The Great Debate : Should God have a place in the 21st Century?

The Atheist Foundation of Australia was challenged to an "Atheism vs Islam" debate,  by the Muslim Students' Association at the University of Western Sydney. The debate was held on 16 September 2010, 6-9pm, at the Parramatta campus of UWS. The agreed title was as above. The format of the debate was as follows:

Talks 15 minutes each (each of the 4 speakers presents his case)
    Muslim talk 1 - Wassim Doureihi, a well-known activist and speaker in the Muslim community.
    Atheist talk 1 John Perkins
    Muslim talk 2 - Uthman Badar, a PhD student (Islamic Economics), political activist in Hizb ut-Tahrir.
    Atheist talk 2 - Hossain Salahuddin is an atheist activist and a former Muslim, AFA member.
Rebuttals - 15 minutes each team (each TEAM has 15 mins to rebut the other)
    Muslim rebuttal 1
    Atheist rebuttal 2
Cross questioning - 15 minutes each
    Muslim cross questioning 1
    Atheist cross questioning 2
Q&A session- 1 hour
Total - talks (1 hr), rebuttals (30 mins), cross (30 mins) and Q&A (1 hour) = 3 hours
Following is a report of the event, with links. Below is text of John Perkins talk. Words in italics are departures from the prepared text.

Report on debate

We were aware that Muslims do things differently, but did not realise that this also applies to debates. Firstly when we went into the theatre we were told that women must sit on the right and men on the left. Secondly when the debate was due to start, our opponents were nowhere to be seen. Only when they finished their prayers could the debate start. When it did, both Muslim debaters started with an Arabic invocation.

Wassim started off in quite a polemical and dismissive way, I thought. In my talk I tried to concede as much to them as I could before beginning the criticism of Islam. I talked more about the "religion" question, while Hossain talked more about the "god" question.

As the debate wore on, the mostly pro-Islam audience started barracking more boisterously for their side. In criticising Islam you can always have fears for your personal safety. I was not as worried about the audience reaction as Hossain, I think. I took most of it to be akin to a football crowd barracking for their team.

In the Q&A some of the questioners were too aggressive and were asked to leave. The MC chaired it pretty well. Muslims are not accustomed to expressions of doubt or criticism of Islam. Most of the Muslims there probably heard many times more challenges to their beliefs than they ever heard in their lives.

I thought Wassim was strident at the start, but conciliatory at the end. As far as the debate went, I thought that it was pretty clear that the Muslim side were evasive in their answers. They were probably expecting the debate to be about god and did not expect the Koran to be debunked. They hold the divinity of the Koran to be central, yet it seemed the they were aware that they could rely on this argument in the context of the debate.

The whole thing was probably a very unusual event all round. Talking to others afterwards, I think we agreed on this: If anyone thinks that Islam is not going to be a real problem in future, think again. For diligent belivers. their views as so fixed, so challenging to secular values, they can't help but be an on-going challege to non-Muslim societies.

None of the atheists who heard one particular episode will ever forget it. Someone at the back challenged my statement that Muhammad was the leader of an insurgency. He was starting to get a bit aggressive, raving on. The last thing he said was "Islam will conquer the world". Then the whole Muslim audience cheered! (video at 2:02)

It was a bit scary. Hossain said to me he was worried. I have heard feedback that some were concerned, but I don't think the atheist audience was at risk. Hossain and I could have been at risk from a real nutter, when getting away from the place. The security people who were provided to us were professional and up to the task I think. They erred on the side of caution, escorting us to the cars, and in cars away from the place.

Video of event
AFA discussion
Muslim student discussion
Hizb ut-Tahrir Australia conference 2010

Atheist talk 1

First, I would like to apologise in advance in case what I will say may shock some of you. It is not my intention to offend anyone. Second I would like to state our objection to the fact that we were told that women should sit on one side, and men on the other, for this debate. We think that this kind of gender separation is inappropriate in this context.

I thank the organisers for the invitation to participate in debate as part of Islam Awareness Week. We all should have a greater awareness about Islam. But most of all, I think, it is Muslims themselves who need to have a greater awareness of Islam.

This type of awareness may not be one that Muslims are familiar with. It is one that comes from a critical evaluation of Islam. It is an awareness that comes from reason, evidence, and the application of rational thinking. This is the awareness of the atheist.

From an atheist perspective, see no evidence for the existence of any god, or gods, or any angels, spirits or souls. Science has long ago provided natural explanations for our origins. No gods are required.

When we die, we are dead. Our brains cease to function. Consciousness leaves us. There is no afterlife. Before we were born we did not exist. After we die, we will not exist. Do we really want to go to a place inhabited by billions of other dead people? For eternity? No, this is the only life we have. We must make the most of it. We must each do our best, for ourselves, and for others.

I am an atheist, but I do have a great sympathy with Muslims. I recognise the injustices they suffer. I deplore the illegal invasion of Muslim lands. I deplore the dispossession of Palestinians from their land. I deplore that this dispossession arises from a belief, held by the Israelis, that their religion gives them a superior entitlement to land, to that of others. There is no Promised Land. There are no Chosen People.

I sympathise with the suffering of Muslims. But most of all, I sympathise with because of Islam. When Christianity plunged Europe into the Dark Ages, Muslim societies led the world in knowledge. But since these glory days of Muslim culture and achievement, Muslim societies have been in decline. This centuries old decline is not just in relation to the West. It is now in relation to the East as well. Why?

Today, we see that Muslim countries (apart from those with oil wealth) are wracked by poverty, social deprivation, backwardness, authoritarianism and violence. What is the principal reason for this? Islam. Islam is not the solution. Islam is the problem.

