A Muslim Response to The Young Atheist’s Handbook

A Muslim Response to The Young Atheist’s Handbook

By Hamza Andreas Tzortzis

Last updated 27 May 2014

The Young Atheist’s Handbook (TYAH) was first published in 2012. I purchased the book the moment it was available and I was probably one of the first people to receive it in the post. After reading parts of TYAH, I immediately contacted the author and science teacher, Alom Shaha, to enquire whether he was willing to engage in a discussion on the issues he raised. He politely refused and explained that TYAH is a personal story, and he doesn’t wish to participate in debates. (Fast forward a few years, Alom and I  had a brief encounter via twitter [1] where I subsequently received an email from the author agreeing to arrange a friendly discussion on faith and non-faith related issues. I haven’t heard from Alom since that twitter and email exchange, but he did say that it will take some time). I find Alom to be a very friendly, warm and polite man, and after reading his story I couldn’t help but deeply empathise with him. Alom is a science teacher born to Bengali parents, and he describes himself as an ex-Muslim that was brought up in South London. When he is not teaching he works as a film-maker, writer and science communicator.[2]

the young atheist's handbook

The social context in which he was brought up has, as he admits, obviously shaped his conclusions about life. I can’t but feel that the Muslim community is partially responsible for Alom adopting an atheist world view. Unfortunately, many of us within the Muslim community have created a social malaise by removing ourselves from the timeless values of Islam, and we have constructed a narrative which is far from intellectual. We have failed to revive intellectual Islam within the grass root Muslim communities. We have not been able to articulate a compassionate and cogent case for our tradition to young thinkers, students and professionals. The Young Atheist’s Handbook is a direct result of our collective failure as a Muslim community to revive classical Islam, and a natural consequence of our current state of being. Even though Muslims may not be the target audience for TYAH, we must take lessons from this book. Don’t misunderstand me here, there is a lot of good work happening within the Muslims community. My points are general and not specific; we have not yet achieved critical mass in the revival of intellectual Islam and its timeless values.

Putting that aside for a moment, the reason I decided to write a response is because The Young Atheist’s Handbook has recently been sent to every secondary school in England and Wales, free of charge. [3] The organisation behind this initiative is the British Humanist Association (BHA). This organisation is a missionary type of organisation that seeks to promote Humanism. This is easy to conclude by reading the aims on their website. They express that they want to promote Humanism as a life stance,

“Using all suitable means, including events, courses, publications, online resources, teaching materials and speakers for schools and colleges, the press, broadcast, online and social media, we will maintain an extensive promotional and educational programme to extend and deepen public understanding of Humanism as a lifestance.”[4]

the young atheist's handbook british humanist associationI have had quite a few encounters with members of BHA. A few years ago I had a discussion with Dr. Peter Cave who is the Chair of the Humanist Philosophers. Our discussion was on “Can we live better lives without religion?” [5] I have also engaged with other members of the group, including Professor Simon Blackburn, Dr. Brendan Larvor, Dr. Stephen Law, Professor Richard Norman, Dr. Nigel Warburton [6], and more recently I have had a very warm and nuanced exchange with Professor Peter Simons. [7] I have even shared platform with current chief executive of the organisation Andrew Compson. To conclude, I have had direct experience with the BHA in challenging their ideas and worldview. Therefore, it was just natural to respond to their current initiative.

Another reason for this response is regard to a sense of duty. There are many seemingly false and irrational ideas which needed to be deconstructed and explored in depth. The Young Atheist’s Handbook, although written in a warm and engaging style, is fundamentally irrational. I can see, for example, how young minds may read this book and be taken in by its emotive and human voice. I do not want others to normalise irrationality, because this book does exactly that. The book seems to use a human-centric and emotive literary style as a cover for hiding many of its false presuppositions and misrepresentations. The purpose of this response is to bring these to light and explore these concepts in depth. Aptly, Alom himself humbly admits that the book can contain flaws,

“If you’ve noticed the occasional bouts of confusion, contradictions, flawed logic, or misinterpreted ideas, well, they’re there because I am a flawed individual, confused and contradictory. I put these shortcomings forward unashamedly…”[8]

Now you can imagine that a book over 200 pages will contain various arguments and assertions. Though I shall not be addressing  every single point raised, a thematic response will be published in parts. To begin, I will address the key points that form Alom’s main reasons for adopting the atheist worldview.

Chapter 1: “The Day God Died”

This introductory chapter relives some of Alom’s memories about his mother and the way she died. His love and yearning for his mother resonates in every sentence. Alom talks about his mother’s mental illness and how his community dealt with her condition.

