It must really have stung when Dawkins ask Mehdi Hassan whether he really believed that Muhammad rode to heaven on a winged horse, because he apparently does believe it. We’ll begin with that particular exchange in Hasan’s Al Jazeera interview of Richard Dawkins. If you watch the whole interview, note Hasan’s belligerent interviewing style, and how, after being challenged, he became, if anything, even more aggressive than he had already been.
Hasan’s defensiveness shows clearly how much the imputation stung. How is it possible, Dawkins asks, incredulously, for someone to believe such a fanciful story in the 21st century? And yet Hasan comes back quickly with his unqualified , “Yes, I believe.” It’s a bit like Thomas (in the account in John’s gospel) meeting the risen Jesus, and saying, “Lord, I believe.” Yet Thomas goes on to say, “Help my unbelief.” But there is not even the shade of a question in Hasan’s response. He believes, full stop! (It is notable, though, that he does not mention splitting the moon, a miracle that does not offer the option, sometimes taken, that it was an optical illusion. In Pickthall’s translation of Sura 52: The Moon, verses 1-2, this reads: “1. The hour drew nigh, and the moon was rent in twain. 2. And if they behold a portent they turn away and say: Prolonged illusion.” Apparently there were some rational people around at the time! )
And the sting remained, because Hasan has come back a few days later, with an article in the New Statesman, trumpeting his belief in Muhammad, the winged horse, and, of course, God, as the best explanation as to why there is something rather than nothing. One of the interesting things is that the entire article is a response to Dawkins. He speaks, for example, of the multiverse theory, and then he says: “Hmm. A nice idea, but where’s your evidence, Richard? How do we “prove” that these “billions and billions” of universes exist?” Of course, Dawkins is not a cosmologist or a physicist, so the question should have been addressed to someone else, except that poor Hasan felt belittled. It really stung. This defensiveness is evident throughout the article. He had been belittled by a kaffir. First, he tells the story of how he was challenged by Dawkins. Imagine, Hasan was challenged, and he, Hasan, was supposed to be the interviewer, not the interviewee! (Given Hasan’s belligerent agenda, though, it’s not surprising that Dawkins responded as he did.) And then this:
So what did I do? I confessed. Yes, I believe in prophets and miracles. Oh, and I believe in God, too. Shame on me, eh? Faith, in the disdainful eyes of the atheist, is irredeemably irrational; to have faith, as Dawkins put it to me, is to have “belief in something without evidence”. This, however, is sheer nonsense. Are we seriously expected to believe that the likes of Descartes, Kierkegaard, Hegel, Rousseau, Leibniz and Locke were all unthinking or irrational idiots?
Catch the tone of this. The snark is audible. But he is also making a costly display, and he knows it. Those who have been following the discussion on my last post, where the issue of costly displays and religious adherence was raised, will recognise that Hasan is making here a costly display. He’s a sophisticated contemporary journalist, political director for Huffington Post UK, and onetime columnist for the New Statesman, and here he is confessing his faith in winged horses, miracles and God! “Shame on me, eh?” To thumb your nose at a disdainful, sophisticated audience is to pay your religious dues.
But notice, too, Hasan’s segue from this to the reference to some of the great names of the Western tradition. Are the likes of Descartes, Kierkegaard, Hegel, Rousseau, Leibniz and Locke all unthinking or irrational idiots? Of course not. However, Dawkins didn’t say that they were. But were Hasan’s choices wise? Locke, for example, was fully aware of the challenges that were being made in his day to the reasonableness of Christianity. He wrote a book defending that reasonableness, the need for which clearly shows that even then, in the late 17th century, Christianity and revealed religion, including miracles, were under siege. And Descartes escaped religious oppression in France, spending most of his adult life in Holland, knowing that his freedom to follow the argument wherever it led would have caused him no dearth of religious difficulties in Catholic France. Nor, of course, did Dawkins suggest for one moment that Hasan was an unthinking or irrational idiot. Deluded, maybe, but, as he says so clearly, he pays him the compliment of supposing that he doesn’t believe fairy tales such as this.
Hasan’s answer, both at the time, and in his New Statesman article is to ask, “Can you prove that it’s wrong?” And then he goes on to say that the rational position is the agnostic position. What he says is this:
Those atheists who harangue us theists for our supposed lack of evidence should consider three things. First, it may be a tired cliché but it is nonetheless correct: absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. I can’t prove God but you can’t disprove him. The only non-faith-based position is that of the agnostic.
