Solomon Schimmel – Specious Proofs for Quranic Divinity

February 02, 2007

Solomon Schimmel is a psychologist of religion and Professor of Jewish Education and Psychology at Hebrew College. He has been a Fulbright Senior Research Scholar and Visiting Fellow at Cambridge University and has lectured widely throughout the world. An expert on the psychology of forgiveness and reconciliation among the world’s religions, he is the author of The Seven Deadly Sins: Jewish, Christian, and Classical Reflections on Human Psychology and Wounds Not Healed by Time: The Power of Repentance and Forgiveness, both published by Oxford University Press. His forthcoming book, also to be published by Oxford University Press, is tentatively titled The Tenacity of Unreasonable Beliefs: Jewish Christian and Muslim Scriptural Fundamentalists.

In this discussion with D.J. Grothe, Professor Schimmel discusses the psychology of religion, why some believers use specious arguments for the divine authorship of their sacred texts, and the threat to civilization that certain Muslim extremists pose. He also talks about the obligation he says scholars have to undermine such anti-social and anti-democratic belief-systems.

This is point of inquiry for Friday, February 2nd, 2007. Welcome to Point of inquiry, I’m DJ Grothe a point of inquiries, the radio show and podcast of the Center for Inquiry, a think tank collaborating with the State University of New York at Buffalo on the new science and the public master’s degree. CFI also has branches in Manhattan, Tampa, Hollywood, California. Washington, D.C. and Toronto, Ontario, Canada. In addition to 14 other cities around the world, each week on this show, we look at the big questions through the lens of scientific naturalism. Before we get to this week’s guest, I want to tell you that point of inquiry just this last weekend attended the Scripture and Skepticism Conference at University of California at Davis. And while there, I recorded a conversation with Tony Van Pelt, director of CFI is Office of Public Policy in Washington, D.C.. Here’s that conversation. 

I’m pleased to be joined by Tony Van Pelt. She directs our Office of Public Policy. Out of our branch in Washington, D.C. And she is here at the Scripture and Skepticism Conference that we’re recording some of these other interviews that we’ll be sharing on point of inquiry in the weeks and months ahead. Also, a couple of special series devoted exclusively to some of those topics. But anyway, now with Tony Van Pelt, welcome to Point of Inquiry, Tony, again. Oh, yay. Thank you so much for having me, A.J.. It’s been an exhausting week and we’ve interviewed something like fifteen, sixteen different scholars, leaders in their field. You are not a biblical critic. I’m not a biblical critic. We’re going to talk about something else. We’re going to talk about some of CFI as of coming activities in D.C. and on Capitol Hill. 

Yes. And we’re going to talk about things that are fun and exciting and that will advance our movement and our culture. And the first thing we’re going to talk about is February 15th and our Darwin Day celebration. 

This is a briefing. It’s a Darwin Day celebration, but also a briefing that we’re doing on Capital Hill that you’ve organized. Yeah, yep. 

Our very first briefing, CFI, is the sponsor, and I’m happy to say that we’re having it in the Science and Technology Committee room. It’s being sponsored by the House committee, which is very huge. And it’s being co-sponsored by Congresswoman Lynn Woolsey from California. We’re in California. So that’s really apropos. And we’re going to be airing the flack of the DEBTORS’, which is a documentary by Randy Olson. And Randy is an evolutionary biologist turned filmmaker. His mom is Muffy Moose and Muffy Moose. His mom lives in Kansas, where we know the school board controversy about evolution versus intelligent design, which is what the topic of the briefing is and the topic of the film is. 

So you’re airing the film during the briefing or as separate event during the briefing? 

We’re airing the film to educate Congress folks and staff on evolution versus intelligent design. 

Wow. I can’t imagine they’ve gotten much of that here to for this is really a groundbreaking event that CFI is bringing to CAP. 

It is. It’s very exciting. And also, we’re bringing in or flying in Professor Barbara Forest. And she was one of the expert witnesses at the Dover trial, which I’m sure everybody listening is familiar with here in case someone isn’t familiar with that. 

That’s the trial last year in Dover, Pennsylvania. The school board where there was a big conflagration about teaching intelligent design in that public school system. Barbara, for us, you said was a lead witness in that case. 

Right. And she’s a professor from a school in Louisiana and she is currently writing CFI is position paper on intelligent design and evolution. And we’re going to be releasing that paper at this briefing on the Hill. Wow. Yeah. So we’re really excited. We’re also going to have Randy Olson, filmmaker there. And further, we’re going to be going and showing the film at the Avalon Theater, which is really a cool theater in northwest D.C. to the wider community. 

So so this is sponsoring this is open to our listeners and members of the community who want to see this same documentary that we’re bringing to capitalize. 

Right. Right. Yeah, it’s very exciting. It’s twelve dollars to the general public. But if you are a center for inquiry friend, it’s only nine dollars and seventy. 

One of the benefits. Now, if that’s not a reason, become in front of the center. What is, Tony? This sounds like a great event were it’s proof in the pudding. We’re doing what we said we’re going to do on Capitol Hill. Why are we doing it even now with the Democrat controlled Senate and House? There are, I take it, still a lot of upcoming bills, threats from our perspective. 

