Questionable Motives

August 28, 2010

Do these claims against atheists look familiar?

Excellent article by Edmund Standing over at Butterflies & Wheels well worth the reading in its entirety from which I have taken these excerpts:

Claim 1: If an atheist reads a religion’s ‘holy book’ and find it to be full of vile, ignorant, and divisive material, the atheist is being unsophisticated in his or her approach. The atheist is ‘siding with the fundamentalists’ and consequently is not worth listening to.

Claim 2: If an atheist is to understand a ‘holy book’, they cannot simply read it, but must instead read it through liberal theological interpretive frameworks, and must understand that the ‘true message’ of the ‘holy book’ is something that emerges through the reflection of generations of interpretive communities, not through the plain and clear words that are actually printed on the page.

Neither of these arguments holds water, and are no more impressive when put forward by liberal Muslim apologists than when put forward by liberal Archbishops. These ‘arguments’, in Islam and in Christianity, are fundamentally intellectually dishonest and can only be the result of massive self-deception on the part of their proponents. There is really no case to answer, but I shall quickly knock down these claims again:

Response to Claim 1:

There is no logical reason why a supposed ‘holy book’ should not be taken at face value. This is especially the case in Islam, given a central belief in Islam is the claim that the Qur’an is a perfect, divinely authored text. This is not simply a ‘fundamentalist’ belief, but rather a mainstream belief. In fact, given the centrality of this belief, the use of the term ‘fundamentalist’ in regard to Islam is more problematic than with Judaism and Christianity because, as Sam Harris notes, ‘most Muslims appear to be “fundamentalist” in the Western sense of the word’. That is not to say that most Muslims are violent extremists, but that most at least pay lip service to the idea that they intrinsically view the nature of the Qur’an itself in exactly the same way as the extremists do.

Response to Claim 2:

The idea that ‘scholars’ who present Islam as dividing the world into believers and unbelievers and believe that Islam is supreme amongst religions have somehow ‘misinterpreted’ their faith is farcical, for throughout the Qur’an this is precisely the worldview that emerges. When religious liberals sugarcoat the clear meaning of their religious texts by claiming that we should not look directly at the text but rather at the writings of liberal ‘interpreters’ of the text, they are not basing their argument on anything approaching a logically coherent position, but rather on wishful thinking and self-deception, and they offer no firm, objective criteria by which such ‘interpretation’ can be seen as authentic.

Why attack moderates?

During the debates over religion that occurred during the Enlightenment, which were often framed in extremely harsh language, it was not violent extremists under attack, but the very notion of God, supernatural authority, and so on. The result of those debates ultimately was that religion in Europe took a beating and no longer represents any sort of threat to liberal democracy. Likewise, religious arguments in the political sphere are longer accepted on ‘divine’ authority, but must be articulated in such a way that they make sense in a secular context. While Muslim moderates are doing – or trying to do – good work in hindering extremism, they must also accept that the Enlightenment critique also applies to their beliefs, and that in the adult world people have every right to make criticisms, even of liberal religion, that may appear ‘nasty’ on first reading. If liberal Muslims are willing to trample on the beliefs of their less moderate co-religionists, then they must also be prepared to have their beliefs trampled on as well. No-one would consider that their personal political views should be exempt from criticism just because they are non-violent political views, and it would be an absurd and worrying precedent to be set were that the case. Religion is no different. Despite the fact that religious people seem to have a lot emotionally invested in their ‘faith’, the fact remains that religion, just like politics, is an ideology, and as such it is a perfectly legitimate target for criticism and debate, even if it is liberal and moderate in its nature.

There is one further point about moderates which has been well articulated by Sam Harris. It’s an argument worth considering. In the short run, pragmatically speaking, moderates appear to be a good thing, but their continued identification with a belief system that is extremely open to far less liberal interpretations may actually perpetuate the survival of its more irrational and beligerent forms. While moderate Muslims can criticise Islamism and offer alternative ‘interpretations’ of the Qur’an, they still maintain in doing so that the Qur’an does have some kind of authority.

Ultimately, Islam and the Qur’an do not pose problems because of ‘misinterpretation’, but rather because they belong to a world far from modernity and are actually of no relevance to modernity. Atheists have every right to point this out, even if it means criticising those who are nonetheless doing good work against extremism. Moderate Islam and moderate Quran’ic ‘interpretation’ offer no real bulwark against those who read the text of the Qur’an and take it at face value, as a perfect and divinely authored text. Only by acknowledging that any notion of a divinely authored book is simply false, by accepting the harsh reality that this book is in fact useless (and indeed dangerous) in the modern context, and by embracing human reason and freethinking will the curse of Islamic extremism ultimately be overcome.



  1. […] more: Do these claims against atheists look familiar? « Questionable Motives Post a […]

    Pingback by Do these claims against atheists look familiar? « Questionable Motives — August 28, 2010 @ 12:12 pm | Reply

  2. Excellent post.

    Comment by misunderstoodranter — August 29, 2010 @ 6:24 am | Reply

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Create a free website or blog at

%d bloggers like this: