The Gnostics & The Qur’an

December 28, 2013


As an Atheist with an interest in all things religious, I often get asked “Why focus on religion so much if you don’t believe it?” It always seemed a rather odd question to me. It is unlikely that one can understand the World we live in, and the social history that produced us, without a fundamental understanding of the overwhelming power that organised faith has had upon the World across the brief history of mankind. Religion has sparked wondrous works of creative genius, and terrible moments of oppressive atrocity. It is woven into the fabric of human history. It is this that fascinates me.

Subsequently, as a non-believer, I am drawn to the mysteries surrounding Holy texts and from where they sprung. As Atheists, we dismiss the idea that Holy texts are divine in any sense, and so we must seek to provide more plausible explanations for their existence. For me it is impossible to deny that the Qur’an is a fascinating historical document.

I am quite certain that the Qur’an was written down for the sake of empire. It is an imperial book, and it has control at its core. As noted in a previous article, the earliest Quranic manuscript we have dates back to the reign of Caliph Abd al-Malik ibn Marwan, a ruler who embarked on a massive imperial PR campaign – continued by his son – with the purpose of solidifying his fledgling empire, by linking it back to the founder of the faith. Muhammad’s name starts to appear on coins in 686 – a year after al-Malik’s accession, he oversaw the building of the Dome of the Rock, and it was during his reign, that the state and the new faith become one and the same. The Arabic empire, becomes an Islamic empire.

But let’s for a moment entertain the idea that the Qur’an came entirely from the mouth of Muhammad over the space of twenty years. It is important to note that we non-believers are quite certain that the Qur’an offers nothing new in terms of explanation or advancement in the sciences, nor anything that couldn’t have been produced without the need for a God. Even in the 7th Century. It then follows that the stories in the Qur’an must have came from elsewhere. Once we have evidence for this, the divinity of the Qur’an becomes entirely unnecessary.

A couple of stories in particular feature in the Qur’an, that also feature elsewhere, and prior to the Qur’an. The subject of Jesus’ youth was an important issue for early Christianity, and spawned plenty of different tales, mainly due to its omittance from Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. One later Gnostic story in particular features in Qur’an 3:49:

“And (make him) a messenger to the Children of Israel (saying): I have come to you with a sign from your Lord, that I determine for you out of clay the form of a bird, then I breathe into it and it becomes a bird with Allah’s permission, and I heal the blind and the leprous, and bring the dead to life with Allah’s permission; and I inform you of what you should eat and what you should store in your houses. Surely there is a sign in this for you, if you are believers.”

– Similarly, Qur’an 5:10 says:

“When Allah will say: O Jesus, son of Mary, remember My favour to thee and to thy mother, when I strengthened thee with the Holy Spirit; thou spokest to people in the cradle and in old age, and when I taught thee the Book and the Wisdom and the Torah and the Gospel, and when thou didst determine out of clay a thing like the form of a bird by My permission, then thou didst breathe into it and it became a bird by My permission …. but those of them who disbelieved said: This is nothing but clear enchantment.”

– The Infancy Gospel of Thomas – a Gnostic text written between between 140ad and 170ad – first referenced by Irenaeus and later by Origen, tells a very similar story:

“Then he (Jesus) took from the bank of the stream some soft clay and formed out of it twelve sparrows; and there were other boys playing with him.
But a certain Jew seeing the things which he was doing, namely, his forming clay into the figures of sparrows on the Sabbath day, went presently away and told his father Joseph,
Behold, your boy is playing by the river side, and has taken clay and formed it into twelve sparrows, and profanes the Sabbath.
Then Joseph came to the place where he was, and when he saw him, called to him, and said, Why do you that which is not lawful to do on the Sabbath day?
Then Jesus clapping together the palms of his hands, called to the sparrows, and said to them: Go, fly away; and while you live remember me.
So the sparrows fled away, making a noise.
The Jews seeing this, were astonished and went away and told their chief persons what a strange miracle they had seen wrought by Jesus.”

– The link is clear. Jesus creates birds out of clay, and miraculously brings them to life, as a sign to non-believers. Of course, it is prudent to note that similarity does not necessarily mean a plagiarised copy. He might have known nothing of these stories, and God revealed them. It was just coincidence that the same stories happened to be invented centuries earlier by Christians in Greece/Syria. We would need evidence that Muhammad had access to these stories, to entirely eliminate the divine explanation. So then, do we have evidence that Muhammad had access to these stories? Well, yes. By way of traditional biographies of the Prophet:

“[Those who talked to Messenger of Allah, peace be upon him, were Abu Haritha Ibn `Alqama, Al-`Aqib `Abdul-Masih and Al-Ayham al-Sa`id.] They were Christians according to the faith of the king with differences between them; they say: He is Allah, and say: He is Son of Allah, and say: He is the third of three [i.e., part of Trinity] and these are the claims of Christianity. [They use as evidence for their claim that He is Allah the argument that] he used to raise the dead, cure the sick, create from clay bird-like structure then breathe into it to make it a [living] bird.

– This is from Ibn Ishaq, who notes that the ‘Family of Imran’ – the third Chapter of the Qur’an – was revealed just after the delegation of Najrān Christians spoke to Muhammad. This delegation included Abu Haritha Ibn `Alqama, who had been lavished with gifts and money from the Christian Kings. You will note, that the first quote from the Qur’an I used in this article, is from Chapter 3 of the Qur’an. So it would appear that according to Muslim tradition, Muhammad just happened to have a revelation confirming new stories on the early life of Jesus he’d just heard from Christians telling him about the early life of Jesus. If this doesn’t strike you as a little suspicious, not much will.

