Some time ago I published a sequence of posts on Christopher Hitchens’ god is not Great. (I never did finish the series, since other things got in the way. Perhaps one day I will return and discuss the remainder of the chapters of Hitchens’ book.) The one particularly in question is this one: Hitchens’ “god is not Great”: An Assessment: XI: “The Lowly Stamp of Their Origin”: Religion’s Corrupt Beginnings. Late to the discussion, yet very welcome, is Rahman, who set out to correct some of Hitchens’ errors. This discussion has now gone through several cycles. What I am going to do now is to post Rahman’s latest comment, then I will comment on that, and I invite others who are interested to join in the discussion.
At the heart of this discussion is the question, which arose very early on with the new atheists, when challenged by Terry Eagleton, whether an atheist critic of religion had to be thoroughly acquainted with the theology of the religion being critiqued before venturing a publish a public criticism of that religion. This was answered, as you may remember, by PZ Myers, in his “Courtier’s Reply.” There’s even a Rationalwiki, as well as a Wikipedia entry under this heading – here and here. Essentially, the question at issue was whether a thorough acquaintance of a religion’s theology was necessary in order to launch an effective critique of the religion itself. In his London Review of Books review of The God Delusion, “Lunging, Flailing, Mispunching,” Eagleton, you will remember, puts it in these rather high-flown terms:
What, one wonders, are Dawkins’s views on the epistemological differences between Aquinas and Duns Scotus? Has he read Eriugena on subjectivity, Rahner on grace or Moltmann on hope? Has he even heard of them? Or does he imagine like a bumptious young barrister that you can defeat the opposition while being complacently ignorant of its toughest case? Dawkins, it appears, has sometimes been told by theologians that he sets up straw men only to bowl them over, a charge he rebuts in this book; but if The God Delusion is anything to go by, they are absolutely right. As far as theology goes, Dawkins has an enormous amount in common with Ian Paisley and American TV evangelists. Both parties agree pretty much on what religion is; it’s just that Dawkins rejects it while Oral Roberts and his unctuous tribe grow fat on it.
Rahman’s concerns are slightly different, but not so different that there is no relation between his concerns and those expressed by Eagleton. One of the issues over which we have differed is as to the reliability of oral transmission. I will consider these points briefly below. You can always go back to the beginnings of the discussion, if you like, by clicking on the link above which will take you to the original post, and the later discussion prompted by Rahman’s intervention. John K has also been taking part in the discussion.
So, for the record, here is the latest of Rahman’s contributions.
Apparently “Hitchens was not talking theology”, well, sorry he was. According to the OED theology is “the study of the nature of God and religious belief”. If you make statements of the kind “The Islamic God has the following properties…(e.g. is a monoglot).” then you are discussing theology, because you are discussing the nature of God.
Your posts here are discussing theology too. Your admission that you “don’t need to know what the beliefs actually are” is rather disappointing, and leaves me puzzled a to why you would write long blog posts about a subject you have no interest in. I mean, I know nothing about medieval german literature, so wouldn’t it be strange for me to write a blog about the subject then when challenged with evidence that I’d got some facts wrong simply say, “well, I don’t need to know anything about medieval german [sic] literature to write this blog”.
Anyway, let’s leave that there, as I’m sure you can at least understand my point by now even if you don’t agree with it.
As for oral transmission of the Quran, as I said before there is no way to verify (in the scientific sense) virtually any historical event. It must be assessed on balance of probabilities. Sure, we can’t prove the Battle of Waterloo actually happened, but there is strong evidence to suggest it did, and little or no evidence to say it didn’t. As we go back it history, evidence even for true events naturally becomes more scarce: there is less evidence for Caesar than Napoleon, but most reasonable people would still think both existed. In a scientific sense, there is no experiment we can do to prove either existed though, so both are, in that sense, non-verifiable.
The fact that the Quran is memorised by thousands, maybe millions today, shows that it is possible for a human to remember it. And the oral transmission of the Quran perhaps only lasted 100 odd years until the first copies were written down (that is from non-religious historical evidence, most muslims [sic] think the Quran was written down almost immediately after the prophet’s death). Are you saying it was impossible to transmit accurately a document of the Quran’s length over one or two generations, given that at the time of the Prophet’s death hundreds or thousands of people had memorised it? [Yes, I am.]
I am a master of “baa baa black sheep”. When I recite that nursery rhyme, I literally NEVER get a word wrong. EVER. I am quite proud of that fact. My son is training to be a master of baa baa black sheep under my tuition. This is pure oral transmission, I know that because as yet my son cannot read. I think in a few months he too will be a master of baa baa black sheep, and I am confident even if he goes his whole life without ever seeing baa baa black sheep written down, years hence he could accurately transmit to his children. Do you disagree? If not, then what length is the text that becomes impossible for this to occur? Is it longer or shorter than the Quran, and how do you know?
Oh, and John, the 200,000 sayings you mention are the hadith, not the Quran. And there is methodology for ruling them out, transmission must be documented and must pass through only reliable transmitters. You may not agree with the methodology, but that doesn’t mean there wasn’t any.
I want to stress, once again, that this is only the latest of Rahman’s contributions. Hitchens says, in god is not Great, that Allah is a monoglot, and Rahman has set out to show me that he is not, and that the Qu’ran backs him up on this. He has provided references, which I will not repeat here, though you can find them in the linked discussion, if you think them important.