“My mother suffered from all sorts of medical problems, but it was mental illness that landed her in hospital on what seemed to be a regular basis when we were growing up. My father and the other Bengali adults around us openly described my mother as fagol, which means ‘crazy’; some even said she was possessed. So we as children thought of our mum as loony, when in fact she was very, very ill. It was only as an adult that I learned she had suffered from bipolar disorder or, as it used to be known, ‘manic depression’…”[9]

Islam and Mental Illness

It is really sad that the Muslim community around him portrayed such ignorant attitudes toward his mother and mental illness. No child should think of their mother as ‘loony’ and experience discriminatory attitudes towards the mentally ill. Consider the Islamic intellectual tradition; Muslims and Arab scientists who understood and internalised Islamic values were pioneers in dealing with mental and psychological disorders. For example, in the 8th century, the physician Razi built the first psychiatric ward in Baghdad. The 11th century physician ibn Sina (known in the West as Avicenna – the founder of Modern Medicine) understood most mental illness as physiologically based. [10] Interestingly Abu Zayd al-Balkhi, a 9th century physician, wrote a book on what is now known as cognitive behavioural therapy. His book Sustenance of the Soul was probably the first written account in distinguishing between endogenous and reactive depression.[11] These pioneers and Muslim intellectuals were directly influence by the values of Islam. These include the words of the Prophet Muhammad  ﷺ that encourages seeking the cure for illnesses, “There is no disease that Allah has sent down except that He also has sent down its treatment.”[12] and the universal and encompassing value of compassion, “Those who show mercy will be shown mercy by the Most Merciful. Show mercy to those who are on earth and the One Who is in heaven will show mercy to you.”[13]

Is consciousness just a result of electrical and chemical happenings in the brain?

After describing his experience of losing his mother, Alom mentions a few points about the mind and the brain. He asserts that we are just a result of the neuro-chemical happenings in the brain and there is no “soul” or immaterial consciousness. Sandwiched between his brief discussions on neuroscience and the philosophy of the mind, he mentions his brother Shalim who suffered from a range of disabilities including mental health problems. Again, I cannot but empathise with Alom and the way he writes really engages the heart. I don’t think I can ever understand what he went through, but yet I have a deep feeling of empathy and sadness. Alom is extremely courageous and unashamedly honest about his feelings and emotions. In this sense, Alom is inspirational. However, I want to address his point about the mind and the brain, as it seems to be a key argument for his rejection of an afterlife and God. He writes,

“The evidence suggests that what we think of as our soul is very much the result of physical processes – electrical pulses and chemical reactions – in our brain. Francis Crick…puts it like this: ‘You, your joys and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behaviour of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules.’”[14]

He also argues that “…there is no mind-brain duality, that there is no soul, and that a ‘person’ is very much a result of electrical and chemical happenings in the brain.”[15]

This unfortunately is a gross misrepresentation of what is actually being discussed in neuroscience and the philosophy of the mind today. To fully understand the brain and the mind, in other words ‘consciousness’, relying on false materialist assumptions will lead to absurdities. It also ignores that which requires explaining in the first place; the hard problem of consciousness.

It is quite clear now that if I am thinking or feeling some pain there will be some sort of activity in my brain that indicates that I am thinking or feeling pain. No one is denying that the brain and consciousness have some form of a relationship, but I must stress here, it is just a relationship. The brain and consciousness (also referred to as the mind) are not the same thing. Take the following analogy into consideration: the brain is the car, and consciousness is the driver. The car will not move without the driver and the driver will not be able to start the car – or use it properly – if it is damaged or broken. However, they are both different and independent in some way.

So what are the problems that specialists in the field are trying to address, and why is the brain and consciousness not the same thing? The answer to these questions is in what is known as the hard problem of consciousness. The hard problem of consciousness concerns the fact that we have personal subjective experiences. In other words, the problem is that we cannot find out via materialistic means what it is like to be a conscious organism or what it is like to have a particular experience. Professor David Chalmers, who popularised the phrase the hard problem of consciousness, explains, “If any problem qualifies as the problem of consciousness, it is this one. In this central sense of “consciousness”, an organism, and a mental state is conscious if there is something it is like to be in that state.”[16]

Professor Torin Alter adds another dimension to the definition of the hard problem of consciousness by focussing on why physical brain processes produce conscious experience, “How does my brain’s activity generate those experiences? Why those and not others? Indeed, why is any physical event accompanied by conscious experience? The set of such problems is known as the hard problem of consciousness…”[17]

Let me simplify and elaborate on the above definitions with an example; say for instance you were to eat a strawberry, scientists would be able to find correlations in the brain that indicate that you are eating something, and maybe even the fact that you are eating a piece of fruit, they may even find out that you find it tasty or sweet. But scientific materialist perspectives could never find out or examine what it is like to eat a strawberry for you, or what tastiness or sweetness means and feels for you, and why you have had the subjective experience of what it is like to eat a strawberry.

It seems to me that Alom is assuming that science has now shown that everything we feel and experience is just a result of biological happenings in the brain. This is simply not true. The biological attempts have failed to solve the hard problem of consciousness. Some of these biological attempts include Francis Crick’s and Christof Koch’s Toward a Neurobiological Theory of Consciousness, Bernard Baars’s Global Workplace theory, Gerald Elderman’s and Giulio Tononi’s The Dynamic Coretheory, Rodolfo Llinas’s Thalamocortical Binding theory, Victor Lamme’s Recurrent Processing theory, Semir Zeki’s Microconsciousness theory and Antonio  Damasio’s The Feeling of What Happens theory. Although it is not the scope of this response to discuss the technicalities and shortcomings of these empirical theories, none of them comprehensively address the hard problem of consciousness.