Further, the same Sura 3 – revealed after Muhammad meets Christians who have their own Gnostic traditions – mentions a legend of Mary, also prominent in Gnostic texts.
Quran 3:37:

“Her Lord graciously accepted her and made her grow in goodness, and entrusted her to the charge of Zachariah. Whenever Zachariah went to see her in her sanctuary, he found her supplied with provisions. He said, “Mary how is it you have found these provisions?” and she said, “They are from God: God provides limitlessly for whoever He wills.” ”

– The Protevangelium of James says:

“(1) And her parents went down, marveling at and praising and glorifying the Lord God because the child had not turned back to look at them. (2)While Mary was in the temple of the Lord, she was fed like a dove and received food from the hand of an angel. (3) When she turned twelve, a group of priests took counsel together, saying, “Look, Mary has been in the temple of the Lord twelve years. (4)What should we do about her now, so that she does not defile the sanctuary of the Lord our God?” (5) And they said to the high priest, “You have stood at the altar of the Lord. Go in and pray about her. And if the Lord God reveals anything to you, we will do it.” (6) And the priest went in taking the vestment with twelve bells into the holy of holies and prayed about her. Suddenly, an angel of the Lord stood before him, saying, “Zachariah, Zachariah, depart from here and gather the widowers of the people and let each one carry a staff. (8) And the one whom the Lord God points out with a sign, she will be his wife.”

– With variation in editorial detail, the story is the same. Mary lives in a sanctuary, Zachariah is prominent in her life in the sanctuary, and she is given “provisions” from a divine source.

Another story, this time from The Arabic Infancy Gospel says:

“He has said that Jesus spoke, and, indeed, when He was lying in His cradle said to Mary His mother: I am Jesus, the Son of God, the Logos, whom thou hast brought forth, as the Angel Gabriel announced to thee; and my Father has sent me for the salvation of the world.”

– This story of Jesus speaking, as a baby, from the cradle is echoed in the Qur’an:

“But she pointed to the babe. They said: “How can we talk to one who is a child in the cradle?” He said: “I am indeed a servant of Allah: He hath given me revelation and made me a prophet; And He hath made me blessed wheresoever I be, and hath enjoined on me Prayer and Charity as long as I live; (He) hath made me kind to my mother, and not overbearing or miserable; So peace is on me the day I was born, the day that I die, and the day that I shall be raised up to life (again)”! Such (was) Jesus the son of Mary: (it is) a statement of truth, about which they dispute.”

– Two things to note here. Firstly, the link between Jesus as a baby in the cradle speaking philosophically about his role, with his mother close. The Arabic Infancy Gospel requires Jesus to echo Christian thought, whilst the Quranic version echoes Islamic thought. Secondly, The Quranic verse seems to note that this is a story not accepted by mainstream Christianity: “…which they dispute“. This suggests that the story most certainly pre-dates the Qur’an, was well known as a dispute within the Church, and given that we Atheists insist that the Qur’an was not divine; it is more evidence that Muhammad had heard or read the Infancy Gospels in some form, and was thoroughly inspired by them.

So, we know that at least three stories from the Qur’an are reflected in early Gnostic Christian texts, written far removed from the life of Jesus, and that have no credible base in historical reality. We know that Muhammad had dealings with Christians (Khadijah’s cousin ‘Waraqa’ was a devout Christian). We know that Muhammad conversed with gnostic-leaning Christians who believed that Jesus created birds from clay and brought them to life and that Muhammad had a revelation concerning Jesus and clay birds around that exact time, the same is true for the story of Mary. From this, it seems to me far more plausible that Muhammad – if we are to indulge the idea that the Qur’an indeed came from his mouth – framed the Qur’an from a plethora of Gnostic texts and sects that already existed, rather than from revelation. Whilst again, it is true that similarities do not necessarily mean plagiarism, they do offer plagiarism as an alternative explanation, and a plausible one. Natural explanations will always be more plausible than supernatural explanations. There is certainly enough within the context of the Gnostic texts and the Qur’an for any reasonable mind to seriously doubt the story of revelation.

It is this intriguing history; these few short years in the Arabian desert regions and the subsequent power and influence over generations of human beings from Mecca to Edinburgh, Medina to Beijing, that as an Atheist, keeps me enduringly fascinated by the subject of religion.

The Marks & Spencer non-scandal.

December 23, 2013

Marks & Spencer have had a terrible week. A Muslim employee told customers they would have to use another checkout, because owing to her religious convictions, she couldn’t serve them alcohol and pork. Marks & Spencer then released a statement stating that staff could indeed refuse to sell items based on their religious beliefs. After an intense public reaction, and a threatened boycott, the company then backtracked and insisted that staff would work elsewhere in the store, if they felt uncomfortable selling certain products. Common sense dictates that the latter should have been policy in the first place.

All in all, the situation was handled terribly by Marks & Spencer. The backlash – especially on social media – has ranged from well considered debate on the nature of personal belief (not just religious) within a secular and professional setting, to the obvious cries of “Islamophobia” from a Galloway-left unable to say much else, to the predictable anti-Muslim bigotry from those who didn’t react with equal vitriol when the Christian B&B owners refused to accommodate a gay couple. Not one to miss a good opportunity for an article, I thought I’d weigh in on the debate.

It seems to me to be largely a non-scandal. It seems to have happened once. The employee in question – by all accounts – was very apologetic for the situation. It isn’t something Muslims are together demanding across the country. It did not need to be blown to this purportion. Christians not wishing to work on a Sunday, are excused from doing so at Marks and Spencer. Jewish people not wishing to work on Saturday, are likewise excused. The problem however, would arise if a Christian came into work on a Sunday of his or her own accord, and then refused to do anything, because it’s Sunday, but continued to be paid. It’s a simple case, to be quite honest. And from my perspective, both the individual and the business share the blame.

