Another critic writes in touting the scientific rationality of Islam and decrying the moral failures of atheism

December 15, 2020 • 9:00 am

Since Yahoo! News reprinted my essay from The Conversation arguing that science and religion are incompatible, I’ve been getting lots of emails, nearly all from people who disagree with me. The accommodationists are, of course, religionists, and don’t like to hear that their faith puts them at odds with science. Many of them, like the reader below, also takes atheism to task. I’ve redacted this writer’s name because, unlike the Vatican Vice Astronomer, I don’t think the name is relevant.

This correspondent tries to make two points. First, Islam is not nearly as strongly at odds with science as is Christianity. Second, that religion gives us a moral framework but atheism doesn’t.  Both points are wrong, and I’ll respond to each separately.  The quotes the writer gives within his/her email are put in italics and quotation marks, for the “extra indent” feature isn’t working right now.

Read and weep:

Professor,

Thank you for the article Yes, there is a war between science and religion. There are two reasons why I would argue that the article reflects atheism in denial of its own shortcomings. You write

“In the end, it’s irrational to decide what’s true in your daily life using empirical evidence, but then rely on wishful-thinking and ancient superstitions to judge the ‘truths’ undergirding your faith. This leads to a mind (no matter how scientifically renowned) at war with itself, producing the cognitive dissonance that prompts accommodationism. If you decide to have good reasons for holding any beliefs, then you must choose between faith and reason. And as facts become increasingly important for the welfare of our species and our planet, people should see faith for what it is: not a virtue but a defect.”

Here you are clearly extrapolating your own experiences with Christian apologists to followers of other religions: in particular Islam. I’d argue that Muslims have no need for “wishful-thinking and ancient superstitions” when forming a judgement about the reliability of their religion. It is common for atheists to  assume that the conflicts between the Bible and scientific evidence (e.g. the descriptions of the Flood, the Exodus or age of the earth) applies equally to the Quran. However, to my knowledge there has been no serious scholarly effort to support this assumption or more generally to show that the Quranic accounts and claims are in conflict with what we have learned through science.

For example, a reading of the Quranic account of the Flood would reveal that it occurred over a short period (a couple of days), the animals preserved were only those required to support a small human settlement and there is no mention of the whole earth being flooded. In regard to the Exodus, the Moses leads a small group of people into the desert, much less in number than the Pharaoh’s pursuing army, so one would not expect to find evidence of over 1 million people roaming the desert for 40 years. In addition, the Quran predicts the preservation of the Pharaoh’s body for future generations. Finally while there is no mention of the Earth’s age, there is a description of the creation of the universe which appears consistent with what we’ve been able to learn through science.

So I think its fair to say that atheists have a lot more work to do to make their case than many are prepared to acknowledge.

The email went on, but let me stop and respond:

As I pointed out in an email to this person, there is a growing literature on the incompatibility of science and Islam.  Here’s how I responded when the person asked for even one piece of literature pointing out an Islamic incompatibility between science and faith.

First, there’s Taner Edis’s book (click on screenshot):

Another book by Pakistani physicist Pervez Hoodbhoy on the stifling of scientific thought and rationality by modern Islam (and how that contrasts with the faith’s more open attitude centuries ago). 

 

An article from Discover Magazine (click on screenshot:

 

A quote from the article:

“This tendency [of Muslim accommodationists] to use their knowledge of science to ‘prove’ that the religious interpretations of life are correct is really corrupting,” he tells me. Soltan, who got his doctorate at the University of Northern Illinois, works in a small office that’s pungent with tobacco smoke; journals and newspapers lie stacked on his desk and floor. “Their methodology is bad,” he says. Soltan explains that Islamic scientists start with a conclusion (the Koran says the body has 360 joints) and then work toward proving that conclusion. To reach the necessary answer they will, in this instance, count things that some orthopedists might not call a joint. “They’re sure about everything, about how the universe was created, who created it, and they just need to control nature rather than interpret it,” Soltan adds. “But the driving force behind any scientific pursuit is that the truth is still out there.”

