A random person, originating in the middle east, recently messaged me on Facebook and asked for my opinion on a webpage featuring Muslim arguments for God’s existence. I don’t know why they were messaging me. Perhaps they wanted to convince me Allah exists. Perhaps they had doubts about Islam but did not know how to rebut the website. Or perhaps they had some other goal in mind. The webpage features an essay by Zakir Naik (I have since come to learn that Naik’s essay appears all over the internet, with a previous response by JT Eberhard, so I am not aware of its original source). As I understand Naik’s essay, he offers three arguments for God’s existence: (1) that atheists reject the wrong kind of God, (2) that we can infer the Qur’an’s divine authorship from the amount of scientific information the Qur’an contains, and (3) while modern science can help us to reject false deities, science should not cause us to reject the one true God. In what follows, I will explicate and then evaluate each argument in turn. Lastly, I will conclude that the three arguments are fairly weak.
However, I want to issue a bit of caution before diving into the arguments. For a variety of reasons, I do not typically respond to Islam. For one, there are others better equipped to do so (former Muslims, progressive reformers in the middle east, or others). I would rather take my lead from them. For another, non-Muslim responses to Islam – whether they originate with Christians or atheists – are often couched in imperialistic, essentialist, and racist notions of Islamic theology and brown people. However, I’ve decided to take time to evaluate the website because I was asked to do so by someone living in a predominantly Muslim country. My hope is that these comments will be instructive for thinking about theism generally and that I’ve shown the proper respect for a religion and culture with which I am largely unfamiliar. I am especially hopeful that my comments will be met as philosophically instructive and that they will not be seen as part of some misplaced war on Islam (in which I want no part).
Naik’s Straw Gods Argument
Turning to the first argument, Naik claims atheists reject the wrong kind of God. The claim that atheists reject the wrong sort of God is one I have heard ad nauseam from liberal and progressive Christians and to which I have spent some considerable time responding both on this blog and elsewhere. In contrast with the straw man fallacy, I call this argument the Straw Gods Argument: atheists only reject false idols and not true divinity. Often, proponents of Straw God Arguments say atheists are closer to true believers than idolaters because they have already rejected the wrong gods. Naik agrees; he writes that atheists have taken the first step in the Shahada – “there is no God” – and only have left to accept the latter portion – “but Allah”.
Typically, those who advance the Straw Gods Argument claim that God, properly construed, is a radically transcendent and categorically Other Being, accessible through mystical experience and unlike anything else otherwise accessible in this world. If God too closely resembled anything in our world, God could not be said to transcend our world. As such, God is not an existent thing among other existents – or another being among other beings (as Paul Tillich puts it) – but something else altogether. Christians say that, because we were created in the image of God (the imago dei) there is some sense in which we resemble God (perhaps in the sense that, like God, we have minds), but God’s transcendence requires us to maintain a firm distinction between the creature and the Creator.
Straw God Argument proponents typically assert that atheists deny the god they find commonly attested to in their culture, but their culture’s god is a false idol. Naik agrees. For Naik, the atheist’s denial of God’s existence requires them to first have some idea of what they are denying and the culturally acquired conception atheists reject is far too human to inspire proper religious belief:
My first question to the atheist will be: “What is the definition of God?” For a person to say there is no God, he should know what is the meaning of God. If I hold a book and say that ‘this is a pen’, for the opposite person to say, ‘it is not a pen’, he should know what is the definition of a pen, even if he does not know nor is able to recognise or identify the object I am holding in my hand. For him to say this is not a pen, he should at least know what a pen means. Similarly for an atheist to say ‘there is no God’, he should at least know the concept of God. His concept of God would be derived from the surroundings in which he lives. The god that a large number of people worship has got human qualities – therefore he does not believe in such a god. Similarly a Muslim too does not and should not believe in such false gods.
Naik goes on to explain that atheists may reject Islam because they view Islam as oppressive towards women, or as supporting violence, or as anti-scientific. I’ll put aside the claims concerning Islamic violence, except to note that I do not view Islam as monolithically or essentially violent (I do not think Islam has an essence), and momentarily shelve Islam’s relationship to science. In response to the Straw Gods Argument Naik offers, I offer the following challenge. Perhaps there are those who reject theism simply because their conception of God blurs the creature/Creator distinction. However, I am an atheist who is aware of the more transcendent conceptions of God and, thus, wherever my atheism originates, must be somewhere other than a naïve God conception. Moreover, pointing out that atheists are correct to reject some conceptions of God offers no reason to accept Naik’s God.
Naik’s Straw Gods Argument might be self-undermining. Naik’s statements imply God, correctly conceived, possesses no human characteristics. Presumably, characteristics possessed by other created entities would be similarly problematic; for example, God, properly conceived, should not have table-characteristics or cat-characteristics. Problems result for both religious epistemology and religious language if God lacks the sort of characteristics we are capable of conceiving. For religious epistemology, we can ask how close a conception needs to be to God in order to count as other than idolatrous. Christians and Muslims typically say there are grave costs for believing in the wrong God; but given God’s radical transcendence, are any of us capable of believing in the right God? Moreover, whether a radically transcendent God is compatible with natural theology is unclear. Natural theological arguments for God’s existence often rely on making inferences about what we would be likely to observe if God existed (i.e. that the complexity of living things or the fine tuning of physical constants are the likely result of intelligence). If God is nothing at all like a human agent, how do we infer what a universe designed by God would look like? For all we know, we would recognize the universe as evidence against theism, if only we had more of an understanding of God’s characteristics.