The individual must concede that it is their responsibility to work at a place (or a department within a company) that is not likely to compromise deeply held convictions. It is not the duty of a business to inquire into every employee’s deeply held convictions and change policy accordingly. Especially a company with thousands of staff, each with their own beliefs. If I am a vegetarian who doesn’t wish to handle meat, it is unlikely I am going to apply for work at a butchers. Similarly, a key product – especially at Christmas time – at a massive chain of supermarket in the United Kingdom, is alcohol. Unlike a butchers, the supermarket has plenty of different sections, and so if the individual feels confident enough to refuse to serve customers, I’d have to wonder why she didn’t feel confident enough to ask a manager to place her in a different section. If however she did ask to be placed elsewhere, and was refused, then the company only has itself to blame, and the individual cannot be blamed. Furthermore, in that case the company must face the blame for putting an employee in a horrible position in which she would be in the firing line of public scorn.

Ian Leslie writing for the New Statesman makes several errors in his piece on this. Firstly, he appears to be one of those on the Galloway-left who seem to be unable to recognise that any criticism of Islam, is not inherently bigoted “Islamophobia”. Secondly, he exceeds regular New Statesman “Islamophobia” fallacy creation, when he says this:

“On Twitter, Jenni Russell put it to me like this: “Just as Christians can’t refuse to have gays in B&Bs, so Muslims shouldn’t refuse to serve people buying legal goods.” Let’s see: one of them involves denying adults the right to love one another. The other involves denying the basic human right to buy a bottle of Merlot from the first sales assistant available.”

– To use his own logic against him, the B&B owners were not denying adults the right to love each other. They refused to book them a room. If we’re playing the comparison game, then denying the right to love, and not booking them into a room are not comparable either. By Leslie’s own logic on simplistic comparisons therefore, he is Christianophobic and a bigot.

Secondly, If we are to reduce the entire situation down to a simplistic comparison, Leslie is of course quite correct that for we non-believers, denying the basic right to love another human being is not at all comparable to stopping someone buying a Merlot. But for many believers – of all faiths – it isn’t different. The context is the same. Why then accommodate one belief ahead of others? Where is the line drawn? When does that line become “Islamophobic”? That is the delicate challenge. The problem lies in the principle on which accommodating certain beliefs is handled. It is allowing religious belief to dictate policy within a secular framework, and that’s the problem. The underlying issue is the same. The principle is no different. On this occasion, allowing people of certain faiths the right to refuse to serve you, based on their beliefs, is a recipe for disaster.

To be clear, you’re entitled to your beliefs. No one is entitled to tell you not to hold those beliefs. You’re entitled to wear whatever you want, to build private prayer halls, you’re entitled to not handle products that compromise your beliefs. That is your right. But you cannot start dictating where those beliefs are to be held above either secular law (for example, the Christian B&B owners refusing to allow gay people to stay…. bigotry is not permissible) or the policy of the company you’ve decided to work for. You have the right to ask your employer (preferably during an interview phase, or before employment) if you can be placed in a work environment that wont compromise your beliefs. If you do ask to be placed elsewhere, and though the employer does not have to accommodate your request, I would argue that it is common human decency for a company to accommodate those beliefs within a structure that already exists, as best as possible (a vegetarian working for M&S, not being placed on the meat counter, for example). If the employee did in fact ask M&S to be placed elsewhere, and that wasn’t accommodated, then M&S must shoulder most of the blame for this, and for placing her in such a difficult position. But if you are put to work on a section that will almost definitely compromise your beliefs, having not asked to be placed elsewhere, tough. Deal with it, or quit. A Vegetarian who doesn’t wish to handle any meat products, does not get to sit on a till refusing to cash up meat products, if they haven’t asked to be placed away from that situation. If a devout Christian and Muslim were to work in a supermarket, and felt it wrong to serve gay people, tough. Deal with it or quit. If a Catholic at Tesco felt it wrong to serve condoms, and didn’t ask to be placed away from that situation, tough. Deal with it or quit. The same is true in this situation. It’s the primary responsibility of the believer to work somewhere that will not compromise their beliefs, or to ask for certain beliefs to be accommodated as best a company can do within an existing framework. If the company – for whatever reason – cannot accommodate those beliefs, you do not get to invent your own policy.

In this case, the assistant in question was – according to customers – very apologetic. She wasn’t trying to force her faith on the country. She just has very deeply held beliefs, that don’t seem to be held across the Muslim community in Britain. And given the nature of that belief not being widely held even within the Muslim community, the primary responsibility falls on her to ask her employer if it is possible to accommodate that belief, by not working in an environment that directly compromises it. Both she, and Marks & Spencer are the blame. M&S have a PR department to deal with this, the girl in question doesn’t. She’s now in the midst of a horrid media storm, and I can imagine that must be horrible, and I feel for her.

Owing to my inability to Christmas shop at a reasonable time of the year rather than the very last minute, I spent much of today buying gifts. After much hard work looking for gifts but instead settling on vouchers, I felt I deserved to treat myself. So I bought a few bottles of wine for the Christmas period. A couple of Chilean Merlots. The checkout assistant was an older Muslim gentleman. He wished me a Merry Christmas, and happily served me my wine. For most people this is a matter of professionalism, and has never been a problem, for people of any faith. I refuse to call the M&S non-scandal a case of “Islamification” as some are doing. It isn’t. Similarly, those of us who object to the way the employee handled the situation, must not be made to feel as if we fit a simplistic, non-defined “Islamophobic” profile that some seem so joyful to throw about. It is simply a case of someone with deeply held beliefs, not taking the initiative to work at a place – or at least to ask to be placed in a department – where the belief would not be compromised, and a company completely unaware of how to cope with a multitude of beliefs in a plural and secular society.

Faith: The “get out of bigotry free” card.

December 20, 2013

The backlash over Phil Robertson’s homophobic comments and subsequent suspension from ‘Duck Dynasty’ on A&E over in the US this week, has revealed three things. Firstly, the Christian Right seem to be under the impression that bigotry – when it is faith based- is acceptable and should come with no consequences. Secondly, they appear to be more offended at a suspension for bigotry, than they are by bigotry itself (is this what it means to be Christian?); And thirdly, they wish all private business owners to share their bigotry, and if those business owners wish the freedom to suspend someone for comments disagreeable to the business or the owners, this can only mean persecution of Christians, the end of free expression, and something about Stalin and Hitler.