Alom refers to Francis Crick, the biologist and neuroscientist, as an appeal to authority to justify his points. This is another misrepresentation. Crick’s view are more nuanced than the crude generalisation of that we are “a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules.”[18] To explain the background to Crick’s views, he developed the theory known as Toward a Neurobiological Theory of Consciousness with his colleague Kristof Koch.[19] Crick’s and Koch’s theory is based upon certain neural oscillations in the cerebral cortex, and they claim that these oscillations are the basis of consciousness because they seem to be correlated with awareness, more specifically visual awareness. The main criticism of the theory involves the following questions: why do oscillations give rise to subjective experience? How, by just viewing these neurological happenings, can we appreciate what that experience is like? Putting this criticism aside, Koch openly admits these limitations to his theory. In a published interview he confesses:

“Well, let’s first forget about the real difficult aspects, like subjective feelings, because they may not have a scientific solution. The subjective state of play, of pain, of pleasure, of seeing blue, of smelling a rose–there seems to be a huge jump between the materialistic level, of explaining molecules and neurons, and the subjective level.”[20] In a more recent review of Crick’s and Koch’s work professor Antti Revonsuo asserts that Crick and Koch “admit that finding the NCC [neural correlates of consciousness] does not in itself solve the problem of consciousness.”[21]

In my view Alom adopts a false materialist bias. He seems to assume that science will eventual explain consciousness. However, if we examine the scientific method and the philosophy of science, we will understand that subjective conscious experiences are outside of the scope of the scientific enterprise. Science is restricted to only that which can be observed, and subjective conscious states cannot be observed. Nonetheless, some hard-core empiricists may argue that we may be able to correlate neuro-chemical activity in the brain with subjective experience. But this is impossible, because neuro-chemical activity in the brain can only indicate that something is happening, and not what it is like for that something to happen. A simple piece of evidence to highlight this impossibility is that you can have different levels of subjective experiences of pain with two people with the same injury, and yet have the same type of neuro-chemical patterns in the brain. Also, as Professor Chalmers argues that if we were to understand every behavioural and cognitive function related to consciousness and all the neuro-chemical happenings in the brain were mapped out, there would still be an unanswered question: why is the performance of these functions accompanied by conscious experience?[22] Therefore it is impossible to measure or deduce what that subjective experience of pain actually is, or why it occurs, just by observing brain correlations. This is why Alom’s assertion that we are just biology is wrong. This doesn’t mean we are not affected by our neurophysiology, we are, but it is not as simple as that, as presented by my initial car analogy.

So where does God fit in? Well, theistic explanation for the emergence and reality of consciousness has greater explanatory power than competing biological explanations. I must stress here however that I am not denying biological explanations and just replacing them with theism. What I am advocating is adding theism as a philosophical basis to fully explain that which materialism cannot: the hard problem of consciousness. For a more detailed explanation on the failure of materialism to explain consciousness and the comprehensiveness of theist explanation, please read the previous post “Consciousness and the New Scientist Magazine: Reflection on False Materialist Assumptions”.[23]

Chapter 2: Being Good

Chapter 2 is entitled “Being Good” and it addresses morality, Euthyphro’s dilemma, the problem of evil, and much more. In this part of the response I will address the points I have included above. In part 2 I will address the other issues he raises.

Alom in his usual style couches these arguments with profound personal experiences. On goodness he writes,

“Such people believe that you cannot be truly if you do not believe in Him…To these people, God is the ultimate source of morality; they might even claim that the existence of morality it itself proof of the existence of God because if there is not God, there would be no reason to be good.”[24]

This to me sounds like a misrepresentation of mainstream theism. Theists do not argue that atheists cannot display good behaviour or do not have good morals. There are plenty of atheists and irreligious people who are morally good. To suggest otherwise is false. Alom’s other points are actually true; God is the source of morality, He is a motivation and reason to be good, and morality does prove His existence. These points can be explained rationally and by referring to the sociology of religion. Let’s take the point that God is the ultimate source of morality and that morality is proof of His existence.

Does the evil of murder prove God’s existence?

I would like to ask Alom a question, although hypothetical in nature, it highlights the point I’m trying to make: is killing an innocent 5 year old objectively morally wrong? If so, and I doubt that he will deny this, then it necessitates God’s existence. Please note that one has to be careful here, no one is saying “You can’t be an atheist and display moral or good behaviour” or “You have to believe in God to have moral traits” or “Just by being a believer you will have good behaviour”. What I am saying is that if God does not exist then there are NO objective moral values. Moral values such as “Murdering innocent people for entertainment is wrong” and “Defending the innocent is good” are merely social conventions without God. Just like saying it is wrong to burp loudly at the dinner table. This doesn’t devalue how we feel about good and evil, but from an academic perspective we need to realise that the moment we accept something to be objectively good or objectively bad, is the moment God is required as a basis for that objectivity.

