970s) became hugely important in academia and politics. The Christian Peoples Party Chairman Lars Korvald, who was Prime Minister from 1972-73, and indeed his young State Secretary Kjell Magne Bondevik, a theologian who later became PM twice, understood the importance of combining the fundamental religious principles about fairness and equality with those of political goals of solidarity and a better society for all.

Now, this article became more about religion in society than I had intended it to be yet it is a fundamental aspect in any society, indeed in a country like Pakistan, which is a Muslim country, with significant religious minorities. (And Norway had a state church until just a few years ago, and today, there are significant Muslim and other minorities.) It should be noted that in all countries, religious leaders preach fairness and equality for all human beings.

In Pakistan, the many religious leaders and believers should in future be brought closer into work for greater social and economic equality along with politicians, indeed the labour unions and other good organisations and people. Social scientists should join hands with such forces in society; they need each other to work for theoretical analysis, generation of ideas and practical proposals, and for implementation of policies. We should all do our best together to make the land better.

I began my article today by honouring the VC of the University of Haripur, whose university vision is ‘Restoring hope; building community’.

Professor Khan is also chairman of the Inter-University Consortium for Promotion of Social Sciences (IUCPSS), which together with the media, will hold a large South Asian Conference and Expo in Islamabad from 24-25 February 2016. I wish the organisers success; I hope such issues that I have mentioned above, and other key issues, will be discussed and agreed upon. It is indeed hoped that the social sciences in future will be used more by the government, the private sector, the civil society, and all of us. I also hope that the degree programmes at the universities and their research projects will be strengthened and expanded. Today and tomorrow, the thinking sciences are essential for science-based development, with religion and the humanities, and the other sciences hand in hand.