For what it’s worth, I am a big free speech advocate. As an Atheist, I have argued that Muslim speaker – Mehdi Hasan – should be allowed to say of non-believers, that we’re headed for eternal torture, and that we live like animals. As disgusting as I find his views, I recognise that he will equally find my views on his faith to be ugly. The same Muslim speaker – Mehdi Hasan – then demanded we all say nice things about his religion, in essence, promotion of blasphemy laws; this, I cannot abide. They exist to protect faith. Faith has no inherent right to be protected.

It is worth noting that in Phil Robertson’s case, the state is not threatening to punish him. This is not a free expression issue. His freedom to be a bigot, is not under threat. Robertson expressed his view, he wont be punished by the state for it. However, a private business can still suspend him, if they are unhappy at what he expresses. This is true of every other business across the World. If I were to go on TV and express a thoroughly racist opinion, I’d expect to be disciplined by the network for it. If private companies wish to suspend someone for an ill-conceived and hateful racist, or homophobic rant, it is their right to do so.

Here is what Phil Robertson said:

“Start with homosexual behavior and just morph out from there. Bestiality, sleeping around with this woman and that woman and that woman and those men. Don’t be deceived. Neither the adulterers, the idolaters, the male prostitutes, the homosexual offenders, the greedy, the drunkards, the slanderers, the swindlers — they won’t inherit the kingdom of God. Don’t deceive yourself. It’s not right.”

“It seems like, to me, a vagina — as a man — would be more desirable than a man’s anus, that’s just me. I’m just thinking: There’s more there! She’s got more to offer. I mean, come on, dudes! You know what I’m saying? But hey, sin: It’s not logical, my man. It’s just not logical.”

– Leaving aside the obvious irony in a man believing in book of magical fairy sky man, dust Adam, rib Eve, and talking snake, having the nerve to call anyone else “not logical”; Phil Robertson here compares beastiality to homosexuality. At this point, the Christian-right expected no one to take issue with this grotesque rant. It is true that if you hold such appalling and uneducated views, you’re likely to face strong opposition with equally strongly held views (though again, you should not be punished by the state). It is the nature of holding extreme views.

For example, we could all point out that whilst Leviticus calls homosexuality an abomination, 1 Corinthians 11:14 refers to Phil Robertson as a ‘disgrace’:

“Does not nature itself teach you that if a man wears long hair it is a disgrace for him”

– But I don’t use this to build a system of bigoted privilege for those of us who aren’t a ‘disgrace’ For having long hair, Phil Robertson “won’t inherit the Kingdom of heaven. Don’t deceive yourself. It’s not right”.

Indeed, the free expression narrative is an interesting one. For the Christian-right, it appears to mean freedom-to-say-right-winged-things, and to threaten action against those who don’t. In 2011, The American Family Association issued a sort of fatwa against The Gap and Banana Republic, calling for a boycott of the business. Effectively hurting business, thus hurting people who work for those businesses, around Christmas time, because:

“The boycott is part of our ongoing campaign to encourage businesses, communities and individuals to put Christ back in Christmas. The boycott runs from November 1 through Christmas Day.
For years, Gap has refused to use the word Christmas in its television commercials, newspaper ads and in-store promotions, despite tens of thousands of consumer requests to recognize Christmas and in spite of repeated requests from AFA to do the same.”

– The AFA are quite the serial offenders for demanding private companies bow to their wishes. They demanded a boycott of Ford over its support for gay pride events. The AFA then announced that Ford’s drop in sales, was caused in large part by the AFA’s boycott. Congrats! Your free expression – according to you – hurt a business, thus hurting employees, all because the business didn’t come to you to draft it’s “What we’re allowed to support” memo.

Similarly, The First Baptist Church of Dallas, in 2010 launched a website designed to allow users to ‘name and shame’ companies who take ‘Christ’ away from the holiday period, in their ads and products. The Christian-right are naturally very talented at forcing their views on others, and silencing dissent, so to harm businesses – small and large – to harm the employees who work at these businesses by shaming them simply for not re-affirming the Christian aspect of Christmas every single second of every day.

In 2010, the late Helen Thomas made disparaging remarks toward Jews in Israel, when she suggested Jews should leave Israel and “go home” to Germany and Poland. Ari Fleischer – Press Secretary under George W Bush – said:

“She should lose her job over this.”

– Nine Speakers, Inc, the agency that represented Thomas then fired her, after the media backlash and ex-Bush staff calling for her to be fired. Sarah Palin expressed her anger at Thomas, and added to the media storm that eventually led to her firing. Palin today is standing by Phil Robertson for his equally disparaging remarks.

Indeed, conservatives were overjoyed that “they” managed to get Helen Thomas fired:

Three years later, the same conservatives expressing joy at getting someone fired for expressing their view, seem to have had a sudden change of heart:

And again:


And again:

– When it’s speech that doesn’t adhere to their Theocratic standards, they get angry and demand action. When the speech absolutely adheres to their Theocratic standards, they get angry at those who demand action. It’s beautifully hypocritical.

In December 2012, Alex Jones over at infowars started a petition that eventually gained over 100,000 signatures on the White House website, earning an official response from the President…. to deport Piers Morgan for advocating gun control. Apparently you’re free to say what you wish, as long as it’s Tea Party-esque, and you’re not foreign:


And again:


Hell, it’s not just Piers Morgan they want to deport either:

– Essentially; give a voice to those who agree with us, and silence those who don’t.

As noted in yesterday’s article on the Christian-right in Oklahoma – they are not happy unless their faith dictates the operation of the state, the media, private businesses, the womb of every woman on the planet, and whom individuals are allowed to marry. The arrogance is astounding, and the religious supremacy that promotes and perpetuates homophobia is cancerous.