“Researchers who don’t agree with Islamic thinking ‘avoid questions or research agendas’ that could put them in opposition to authorities — thus steering clear of intellectual debate. In other words, if you are a scientist who is not an Islamic extremist, you simply direct your work toward what is useful. Scientists who contradict the Koran ‘would have to keep a low profile.”’When pressed for examples, Soltan does not elaborate.”

I talk about this kind of Islamic confirmation bias in Faith Versus Fact. It’s pervasive and at once annoying and amusing.

I’ve personally encountered Qur’anic opposition to science—and especially evolution—many times, as has Richard Dawkins. It often comes in the form, as Pitock notes, of saying that the Qur’an is remarkably prescient about science, with its human creation myth coincident with the evolutionary scenario. If you think that’s true, just read about the Qur’anic account itself.  Page 105 of Faith versus Fact shows the desperate lengths that some Muslim scientists go to comport science with the Qur’an.

The resistance of Islam to evolution is not, of course, universal, even within Muslim countries. Surprisingly, Iran doesn’t seem to have much of a problem with evolution being taught in its schools, while Iraq, on the other hand, has always had problems teaching evolution, and has dropped it from secondary-school curricula. Turkey, increasingly becoming a theocracy, did the same thing a few years ago.

The problem comes because many Muslims are Qur’anic literalists. Here are two plots from a 2012 Pew Poll: the first on the proportion of people in (mostly African) Muslim-majority countries who think the Qur’an should be read literally, and then the proportion of people in different Muslim-majority countries who accept evolution. Note that countries like Yemen, Iran, Afghanistan, and Saudi Arabia were not surveyed.

Then my correspondent goes on about morality:

The second way in which the article highlights atheist denialism an shortcomings, is in failing to tackling the issue of morality. What are the consequences of a world where ‘moral judgements’ are mere ‘value judgements’ to be decided by each individual. Magnas Bradshaw’s From Humanism to Nihilism: The Eclipse of Secular Ethics (CMC Papers, No. 6) addresses this question. One the one hand we have the teachings of New Atheism, such as Richard Dawkins who writes “‘the universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is at bottom no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but pointless indifference’.” and Francis Crick who is even more explicit, “you, your joys and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behaviour of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules… ‘‘you’re nothing but a pack of neurons’’.”

On the other hand we have its practitioners, the rationalists, those who take this stuff seriously, such as Ted Bundy, trained lawyer and serial killer, who reasons thus

Then I learned that all moral judgments are ‘value judgments’, that all value judgments are subjective, and that none can be proved to be either ‘right’ or ‘wrong’. I even read somewhere that the Chief Justice of the United States had written that the American Constitution expressed nothing more than collective value judgments. Believe it or not, I figured out for myself – what apparently the Chief Justice couldn’t figure out for himself – that if the rationality of one value judgment was zero, multiplying it by millions would not make it one whit more rational. Nor is there any ‘reason’ to obey the law for anyone, like myself, who has the boldness and daring – the strength of character – to throw off its shackles…I discovered that to become truly free, truly unfettered, I had to become truly uninhibited. And I quickly discovered that the greatest obstacle to my freedom, the greatest block and limitation to it, consists in the insupportable ‘value judgment’ that I was bound to respect the rights of others. I asked myself, who were these ‘others’? Other human beings, with human rights? Why is it more wrong to kill a human animal than any other animal, a pig or a sheep or a steer? Is your life more to you than a hog’s life to a hog? Why should I be willing to sacrifice my pleasure more for the one than for the other? Surely you would not, in this age of scientific enlightenment, declare that God or nature has marked some pleasures as ‘moral’ or ‘good’ and others as ‘immoral’ or ‘bad’? That is the honest conclusion to which my education has led me – after the most conscientious examination of my spontaneous and uninhibited self

Bundy’s reasoning is impeccable and based on the teachings of atheists. “Why is it more wrong to kill a human animal than  any other animal?” or, “Why shouldn’t Trump tear down the institutions supporting U.S. democracy if he wants?”. Care to answer?

