‘A dialogue with the deaf’ in Glasgow
On November 6, 2000, in Islam Awareness Week, I spoke to the Edinburgh Humanist Group about my memorable encounter with Glasgow Muslims.
The Glasgow University Muslim Students’ Association (GUMSA) had approached the Humanist organisations through the internet looking for someone to speak on ‘Is Jesus relevant to the modern world?’ I volunteered, thinking that no one else was likely to do so and that at least l had some knowledge of the subject.
Later it turned out that GUMSA had arranged a series of “dialogues” from March 20-24 on the occasion of a visit to Glasgow by a Canadian Muslim leader. Shabir Ally, pictured top, is originally from Guyana but had lived in Canada for 20 years. He is a “self-taught expert on Comparative Religion” and regularly debates the matter. He had his own radio show in Toronto and had visited GUMSA in 1999.
A leaflet about the visit was headed “The Awakening Has Begun” and seemed concerned that “Muslims throughout the world are being misrepresented. GUMSA was formed in the late 1960s with the aim of clearing up misconceptions and creating an atmosphere:
Conducive to the Islamic spirit, wherein Muslim students at the University of Glasgow may practise and observe their religion.
Eventually, probably at Mr Ally’s suggestion, l was billed as debating with him on the subject “Is there a God?”; I was described, correctly, as an atheist. The “dialogue” was to be held in the Wellington Church in University Avenue on the evening of March 23. On March 21 there was to be a similar “dialogue” with Christian doctor Peter Saunders on “This House believes Jesus was a Muslim”.
In preparation, I looked at Mr Ally‘s website, which presents itself grandly as the “Islamic Information & Dawah Centre International”. I was especially interested in its claims that Islam encourages the use of science and the scientific method and that the Koran anticipated modern scientific discoveries, showing that it was divinely inspired and that therefore God (Allah) exists.
Of course close examination showed that the Koran was being distorted and reinterpreted, with a preference for poor English translations and an over-reliance on the confused scientific understanding of Dr Maurice Bucaille, the author of The Bible, the Qu’ran and Science (1975). Bucaille was a French (Catholic) surgeon who became the family physician of King Faisal and, evidently, an apologist for Islam. Ally’s website pretends that Bucaille was a reputable scientist
The Wellington Church was packed with Muslims (women upstairs) and a few brave Glasgow Humanists (they had reserved 300 tickets for us!), including Alan Henness who had agreed to act as a co-chairman. The format did not facilitate dialogue; each speaker was allocated a set time to speak in rotation, from the high pulpit.
I went first, pointing out that the question posed was one about “truth” and that this was not attainable. Through science, we can “approximate” truth and this has not shown any evidence for the existence of a god. Moreover, since the existence of god would be extraordinary, the onus of proof was on those who claimed that god exists to show evidence. I not have to show that he did not exist. In any case, as David Hume and Immanuel Kant showed, there could not be any evidence for the existence of a mysterious god. Nor was the existence of a god “necessary”.
Ockam’s Razor (a basic principle of science) teaches that we should not multiply entities unnecessarily; in fact we can explain almost everything around us without invoking a god, the ultimate entity. Claims of revelation are worthless and useless as evidence. Not even the claims of Jesus or Mohammed are of any value and both were wrong about Jesus’ identity.
I emphasised that claims are not evidence and ended by claiming that belief in a god has led to much misery and death for countless generations and that it distorts people’s view of the world.
Atheists believe that the cosmological claims of theists do not make sense and that they are mistaken. There is no god.
Mr Ally, in reply, naturally disputed that the onus of proof was on him and cited five reasons for believing in the existence of god, as follows:
1 The existence of the universe: God must have created it;
2 Argument from design (the Strong Anthropic Principle); since we exist in the universe, God must have intended us to be here;
3 Existence of moral values and the meaning of life. Without God there can be no morality;
4 The Koran, which reveals things unknown at the time;
5 People’s experience of God (revelation).
He also showed some slides, but I could not see them.
I tried to answer these points, refuting Ally’s arguments, but found it strange and surreal to be debating cosmology with him when the subject was beyond most of the audience. We spent some time debating the origin of the universe and the universal constants! Fortunately this is a subject l know something about, but my comments were wasted on both him and the audience. After a break, questions were directed at both Ally and me.
It was evident that the “dialogues” are arranged to give Ally a platform on which he can encourage the faithful and demonstrate his superiority and the inspiration of the Koran. It was, in fact, “a dialogue of the deaf” and a close encounter l would not wish to have again.
• This piece first appeared in the March, 2002, edition of the Freethinker.