The use of the phrase “free expression” – which to the Christian-right means; freedom from any sort of repercussion or challenge – is only ever invoked when the views expressed confirm Christian prejudices. The same people then demand repercussions for anyone, or any business whose expression doesn’t confirm Christian-right prejudices. It’s a terribly hypocritical state of affairs, all in the hope of retaining the get out of bigotry free card for that which they call “faith”.

Oklahoma’s war on secularism

December 19, 2013

Author: Serge Melki from Indianapolis, USA (Oklahoma State Capitol  Uploaded by russavia)  Source: Wikimedia Commons

Author: Serge Melki from Indianapolis, USA (Oklahoma State Capitol Uploaded by russavia)
Source: Wikimedia Commons

For a nation that enshrined a separation of church and state into its principal founding document in very unequivocal terms, it seems that one of its major parties in 2013 – whilst asking you to “take a stand for freedom” – doesn’t appear to understand the very first amendment to the Constitution:

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof ….”

– Article 1 of the United States Constitution is quite clear. Your religion has no place enshrined in common law. If that isn’t clear enough, the concept is further elaborated on by Thomas Jefferson, in a letter from 1801 addressed to the Danbury Baptists:

“Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between man and his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legislative powers of government reach actions only, and not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should “make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” thus building a wall of separation between church and State.”

– The Founders quite obviously wished to see religious freedom enshrined, with no one faith supreme, no one faith recognised by the state in any official capacity. There is no special place afforded to Christianity in the cogs of state. Freedom for all beliefs, and freedom from all beliefs.

Over 200 years later, and Republicans in Oklahoma’s state legislature seem devoted to shattering the secular founding document that they so ironically claim to revere.

In 2008 Democrat governor of Oklahoma, Brad Henry, had to veto a bill passed by the Republican-controlled Oklahoma state legislature that was designed specifically to force a woman to have an ultrasound – by law – before having an abortion. A woman seeking an abortion would then have a picture of the ultrasound placed in front of her, be forced to look at it, and be forced to listen to a state-mandated script. If she refused, she’d be denied the right to an abortion. In essence, lawmakers in Oklahoma passed a law transferring ownership of the bodies of all women to the Republican Party, for Jesus.

Ironically, this ‘pro life’ attitude doesn’t seem to extend to any time after the child is born, given that Republicans from Oklahoma – including Republican Frank Lucas of Oklahoma, chairman of the House Agricultural Committee – proposed and voted to cut food stamps for 637,000 residents of the State.

In 2011, the Republican-controlled House in Oklahoma passed a bill – which ultimately failed – that proposed to make stem cell research illegal, and furthermore, illegal for scientists to buy, sell, or transfer stem-cells for research. Research that very recently, led a research team from the University of Queensland to turn an embryonic stem cell into a fully functioning component of the kidney, leading to incredible hope for those suffering an agonising wait for a kidney transplant. The Bill to ban stem cell research was led by Republican George Faught, a Christian supremacist who, back in 2007, attempted to make English the official language of the state, despite strong opposition from native tribes. Faught appears entirely unable to distinguish between the founding documents, and the Bible. On his Facebook page, Faught says:

– Here, we can presume that Faught believes marriage is defined by the Bible. Though he seems to ignore passages like Deuteronomy 21:11-13, which demand a female captive shave her head, before you decide to marry her (she’s given no choice in this). Republican Biblical marriage tradition only appears to extend to cover homophobia. Faught is certain that the US is country founded on the Christian religion. So what did the Founders think of that? Well, Article 11 of the Treaty of Tripoli, written by 2nd President John Adams, states:

“…the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion…”

– Adams reflects the desire of practically all of the founding generation, to separate religion from the power of state. Faught wishes to remarry religion – his religion – to the power of state.

In 2011, under the guise of “academic freedom” Oklahoma Senate Bill 554 was proposed. The purpose of which was to present evolution as a “controversial topic”, opening the gates to creationism in science lessons:

“The State Department of Education, or any school district or school district administrator, shall not prohibit any teacher from informing students about relevant scientific information regarding either the scientific strengths or scientific weaknesses of controversial topics in sciences, when being taught in accordance with adopted standards and curricula. Controversial topics in sciences include but are not limited to biological origins of life and biological evolution.”

– Evolution is only a “controversial topic” to creationists. One of those creationists, is the sole sponsor of SB 554, Republican Josh Brecheen. Having failed with Senate Bill 554, Brechen tried again in 2012, with Senate Bill 1742. This Bill, again, subtly allows creationism to be presented as a reasonable alternative to evolution. 1742 states:

SECTION 2: A. The State Board of Education, upon the request of a school district board of education, shall allow and assist teachers, principals, and school administrators in creating an environment within the public school system that promotes critical thinking, logical analysis, open and objective discussion of scientific theories including, but not limited to, evolution, the origin of life, global warming, and human cloning.

– His motives for the two bills can perhaps be discerned from his previous statements:

“One of the bills I will file this year may be dismissed as inferior by “intellectuals” so I wanted to devote particular time in discussing it’s merits… I’m talking about the religion of evolution. Yes, it is a religion. The religion of evolution requires as much faith as the belief in a loving God”

“I have introduced legislation requiring every publicly funded Oklahoma school to teach the debate of creation vs. evolution using the known science, even that which conflicts with Darwin’s religion.”

– There is no debate to teach. It is like suggesting that a debate exists between medicine and faith healing. Creation mythology – like faith healing – is not scientific; that is, it is not based on observation, nor experimentation. And which creation myth must we teach alongside evolution? Why not the Zuni creation myth with the sun God Awonawilona? Theology and philosophy are separate subjects and should not in any way be confused with science. And yet, here is a State Senator wishing to devalue scientific inquiry by marrying its methods to those of philosophy and theology. This is simply Brecheen’s attempts to perpetuate his mythological beliefs by infecting the minds of the young with his ignorance.