Well, look, you know, for centuries and centuries we have been challenged by the religious right and we want to keep our secular government and we have to be there and we have to stand up because they’re never going to stop. So even though we do have a Democratic Congress, they’re still being bad. Bills are being introduced and some of them are really, really threatening to our secular government, our secular way of life. 

Tell me about. I guess it’s called the We the People Act. 

Well, the We the People Act, which is introduced in the House, claims that the U.S. Supreme Court and the lower federal courts have made decisions on religious liberties, sexual orientation, family relations, education and abortion that have been wrested from the states and local governments to have final say. 

So it’s basically saying that activist judges are legislating from the bench. And this bill seeks to stop that. 

It seeks to gut the ability of federal courts to overturn legislation or government actions that violate church state separation, which is so big for us and other constitutional protections. 

What are we what are we going to do about it? 

A couple of things we’re gonna do about as we build a coalition. And I think that this is important for people to know about. It’s the Card Coalition, which is the Coalition Against Religious Discrimination CFI. As part of that coheres. We’re part of this broader coalition. We’re working with folks like Americans United for Separation of Church and State and others and. And so we’ve got a legislative strategy on the Hill, and one of the things that our our members can do. Our communities leaders can do and is besides becoming a friend of the center, is to go to our Web site and sign up for our action alerts so that you can participate in our government by sending off e-mails to your legislators, e-mails and letters. 

So this is when a listener goes to our Web site. They plug in their email address and then they’re alerted. When you out of the Office of Public Policy, you folks out there issue an action alert to mobilize our base to affect the opinions, hopefully even the votes of our legislators. 

Absolutely. Because you know that the religious right is doing that. And up until now, most of the lawmakers have been hearing these big campaigns from the religious right folks. And and suddenly, because we’re on the Hill and others like us, they’re hearing from our people. So you can actively you and the audience can actively affect what’s going on in our culture. 

By signing up and participating in these projects, there are other bills coming down the pike that we’re organizing our our listeners, our readers, our subscribers around. 

Yes. Unfortunately, Representative John Murtha has just reintroduced a bill and it’s a proposed amendment to our Constitution. So I find this to be really, really dangerous. It would say that public school officials would be able to include prayer in official ceremonies and meetings. 

Democratic Representative Murtha, the representative that so many of us like for his opposition to the war in Iraq, he’s introducing a bill that would allow prayer back into the public schools. 

Yeah, for sure. So citizens would not have the First Amendment right to prevent public schools from really being turned into religious academies. 

So a center for inquiry is not Democrat or Republican. We’re not pushing for one party or the other. It’s about the issues. 

That’s right. It’s about the issues. And then what’s really important about that next is that a representative, a Republican representative, has reintroduced another bill that would essentially permit houses of worship to act like political operations, but would allow them to retain their tax privileges as non-profits. 

Well, that’s that’s Representative Walter Jones out of he’s a Republican out of North Carolina. That’s basically turning churches and other houses of worship into political machines. 

That’s right. And secular nonprofits would not be afforded the same opportunity. So we wouldn’t be able to support candidates and keep our nonprofit status. 

But churches could do actual politicking for candidates that they felt supported the churches points of view. Wow. So, Tony, we’ve been working together a long time, and I know from long conversations with you that sometimes it’s hard to be optimistic about the future when there’s so much of this bad news. Give me a reason to be optimistic. 

Well, one of the reasons to be optimistic is that we are standing up and we are stepping up and moving forward and and to do that on September 29 for the first time this year. The Center for Inquiry is holding civic days at the Capitol. 

So this is a citizen training for secularist activists. 

Yes, but we’re asking folks that are going to participate before they leave home to call up their Congress folks and make appointments so that they have personal appointments. And when they come, they can either do that for they have their appointments on Monday or Tuesday and we’ll put people into groups, will educate on Monday and then put you into groups will go up on the Hill. We’ll all wear the same color. Perhaps it will be blue and we will march through the halls of Congress and they will see that our secular community is really concerned about our democracy for the first time. We’re going to be storming the halls of Congress. 

Wow. We’re going to train our activists to talk with their elected officials about our issues. Yes. What about our listeners and the activists who support the Center for inquiry who can’t come to D.C. during the civic days in September of 2000? 

Well, they can still participate, T.J.. They can participate from home on their computers and on their telephone, because we will send out via e-mail and otherwise alerts on the same legislation so that you can be educated, that you can be sending an e-mail so that our representatives will be receiving those e-mails and phone calls at the same time that they’re seeing our people in person. 

Brilliant strategy. That’s why you were the woman on the job heading up this operation, Tony. Thank you very much for joining me on Point of Inquiry. 

Thank you so much for having me. T.J., it’s my pleasure. 

The world is under assault today by religious extremists to invoke their particular notion of God to try and control what others think can do. One magazine is dedicated to keeping you up to date with analysis that cuts through the noise and the surprising courage to appear politically incorrect. That magazine is Free Inquiry, the world’s leading journal of secular humanist opinion and commentary. Regular contributors include Richard Dawkins, Wendy Kaminer, Christopher Hitchens, Peter Singer and Sam Harris. Their views are reasoned, thought provoking and to some, unpardonable, infuriating. Subscribe to free inquiry today. One year, six controversial issues for 1995. Call one 800 four five eight one three six six or visit us on the Web at Secular Humanism, Dawg. 