Yes, of course I could answer, but would this person listen? Not a snowball’s chance in hell! But wait! There’s more!

Atheism is leaving people with no guidance on how they should conduct themselves, and what they should expect from others. That’s the reality. And logically, that is what one would expect when people do not believe in a soul capable of oppressing itself through its oppression of others or even simply contemplating words of repentance and aspiration such as : “You that turn stones to gold.. change me.”(Rumi). If you want to claim that such notions are the result of “wishful-thinking and ancient superstitions” then first offer the scholarly work that demonstrates that the Quran is indeed incompatible with what we have learned through science, and hence unreliable.

Name redacted

Where to start here? First of all, neither Dawkins nor Crick would deny that there is a morality that can be derived from humanism; Dawkins, as well as his colleagues Dan Dennett and Anthony Grayling, have been quite explicit on this point.  Indeed, unless you’re one of the few “moral objectivists”, even religious morality must come from “value judgements.”  This is the crux of the Euthyphro argument: if you say that God is good, and wouldn’t give us bad moral guidance, you are assuming there are criteria for “good” and “bad” that are independent of God. (Theologians such as William Craig, who adhere to “divine command theory which stipulates that God is the sole determinant of good, are exceptions, and their morality isn’t so hot anyway. Craig doesn’t oppose the many genocides in the Old Testament, since God ordered them.) Even religious moral judgments, then, are almost always based on “value judgments”. But so what? Different judgments have different consequences for society. You can, for example, be a utilitarian, and base your morality on what acts will do the most good or cause the least harm. Other criteria lead to other moralities, but all of them are superior to the “morality” of the Catholic Church or Islam.

Further, there is a long history of writing and philosophy on secular ethics and morality, beginning with the Greeks, extending through Kant and Hume down to Rawls, Russell, and Grayling in modern times. It is not at all true that atheists haven’t grappled with the problem or morality. To use Ted Bundy as a secular arbiter of morality is simply ridiculous!

And, of course, humanistic morality is far superior to religious morality. The latter has given us things like dictates about genital cutting, the oppression of women and gays, the diktat to kill apostates and infidels, the terrorizing of children with thoughts of hell, the abnegation of modern medicine (Christian science and other faith-healing sects), the prohibition of divorce and regulations about how to have sex and when, and the propagandizing of innocent children, who get turned into little Amish people or Orthodox Jews, deprived of opportunity and education—all because of religious morality.

When I reread the email above, I realized that the writer hadn’t really investigated the rich tradition of secular ethics, and was also woefully—and perhaps willfully—ignorant of what many Muslims think about science. I’m not sure why, but I did write him/her a summary of what I’ve said above.

You should feel free yourself to address the writer’s remarks, and I’ll call that person’s attention to this thread tomorrow.

Lagniappe (h/t Peter N.):

46 thoughts on “Another critic writes in touting the scientific rationality of Islam and decrying the moral failures of atheism

  1. The Ted Bundy quote was truly disturbing. How somebody so articulate could kill/mutilate 30+ women boggles the mind. (By the way, don’t look up the details of his crimes if you have a weak constitution… or want to sleep tonight.)

    1. I’d say the fact that Ted Bundy’s path to “freedom” landed him in jail is empirical evidence that his philosophy doesn’t work. Edit: Oliver Scott Curry beat me to it (reply #6).

  2. Excellent analysis. I especially liked seeing the Tanner Edis book mentioned.

    Both his objections are poor.

    1.) If a religion doesn’t endorse creationism or other obvious forms of pseudoscience, then it’s not in conflict with science.

    Okay— now turn science on the existence of God and any other fact claims which are supposedly “outside the jurisdiction of science.” If we can imagine evidence which supports them, then they’re not. And we can.

    2.) If atheism is true, then there’s some bad consequence.