It is also dangerous. We would not allow medical teaching to be compromised by forcing students to have that time taken up by learning faith healing. Similarly, evolution is the basis of medicine, biology, zoology, genetics, and a raft of other vital subjects. Students in science lessons should not have that precious time taken up by mythological guesses.

In the spirit of secularism, perhaps Oklahoma’s Republicans believe all have a right to enshrine their faith into common law in much the same way as Christians seem to be attempting to do? Well no. Republicans in Oklahoma believe in separation of state and religions that aren’t Christianity. In 2013, the state legislature proposed an amendment to the state constitution banning sharia law from any form of recognition in the state (as if Muslim theocrats have decided the place to launch a new Caliphate, is Oklahoma). This, at the same time that House Speaker T.W.Shannon sponsored House Bill 1908 – eventually passed in May – that diverts funds from the vital Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program, to an advertising campaign promoting the virtues of Christian marriage. Breaking down the wall of separation, enshrining Christian values, subjugating the religious values of others, and taking vital assistance away from the most vulnerable. This is Theocracy in Oklahoma.

It seems ‘freedom of religion’ to Oklahoma’s Republicans means the freedom to live under the watchful and forceful eye of the state’s Christians. This represents nothing more than a war on secularism, for the promotion of a Christian Theocracy. Regardless, their attempts will always fail at the level of the Supreme Court, because when it comes to the basis of law and structure in the United States, the only document that matters is the secular Constitution. A Constitution under constant attack from Republicans in Oklahoma.

But all is not lost! There is a fight back against Christian supremacy in the state of Oklahoma. In November 2012, a ten commandments monument was erected outside of the Oklahoma State Capitol building – quite obviously endorsing one faith – donated by Republican state representative Mike Ritze. We shall call Mike Ritze, an anti-constitutionalist. By contrast, pro-secular, pro-constitutional opposition to the monument sprang up. Rajan Zed of the Universal Society of Hinduism is petitioning to have a statue of a Hindu god placed outside the Oklahoma State Capitol building. Rajan said:

“We would love to have a statue of Lord Hanuman, who was greatly revered and worshiped and known for incredible strength and was a perfect grammarian.”

– Similarly, The Satantic Temple are hoping to erect a monument to Satan on the grounds of the Oklahoma State Capitol, in response to the ten commandments monument. Oklahoma Speaker of the House T.W. Shannon’s spokesman Joe Griffin said that it was inappropriate to have a monument to Satan on the Oklahoma State Capitol grounds. Joe Griffin seems unaware that according to the Constitution, it is equally as inappropriate to have the ten commandments monument on the grounds of the Oklahoma State Capitol. Either all beliefs are recognised equally, or none at all.

Exploring the Nativity.

December 11, 2013

It is often called the greatest story ever told, and we’re all familiar with the traditional sequence of events. The Christmas story; from the immaculate conception, the journey on a donkey to Bethlehem, the shepherds tentatively watching their flocks by night, the three wise men guided by a mystical star, no room at the inn, the stable, the manger, the gold, frankincense and myrrh; the story flows as if a continuous narrative. What few recognise is that the traditional narrative, is not a single story told in the Bible, but parts of two stories from two often irreconcilable gospel accounts of the birth of Christ, sewn together to forge an entirely new story.

The gospel of Mark is traditionally believed to be the earliest gospel, though the writings of Paul predate Mark by a couple of decades. On the birth of Jesus, Mark is silent, but Paul isn’t. In Galatians 4:4, Paul writes:

“But when the set time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law”

– There is no suggestion of a virgin birth. Paul does not think it important to mention. Paul then expands on the lineage of Jesus in the Epistle to The Romans 1:4:

“…concerning his Son, who was descended from David”

– This lack of any sort of mention of a virgin birth, is repeated in Mark, who doesn’t seem to see the need to even mention Jesus’ birth in the first place. For me, this suggests that the idea of the virgin birth, was not something early Christians had any notion of. It came later. This is further backed up by acknowledging descent from David, in Joseph’s line.

Like ‘Romans’, Luke and Matthew – the only gospels to contain the virgin birth – also give genealogies of Jesus, that place his bloodline as that of Joseph, through David, to Abraham (Luke takes the lineage further back to Adam, to signify the son of mankind, whilst Matthew sticks to Abraham, to signify the son of the Jews). Interestingly, Joseph Tyson writing in his book “Marcion and Luke-Acts: a defining struggle“, makes the case that the gospel of Marcion – a gnostic text, and almost identical to Luke except missing the nativity – predates Luke, and that Luke was written with Marcion’s teaching in mind, around 125ad. If that’s the case, then only Matthew mentions the virgin birth. One must ask whether the virgin birth was ever supposed to be included in the Christian story of the birth of Jesus.

Nevertheless, as of the gospels that made the finished Bible, only Matthew and Luke contain the story of Jesus’ birth, and often the two are entirely at odds. Over the years, the two stories have become entwined at parts, and kept distant at other parts, to create a sort of hybrid story that is often taught as definitive.

We first hear an account of the birth of Jesus from the beginning of the gospel of Matthew.

For Matthew 2:1, Jesus is born in Bethlehem during the reign of Herod. The story of the wise men sent by Herod to find the baby follows from this. Matthew 2:10-12 tells us that the wise men – having seen Jesus – were warned by an angel not to return to Herod, and so they departed and went their own way. Herod, feeling betrayed, sends out a decree that all male babies under two years old in Bethlehem must be killed. To escape this, Joseph, Mary, and Jesus escape to Egypt where they live until Herod is dead, they then return to Nazareth. This isn’t mentioned in any other Gospel, and has no basis in historical reality. In fact, unaware of this crazed child murdering venture that Herod undertakes, Luke has Jesus, Joseph and Mary returning to Nazareth soon after the birth, with absolutely no threat to their lives.