I see that our friends from Hizb ut Tahrir held a conference in July on Khilafah, or the Caliphate. One of the speakers, Salim Atchia, from the UK made the point that Islam is incompatible with secular democracy. I agree with him, as do many others on both sides of the debate, including Ayaan Hirsi Ali. The principal reason, as stated by Salim Atchia, is that Islam does not accept the primacy of civil law over Sharia law. The laws of the Koran are fixed and cannot be changed by democratic parliaments.

I applaud Salim Atchia when he suggests a solution to the great contradiction between Islam and secular democratic society. He suggests that we should have a debate. Indeed we should have a debate. Just like this!.

On the Caliphate, again I sympathise with Muslims. It would be great if all the world could come together, follow one set of rules, and unite in submission to the same religion. If it were true, Islam would be a great idealistic vision for the future. If it were true.

In fact we know that Islam, like other religions, is not true. This is a different question to the philosophical question as to whether we can disprove the existence of an invisible, undetectable entity, such as a god, somewhere in the universe. As statements of historical record, religions are not true, including Islam. Note that to prove something false, we need to find only one contradiction. Religions are full of contradictions.

When we look at all religions, including Islam, we see that they are based on ancient legends and creation myths that have been thoroughly discounted by modern science.

Islam claims the heritage of both Judaism and Christianity, and claims the earlier Prophets as part of their own. These three religions are known as Abrahamic religions, as they all hold Abraham to be an important Prophet.

What does the archaeological evidence tell us about the Prophet Abraham or Ibrahim, as he is known in Islam? A lot of work has been done on this. Just last Sunday there was a programme on SBS called "The Bible's Buried Secrets", continued this Sunday. The evidence is, and they state, that "the early legends of the Bible are all mythical".

This is especially so for the Prophet Abraham. Biblical dating indicates he should have lived 4000 years ago. But the Israelites did not emerge as a group distinct from other Canaanites until 3000 years ago. And they were polytheistic. They were not monotheistic until about 2500 years ago. As always happens, ancient myths were incorporated to bolster the credibility of a new religion.

Where does this leave Islam, where it is claimed in the Koran that Abraham built the Kaaba in Mecca? With no credibility. There is no historical Abraham. He did not build the Kaaba. A central tenet of Islam is false. This is, of course, not the only problem.

We know that evolution is true and creationism is false. We have known this for 150 years. We also know why creationist beliefs persist in defiance of all the evidence. We know that there are powerful sociological and psychological forces at work that condition religious beliefs, and cause blindness to contradictions. We know there are powerful emotional factors, fear, guilt and loyalty to family and culture that are extremely coercive in matters of religious belief. We know that these emotional inducements can be very effective, and deep, especially when applied to the minds of children.

Islam is a creationist religion. The Koran mentions Allah as a creator god over forty times. Whatever interpretation we put on the Koran, we really cannot find any clues there to evolution, the origin of species, and the ancestry of humans.

Here are some verses from different parts of the Koran that are particularly problematic (Dawood translation). Man was created from clay (6:1, 15:26, 23:12) from water (21:30, 25:54), from dust (3:59, 30:20, 35:11), from the earth (11:61), from wet earth from a germ (16:4), from nothing (19:67), from a drop of ejaculated semen (75:37), from gushing fluid (86:5) from a little germ (80:18), from clots of blood (96:1), from dust and germ (18:37), dust, germ, then clot of blood (22:5), (40:67).

There is no mention of evolution here. If there was god that created life on earth, then what was the purpose of evolution? Why did a god not just create everything as we see it now? All this is really a problem for those who claim that the Koran is a revelation from the creator. Why is it that the creator appears to have no knowledge of how things were created? Why is it that the Koran merely reflects 7th century knowledge and the legends and myths of other religions?

Some may say that this is irrelevant, that religion gives a sense of purpose, of meaning to life, and moral guidelines. To them, I say that there are better alternatives. We can base our lives on universal ethical principles like honesty, justice, freedom and compassion.

Should God have a place in the 21st century? People have a right to believe, but not to impose their beliefs on others. Instead, we should strive to have beliefs based on reason and evidence, not ancient traditions. Religions divide us and cause conflict. Yet we know they have no basis in the light of 21st century knowledge. This is the most important awareness that Muslims and those of other religions can achieve. No, God should not have a place in the 21st century?

Rebuttal 1
We have provided evidence as to why the Koran contains errors and is therefore false. Out opponents have not provided any evidence why it is true.

I would like to reply to some of the pints made by Wassim. He said there are many things science cannot explain. Yes science does not have all the answers. But scientists are looking for answers. Scientific method is the best way to find truth. Relying on some ancient text is not.

Wassim referred to the great wars of the 20th century and blamed secularism. Secularism and atheism are not responsible for these crimes and wars. Secularism was not the motivation. However religion is responsible for all the religions wars and crimes in history.

By contrast with religion, secularism and scientific advancement have brought enormous benefits to humanity. All the benefits of modernity, higher wealth and incomes, health benefits and increased longevity are all the because of technical progress and scientific method.

I would like to say something about what brought me to atheism.

In the 21st century we will be facing many problems never faced before: global warming, resource depletion, shortages, higher prices and on-going economic and social problems. All or these may increase the possibility of conflict. We do not need the threat of religious conflict as well.

I would like to mention another aspect of Islam that we should be aware of. The prophet Muhammad was a military leader. His campaign began as an insurgency. He was a brilliant military strategist. Without his early success, Islam may never have been established as a great religion. Many of his revelations are proclamations issued during his military campaigns. This legacy remains an important part of the character of Islam.

The main reason I became an atheist activist was because of my concern about where religious conflicts may lead us in future. So please, lets try to resolve our conflicts. Lets examine our beliefs. Lets keep debating. Otherwise we may be heading for disaster. This is why I think we should not be relying so much on our beliefs in god in the 21st century.

John Perkins
September 2010