Study Islam, become an atheist?

Douglas Murray has an article in the latest edition of the Spectator (which at least had an edition last week, unlike the New Statesman which insisted that we make do with one edition for three weeks) in which he claimed that studying Islam made him reject his former Anglicanism in favour of atheism ([1], [2], [3], [4]):

Charles Darwin didn’t do for God. German biblical criticism did — the scholarship on lost texts, discoveries of added-to texts and edited texts. All pointed away from the initial starting-block of faith — that the texts transmitted immutable truths. Realising that ‘holy’ texts are, like most other things in life, the result of an accretion of human effort and human error is one of the most troubling discoveries any believer can make. I remember trying to read some of this scholarship when I was younger, and finding it so terrifying, so ground-shaking, that I put it off for another day. …

But it found me via another route. Some years ago I started studying Islam. It didn’t take long to recognise the problems of that religion’s texts — the repetitions, contradictions and absurdities. Unlike Christianity, scholarship on these problems in Islam has barely begun. But they are manifest for anyone to see. For a holy book which in its opening lines boasts ‘that is the book, wherein is no doubt’, plenty of doubt emerges. Not least in recognising demonstrable plagiarisms from the Torah and the Christian Bible. If God spoke through an archangel to one illiterate tradesman in 7th-century Arabia, then — just for starters — why was he stealing material? Or was he just repeating himself?

Gradually, scepticism of the claims made by one religion was joined by scepticism of all such claims. Incredulity that anybody thought an archangel dictated a book to Mohammed produced a strange contradiction. I found myself still clinging to belief in Christianity. I was trying to believe — though rarely arguing — ‘Well, your guy didn’t hear voices: but I know a man who did.’ This last, shortest and sharpest, phase pulled down the whole thing. In the end Mohammed made me an atheist.

His claims remind me of my attitude in the year before I finally embraced Islam, during which I sat in the computer rooms off the Hugh Owen library in Aberystwyth scouring various websites in the hope of convincing myself that my growing conviction that Islam was genuine was baseless. I found that much of the attempted refutational material was pathetic, some of it based on obvious logical fallacies and misunderstandings, at other times based on judgements of Muslims’ behaviour rather than of Islam itself.

Murray offers no examples of the supposed absurdities and contradictions, but accuses the Prophet (sall’ Allahu ‘alaihi wa sallam) of “stealing material”. Again, he offers no examples, but it is natural that the Qur’an should include stories of the prophets of old, as the prophet Muhammad (sall’ Allahu ‘alaihi wa sallam) is the greatest of a line of prophets rather than a solitary prophet in human history. Not all of the stories in the Qur’an also appear the Bible, as might be expected, and some of them are different in their detail, but if some of them agree, how is that plagiarism? Plagiarism means passing off someone else’s work as one’s own; retelling a story is not plagiarism.

Murray runs through a list of qualms about rejecting religious belief, the most stupid of which is his attempt to believe that “your guy didn’t hear voices: but I know a man who did”, as if prophethood and revelation was nothing more than “hearing voices” like someone with schizophrenia or some other mental illness. We hold that there were many prophets, including Jesus (peace be upon him) and most, if not all, of the Biblically-named Israelite prophets. Then there was the fear that giving up religion meant a collapse of ethics, as if the rejection of religion by one man could have this effect. In reality, well-educated, middle-class individuals who become atheists do not become amoral; it is society itself which loses its moral compass when religion loses its hold over the masses. “Ethics” is no substitute for a moral code with definite yeses and noes; moral stances become fluid, and at worst become little more than a tool of the strong to attack the weak before being discarded (I have seen this myself).

Murray expresses a fear which he suspected “a lot of Christians in this country feel, particularly as they see Islam re-emerging and gaining adherents in spite (or perhaps because) of its intransigence and intractability … a sense of cultural abandonment”. The problem is that, if people no longer believe in a religion, it will eventually die, because the churches need money to maintain them. If churchgoers do not give money on Sundays, they start to rely on government hand-outs for the maintainance of “heritage”. I would also dispute that Islam is growing much in this country at the expense of the established religion; on the contrary, it is growing mainly in the cities, not in the country (so, right now, no threat to English village churches) nor even in small towns. Some may boast of people “entering Islam in multitudes”, but while I do not dispute that there are converts, they are a relatively small proportion, and even if some of them are initially attracted by what some might see as “intransigence and intractability”, there are other pull factors and people do convert simply because they believe, whatever the reason for which they first considered Islam.

Islamophobia Watch relates Murray’s advocacy of unbeliving “cultural Christianity” to Richard Dawkins, who also calls himself a “cultural Christian” and alleges that the threat to Britain’s Christian heritage comes from rival religions, not from atheism. He has also advanced the view that Europe is some sort of haven of civilisation, trapped between America and the Islamic world; obviously Russia and China do not feature very heavily in his world view, and I wonder where American academia fits into it for that matter; also, historically, while it may be behind a lot of fine architecture, Christianity also kept most of Europe backward and illiterate for generations, while Islam encouraged learning for everyone, not just a celibate priestly caste.

“Cultural Christianity”, with people going through the motions without believing in what they are doing, while it might give the impression of things ticking along nicely to some observers, would be rejected as empty and pointless, hypocritical even, by most people. You will not get people up early on a Sunday to go to a morning church service when they do not believe what they will be told there; people would rather simply stay in bed! What has replaced religion for most lapsed Christians is no religious observance at all and a general social consensus about moral issues; for the middle classes, and at times of no great hardship such as the past decade an a half, it mostly keeps people out of trouble; the same cannot be said of every section of British society. Dawkins and Murray might find that trading the rarefied world of their universities and think-tanks for Islam a “poor exchange”, but I find trading anything for a hypocritical charade to be far poorer.

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