    So what? Not being compatible with what we like is not the same as being compatible with science. Irrelevant change of topic.

  3. If only the religious have a moral compass it’s funny that prisons world-wide are jam-packed with religious people. I volunteer in a state prison where I have met many murderers, child molesters, robbers, and white-collar criminals, but not a single atheist.

    1. I always wondered why, if people believe in Heaven and Hell, they would ever do bad things. How could it possibly be worth it? I found the answer in a study of people in prisons: they believe God forgives them. They believe in Hell, but they don’t believe they’re going there. God being both punishing and forgiving leaves you a lot of wiggle room to follow your inclinations.

      1. Isn’t that the deal religion tries to make? If you are a believer, you can always be forgiven no matter what bad things you do. It’s right up there with the proverbial bridge for sale.

      2. I’m afraid it’s worse. Like true narcissists, they believe that in whatever they’re doing God is on their side. He wants them to get powerful and rich, evade arrest etc.

    2. > […] volunteer in a state prison where I have met many murderers, child molesters, robbers, and white-collar criminals, but not a single atheist.

      Same with the homeless (sample size ~ 150, UK). Much support for religion, with some who viewed rival churches as satanist. Never met an atheist among them.

      There is a correlation between mental illness and religiosity, especially among schizophrenics. The saddest case I’m aware of is Terry Davis, who turned from a happy atheist into a raving lunatic.

      I’m afraid you get treated worse by the justice system if you’re an atheist. No chance to discover Jesus in time to fool a credulous person like Mike Huckabee.

    1. “truly uninhibited” — Jeez, Ted, even a confused moral relativist should be able to fathom a distinction between letting it all hang out at a nude beach and killing coeds.

      1. I spewed coffee on my keyboard after reading your comment, Ken!

        “That is the honest conclusion to which my education has led me – after the most conscientious examination of my spontaneous and uninhibited self,” Ted Bundy wrote.

        Some folks might have sold their possessions, bought a van, drove to San Francisco and spent the next few years in the Haight-Ashbury district expanding their minds with drugs.

        The writer’s use of Ted Bundy as a spokesperson for “atheism” reminds me of that famous interview with Jeffrey Dahmer, his father, and Stone Phillips: Dahmer suggests that he killed and ate people due to a lack of accountability for his actions based upon “the lie of evolution.”

        1. Also – “Hitler/Stalin/Mao/Pol Pot were atheists.”

          Lack of belief in Zeus, Jupiter, Oromasdes, Allah, Eos, Viri, etc. does not prompt people to commit crimes.

  4. I tried to sell my three books for children Big Bang Theory, Floating Continents and Life on Earth. The most resistance to buying these came from Muslims. They said Koran explained everything about these ideas and they are in conflict with science as explained in these books. The next group of people were Christians. I sampled close to a hundred in each case. The population tested included pharmacy employees, teachers, nurses, people on the street, store owners, barbers, cooks, restaurant owners, scientists with Ph.D., secretaries etc.. The litmus test is Darwin’s ideas on Natural Selection. Here most Muslims fail miserably. So do Christians. Secularism is dying in the world. The most alarming thing is this death is occurring in the US showing things have not changed much since the making of the movie “Inherit the Wind”, where the judge rules that Geology, Biology, Palaentology are not authorities on Evolution. While most opinions opposing science are based on politics in the US they are based on superstition among religious groups elsewhere. Very sad state of affairs.

        1. Statistics – done correctly – don’t lie.

          There is also papers out on how religion – since it is a group phenomena with no factual support – can be spontaneously eradicated if the support becomes low. Or at least, as here in Scandinavia, the active superstition occupy only about 5 % of the population.

  5. Thanks for the book recommendations. I’m reading The Story of Reason in Islam, by Sari Nusseibeh, (among a few others) which I find quite interesting. I didn’t realise how deeply embedded the awareness of the problem of religious belief vs reason in Islamic philosophy is, (in comparison to Christian theology).

    1. It is a younger cult and it developed to become a vehicle for an empire (with a few colonies, even), so it tried to briefly embrace and later – when it was a hindrance – suffocate the usual mercantile trade empirical science-of-sorts, c.f. the Greeks according to Sagan in “Cosmos”.

      The Greeks early flirt with science looks by the way similar in Sagan’s account since it was also but a century as promising and suffocated by Plato’s school of mystics – where his pupil Aristoteles stands as evidence – which is roughly the same time period as claimed by Nobel Laureate Weinberg IIRC as the Islamic Sufi school of mystics did the same for Islam.

  6. I find it hard to believe that people like this really believe the tripe they say they do. I suspect they don’t really. They simply have the God Gene and need to believe in religion. The rest is all window dressing in order to make that work. As has been observed by many, Trumpism shows a similar pattern. They know he’s a bad guy and that he lies as often as he breathes but they want to belong to the cult and are willing to pay the ongoing price.

    1. I saved an earlier comment of yours that I think applies here:

      “I’ve found that such people practice extreme compartmentalization. They don’t want to talk about it because it would be stressful to do so. Such people have reached a fragile accomodation with themselves. And, because they’re intelligent, they are conscious of its fragility. And, I suspect, most such attempts by others to discuss such things are attempts at conversion to atheism or breaking down of their compartments.”

      1. Wow, someone is saving my comments? Of course, this is the internet so my comments are out there. I hope you see my two statements as consistent, though they do come at the issue from different angles.

        1. “Wow, someone is saving my comments?”

          Yours and those of others that I think are particularly insightful.

          “I hope you see my two statements as consistent”

          Yes, I do. That’s why I remembered it.

  7. Regarding the morality argument- JAC has written about this before, but we have hard data that suggests that the more secular a country is the greater the well being of its citizens. The World Happiness Survey consistently shows this to be the case. And, as you would expect, the most religious countries rank at the bottom of the the survey. Even the Muslim Times published the results: https://themuslimtimes.info/2016/03/24/report-worlds-happiest-countries-are-also-least-religious/

    There is also data on moral and ethical behaviors like criminality, divorce and domestic abuse, that show that atheists tendencies toward those behaviors are less than those who believe in a god. The link to the article by Phil Zimmerman won’t load but here’s a synopsis by David Niose: https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/our-humanity-naturally/201103/misinformation-and-facts-about-secularism-and-religion

    Examples from the piece:
    Citing four different studies, Zuckerman states: “Murder rates are actually lower in more secular nations and higher in more religious nations where belief in God is widespread.” He also states: “Of the top 50 safest cities in the world, nearly all are in relatively non-religious countries.”

    “…rates of all violent crime tend to be higher in “religious” states. Zuckerman also points out that atheists are very much under-represented in the American prison population (only 0.2%).”

    “Zuckerman, citing numerous studies, shows that atheists and agnostics, when compared to religious people, are actually less likely to be nationalistic, racist, anti-Semitic, dogmatic, ethnocentric, and authoritarian. Secularism also correlates to higher education levels. Atheists and other secular people are also much more likely to support women’s rights and gender equality, as well as gay and lesbian rights. Religious individuals are more likely to support government use of torture.”

    ——-

    Really like the new WP format. The comment feature is much more elegant and user-friendly.

  8. A religious person who complains about the morality of atheists should first be required to explain his own religious solution to the problem of evil. Sort of like an entry fee into the conversation.

    1. Further, those who compare atheist morality unfavourably with their perfect, god-given, objective morality should be required to explain how they, imperfect sinners, objectively know that their god’s morality is perfect.

      And, since the OT’s Law of Retaliation and the NT’s Golden Rule are secular moralities found in many societies needing no gods for justification, merely a pragmatic recognition of the advantages of reciprocity, what do divine commands add to our moral understanding?