As I mentioned earlier this past weekend, point of inquiry attended the Scripture and Skepticism Conference, co-sponsored by the Center for Inquiries Committee for the Scientific Examination of Religion. Caesar was a fantastic conference, with no exaggeration. The leading biblical and Koranic scholars from around the world. It was more of an academic conference than any CFI conference I’ve ever been to. And if you’ve been to CFI conferences, you know, sometimes some of us who are more curmudgeonly than others kvetch that it’s too academic already. Well, this conference was scholars discussing with scholars their scholarship. We were really pleased during the conference to record a number of conversations with these acclaimed and influential scholars. One such discussion was with Solomon Schimel, a professor of Jewish education and psychology at Hebrew College. Professor Schimel was a Fulbright senior research scholar and visiting fellow at Cambridge University. He’s lectured around the world. He’s authored a number of books, including The Seven Deadly Sins, Jewish, Christian and Classical Reflections on Human Psychology. And Our Discussion Covered the psychology of religion and his forthcoming book titled The Tenacity of Unreasonable Beliefs Jewish, Christian and Muslim Scriptural Fundamentalists. It’s soon to be out by Oxford University Press. Here is that discussion with Professor Schimel. 

Professor Schimmer, welcome to Point of Inquiry. Thank you very much. I appreciate this opportunity to speak with your audience. Professor, you gave a talk here at the scriptural skepticism conference exploring, in your words, why some bright, educated Muslims offer specious proofs for the divine authorship of the Koran. 

Yes. Well, first you to find what a specious proof is. Why don’t you tell me are the kinds of specious proofs that Muslims sometimes offer different than the kinds of incourt, specious proofs that other monotheistic apologists would offer? 

No. And it’s not only fundamentalists of religion who offer specious proof for things. Specious proof is simply an argument that’s presented in a form or structure that appears to be logical and convincing. But upon further analysis, one sees the flaws in the argumentation and therefore it’s called specious and also sometimes it is deceptive. But do you find these kind of arguments across the religious spectrum and in the non-religious spectrum as well to be communist? The apologetics and you’ll find the same thing. 

So if if we’re focusing on the kind of specious proofs offered for scriptures, why are you focusing just on Islam? Well, here here you are, a professor at Hebrew College. You have an ax to grind against Muslims. 

Well, I have, first of all, several agendas there. I know you call them axes to grind, but they’re not hidden agendas. They’re quite open agendas. But first, let me point out that the presentation I gave at the conference of which I was only allotted 30 minutes, understandably, is really excerpted from this book that I hope that will be published in the year and a half or so, perhaps by Oxford University Press, in which I have a chapter on Christian fundamentalism, on ultra Orthodox Jewish fundamentalism. So it’s not that I have singled out Islam. It’s just that in the context of this particular conference, I felt it was one of the topics I suggested, and that was it was kind of accepted for presentation. 

So you’re not an Islamophobic Jewish scholar? 

I definitely would not characterize myself that way. I am a Jewish scholar. I also I’m very interested, actually, in encouraging the moderate voices in the world of Islam. I’ve actually published and lectured on ways in which the Internet can be used for trialogues about forgiveness and reconciliation between Jews, Christians and Muslims. I’m visited very recently and a trip to Israel a a Muslim college of education, and I hope that we’ll be able to establish relationships with our Hebrew college. However, I am very much concerned as an American and also as a Jew with the manifestation of extreme radical Islamic fundamentalism. I think we have to be very proactive in countering the ideology. It’s a dangerous ideology. Everybody knows that. I don’t have to tell anybody that. And therefore, one of my agendas is to try to clarify both Muslims and non-Muslims, the flaws in that ideology and the dangers of the ideology. So if if I found Jewish fundamentalists who were doing things that I considered to be threatening to prosocial involvement in society or Christian fundamentalists, I would do the same thing. 

And I do, too. And you’re going to treat that in this forthcoming book? Oh, yes, very explicitly. OK. So you’ve addressed that. You don’t think your views are especially intolerant of Muslims, your kind of an equal opportunity critic? Yes. So let’s get into the specific claims about the Koran. OK. There are Muslim apologists who have large audiences of devout Muslims who make claims about scientific knowledge appearing in the Koran. 

You find those claims specious. Right. Let’s get into one of these such claims. There’s the claim that the Koran and the Hadith, that’s the collection of sayings of Muhammad and his companions. And there’s the claim that these writings contain scientific and medical knowledge, facts about, let’s say, human embryonic development or geology or biology or modern astronomy or cosmology. 

That in these. Centuries old texts that there are facts about science that could not have been known. Were they not divinely revealed, because only in the light of modern day science has the West discovered these facts. Correct. Let’s look at embryonic development first. One of the CERASO, the Koran, one of the VS.. Talks about how we’ve created man from the essence of clay and placed him in a drop of fluid, placed that in a safe place. It goes on. But it sounds an awful lot like a description of embryonic development. Yes. 