Now, this is just false. This would mean that we would have to be agnostic about every fanciful belief, and this is not a rational position. Dawkins’ contemptuous response, “Oh, come on, you’re a man of the twenty-first century!”, is just right, and again pays him the compliment of knowing better. There is simply no reason to believe in winged horses flying to heaven, and even if you can’t disprove the claim that someone in an earlier century flew to heaven on a winged horse, it is unreasonable to believe that he did. Just as it is unreasonable to believe that someone who was truly dead was subsequently brought to life again. The onus probandi in such cases rests with the person who is claiming something completely out of the ordinary, not on the person who reasonably questions whether such fanciful events actually occurred. Hasan must know this.
Besides, Hasan must explain why so much that is done in the name of religion is so evil. He kept pressing the point on Dawkins that religious people do good things. But it simply won’t do as a defence of religion merely to say that religious people do good things. Hasan needs to answer the question of the evil that is done in the name of his religion, the sequestering and oppression of women, for example, the intolerance of other religions which is endemic in the Muslim world, the anti-Semitism of Islam, and so on. Of course, Islam is not the only religion with problems of evil-doing. Christians underwriting draconian anti-gay legislation in Uganda, or trying to force raped women to bear the children of their rapists, are typical examples of religion doing evil. Or consider Hinduism. As one writer in the Guardian states, one of the big problems in India today is that high caste men from rural areas are moving to the cities where their traditional status is no longer taken with seriousness. They find that they are no longer respected as they expect to be, and that even women disrespect their conventional superiority. And this at least partly explains, according to Shreya Sen-Handley, the problem of women’s safety in the cities:
The dark side of India’s economic boom is that the largely uneducated adherents of this form of Hinduism [that is, the repressive Hinduism of caste and misogyny] are pouring into every corner of India. They are on a collision course with the laissez-faire middle-class Hindus of the cities. These often “upper caste” Hindu men of the hinterland pour into the cities in droves, where they find themselves disabused of their fondest beliefs, such as their superiority over women.
One of the things that is so striking today is the harm that is being done in the name of religion, world-wide. Day after day the stories pour out on the internet, of women being abused, marginalised and oppressed, gay people criminalised, child abuse by religious leaders covered up and rationalised — all in the name of religion. Certainly religious people do good things. It is a part of our nature to do good things, to feel empathy for the suffering; it is natural to reach out a hand to someone less fortunate, to help those who are in need. But, as Steven Weinberg says, for good people to do evil things it takes religion. Notice this. Weinberg doesn’t say that atheists are particularly good or significantly better than religious people. Some atheists are vile — as is becoming all too evident in the recent spate of misogynistic atheists on the internet. Weinberg’s point is that it takes religion to make good people do evil things. And the point here is that religion actually requires otherwise good people to do evil things. So using Stalin or Mao as counterweights to this doesn’t work, because there is nothing in atheism that commands any particular acts, good or bad. Atheists are just human beings who don’t believe in gods. If they do bad things, which doubtless many of them do, it is not because they are atheists, because there is no atheist catechism that requires precisely these acts; it is simply because they are bad.
This is something, of course, that Hasan simply doesn’t seem to understand — but he should. Because it was Hasan who said this (speaking to other Muslims — location and occasion undisclosed):
Notice how he has already taken the step that Hitler took with respect to the Jews (the germ theory that Hitler thought was so frightfully clever). Non-Muslims live like animals to fulfil any desire. This is a recipe for evil, and it is not at all surprising that someone who believes that Islam contains the moral high ground, without exception, because “what is halal is halal, and what is haram is haram,” and non-Muslims are, in fact, according to Islam, themselves haram. That is, the world is already neatly separated into the good and the forbidden, and those who do not accept this way of dividing up the world are not really human, for they are haram. They are animals — like the pigs and monkeys that Islam believes Jews to be descended from. And to animals you can be cruel. Indeed, you are required by halal rules to kill animals cruelly. But human beings you can treat even more barbarously, as the handless and footless, the beaten and the beheaded, testify. Islam is a cruel, inhuman creed. Not all Muslims are so, of course. But I believe, with Ayan Hirsi Ali and Wafa Sultan, that Islam is Islam, and that the myth of an extremist Islam is precisely that. Islam is extremist by definition. The same is true of Christianity, though the 17th century settlement tended to make religion mind its manners (more or less) during the last three centuries. But the liberal religion which grew out of this settlement is only an unstable waystation. It will eventually either fade away, or tip over into extremism again, when opportunity knocks. It does not stand a chance against the true believers, who will always choose irrationality over rationality, and then argue, like Hasan, that the only path for those who disagree is agnosticism. No, Hasan, that’s much too easy. Strident rejection of religious delusions is better. Anything else suggests that liberal religion is a living possibility. It isn’t, as the decline of liberal religion almost everywhere makes painfully plain.