  9. So good to know that the Quran’s version of the Flood conflicts less with science than the Christian version. Perhaps the winged horse Buraq, which Mohammed rode from Mecca to the further mosque (supposedly in Jerusalem) in his night journey, the Isra, presents no conflict with Evolution, despite the mysterious absence of winged horse fossils. After stabling Buraq, Mohammed then ascended into heaven, the mi’raj, and conducted seminars with Abraham, Joseph, Moses, Jesus, and John the Baptist. The personnel of these seminars in the 7th century AD does raise certain historical/scientific questions, which we hope your correspondent will explain.

  10. I see in the Washington Post, an article – Boko Haram has claimed responsibility for kidnapping over 300 boys in Nigeria.
    December 15, 2020 by Danielle Paquette.
    The leader of the group, Abukarkar Shekau said the school where the boys have been abducted, “was done to promote Islam and discourage un-Islamic practices.”
    So I’m surprised to hear ” Atheism is leaving people with no guidance on how they should conduct themselves….”

    “The Science School in the town of Kankara is now empty” acording to this article.

  11. The Bundy quote is a complete fabrication (created by conservative icon and Christian apologist Harry Jaffa as part of a homophobic essay titled “Homosexuality and Natural Law” that was meant to impugn “sodomites”, as he insisted on calling them; see here for more on Jaffa’s virulent homophobia). This is Jaffa admitting to the forgery in an interview:

    Harry Jaffa: I wrote a pamphlet on homosexuality and the natural law some years ago. And included in it was a dialog, which I claimed to have — I didn’t claim to, I pretended that I found a tape that Ted Bundy had made of a dialog with one of his victims before he murdered her

    Even more ironically for your Muslim correspondent, just this week investigators decrypted an actual message from the Zodiac killer in which he declared that “I am not afraid of the gas chamber because it will send me to paradice [sic] all the sooner.” So much for the implication that all serial killers must be atheists. And that’s leaving aside the fact that a Muslim would do well to tread lightly when it comes to trying to paint atheists as the only (or even a primary) source of vicious mass murder.

    1. That forgery is like the communist antisemitic forgery The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, except it is antisecular!

  12. I note that social animals like dogs, chimps, bonobos, and elephants have evolved purely secular rules of behavior within their groups. And experiments show that even dogs have an innate sense of fairness. They will cease to do tricks once they stop getting the same quality treats as the other dog.

    So, like other social animals, humans evolved an innate sense of fairness and right and wrong long before any extant religion was confected. These evolved basic senses are the foundation of the secular ethical standards of the Greeks on forward

  13. First, Islam is not nearly as strongly at odds with science as is Christianity. Second, that religion gives us a moral framework but atheism doesn’t.

    Taken together those are self refuting claims.

    It is a given that magic does not exist, but Islam propose that humans should be subjugated – in “oppression” – under their imaginary magic friend.

    Which of course is both at least as much at odds with its non-existence as Christianity’s imaginary friend and morally worse.

    As for secular moral frameworks, I live in Scandinavia and see it around me every day.

    And before today, I’ve never heard of the globally renowned UDHR, which declares democracy and say religious freedom as human rights, being a result of ‘nihilism’. Using an often mentioned – likely Christian, I see from the comments – mass murderer and rapist as example of moral faults, why not use the renowned Islamic caravan terrorist and pedophile rapist myth figure Muhammed as another?

    However, to my knowledge there has been no serious scholarly effort to support this assumption or more generally to show that the Quranic accounts and claims are in conflict with what we have learned through science.

    I’ve looked at that myth text and – besides being myth . there is nothing coherent to make any sort of effort over.

  14. Kudos to PCC(E) for yet another well-done response to yet another religious buffoon. A never-ending task, but hopefully not thankless.

    I have one specific question for anyone: Where does it say in the Koran that the body has 360 joints? I read the whole thing (Most. Boring. Book. Ever.) and don’t remember seeing that. I tried googling it, but only got a few references to “sunnahs” which I presume stand in relation to the Koran as the Talmud does to the Old Testament. Did I just miss something? Or is it really not there?

    Thanks in advance.

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