Well, it is a description of embryonic development based upon the knowledge or the inaccurate knowledge that was available in the six seventh century of the common era. And the Koran is repeating whatever was known at that time. 

As I say, some of the descriptions are also actually inaccurate. 

It’s the argument that I’m referring to is when a contemporary Muslim or non-Muslim who supports this Muslim argument says that the specifics of embryonic development as we know them from modern biology, genetics and molecular development, whatever fields relate to this, are already embedded or known in the Koran or esoterically coded in the Koran. That’s where the argument is specious. And the thing is that this is a very old argument that one finds in the Muslim apologetics and that all Muslims make this claim, not even while fundamentalist Muslims make this claim. So I’m busy because I am I’m interested in the psychology of belief systems and how people argue in defense of their belief systems. So this is particularly kind of extreme or egregious example of arguments that to a neutral observer, are highly implausible. So. 

And I’m interested why is it that people who are otherwise quite intelligent and educated and many of the Muslims who are bringing forth this kind of a claim are individuals, P.H., these and various scientific fields? So I was trying to understand why they prefer these Pru’s what’s going on in their mind that allows them to make these kind of claims in a way where they seem to be believing that their arguments are actually quite rational. 

Well, let me ask you, do you think that their faith is so weak that they’re looking for these specious arguments or this is a broader question about the psychology belief and maybe get more into that in a bit. But I’m fascinated and I know much more about evangelical Protestant fundamentalism or that that line of apologetics, but where an evangelical Protestant says here is scientific proof to validate my fundamentalism. Right. As if their fundamentalist faith isn’t strong enough without scientific proof. 

Yes. Well, that’s a that’s another whole interesting topic. What is the attitude of fundamentalism, particular evangelical fundamentalism told science and rationality. 

Let’s touch on that and then we’ll get back to talking about some of these lines of evidence from the Koran. 


But actually, some analysts of Christian fundamentalism have pointed out that George Marzin, for example, or James Barr, that the fundamentalist movement that really gets that name in the early nineteen hundreds was trying to appeal to human reason to validate its belief. For example, in the inerrancy of the Bible, and if you look at some works of systematic theology coming from that school of Christianity, it’s a very formal, logical structure of argumentation to justify or to prove what again to an outside of what is their objective and outside perhaps neutral observer even. That’s dangerous work, because who’s neutral is is clearly specious in terms of, for example, attempting to reconcile contradictions across biblical texts. So some of the fundamentalists and I’m differentiating them from evangelicals actually were a little wary of faith or personal experience as a basis for grounding one’s religious Christian commitments. And that itself is an interesting question, why we don’t have time to go into all that. So the idea that you try to use reason to defend faith commitments, it’s actually nothing new or modern. It’s a major theme of medieval theology. And it was debated in Christianity, in Judaism and Islam. To what extent should should and could reason be employed to substantiate the claims of faith? 

So one argument was that the more rationalist like Aquinas or my minorities, the Jewish and the Vitalis, the medieval Islamic philosopher, was that since they perceived man as the epitome of creation and that which differentiates man from the animal world is man’s rationality and that God is rational. Therefore, it would only make sense that religion would be compatible with rationality and therefore one should try to find the rationality and the reason in religion. And to have blind faith is an inferior form of faith. However, there was another school that said if you accept that the Koran or the Hebrew Bible or the New Testament a divinely revealed and you pick your truth, the faith and trust in God, then shouldn’t that suffice for your religious commitments? Why do you need reason? And reason itself is often fallible because we all make errors of reason. Even logicians can, you know, make errors of reason. So this is a very old debate and it’s a debate that is going on today as well within the religious traditions and even within fundamentalist religious traditions. So I can just give you a kind of little general background here. 

So getting back to the Koran, then a lot of the Muslim apologists who are, from my perspective, reading into the Koran, their 21st century scientific understanding. If I were placing bets, it seems like rather than just taking the Koran at face value and in faith, they’re looking for these other reasons, good reasons, they argue to believe in it. Let’s talk about one of those other lines of argument related to cosmology, the notion that in Shara’a 21 that the. Heavens and Earth were one entity and then divided. And you see some of that and the creation accounts in the Hebrew Bible. Well, someone who did not know something about nuclear physics could not have found out on his own that the heavens and the earth were once a single entity. Isn’t this that’s a claim that some of the Muslim apologists make? Well, isn’t isn’t that more proof of chronic divinity or the divine inspiration of the Koran? 

Well, you know, those verses that are being quoted is Koranic verses, rather vague or metaphorical. And those kinds of ideas about the heaven, the earth, one, having been one entity and then separated out, are pretty common in ancient cosmologies of many different cultural groups. 

So the one can take a any kind of a vague or amorphous statement. And precisely because it’s not specific, you can then read into it, as you said, which is also called Ice Jesus as countries. That exegesis you read into the texts, almost whatever you want, because it’s very hard to contradict what you’re saying, that the text is vague enough to kind of absorb anything. I was speaking to a gentleman here at the conference who is a physicist, and he was telling me that he was, I think, on a committee or something of some student who was making this kind of a claim about the, you know, the Big Bang Theory or something of nuclear physics or theory of relativity actually being included in some of these Koranic texts. And he said to this young woman, could you talk a little bit about ISIS theory, relativity, or what do you know about nuclear physics? I haven’t taken a course in physics, and the answer was no. So, of course, this upset him greatly. How could you have the audacity to try to say that the text is telling you what Einstein said? If you don’t even know. And I sense that now some of the people who are writing these apologetic works do know what Einstein said. So that’s the point. 

