Wednesday 15 November 2017

Discussions with theists, part 1

I often have discussions with theists; it's fun, sharpens my debating skills, and could help lead some theists out of religion.

You can divide theists up into three groups; Christians, Muslims and everyone else. Most of the people I talk to are Muslims, because they seem to be most willing to talk; Christians come second, and I don't talk to the others because A) there are very few to bump into and B) I don't know enough about their religion to be able to discuss it.

In this essay, I shall consider Muslims, and how to discuss their religion.

There are three kinds of Muslim, and they are so opposed to each other that there is constant war and mosque explosions. These are Sunni, Shia and Quranic. Muslims often claim that Muslims are united in one Umma, but when you get down to it, they say that the other two aren't actually Muslims. So the Umma is united, just a lot smaller than they initially claim.

What all of these have in common, is a belief in Allah (who approximately corresponds to the Jewish god Jehovah), in Mohammed who was his messenger (or prophet), in the Quran, which is the  Holy Book. In addition, the Sunnis and the Shias have the Hadith, which are sayings of the prophet and his companions, written down somewhat later. There are strong Hadith and weak Hadith; this means Hadith that you can rely on, and Hadith that are less reliable. Islamic scholars decide which are which. The Hadith that the Sunnis regard as good, are different from the ones that the Shias regard as good. Quranic muslims don't accept the Hadith at all.

The main beef that the Shias have with the Sunnis (and vice versa) concerns some political stuff and assassinations that happened 1400 years ago after the death of Muhammed, and which I've never been interested in enough to study up on, because I'm much more interested in the religious differences today.

Allah, the Quran and Mohammed are all perfect. And that exposes an interesting debate surface. Because a perfect book cannot have imperfections. So can we find any imperfections?

Of course we can. But I feel it's better to examine the important ones, than the less important. So I'll start with what I regard as the most important.

I start off with "Would you like to discuss the Quran?" If they don't, then that's that. But usually, Muslims are very eager to talk about their religion, because for some reason, they think that all they have to do is explain to an atheist about the perfection of islam, and he'll convert. By the way, they use the word "revert" because they believe that everyone is born muslim, but their parents lead them astray.

The next question is "Do you think that slavery is evil and should be forbidden".

This is often followed by considerable wriggling. I ignore the wriggling and attempts to change the subject, and requests to watch a three hour long video, and just keep repeating the question, with slight variations.

Digression. If you make the exact same post three times, even if the post is :-), then Facebook thinks it's spam. One character change avoids this.

So eventually, the question is answered, and everyone I've ever discussed this with, agrees that slavery is evil and should be forbidden.

At this point, they might point out that there is no slavery today. Well, there is. For example, 2.1 million in Pakistan.   Here's a clickable world map.  There is also sometimes an attempt to redefine slavery to include people working for a wage. The key issue is, if someone can leave their job and work elsewhere without asking permission, then it isn't slavery.

So the next question is "Does the quran forbid slavery?" And then you wait while he checks his Quran, and if he says it does, you ask for the Sura and verse, and that's where your own copy of the Quran is crucial. Because he will come back with various verses. None of them forbid slavery. Sometimes he will come back with a verse that is about something else entirely, more often with something vaguely relevant, nbut which doesn't forbid slavery,

There are some that tell you that if you murder someone, then to make amends you should feed ten hungry people, clothe ten needy people, or free one slave.  There's one about a battle, in which the army is advised to free a slave to make progress. There are verses that tell you to free a slave, there are verses that say that you gain merit by freeing slaves, but there isn't anything that forbids slavery.

Then, after he's failed to find anything forbidding slavery, he might point out that in the 6th century, slavery was common (true) and it just wasn't practical to forbid slavery. But murder and robbery were also common, and the Quran forbids those. And also, is he saying that there is a limit to the power of Allah? One  little sentence in the Quran, "I forbid you to keep slaves" is all it would have taken.

And if you go to and visit the page on slavery, then you'll notice a lot of stuff about Christianity, which is irrelevant because we're not defending Christianity, and "We reply emphatically and without shame that slavery is permitted in Islam,"

So now we have it. Our discussion partner agrees that slavery is evil and should be forbidden. The Quran does not forbid slavery. Therefore the morality of our discussion partner, is better than that of the Quran.