Indeed, for Luke, the story is entirely different. Luke begins with a detailed story of the miraculous birth of John the Baptist. By the time Jesus is born, Herod has been dead for years. For Luke, Jesus is born in Bethlehem, not during the reign of Herod, but during the governorship of Syria by Quirinius. Quirinius – a name not at all associated with the Christmas story – was a Roman Senator sent to Syria after the exile of Herod. It is during the reign of Quirinius that Luke speaks of an empire wide Roman census that required families to return to their ancestral homeland. And since Joseph was descended from David, his family therefore leave Nazareth for Bethlehem – the city of David. This is how Luke places Jesus in Bethlehem at the time of his birth. Matthew does not mention the family traveling to Bethlehem, for Matthew, they’re already in Bethlehem, in a house.

The problem also with Luke’s more descriptive account, is that the actual historical census of Quirinius that took place in 6ad (two years after the death of Herod) did not apply to non-Roman citizens, and did not apply to the whole empire, nor did any Roman census ever require people to return to the homeland of long dead ancestors.

As mentioned above, in Matthew, Jesus is born in a ‘house’ in Bethlehem. There is no mention of a long journey, on a donkey, from Nazareth. There is no manger, nor stable. There is no reason to assume from Matthew’s account that the house is anyone elses. From Matthew’s account, the family live in Bethlehem, and Jesus is born in the house in Bethlehem. The reference to the inn, and the journey from Nazareth, are derived entirely from Luke.

So, so far the Christmas story contains Herod and the wise men from Matthew – but not mentioned in Luke – and the travel from Nazareth to Bethlehem and the manger from Luke – but not mentioned in Matthew.

A glaring omission from the Christmas narrative, is that of John the Baptist. The story of Mary’s cousin Elizabeth (who is barren) and her husband Zacharias, mother and father of John the Baptist appears to us in Luke, and takes up the entire first chapter. For Luke, the birth of John the Baptist is given more prominence and in greater detail, than the birth of Jesus. Luke therefore seems to be suggesting that John is a vital precursor to Jesus, and integral to the story.

The story in Luke tells us that both Elizabeth and Zacharias are in old age and that Elizabeth is barren. They are visited by an angel who informs them that they will have a child and to name him John. Zacharias questions the angel, and so as a particularly cruel and unnecessary punishment, the angel renders Zacharias mute, until John is born. This was in the time of Herod – so, whilst Luke does not mention Herod in the context of Jesus birth, he does mention Herod elsewhere. Matthew on the other hand, doesn’t mention Elizabeth or Zacharias at all. Curiously, Matthew picks up the story of John the Baptist, when John is an adult. Apparently one miraculous birth is enough for Matthew.

So, to summarise, the stitched together Christmas story that we all know runs as follows:
In the time of Herod (Matthew 2:1), Mary is visited by an angel who tells her that she has been chosen as the mother of the son of God (Luke 1:27-38). Mary and Joseph travel to Bethlehem (Luke 2:1-6). Jesus is born in a manger (Luke 2:7) in a stable (neither account), because there is no room at the inn (Luke 2:7). Three wise men were sent by a very jealous King Herod to find the child, they bring gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh (Matthew 2:7). They follow a star (Matthew 2:10). They arrived at the stable (neither account mentions a stable) and gave their gifts. Shepherds watching over their flocks by night were visited by an angel who told them all about the birth of Jesus. They decided to investigate for themselves (Luke 2:9-20). After visiting Jesus, an angel visits the wise men and tells them not to go back to Herod (Matthew 2:12). And everyone lived happily ever after.

One may argue that each of the two gospel writers commenting on the birth of Jesus simply fill in the gaps left by the other. But this cannot be the case, if one gospel writer is writing through the context of King Herod hot on the tails of the divine family, whilst the other writes from the context of no such threat ever existing. The entire context surrounding the wise men, is their relationship to Herod. The entire context surrounding the reason the family are in Bethlehem – according to Luke – is an empire wide census that relates Jesus to David, and thus to Adam. They do not leave Bethlehem through fear and flee to Egypt according to Luke. The two stories are entirely different, written for different audiences, with different purposes, with only the names seemingly agreeing with one another.

The Christmas story as we know it, is a story that neither of the two gospel writers – nor Paul – ever conceived. Parts of one story are taken out of their surrounding context, and placed in the other story. It sews together parts of the story, whilst omitting others. Not too many people will have heard the names Quirinius, or Elizabeth in the context of the birth of Jesus or Christmas. Nor will many have heard of the cruel muting of Zacharias, or the miraculous conception of John the Baptist. Nevertheless, the extra-Biblical story, with all its stitching together of various gospels, with its omissions, and with its pure inventions (the stable) has emerged as perhaps the most well known story in the history of the Christian faith and Western tradition. And yet, at its core, it is the perhaps one of the least understood.

But it means I get gifts, wine and turkey in a few days time. So I’m fine with that.

Poeticising Da’wah: An Atheist Critique.

December 9, 2013

There is a video currently doing the rounds across social media platforms that appears to have great power over Muslims. The video is produced by “Talk Islam” and features a speaker poetically expressing his understanding of the universe, and his dismissal of science. Those who have commented on the video range from some who find it the most inspiring poetic expression of Islam in years, to those who it drives to tears – that’s right, I can be poetic too! – and this surprises me for something that is so poorly written.

The video in question is here:

You may think “It’s just poetry, why address it? Let it be….Whisper words of wisdom…. let it be.” I would note that this video is being touted as a video that converts people the moment they see it. It is shown to non-believers as a form of beautiful proselytizing, of da’wah and so it becomes more than just a poem. Therefore, criticism is required.

I am a big fan of poetic creativity, and the poet in this video is expressing his. On a poetically creative level, I fully appreciate his work. But the content – as a form of da’wah – I find to be woefully misleading, scientifically illiterate, and full of fallacy and ignorance. I thought I’d deal with several of the points it raises here. The video is only 6 minutes long, but contains a lot of points, which would take up several thousand words to address. So I thought I’d stick to the first half of the video here, and limit my arguments, in an attempt to show that if the first half can be dismissed as nonsense, the second half isn’t likely to produce anything better.