Again, that’s what intrigues me as a psychologist, that you can have Muslim physicists who know physics and still claim that what we know today is somehow alluded to or embedded in these Koranic texts. 

That is that is an interesting question, how these men and women of science grounded in the methods of science, the outlook of science. They’ve they have PTSD in these advanced scientific fields and can still believe in the inerrancy or the divine inspiration of the Koran or the Bible, the New Testament, etc. And that, in fact, that brings up something I find really interesting, that this seems to be kind of the opposite of biblical or chronic literalism. Some believers in the Bible or the Koran, they look at it and take it as literally true. But these kinds of educated, scientifically grounded thinkers who are still believing in the Koran, it’s like they’re making an attempt to argue that the Koran is true by reading into the text, the current scientific understanding. It’s not like the anti evolutionists who say the Bible contradicts evolution. There are Christian thinkers who say no evolution is revealed in the Bible. Some of these Muslim apologists say Darwin’s theory of evolution is revealed in the Koran. It’s the opposite of absolute literalist. 

And you buy you find both of these approaches, orientations in the pathogenic literature of all the all these three religions. And it’s quite fascinating. You know, if you go on the Internet and you look at these various sites, how it within these groups themselves with Christian, devout Christian groups and devout Muslims, they themselves are arguing about, which is the appropriate way of understanding the Koran and of relating modernity to their traditional religion. So it’s it’s something that’s in flux and in debate. And for my perspective, both approaches and particularly rational or plausible, I find it just much more plausible to think of all of these scriptures as works of human thought. Whether you call them mythology’s and I don’t mean that any way, a pejorative, derogatory sense mythologies can carry very important marvel truths or ethical truths, or they’re just theories of ancient people who don’t have science. And we shouldn’t be kind of condescending towards the past because we’re living in the present. We would not have thought any differently if we were living than ourselves. So to me, if I read the first chapter of Genesis and that’s also something more that appears in the Koran, that God created the world in six days, etc.. Meaning it literally doesn’t bother me as long as I don’t take it as having meant to be a scientific statement. So it has some very nice, important ideas of values embedded in it is trying to explain the order in nature. It’s trying to encourage people to be good. Whatever the case may be. So both of the. Is that you find all the apologists to me are quite rational and implausible, so it gives me a lot of risk for my mil. 

Professor Schimel, another line of argument some Muslim apologists use and rather effectively you, because you hear this argument parroted by a lot of believers in the divine authorship of the Koran. Well, this line says that the Koran is unique and excellent in its Arabic, that it is inimitable that on no other Arabic text has ever been written like it and no other Arabic text could ever be written like it. In other words, it has the signature of God all over it in Sora to Allah is speaking to skeptics. And he says, if you have doubts about the divine revelation of the Koran, why don’t you produce a cerar yourself? If you think you can, and if you can’t replicate a Cerar on your own, then you should conclude that the Koran is divinely authored. A lot of Muslims buy that argument. 

Yes, they do. Now, you also have to realize that that phrase expression itself is not particularly clear. It says, see if you can produce something like it. But what the like it refers to isn’t really explicit in the Koran versus themselves. So you have a very long history of Islamic interpretation of what that meant in its own context. It probably made a lot of sense because Mohammed was preaching some new doctrine. He was being rejected by the pagan Arabs of his day. And in fact, the Koran is filled with this whole polemic or apologetic of of those who don’t believe in this divine revelation, they’re going to burn in hell at the day of judgment, etc.. So there’s much in the Koran, which is really a response of Mohammed or his followers to the skeptics, the pagan skeptics of his day. So he seems to be saying that the poetry or the linguistic and literary qualities of these revelations of presumed revelations of Mohammed were unique in their beauty and their eloquence, etc.. Now, I don’t know really. I don’t know Arabic. No. One. And I don’t know much about Arabic poetry at the time of Mohammed. 

Well, doesn’t that throw a wrench in the gears of your argument from a Muslim apologist then? Are you can’t read it in the original. You can’t see how beautiful it is. If you knew Arabic, you’d read it. And that almost in itself would convince you of its divine authorship. 

Now, if that was the only argument that was being made that I would have to tell this, you know, Muslim or Arab apologist. 

Yes, I I’m not going to take a stand on this because I don’t know Arabic and I can’t make such kind of comparisons. What happens with this argument, though, is that it then becomes expanded so that you find Muslim. 

And it’s quite common apologists, not just a small minority, I think, who are saying that this argument isn’t just about the literary very quality of the Arabic of the Koran, but it’s about wisdom and knowledge and insight and beauty and esthetics. 

There’s no work that any human being could write in any language that would in any way be equal to the Koran or even to one. Brief passage in the Koran is one particular. The shortest verse in the Koran has ten words in Arabic, although it’s not. It’s more than 10 words in English. OK, so this is Sorona, one or one oh eight. 

