Thursday, May 06, 2004

Somebody over on Rantburg pointed out this Atheist's Guide to Mohammedanism yesterday, and I spent some time reading through it, and found a number of things that disturbed me.

Now, I'm not actually an atheist - rather, I'm a hard-shell agnostic. What this means is that while I don't really accept any of the major religions, I'm also not particularly enthused with folks who have the intellectual arrogance to hold strong negative opinions on unfalsifiable hypotheses like the existence of divinity. I consider atheism to be as much a type of religious belief as any of the more popular theisms. Thus, I think that this document really needs to be understood as a critique of one religion by an apologist for another, hostile, religion. The more doctrinaire atheists tend to get pretty shirty about how they're objective and scientific and this and that and wave of the future yadda yadda und so weiter. In my eyes, this "Atheist's Guide to Mohammedanism" is a better-educated version of that Chick tract about "moon gods".

They start off pretty offensively, by insisting on an archaic, insulting label for Islam - Mohammedanism. They offer a couple counter-examples of religions which are named after founders, who are not considered to be gods or demi-gods - Confucianism, specifically. I'm surprised they didn't offer Zoroastrianism, named after the founder, the probably-mythical Zoroaster, or Zarathustra. Of course, the fact that the living practitioners of that religion prefer to be called "Parsi" does a lot to undermine the nasty little point that our Atheist Guiders are trying to make. Luckily, after a show of contempt, they drop the label for what they refer to as "easier to spell" alternatives, which happen to be what the practitioners actually want to be called.

The bulk of the article is a discussion of early Islamic-Arabic history which I'm not qualified to judge on the merits - it's not my area of interest, let alone expertise. They maintain a pretty good air of plausibility, but they get into some really hairy revisionist terrain, including some of Patricia Crone's more crazed claims that Mecca is a fiction created late in the early Islamic period. This is the point at which the article starts falling off the deep end, and there's a nasty crack about how this is like the invention of Nazareth. They claim that Nazareth didn't exist in the time of the gospels, and therefore Jesus of Nazareth is an invention. I went looking for their claims that archeological evidence bore this out, and found otherwise. This canard about Nazareth is apparently an article of faith among a certain strain of online atheism. These are people who not only feel that the founders of major religions are mistaken, they should preferably have never existed.

I'm therefore inclined to doubt their further claims, some of which - like old mosque layouts which aren't properly laid out in the correct direction towards Mecca - seem to be wilful reworkings which cut against Occam's Razor. (Is it more likely that the original Mecca was actually in northern Arabia, or that the architects of early Iraqi mosques got their directions turned around, screwed up, and were corrected by later, more knowledgeable generations?).

As is usual with religiously-motivated writers, they're inclined to grasp at anything which supports their notions. There are a number of references to Soviet-era "scholarship" which argues that early Islam was a Jewish war-cult, and that it was so until the early Crusades. Soviet historical scholarship still enjoys a certain degree of credibility which it usually does not deserve. Imagine the response if I had swapped out "Soviet" for "Nazi" in the above sentence! There's a lot of hidden poison in historical scholarship left by Soviet-era graffiti, and although I haven't done the digging to confirm my suspicions, I would wager that this nonsense is even more pernicious than all the fantasies of proletarian revolution written about the slave-revolts of the second and first centuries BCE.

In the end, I find that I object to religiously motivated critiques like "The Atheist Guide to Mohammedanism". Their authors poison the well of scholarship by pretending to an objectivity which they do not actually practice. At least with a Chick tract, you have a pretty good idea what's going on.

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