This is a rather stunning discovery. They never knew this before. And (although I dont say this) it demonstrates that the Quran is imperfect.

At that point, I leave the discussion. You will *never* get anyone to say "You're right, I'm an atheist from this day forth". It takes a long time for someone to find their way out of religion, but you have opened up a crack in the surface. They'll have to take the next steps themselves. Or maybe they won't.

A few other points

Muslims sometimes claim that in Islam, women are treated equally. They aren't. Sura 4:34 is the verse that allows men to beat their wives. Sometimes the discussion partner claims that this beating is symbolic, but this is not what the Quran says, and if the Quran is perfect, then you cannot change what it says. Also, in the inheritance laws, a son inherits twice as much as a daughter, Sura 4:11. Muslims claim that their inheritance law is deeply complex, but it isn't. If you can think clearly, and maybe do a bit of algebra (and isn't that ironic) the inheritance laws are simple. The only complexity comes when the division of the inheritance specified by the Quran among parents, wives, sons and daughters adds up to more than 100% (actually to 112.5%), which means that either Allah can't do arithmetic, or someone wrote the rules down wrong.


Aisha was one of Mohammed's wives. They were married when she was six, the marriage consummated at nine. A lot of people like to raise this issue, but I've never felt that it was worth discussing. At that time, in Western Europe, marriages were being made at a similarly early age. And, horrifyingly, in the USA today half the states have no minimum age for marriage, and there are cases of marriage at age 11 and 12. So it's not a topic I feel gives me solid ground.

Mohammed in the Old Testament 

This one is rather fun. Sometimes Muslims claim that the coming of Mohammed was foretold in the Old Testament, and they quote a verse from the "Song of Solomon".
 It's a love song; romantic poetry. And it says "His mouth is most sweet, yes, he is altogether lovely. This is my beloved, and this is my friend, O daughters of Jerusalem!€"

The hebrew word that they're thinking of is "ma-kha-madeem" where "kha" is the hard "ch" as in "loch". And the meaning of that is "altogether lovely". If the author of the bible had wanted to use the word "Mohammed" then he could have. But he didn't.

So it sounds a bit like "mohammed", but only a bit. If you search the bible, you'd also find a word that sounds like "Zakir", but that doesn't mean that the bible predicted the existence of Dr Zakir.

Oh, and while we're on the subkect of Hebrew. Male nouns are pluralise by adding "im" and female nouns by adding "ot". I've heard both Muslims and Christians claim that "im" is a mark of deep respect. No. "Yom" is a day, "yomim" is days. I spent many boring hours in Cheder learning stuff like that.

The origin of the universe and the origin of life

I plan to discuss this in a future essay on atheism how to discuss it.


Sometimes Muslims claim that there is information in the Quran that was simply unknown at the time, and therefore must have been divinely inspired. A common example of this is that the world is round.

But actually Eratostheses, around 200 BC, not only knew that the world was round, he actually measured the circumference, and made a rather good measurement of it.

Likewise, any other scientific information in the Quran wa eiher well known at the time, or else is the result of "data mining", whereby a poetic description is stretched and distorted and claimed to be modern science. It's usually easy to dismiss those.


Most discussions on the internet are in English, so it's important to remember that your discussion partner might well not have English as their first language. So I *never* correct their spelling or grammar, and I make every effort to understand what they said. If, after trying, I really cannot understand, then I say "Could you rephrase your comment, I didn't understand you" which is kind of putting the blame on me. Good manners.

Computers and smartphones

I'm using a computer. I think that many other people are using a smartphone or tablet. That means that I can type as fast as I can talk; they usually can't (plus they're talking in what isn't their first language). I have Google and I know how to use it. I also have Google Translate, which means that I can read and write Arabic, Urdu, Hindi and about 100 other languages. I can cut-and-paste from other internet pages, they might not be able to. So I have all sorts of advantages. Well, hard luck.


I *never* hurl insults, there's no point. But if someone tries to insult me, I explain to them that it is really, really difficult to insult me, which is true. The reason for that is that if someone starts throwing insults, I immediately lose any respect for them, and I obviously can't be insulted by someone I don't respect. Throwing insults means you've run out of rations discussion points.


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