And in the original Arabic, it’s ten words. And I’m reading here from a very recent translation by Haleem of the Koran, quote, We have truly given abundance to you. 

And the reference here is to the Prophet Mohammed. Pray to your lord and make your sacrifice to him alone. It is the one who hates you, who has been cut off so that in 10 words that’s stated in the Arabic. And so the Muslim apologists say no one can come up with any passage that has the elegance, the beauty, the wisdom, the splendor, etc., even of as brief a SUDA as this particular one. 

And in any language. Well, that’s how they. I’m not saying that’s what was the original intent of the Koran when it made that challenge. But apologies are now making that out. And that’s just now I mean, already before many centuries. So to me, this is obviously specious arguments and highly implausible. And that’s an understatement. Perhaps I’m being nice because what it’s saying is that if you go to the Library of Congress and go through every book in the Library of Congress, in all fields of human endeavor, over the last many thousands of years, people have had the literary. You will not find anything that’s comparable to these 10 words. Now, many Muslims themselves are shamed when they read other Muslims making these claims, because, again, this is not necessarily all Muslims have interpreted this challenge. But I was concerned, particularly with analyzing the psychology of the people who make these kinds of claims. And why do they make these kinds of what’s going on in their mind when they’re making these claims in the modern world. 

So that’s specious argument that you’ve identified, says that you know nothing. And Dante, Shakespeare, Shakespeare, Gertten, none of that compares to beauty, eloquence, wisdom of the Koran. But obviously, you know, by any neutral in quotes observer, you can compare the two and and see which trumps which. So let’s get into this broader question of why do some believers in the Quran use these kinds of specious arguments? We’ve identified a few of the specious arguments, and I bet there are dozens, hundreds more. But why do they do that? 

I didn’t say that. Yeah, well, you put me on the hot seat now. What’s the motivation behind using those arguments? I think they could be several motivations. First of all. 

Muslims are devout Muslims and again can say the same thing about devout Christians. And again, you can say the same thing, maybe even about devout secular humanists, if one can use that term like that. OK, I don’t want to get into the whole issue of is dogmatism something that’s unique just to, you know, religion. Right. And if secular humanists, if they have one dogma, it’s that there are no dogmas. Maybe that’s even more dogmatic, right? Yeah, OK. They surely have certain assumptions like scientific naturalism. I think there are many philosophers who are not religious people who still with conquest could question the histological soundness of, let’s say, an extreme version of scientific naturalism. Right. So I don’t think that to be a secular humanist, you have to necessarily take one. Only one epistemology would allow you to be a secular humanist. But in any case. 

So somebody who’s been raised in a religious tradition, which is deeply meaningful to them and which is very it has been reinforced from infancy by a community to which there’s a tremendous amount of emotional attachment to which there’s a lot of good I mean, a lot of kindness and compassion as it’s taught by these religious traditions. And they are communities that engage often and in large measure of self-help, etc.. So when you firmly blur doing social good work for the betterment of the members. And I don’t know if it’s a good example. I have a son who spent some time in South Africa working with street children, and he had worked with several different NGOs and the one that finally he found did the best work in the most committed work was Catholic, some Catholic, one of the Catholic Charities Charities. So. So there’s no doubt that. 

So if somebody is a firm and devout believer, deeply emotionally attached to the religious system in which they’ve been socialized, which includes the belief that the scripture is divine and therefore that if scripture says such and such, it must be true, then when they don’t read the text the same way you or I might read the text. So they’re going to that text with an entire background and emotive background. And when they read it, they actually see it that way. Now, such a second thing is that they sometimes they’ll be using these arguments, even though they may realize that they are circular or they are flawed. But since the purpose of presenting these arguments or one of the purposes is to prevent Muslims, other Muslims who might be having doubts about the fundamental beliefs of Islam, because in Islam it’s worse to stop believing than to never have believed. 

Right. For an apostate can be, at least according to some views, can be kill again, that all Muslims believe that. But there is a strong element, particularly radical Islam, that believes an apostate who who wasn’t Muslim and then left or denies the truth of Islam should be killed, could be killed. Again, I make it very clear here that I’m not talking about Muslims, OK, but there’s a significant group think that that constitutes a danger when they try to implement that, that pleases them. So. So if somebody is concerned about the spiritual welfare of another Muslim, then they may feel it’s OK to use a species argument, even though, you know, it’s specious. 

But the person whom you trying to persuade would be gullible enough or credulous enough to believe it, then you may feel you have a moral justification. 

But just like I can sometimes lie to my child if it’s going to prevent the child from getting involved in some dangerous activity. 

So the apologist is lying for the good of listeners. 

Some allergies and the are just the ends justifying the means. OK. So that’s another factor that may be at play. So psychology always talks about the multi determination of behavior. There usually isn’t only one explanation for why people believe or do or behave the way they do. 

And so I would say that, you know, these are perhaps two of the two of the factors, that other thing. 