Before I discuss why God is required as a basis or foundation for objective morals, I would like to explain what I mean by objective. What I mean by objective is something that is not influenced by personal feelings or opinions in considering and representing facts, and not dependent on the mind for existence. In the context of morality, let me elaborate with a few examples: “If the whole world agreed to the fact that eating a dead person is a good thing to do, it would still be an immoral thing to do”, “If the whole world claimed that it was morally ok to kill an innocent person, it would still be immoral and abhorrent” and “If the whole world claimed that it was morally good to set up unjust trade agreements with Africa, it would still be wrong.”

Professor of theology Ian Markham summarises this sense of objectivity we have as human beings when it comes to morality,

“Embedded in the word ‘ought’ is the sense of a moral fact transcending our life and world…The underlying character of moral language implies something universal and external.”[25]

So why is God required as a foundation for objective morals? It is quite simple, God is the only concept that transcends our subjectivity. Professor Markham explains,

“God explains the mysterious ought pressing down our lives; and God explains the universal nature of the moral claim. As God is outside the world, God the creator can be both external and make universal commands.”[26]

However, there are competing foundations to explain objective morality. The main ones include, biology, social pressure and moral realism. Before I explain how these fail to adequately and comprehensively provide a basis for objective morals, it is interesting to note that some atheist thinkers actually admit that without God there are no objective moral claims. The late moral philosopher J. L. Mackie in his book Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong, J. L. Mackie opens by boldly stating that,

There are no objective values…The claim that values are not objective, are not part of the fabric of the world, is meant to include not only moral goodness, which might be most naturally equated with moral value, but also other things that could be more loosely called moral values or disvalues – rightness and wrongness, duty, obligation, an action’s being rotten and contemptible, and so on.”[27]

Mackie is right here. The minute we assert the objectivity of morals we imply that they exist outside of the mind and human perception, therefore they require a basis or grounding. However, if someone has the non-negotiable presupposition that God does not exist, then a rational basis for objective morals will be absent, for that reason the some atheist thinkers reject of objectivity of morals.

Not all atheists agree. As mentioned above some claim that there are alternative foundations for morality. Let’s address the first alternative, biology. Can biology explain our sense of objective morality? The simple answer is no. Charles Darwin provides us with an interesting “extreme example” of what it means when biology or natural selection forms the foundation of morality,

“If men were reared under precisely the same conditions as hive-bees, there can hardly be a doubt that our un-married females would, like the worker-bees, think it a sacred duty to kill their brothers, and mothers would strive to kill their fertile daughters, and no one would think of interfering.”[28]

In other words, if it is true that our morals are contingent on biological changes then it would render morals as subject to these changes, therefore they cannot be objective. If we happened to be reared as the Nurse Shark we would probably think it would be ok to rape our partners, as the Nurse Shark wrestles and forces itself on its mate. Some respond by asserting that it is specifically natural selection that forms the basis for our sense of objective morality. Again this is false. All that natural selection can do is give us the capacity to formulate moral rules and not provide a basis for them. As the moral philosopher Philip Kitcher writes,

“All that natural selection may have done for us is to equip us with the capacity for various social arrangements and the capacity to formulate ethical rules.”[29]

The second alternative is social pressure or consensus. This I believe is plain to see and where a lot of atheists and humanists face a sticky wicket. If social pressure or consensus forms the basis for objective morals then we face a huge problem. Firstly, it makes morals subjective and relative, as they are subject to inevitable social changes. Secondly, it leads to moral absurdities. If someone accepts social consensus as a basis for morals then how can we justify our moral position towards what the Nazis did in 1940s Germany? How can we claim that what they did was objectively morally wrong? Well, we can’t. Even if you claim there were people in Germany who fought against the Nazis, the point is there was strong consensus or social pressure.

The final alternative is moral realism. Some philosophers would argue that there are objective morals, but they are not grounded in human opinion or evolution, they just are. There are a few problems with this position. What does it mean that justice just exists? Or objective morally good behaviour just exists? It seems that they are trying to have their cake and eat it! Muslims can make similar claims and get away with it, such as “Islam is true” and that “The Qur’an is God’s word”. Such assertions without evidence are baseless. Significantly one has to understand that if morals are objective (they are outside of an individual’s personal opinion or mind) then they require a rational explanation or basis, otherwise how are they objective?

In light of the above discussion it is obvious that objective morality necessitates God’s existence as He external to the universe and can make universal moral claims.