Radical transcendence spells problems for religious language as well. We seem to acquire language through our experience of the world. Therefore, if none of God’s characteristics appear in this world, then none of the predicates in ordinary human language apply to God (or, at least, none of the predicates acquired from our experience with Earthly matters). Historically, Jewish, Christian, and Muslim theologians have suggested God is properly spoken of only by way of negation (the via negativa) – that is, by saying what God is not – or by way of analogy (the doctrine of analogy) – that is, our predicates only apply to God analogically. Still other theologians have suggested God can only be spoken of through metaphor.
Powerful objections to the via negativa, the doctrine of analogy, and metaphor appear in the philosophical and theological literature. For example, if God can only be referred to by saying what God is not, we cannot verbally distinguish God from nothingness, since nothingness lacks any characteristics we are capable of naming. If we say God is not unintelligent, it is equally true that nothingness is not unintelligent. If we say that God is not weak, it is equally true that nothingness is not weak. Or if we say that God is not evil, so, too, it is true that nothingness is not evil. And so on, through any list of negations. If, instead, the theist says that God can only be spoken of through metaphor, then any statement made of God will not literally ascribe a property to God. For example, if the theist says that God is only metaphorically all-knowing and perfectly good, they are not saying God possesses knowledge or that God is good. But then why call anything ‘God’ if it is not all-knowing and perfectly good? Still other problems occur for analogical predication, but I won’t take them up here. Instead, I will simply note that God’s categorical Otherness spells trouble for religious language and epistemology, those problems are recognized by theologians, and are the cause for internal theological disputes among theists. Thus, it is less than clear that atheists reject the wrong kind of God.
Science and the Qur’an’s Divine Authorship
In Naik’s second argument, he infers the Qur’an to have been written by God. He asserts that the Qur’an contains several passages with modern scientific information unavailable at the time the Qur’an was written and then calculates the probability that the information could have been randomly guessed. The first scientific fact Naik considers is the shape of the Earth:
At the time when the Qur’an was revealed, people thought the world was flat, there are several other options for the shape of the earth. It could be triangular, it could be quadrangular, pentagonal, hexagonal, heptagonal, octagonal, spherical, etc. Lets assume there are about 30 different options for the shape of the earth. The Qur’an rightly says it is spherical, if it was a guess the chances of the guess being correct is 1/30.
The second concerns whether light from the moon is produced by the moon or if it is reflected:
The light of the moon can be its own light or a reflected light. The Qur’an rightly says it is a reflected light. If it is a guess, the chances that it will be correct is 1/2 and the probability that both the guesses i.e the earth is spherical and the light of the moon is reflected light is 1/30 x 1/2 = 1/60.
And the third concerns whether every living thing is made of water:
Further, the Qur’an also mentions every living thing is made of water. Every living thing can be made up of either wood, stone, copper, aluminum, steel, silver, gold, oxygen, nitrogen, hydrogen, oil, water, cement, concrete, etc. The options are say about 10,000. The Qur’an rightly says that everything is made up of water. If it is a guess, the chances that it will be correct is 1/10,000 and the probability of all the three guesses i.e. the earth is spherical, light of moon is reflected light and everything is created from water being correct is 1/30 x 1/2 x 1/10,000 = 1/60,000 which is equal to about .0017%.
The Qur’an speaks about hundreds of things that were not known to men at the time of its revelation. Only in three options the result is .0017%. I leave it upto you, to work out the probability if all the hundreds of the unknown facts were guesses, the chances of all of them being correct guesses simultaneously and there being not a single wrong guess. It is beyond human capacity to make all correct guesses without a single mistake, which itself is sufficient to prove to a logical person that the origin of the Qur’an is Divine.
There are a number of problems with this argument. One might first ask whether or not Naik’s interpretation of the Qur’an is plausible (does it actually talk about the shape of the Earth and so on?). I’m not an expert on Islam and I am willing to assume Naik’s interpretation of the Qur’an is correct. As a second concern, the scientific information Naik provides is largely incorrect. For example, while our bodies are mostly composed of water, no living thing is made exclusively of water. They are also made of oxygen and nitrogen and so on and I’m not sure why Naik says the “options are say about 10,000” (why 10,000?). Likewise, I don’t know why Naik states the Earth could have been one of 30 shapes (presumably, there are an infinitely large number of other shapes the Earth could have been).
However, I’m willing to let all of those issues pass. For one thing, while Naik’s scientific information is not completely correct, his arguments could be improved by incorporating correct scientific information; e.g. there are many more than 30 shapes – there are an infinite number! – but that diminishes the chances of guessing correctly to zero. Thus, if Naik’s interpretation of the Qur’an is correct, we have good reason to think the Qur’an’s author was not merely guessing at random.