And third factor is that sometimes I’m saying specifically these arguments, but sometimes arguments to see whether an argument is logical or illogical is not a very easy thing. I mean, that’s why you have a whole field of could take a course introduction to logic at a university, logic one to one. And a major part of that course is to show you the many ways in which people, rational, educated people may view the professor himself in the class will often buy into or accept arguments that you need a logician to demonstrate to you why they’re not logical. And this is happening all the time. 

And it’s not only self-deception, but you really know the ways. Sometimes we’re hardwired to be easily convinced, convinced about untrue things. Absolutely right. So let me ask you, Professor Shammo, when it gets down to it, even if someone’s wrong and they have all these psychological reasons for thinking they’re right when they’re wrong, when it comes to belief in the Koran or the Hebrew Bible or the New Testament. 

I’d be a little bit more precise belief that they were divinely revealed by God. OK, yeah, you you can believe in the Bible, the Koran, in the sense that it may be a source of values for you that are worthwhile. Doesn’t mean you have to believe in God. It doesn’t mean that you believe truth claims about it. If you don’t believe that, it’s really well, you can have certain truth claims to be particularly like in the area of values at night. Right. I’m talking specifically about the belief that these were divinely revealed by God in the form of which we now have them. You know, that’s what I’m really right. 

So here’s the question. What’s wrong with that? What’s wrong with appealing to reason? As a fundamentalist believer in the divine authorship of one of these sacred texts, what’s what’s the harm in the guy or the or the woman who uses in quotes, reason to make sense out of some of our lights are a nonsensical text. 

OK. Let’s go back to the original question. What was my. Do I have any agenda? And I have an agenda. I have many agendas, but with the gentleman. And this relates to the end. At least you’re admitting it. I mean, I that’s why I’m doing what I’m doing, because I have an agenda. I didn’t know anybody. 

It’s the issue isn’t so much it’s bad or wrong to use specious arguments. Unless if you say if you know it’s specious and then lying is is immoral. So in that sense, it’s immoral. My interest in the specious arguments is more of the academic interest about the psychology of how people reason or don’t reason and defend their beliefs. 

But the deeper agenda that’s of concern to me is the fact that these arguments are being used to reinforce an ideology which advocates violence, anti-Semitism, anti-Americanism, anti democracy. If this the people who were using these specious arguments were the most Pacific and kind and charitable people in the world, if they just went on their merry way. So who cares? It doesn’t bother me, any of us, maybe intellectual curiosity, but it doesn’t bother me. It’s my my my concern is that this is being used to support an ideology that’s dangerous to mankind, actually. 

So the specious arguments get your attention because they encourage or support violence, the suppression of the freedom of others, free inquiry into the real origins of the Koran. 

You say that when they do that, that’s when they just disturb. That’s what gets you. They always do that. I’m saying that that all people who use specious arguments are also advocating violence, but they may not even be around. 

Right. Are when they do support that. That’s when you say it’s the right, even the obligation of scholars to oppose this kind of thinking that in the tradition of the Enlightenment, you should use reason to undermine as much as I can believe. Yes. 

These fundamentalists, for example, some of the people my quote in my article, these are people who are coming out of the Wahhabi Saudi Arabian tradition of a fundamentalist very Islam is very extreme and very anti-American, very anti Jewish. And they’re using these specious arguments to to try to convince people that Muslims and non-Muslims to buy into their vision and version of Islam. I think we have to fight that very emphatically and dramatically. 

But aren’t scholars supposed to kind of, in the cool light of reason, step back and stay above the fray and not get involved, not push for one perspective or the other? 

Yeah, I think that they should be engaged as well. But they have to differentiate was one thing to say. Let’s analyze objectively and I hope that I’m being able to do that phenomena, situation, whatever. But that doesn’t mean that a scholar or academic doesn’t have to be involved in the real world as well. If the knowledge that is generated by scholarship can be useful, I would hope it should be useful to society then. It’s like saying, do we tell a doctor who should be a pure scientist? Study genetics. God forbid, use the term in using second unit to contact. God forbid that you should allow the pure science of genetics to actually help somebody who’s sick in a hospital is absurd. Same thing too. If a scholar and academic shouldn’t allow his agenda, so to speak, to color the objectivity or truth of his methodology and of his findings. 

And you have to work hard against that because scholars like anybody else. We all we all have one influence, not just by rationality, but by our emotions and our feelings. So that’s why you have scientific methods of inquiry, whether it’s humanities, social sciences, the hard sciences. That’s why these things develop scientific method to protect against those natural tendencies of any human being to to be influenced not just by pure reasoning or by evidence, but on the other hand you shouldn’t be afraid of. Implications. Yes. You shouldn’t be using that research. 

You have a moral obligation to use that research to challenge anti-social kinds of behavior in society. So I see these things is quite not only consistent, but one actually leading to the other. And in fact. 

One of the my next work that I plan to be writing is will point out, first of all, that reason in itself is a powerful but not necessarily sufficient tool to change people’s attitudes or commitments. OK. Because as we see here, most people on as many people maintain beliefs, even though they’re not particularly rational, will be. So clearly religious commitments and religious behaviors are being determined or influenced by non rational factors. So therefore, critiquing the irrationality of certain religious beliefs or defenses of religious beliefs is only one small piece of the broader armamentarium of ways in which individuals have to challenge religious commitments that are anti-social. And that my book hopes to talk to to develop a model for what are other ways or other factors that one has to bring to bear. If one wants to influence in a significant way Muslims or whatever other religious tradition who are preaching and teaching antisocial kinds of messages. 