Euthyphro’s Dilemma

Alom seems to understand why theists articulate the above arguments and responds with Plato’s dilemma or Euthyphro’s dilemma. Alom, summarises it quite well,

“is something morally good because God approves of it, or does God approve of it because it is morally good?…This dilemma is problematic for people who believe in an all-powerful God because it requires you to believe one of two things: either morality is defined by that which God deems moral and therefore what is good or evil is arbitrary, or morals exist outside of God’s will, and so God Himself is bound by laws which He is not responsible for, thus contradicting the idea of an omnipotent God.”[30]

This intuitively seems to be a strong contention. However, a little reflection exposes it as a false dilemma. There is a third alternative, God is good. As Professor of Philosophy Shabbir Akhtar in his book The Qur’an and the Secular Mind writes:

“There is a third alternative: a morally stable God of the kind found in scripture, a supreme being who would not arbitrarily change his mind about the goodness of compassion and the evil of sexual misconduct. Such a God always commands good because his character and nature are good.”[31]

Alom’s natural response, similar to many of his colleagues, would be “you must know what good is to define God as good, therefore you haven’t solved the problem”. The simple response would be that God is definitive of what good is, in simply words – God defines what good is. Why is God the definition of good? Because He is the only being worthy of worship and the only being worthy of worship is the most perfect and moral being. The Qur’an affirms these points,

“And your god is one God. There is no deity [worthy of worship] except Him, the Entirely Merciful, the Especially Merciful.”[32]

“He is Allah, other than whom there is no deity, Knower of the unseen and the witnessed. He is the Entirely Merciful, the Especially Merciful. He is Allah, other than whom there is no deity, the Sovereign, the Pure, the Perfection, the Bestower of Faith, the Overseer, the Exalted in Might, the Compeller, the Superior. Exalted is Allah above whatever they associate with Him. He is Allah, the Creator, the Inventor, the Fashioner; to Him belong the best names. Whatever is in the heavens and earth is exalting Him. And He is the Exalted in Might, the Wise.”[33]

In summary moral truths are ultimately derivatives of God’s will expressed via His commands, and his commands do not contradict His nature, which is good, wise, pure and perfect.

What if we reject objective morality?

Alom can reply to the above conclusion by simply denying that morality is objective. Fair enough. I agree, if someone doesn’t accept the axiom that morals are objective then the argument doesn’t work. But here is the double edged sword for Alom. The minute he denies the objectivity of any moral claim, he has no right to point the moral finger at Islam. The irony is that this is exactly what he does in his book. He should put a caveat to all of his moral judgements and simply say “this is my subjective view”, and by doing almost renders his whole book pointless.

Is God a moral motivation?

Alom’s assumption is that an atheist can be good just like anyone else. This is true. But there seems to be another hidden assumption which is a little bit more subtle. He is implying that atheists can be as good as theists. He writes,

“I, like the primatologist Frans de Waal, ‘have never seen convincing evidence that a belief in God keeps people from immoral behavior’, and I don’t feel less moral for not believing in God.”[34]

This is not entirely true. I am not asserting this due some subconscious bias, but it is the conclusion of academic studies in the field of the sociology of religion. The research suggests that theists or religious people seem to have greater moral motivation and this leads them to doing more good than non religious people.

Here are some fascinating studies:

Religion and Altruism

“An analysis based in findings from a questionnaire survey of 300 undergraduate students in the USA indicated that religious persons were more likely to carry out altruistic acts (Zook 1982). Lynn and Smith (1991) reported that those who did voluntary work in the UK gave religion as one of the main reasons for their participation…Research by Perkins examined the relationship between Judeo-Christian religiosity and humanitarianism. The study was based on data collected during 1978-9 at five different colleges and universities in England and the USA and data collected during 1988-90 at the same institutions. This study shows that religiosity was more salient in directly promoting humanitarian compassion and that the influence of other socio-demographic factors failed to attain any level of significance.”[35]

Secularists Give Less

Social scientist Arthur C. Brooks analysed data that consisted of nearly 30,000 observations drawn from 50 communities across the United States and ask individuals about their civic behaviour:

“The differences in charity between secular and religious people are dramatic. Religious people are 25 percentage points more likely than secularists to donate money (91 percent to 66 percent) and 23 points more likely to volunteer time (67 percent to 44 percent). And, consistent with the findings of other writers, these data show that practicing a religion is more important than the actual religion itself in predicting charitable behavior. For example, among those who attend worship services regularly, 92 percent of Protestants give charitably, compared with 91 percent of Catholics, 91 percent of Jews, and 89 percent from other religions.”[36]

Religious Give More

The Oxford Handbook of The Sociology of Religion concludes that religious Americans give more that the non-religious:

“However, regarding American giving to charitable organizations, Regnerus et al. (1998) found an association with religiosity by analysing the data from the 1996 Religious Identity and Influence Survey. The 13 percent of the American population which considered itself non-religious gave less money to charitable organizations than did the rest of the population which held religious beliefs.”[37]

Lower Risk of Depression, Drug Abuse & Fewer Suicide Attempts

In 2002 Smith, McCullough and Poll, in their journal A meta analytic review of the religiousness-depression association: evidence for main effects and stress buffering effects carried out an analysis of over 200 social studies and found that high religiousness predicts a rather lower risk of depression, drug abuse and fewer suicide attempts.[38]

Well-being, Self Esteem & Crime

In 2002 Bryan Johnson and colleagues of the University of Pennsylvania Centre for Research on Religion and Urban Civil Society reviewed 498 studies that had been published in peer reviewed journals. They concluded that a large majority of studies showed a positive correlation between religious commitment and higher levels of perceived well-being and self esteem, and lower levels of hypertension, depression and criminal delinquency.[39]

A contention to the above includes the citation of prison studies that seem to argue that there is a gross overrepresentation of religious people in prison than non-religious. This is true. However these types of correlations actually prove nothing. They would only be considered robust if a correlation can be made between a prisoner’s religious beliefs and the crimes they committed. The level or religiosity must also be established, one can argue that their crimes were committed because they were not religious enough or deviated away from their religious values. I thought I would mention this as it is a popular outdated atheist cliché.