Nonetheless, supposing that the Qur’an’s author was not guessing at random about e.g. the shape of the Earth does not entail that the Qur’an was written by God. For any given hypothesis h1 and a rival hypothesis h2, together with some collection of evidence E, if E supports h2 better than E supports h1, we should not infer h1. Note that we might not infer h2 either; perhaps E supports some third hypothesis h3 better than E supports h1 or h2. Thus, in asking whether or not we should reject the divine authorship of the Qur’an, we need only ask whether there is some other hypothesis better supported by the evidence than divine authorship. Importantly, the rival hypothesis does not need to be believable itself; again, there may be a better third alternative.
One initial problem in moving forward with this strategy is that Naik’s Straw Gods Argument might render the probability of God’s existence, in light of the Qur’an, inscrutable. If God possesses no characteristics we can comprehend, how would we know whether, in virtue of God’s characteristics, God was the likely author of the Qur’an? Perhaps the Qur’an is, for reasons beyond our comprehension, incompatible with one or more of God’s characteristics, in which case the Qur’an is, unknown to us, evidence contrary to God’s existence. I’ll put this concern aside and assume God’s characteristics are sufficiently comprehensible for Naik to claim to know what God, if God exists, would be likely or unlikely to do.
So far, we have two hypotheses on the table: first, that the scientific claims in the Qur’an were produced through random guesses and, second, that the Qur’an was written by God. Together with Naik, I’ve rejected the first hypothesis as improbable given Naik’s interpretation of the Qur’an. We have left to see whether a third hypothesis can be produced that is better supported by the evidence than divine authorship. Here, I’m not convinced the scientific claims Naik offers were unavailable at the time the Qur’an was written. For example, as early as the 6th century BCE Greek philosophers speculated that the Earth was spherical and the Earth’s radius was measured in the 3rd century BCE by Eratosthenes. By the fifth century CE, Greek writings on the Earth’s sphericity had spread all the way to India, where Aryabhatta wrote on the Earth’s sphericity and planetary motion. I don’t know much about the history of pre-Islamic Arab astronomy, but again – all I have to do is to produce a hypothesis better supported by the evidence than divine authorship and not a hypothesis that is, itself, probable. Thus, given that the scientific information Naik alludes to had been available for centuries prior, I see no reason to infer divine authorship. The author could have been aware of Greek astronomical writings or could have independently reproduced Greek thought.
But let’s suppose that the Qur’an really does contain scientific information that would have been unavailable at the time of its authorship. Even in that case, there is a hypothesis better supported by the evidence than divine authorship. Perhaps a species of advanced extraterrestrials visited the ancient middle east and perhaps one of those extraterrestrials was mistaken for the angel Gabriel, who Muslims say delivered the Qur’an to Muhammad. Extraterrestrials would know that the Earth is round, that the moon’s lighted is reflected and not emitted, and countless other scientific facts unavailable to ancient peoples. Moreover, the extraterrestrial authorship hypothesis does not require us to posit an entirely different category of being. Instead, extraterrestrials would possess characteristics with which we have some level of familiarity and would fit easily into what we already know about the world through science. Thus, the extraterrestrial authorship hypothesis is far more parsimonious than the divine authorship hypothesis. While I do not believe the Qur’an to have been authored by extraterrestrials, the fact that the extraterrestrial authorship hypothesis is better supported than the divine authorship hypothesis is sufficient reason to reject the divine authorship hypothesis.
Does Science Only Eliminate False Gods?
Naik’s third argument is that science only eliminates false gods. Supposing that science leaves Islam’s God untouched, we are left with no reason to think Islam’s God should be rationally accepted. There are many issues on which science is neutral, but science’s neutrality does not warrant belief. To steal Bertrand Russell’s example, perhaps there is a teapot orbiting the sun somewhere between Earth and Mars. Science may have nothing to say about whether there is such a teapot; after all, at least at present, we have no way of exhaustively searching the space between Earth and Mars. Moreover, we can modify Russell’s teapot so that no future empirical disproof would ever be possible. For example, we can posit that the teapot is invisible and incorporeal, so that no matter how hard we look we could never see it and, given its incorporeality, we could never hope to bump into it. Nonetheless, we have plenty of reason to find orbiting, invisible, incorporeal teapots implausible on non-empirical grounds. For example, given what we know about teapots, how could an orbiting teapot come to be? Alternatively, given the denotation of the term ‘teapot’, does it make sense to talk about incorporeal teapots? Can incorporeal objects orbit? Likewise, supposing science has nothing to say about Islam’s God tells us nothing about why we should accept Islam’s God or why atheists are incorrect in rejecting Islam’s God.
I hope that this post strikes the stranger I met on Facebook with the degree of respect I intend. While the arguments in Naik’s essay are fairly weak, there may be stronger arguments for Islam or for theism and I encourage them to continue pursuing the issue. For other readers, I hope that this post has been helpful in elucidating philosophical issues and for beginning discussions on God’s existence.