So that’s kind of the next major project. We’ll have to get you back on to discuss that. I want to finish up by talking more in general about your views about the growth of Islamic fundamentalism, its threat that you perceive it is to the West. You mentioned this at the beginning, your research and talking about the use of specious arguments by believers in the divine authorship of three great monotheistic texts. You’re not trying just to use reason, as you just mentioned, to undermine those beliefs. There’s more going on. But if someone consistently does apply, the findings of your research kind of listens to it and takes it seriously. Do you think they will necessarily arrive at a different conclusion about the Koran than than they do as a devout? 

Not definitely. Not necessarily. That’s for sure. Some will and some won’t. And I have one of the reasons why I got into this whole area of research. Long before I had any interest in applying it to Islam. I mean, my original writings that this had to do with my own religious traditions and upbringing, which was a kind of modern Orthodox Judaism. And there I grew up in an environment which was very much committed to traditional Judaism, but at the same time was extremely open to the world of science. And I was just taken for granted that you go to college or university, you know, so. So I both studied in institutions and have many friends and teachers who were exposed to the same kind of education that I had. Now, when I reach a certain age, I found myself personally not convinced by the theology in which I was raised, although I’m still very much attached to the community and to many of its values. Europe, a cultural Jew. I’m very much of a cultural Jew and I have to go to synagogue. It’s part of my community. That’s another whole topic for another talk if you want. I just gave a paper action on that. And what’s called orthopraxy. Why did people practice religious traditions and behaviors even though they don’t believe the theology that traditionally is the grounding for them? But that’s another whole subject. 

Right. I have a couple Jewish friends in Pittsburgh who are Orthodox, atheist, orthodox, just so they raise their children up in authority or the community, etc.. 

So so what what what what actually found fascinating was that I was asking myself, and that’s what art and science I’m still grappling with these friends of mine, these teachers, some of them have remained quite committed to the traditional theology. Now they are not smart, so they are surely smarter than whatever smarts I might have. They’ve read probably the same things that I’ve read for me. For example, a major source of my doubting traditional theology was when I was exposed to biblical scholarship, my biblical scholarship. So that to me kind of shattered the fundamental core belief of orthodoxy. Now they read the same books. So why is it that I rejected these traditional theological blitz? They didn’t. 

And I still have a token answer to that. But that’s what intrigued me. So there’s this aspect to the psychology of belief. So your question was if people will read rational critiques of, say, this Muslim or apologetics, a Christian apologetics, a Jewish apologetics, will they they’ll be convinced. No, because for some reason I was convinced. But my close friends, I think, respect them, still isn’t convinced. So they are clearly more than just rational factors that are at play in why we remain committed to certain beliefs into which we were socialized. And that’s part of my ongoing research interest. What are those factors to tease out those factors? And in a certain sense, begin. Because I’m so concerned about the danger particularly of radical violent Islamic fundamentalism. We have to get a much. Deeper insight into the various factors. 

If we want to undermine those kinds of commitments, it’s it’s not enough for a bunch of SMARTY-PANTS scholars to get together and and ask themselves, how can we convince rationally Islamic extremists not to be Islamic extremists? That’s not going to. 

That’s one piece of it. But it’s not enough. OK, many other things have to be done. We have to make use of the media. 

And there was a very interesting article I was reading from the latest issue of Free Inquiry by Kept. So David Capsule. He is executive director of the Council for Secular Human Rights. 

And the other point I was making was that popular culture has a greater influence on people’s attitudes than what may go on in the esoterics of an ivory tower or whatever. 

He was mentioning the fact that I think it was some episode on some TV show, South Park or whatever, which was a satire of Richard Dawkins. 

But this is more people learned about the ideas of Richard Dawkins from its banks satirically portrayed on TV program than even from the fact that his books and on The God Delusion is on the bestseller list, because not that many people necessarily reading these books, even those on the bestseller list. So I think it’s extremely important to develop various strategies for mass media ways of engaging these kind of topics in conversation. 

Thank you very much for joining me on Point of Inquiry. Professor Schimel, thank you very much for having me. 

And I hope I have a chance to speak with you again. 

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Point of inquiry is produced by Thomas Donnally and recorded at the Center for Inquiry in Amherst, New York. Executive producer is Paul Kurtz. Point of Inquiry’s music is composed for us by Emmy Award winning Michael Quailing. Contributors to today’s show included Debbie Goddard and Thomas Donnelly. I’m your host, DJ Grothe. 

DJ Grothe

D.J. Grothe is on the Board of Directors for the Institute for Science and Human Values, and is a speaker on various topics that touch on the intersection of education, science and belief. He was once the president of the James Randi Educational Foundation and was former Director of Outreach Programs for the Center for Inquiry and associate editor of Free Inquiry magazine. He previously hosted the weekly radio show and podcast Point of Inquiry, exploring the implications of the scientific outlook with leading thinkers.