One of the arguments is that Allah had sent messengers to the Jews and Christians in their own languages. Rahman takes this as evidence that Allah speaks those languages as well. (I know, it’s all a bit fanciful, since there is no way of establishing that Allah even exists, let alone that he speaks in many languages.) However, there are several points militating against this stance: (i) many Muslims believe that the language of the Qu’ran is the language in which Allah delivered his message to Muhammad, and that therefore the Qu’ran, the words of which, alone, can move devout Muslims to tears, is written in the language of Allah; (ii) In the case of Christianity and Judaism, the revelation from God is not (at least for the most part) in the form of direct speech, but is mediated by a prophet or other spokesman who speaks with God’s authority; (ii) Muhammad is thought to have conveyed the very words spoken by Allah himself. These considerations seem to point to a difference in kind between the revelations to Christians and Jews and the revelation to Muhammad, which is assumed to be Allah’s final word, therefore ascribing to Arabic a central role in the divine revelation. This is strengthened even more when it is considered that no translation of the Qu’ran is the Qu’ran, which is why Marmaduke Pickthall, in his “translation” of the Qu’ran, entitles his book The Meaning of the Glorious Koran: An explanatory translation, clearly indicating that his text is at one remove from the divine revelation itself, which is available only in the original Arabic. These aspects of the status of the Qu’ran indicate to me that the Qu’ran is thought to have been written in the very language of Allah himself, and no other language can convey Allah’s message to humanity.
The other area of contention has to do with the oral transmission of the Qu’ran. Rahman takes as evidence that oral transmission can be 100% reliable the fact that many people now memorise the Qu’ran perfectly. He uses the example of “Baa, Baa, Black Sheep” as an example, and tells us that he is a master of the poem, and is training his son to be a master of the poem as well. The reliability of transmission, however, as I have already pointed out to Rahman, is made possible by have a written text to check whether one’s translation is in fact accurate or not. Qu’ran memorisers can always return to the text, or other can check their accomplishment against the text, to make sure that the words have been truly memorised. In the case of oral transmission, however, there is no way to check the reliability of transmission. All you have to go on is the latest oral iteration of the work, whether epic poem or sacred text, but the latest oral iteration of the text is not available as a measure against which to check the accuracy of transmission. In fact, studies have been done of oral transmission, and it is now well-known that changes, improvements and embellishments are added freely in the course of oral transmission.
As to Rahman’s points regarding history, he says directly that
As we go back it history, evidence even for true events naturally becomes more scarce: there is less evidence for Caesar than Napoleon, but most reasonable people would still think both existed. In a scientific sense, there is no experiment we can do to prove either existed though, so both are, in that sense, non-verifiable.
This is actually untrue. Historical events can be verified, some more or less conclusively. The Battle of Waterloo is a case in point. Historians work with records contemporary with the events, diaries, news reports, field reports by officers during the battle, reminiscences by those who took part in the battle, records (especially in the case of Waterloo) of what was done with the dead soldiers and animals — much of it, by the way, was shipped to England, the bodies of soldiers included, where it was used as fertiliser. And there are doubtless still artifacts on the original field of battle and along the route of retreat to Paris that confirm the events of what happened on those two decisive days from late on Saturday, 17th June 1815 to the main battle on Sunday, 18th June 1815. Of course, for many battles fought in the past we do not have anything like so much corroborative evidence, and the further back in history we go, the less evidence we have, and the less reliable a lot of it is, especially if it has been conveyed via oral tradition, like the Trojan war, or, if it comes to that, the life and works of Muhammad, which are to a great extent lost in the mists of the past. Tom Holland, in his latest book, The Shadow of the Sword, proposes a completely new understanding of Muhammad and how he came by the knowledge (as well as misinformation) included in the Qu’ran, which is far more plausible that the traditional Muslim accounts of Muhammad’s life, all of them coloured, as they are, by pious legend.
But doing what I have just been doing is not, despite Rahman’s claim, doing theology. Indeed, I am not terrifically interested in Islamic theology, for, like all theology, it is fanciful and tendentious word-spinning which is not rooted in what we can with any assurance be said to know. This is amply demonstrated by what Philip Kitcher calls the symmetry argument. Religious people become religious largely by means of childhood indoctrination. What religion you come to think valid or true is, by and large, dependent upon this upbringing. There is, in other words a symmetry between the way Christians become Christians and Muslims become Muslims, and the same goes for other religions. Yet all religions claim of themselves that they speak the truth, thus effectively undermining each other’s claims. The consequence is the existence of numerous religious traditions each claiming special divine revelations that cannot, in the nature of the case, be confirmed. Thus actually doing theology is, for the purposes, at least, of determining the truth claims of the religions, a waste of time. I have, on the other hand, gone on record as saying that, though religions are obviously human creations, we should expect that over the centuries the religions have become a repository of useful information about the nature of being human and how to live a good life. It would be, I think, worthwhile to survey the religions for this purpose, to seek out those things that can contribute to human flourishing and then to flush the dross away. I haven’t had many takers, and I have not myself undertaken the proposed research, but I still think the proposal has merit. As to the reliability of the religions as vehicles of the truth about god or about transcendent things, the only reasonable position is a determined scepticism.