The Problem of Evil

Alom describes the nasty attitude portrayed by some Muslims concerning the death of his mother and the disability of his brother,

“Shortly after my mother died, I was confronted with just how obnoxious and vile these beliefs can be. While I was hanging around after playing football one afternoon, an older Bangladeshi boy, who had just found out that my youngest brother was disabled, decided to share his deep theological knowledge with me and tell me that my mother’s death and my brother’s disabilities were proof God thought there was something rotten with my family. He argued that Allah didn’t let these things happen for no reason, so these misfortunes were clearly Allah’s will, events to punish my family. Thankfully, some of the other older boys told him to shut up, but I remember feeling like I’d been kicked in the stomach.”[40]

This behaviour and attitude is despicable and antithetical to Islamic values. The actual position concerning life’s trials and tribulations in the Islamic tradition is extremely empowering. Suffering, evil, harm, pain and problems in general are seen as a test. This life is not for one giant party. We have been created with a purpose and that purpose is to worship God. Part of this is to be tested with trials. The empowering Islamic view is that tests are seen as sign of God’s love. The Prophet Muhammad ﷺ said, “When Allah loves a servant, He tests him.”[41] Why does God love those who He tests, because it is an avenue to achieve Divine mercy and enter the eternal bliss of paradise. God points this out clearly in the Qur’an,

“Do you suppose that you will enter the Garden without first having suffered like those before you? They were afflicted by misfortune and hardship, and they were so shaken that even [their] messenger and the believers with him cried, ‘When will God’s help arrive?’ Truly, God’s help is near.”[42]

The beauty of this is that God, who knows us better than we know ourselves, has already empowered us and tells us that we have what it takes to overcome these trials.

“God does not burden any soul with more than it can bear.”[43]

If the Muslim community around Alom had a proper understanding of Islam, maybe he would not be citing suffering and evil in the world as an argument against God’s existence. As I mentioned previously, we Muslims need to take lessons from this book.

Alom summarises the argument that evil and suffering suggest that God does not exist,

“It seems to me that the problem of evil is insurmountable for theists, be they theologians capable of intellectual gymnastics or ordinary believers who don’t spend much time thinking about things. It is hard not to look at all the suffering and evil in the world and avoid the conclusion that God doesn’t exist – or, if He does, as Depeche Mode put it He’s got a ‘sick sense of humour’.”[44]

This argument, from an emotional perspective, can seem convincing. Any decent human being, like Alom, will always raise this question. However, putting emotions to the side, is the problem of evil argument rationally convincing? Absolutely not. What first comes to mind is that even if this argument was a strong one it would still force one’s mind to accept God’s existence. In order to explain what I mean here, let’s first summarise the problem of evil and suffering argument,

“It is unbelievable that a Good All-Powerful (omnipotent) being exists with all the evil and suffering in the world.”

And in its logical form,

1. A good, all-powerful God exists

2. Evil and suffering exists

3. Therefore a good, all-powerful God doesn’t exist

A basic lesson in logic will make one realise that this argument is not deductive. The conclusion doesn’t necessarily follow from the previous two statements. Rather the conclusion is probably true. Essentially it is a probabilistic argument. Therefore if the one who adopts this argument is consistent with his reasoning he will have to accept God due to the argument from design. The reason for this is that the design argument is also premised on probability. In other words, it is highly likely there is a cosmic designer due to the apparent fine-tuning of the constants and laws in the universe. If Alom is consistent here he would have to accept God’s existence using the design argument as it uses the same thing to prove God which Alom uses to reject God – probability.

False Assumptions

The problem of evil argument is a very weak one due to it being based on two major false assumptions. These are:

1. God is only good and all-powerful

2. God has not given us any reasons to why He has permitted evil and suffering

God is Only Good & All-Powerful?

The problem of evil argument misrepresents the Islamic conception of God. God is not just good and all-powerful, rather He has many names and attributes. These attributes are understood holistically via God’s Oneness. One of His names is The-Wise. Since the very nature of God is wisdom it follows that whatever He wills is in line with wisdom. If something has a wisdom behind it means it has a reason. Alom replies to the above reasoning in the following way,

“The problem of evil genuinely stumps most ordinary believers. In my experience, they usually respond with an answer along the lines of, ‘God moves in mysterious ways.’ Sometimes they’ll say, ‘Suffering is God’s way of testing us,’ to which the obvious response is, ‘Why does he have to test us in such evil ways’ To which the response is, ‘God moves in mysterious ways.’ You get the idea.”[45]

Alom builds his own straw man here. He misrepresent the theist’s position. He also commits another fallacy of arguing from ignorance. The point here is that just because the wisdom cannot be understood it doesn’t mean there is no wisdom. This reasoning is typical of toddlers. Many toddlers get told off by their parents for something they want to do, such as drinking an enticing brown gold liquid, also known as whisky. The toddlers usually cry or have a tantrum because they are thinking how bad mummy and daddy are, but he doesn’t realise there is a wisdom that he cannot access. The Qur’an uses profound stories and narratives to instil this understanding in the readers mind. Take for instance the story of Moses and Khidr,

“And they found a servant from among Our servants to whom we had given mercy from us and had taught him from Us a [certain] knowledge. Moses said to him, “May I follow you on [the condition] that you teach me from what you have been taught of sound judgement?” He said, “Indeed, with me you will never be able to have patience. And how can you have patience for what you do not encompass in knowledge?” [Moses] said, “You will find me, if Allah wills, patient, and I will not disobey you in [any] order.” He said, “Then if you follow me, do not ask me about anything until I make to you about it mention.” So they set out, until when they had embarked on the ship, Al-Khidr tore it open. [Moses] said, “Have you torn it open to drown its people? You have certainly done a grave thing.” [Al-Khidr] said, “Did I not say that with me you would never be able to have patience?” [Moses] said, “Do not blame me for what I forgot and do not cover me in my matter with difficulty.” So they set out, until when they met a boy, Al-Khidr killed him. [Moses] said, “Have you killed a pure soul for other than [having killed] a soul? You have certainly done a deplorable thing.” [Al-Khidr] said, “Did I not tell you that with me you would never be able to have patience?” [Moses] said, “If I should ask you about anything after this, then do not keep me as a companion. You have obtained from me an excuse.” So they set out, until when they came to the people of a town, they asked its people for food, but they refused to offer them hospitality. And they found therein a wall about to collapse, so Al-Khidr restored it. [Moses] said, “If you wished, you could have taken for it a payment.” [Al-Khidr] said, “This is parting between me and you. I will inform you of the interpretation of that about which you could not have patience. As for the ship, it belonged to poor people working at sea. So I intended to cause defect in it as there was after them a king who seized every [good] ship by force. And as for the boy, his parents were believers, and we feared that he would overburden them by transgression and disbelief. So we intended that their Lord should substitute for them one better than him in purity and nearer to mercy. And as for the wall, it belonged to two orphan boys in the city, and there was beneath it a treasure for them, and their father had been righteous. So your Lord intended that they reach maturity and extract their treasure, as a mercy from your Lord. And I did it not of my own accord. That is the interpretation of that about which you could not have patience.””[46]

Commenting on the above verses the classical scholar Ibn Kathir explained that Khidr was the one who God have given knowledge of these realities and He did not give it to Moses.  With reference to the statement “Indeed, with me you will never be able to have patience”, Ibn Kathir writes that this means, “You will not be able to accompany with me when you see me doing things that go against your law, because I have knowledge from Allah that He has not taught you, and you have knowledge from Allah that He has not taught me.”[47]

In essence God’s wisdom and knowledge is unbounded and complete, whereas we as human beings have its particulars, in other words limited wisdom and knowledge. Hence Ibn Kathir explains that the verse “And how can you have patience about a thing which you know not” means,

“For I know that you will denounce me justifiably, but I have knowledge of Allah’s wisdom and the hidden interests which I can see but you cannot.”[48]

The view that everything that happens is in line with a Divine wisdom is empowering and positive. This is because God’s wisdom does not contradict other aspects of His nature such as His perfection and goodness. Therefore al evil and suffering is ultimately part of a Divine good wise purpose. This evokes positive psychological responses from believers because in the end of all evil and suffering is for purpose that is wise and good. The 14th century classical scholar Ibn Taymiyya summarises this point,

“If God – exalted is He – is Creator of everything, He creates good and evil on account of the wise purpose that He has in that by virtue of which His action is good and perfect.”[49]

Henri Laoust in his Essai sur les doctrines sociales et politiques de Taki-d-Din Ahmad b. Taimiya, also explains Ibn Taymiyya’s position, “God is essentially providence. Evil is without real existence in the world. All that God has willed can only conform to a sovereign justice and an infinite goodness, provided, however, that it is envisaged from the point of view of the totality and not from that of the fragmentary and imperfect knowledge that His creatures have of reality…”[50]

God has not given us any reasons to why He has permitted evil and suffering?

A sufficient response to the second assumption is to provide a strong argument that God has justified reasons to permit suffering and evil in the world. The intellectual richness of Islamic Theology provides us with many reasons, some of which include:

1. The primary purpose of the human being is not to enjoy a transitory sense of happiness, rather to achieve a deep internal peace through knowing and worshipping God. This fulfilment of the divine purpose will result in everlasting bliss and happiness. So if this is our primary purpose other aspects of human experience our secondary. The Qur’an, the book of the Muslims states: “I did not create either jinn or man except to worship Me.”[51]

2. God also created us for a test, and part of this test is to be tested with suffering and evil. The Qur’an mentions “The One Who created death and life, so that He may put you to test, to find out which of you is best in deeds: He is the all-Almighty, the all-Forgiving”.[52]

3. Having hardship and suffering enables us to realise and know God’s attributes such as ‘the Victorious’ and ‘the Healer’. For example without the pain and suffering of illness we would not appreciate the attribute of God being ‘the Healer’. Knowing God is a greater good, and worth the experience of suffering or pain as it will mean the fulfilment of our primary purpose.

4. Suffering allows 2nd order good. 1st order good is physical pleasure and happiness and 1st order evil is physical pain and sadness. 2nd order goodness is elevated goodness such as courage. Courage is appreciated in the presence of cowardice.

5. God has given us free will, and free will includes choosing evil acts. This explain personal evil, which is evil or suffering committed by a human being. Once can argue that “why doesn’t God give us the choice to do good or evil but always ensures that we choose good?” The problem here is that good and evil lose their meaning if God were to always ensure we chose good. Take the following example into consideration: someone always points a loaded gun to your head and asks you to give charity. You obviously give the charity, but does it have any moral value? It doesn’t.

Concluding Part 1

Alom is a courageous and inspirational writer. The way he expresses his love for his mother and the heartfelt experiences he encountered growing up is truly moving. However, his central reasons cited in this part of the review seem to not hold water under intellectual scrutiny. Some of the blame rests on the shoulders of the Muslims community, and we must take lessons from this book to encourage us to form communities in line with Islamic ethics and its intellectual tradition.


[8] Alom Shaha. The Young Athiest’s Handbook. Biteback Publishing. 2012, p. 201.

[9] Ibid, p. 20

[11] Abu Zayd al-Balkhi’s Sustenance of the Soul: The Cognitive Behavior Therapy of a Ninth Century Physician. Malik Badri. International Institute of Islamic Thought. 2013.

[12] Sahih al-Bukhari, The Book of Medicine

[13] Abu-Dawud and al-Tirmidhi

[14] The Young Athiest’s Handbook. Biteback Publishing. 2012, p. 29.

[15] Ibid, p. 32.

[16]  David Chalmers. The Character of Consciousness. Oxford University Press. 2010, p. 5.

[17] The Oxford Companion to Consciousness. Edited by Tim Bayne, Axel Cleeremans and Patrick Wilken. Oxford University Press. Paperback edition. 2014, p340.

[18] The Young Athiest’s Handbook. Biteback Publishing. 2012, p. 29..

[21] Antti Revonsuo. Consciousness: The Science of Subjectivity. Psychology Press. 2010, p. 211.

[25] Against Atheism: Why Dawkins, Hitchens, and Harris are Fundamentally Wrong. Wiley-Blackwell.  2010, p. 34.

[26] Ibid

[27] J. L. Mackie. Ethics: Inventing Right and Wrong. Penguin. 1991, p. 15.

[28] Charles Darwin. The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex. Second Edition. New York. 1882, p. 99. Online version available here http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/2300.

[29] Cited from “The Moral Argument” by Mark D. Linville in The Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology. Ed.  William Lane Craig and J. P. Moreland. Wiley-Blackwell. 2009, p. 400.

[30] The Young Athiest’s Handbook. Biteback Publishing. 2012, p. 47.

[31] Shabbir Akhtar. The Qur’an and the Secular Mind: A Philosophy of Islam. Routledge.2008, p.99.

[32] Qur’an 2:163

[33] Qur’an 59: 22-24

[34] The Young Athiest’s Handbook. Biteback Publishing. 2012, pp. 59-60.

[35] The Oxford Handbook of The Sociology of Religion. Edited by Peter B. Clarke. OUP. 2011, pp. 883-884.

[37] The Oxford Handbook of The Sociology of Religion. Edited by Peter B. Clarke. OUP. 2011, pp. 883-884.

[38] Smith T, McCullough M and Poll J. (2003). Religiousness and depression: evidence of a main effect and the moderating influence of stressful life events. Psychological Bulletin. 129. 614-636.

[39] Keith Ward. Is Religion Dangerous? Lion Hudson Plc. 2006.

[40] The Young Athiest’s Handbook. Biteback Publishing. 2012, pp. 59-60.

[41] Narrated by Tirmidhi.

[42] Qur’an 2:214

[43] Qur’an 2:286

[44] The Young Athiest’s Handbook. Biteback Publishing. 2012, p. 51.

[45] Ibid p. 49.

[46] Qur’an 18:65-82

[47] Tafsir Ibn Kathir

[48] Ibid

[49] Minhaj As-Sunnah 3:142/2:25

[50] Cited in Jon Hoover. Ibn Taymiyya’s Theodicy of Perpetual Optimism. Brill. 2007, p.4.

[51] Qur’an 51:56-57

[52] Qur’an 67:2

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