It is also important to note that he isn’t saying anything new. The cosmological “proof” is used, the God-of-the-gaps is used, and commenting on his own misunderstanding of science is used. These widely used religious non-arguments are simply used a little more poetically here.

So, here are the five points:

“Don’t ask any questions, just go with the flow.” “Just make as much money as you can”.

– Here, the speaker is critiquing Western values. The audio is interlaced with a video showing US dollars. The implication being, the reason we non-Muslims haven’t asked questions, and come to Islam yet, is because we’re too busy obsessed with money. That is his only explanation. We must be too distracted by the accumulation of material goods, to embrace Allah. Both the poet and I agree that the Western World has placed money as a sort of quasi-God, and that this is deeply problematic. Though I would describe an obsession with religion as just as problematic, inhumane and dangerous, as an obsession with money. The two are very similar to me.

What the speaker is doing is a tried and tested method – usually by Muslims – to deflect from the issues their own system creates (institutionalised homophobia, for example), their lack of reasonable argument, and instead seeks to amplify the worst of Western, secular values – to the very extreme – as if they are representative of the entire region and everyone in it. It is of course, deeply misinformed. Indeed, the secular World has created some of the greatest universities in the World, encouraging free thought and wonderful advancements – far more so than any religious state has ever achieved – we do not ban books or words that run contrary to prevailing wisdom, we do not threaten people if they make films or books satirising secular customs.

The very reason I am an Atheist, is because I question (and not least because I wont be arrested, or have my life threatened by the state for questioning). The very reason I reject the Qur’an is because the Qur’an seems so inadequate; is scientifically less impressive than the Greeks were 1000 years earlier; offers no proof or even a shred of evidence for its claims on divinity; is rather badly put together; incredibly inaccurate; is far better explained by its links to the early Caliph’s need to control and unify; spends far too much time on meaningless tribal squabbles and Muhammad’s love life; and anchors “morality” to a single place and single time. And this is before we’ve even started to discuss the possibility of a ‘creator’. But we’ll come to that shortly. I wrote here on where I believe Islam – as we know it – took its roots and why.

It would also appear to me that the phrase “don’t ask questions” is better placed as a description of religion. Apostasy laws, blasphemy laws, attempting to prohibit the teaching of evolution, placing “God” in the gaps of understanding as if that’s reasonable, dismissing contrary arguments as of the “kuffar”, and threats to those who question or criticise certain religions ensure uniformity of belief among those under states that are entwined with the religion. It is a very difficult venture indeed, to locate a page in the Qur’an that doesn’t threaten those who are not Muslim, with terrible pain and torture simply for asking questions. This isn’t the promotion of freedom of thought and critique, this is the business of controlling thought processes and ensuring conformity through threats. The speaker in this video casts stones that boomerang back and hit him square in the face.

“How did we get here, and who made us so perfect?” “Did you create yourself or is it someone else that fashioned you?”

– Hideously false dichotomy. The choice isn’t “either you made yourself, or God made you“. We didn’t just appear, as we are today. Our ancestors – from the single cell, to homo sapien – have weathered such incredibly tough climates and challenges, fought rival species for survival, endured close to starvation and extinction, fostered ingenuity on a wonderful level, created language and tools, adapted to conditions and threats along the way, and died of the most easily curable diseases. That is how we are here. We have our ancestors to thank. We didn’t create ourselves. We didn’t require a God. Natural selection is as close to fact as any scientific theory you will ever come across – including gravity.

The question of how the entire universe got here – well, we don’t have a definitive answer yet, just like we didn’t have a definitive answer as to the nature of a lunar eclipse, centuries ago. This gap in our knowledge did not then render the Viking explanation of two wolves chasing and trying to eat the sun, any more credible. We place myths in the gaps in knowledge, always have. But we advance because we question. A ‘creator’ of the universe, is simply another gap plugged with an ill-fitting myth.

The speaker then goes on to show a video of Dawkins and Krauss, and subtly hints that an absence of God in our lives, is by extension, an absence of purpose. I find this to be a weak point, and one made out of malice and desperation rather than thought. Oprah Winfrey – a Christian – made the overly obtuse comment that non-believers just don’t understand awe and beauty. This is of course ridiculous, and I addressed it here. It is awe and beauty that drives curiosity and scientific inquiry. The same is true of purpose. As a non-believer, I create my own purpose. My purpose – as a human, with 70 or so short years in which to cram everything in – is to love, to be happy, and to obtain knowledge to the best of my ability, to see as much of the World as I possibly can, and when my time is up, I want to die feeling fulfilled. That is my purpose. I do not require a promise of heavenly reward, or a fairy sky man for that.

“For there isn’t a camera on this Earth that can come close to the human eye. If the whole world was to come together we wouldn’t be able to create a single fly…. so many signs.”

– This is scientifically illiterate creationism, and nothing less. It is a full dismissal of evolution via natural selection. Therefore it is also a dismissal of every subject that is based on evolution; genetics, biology, medicine, zoology, and many more. I am still waiting for a thesis from any creationist that proves the basis of all of those studies to be entirely false. So far, their criticism seems to amount to nothing more than “why are there still monkeys?

The eye is a beautifully elegant product of natural selection. We know this. It isn’t a guess. From simple photoreceptor structures that could recognise basic light in unicell organisms, to the evolution of lenses that regulate light intensity, to the complex structure we now have; each step along the way has endowed the species with a genetic advantage, and so has become increasingly complex in structure. Natural selection can and does explain the evolution of the eye. And it has taken around a billion years.

The speaker weirdly compares this, to a modern camera. Photography has existed since around 1840. Less than 200 years. Which, you will perhaps note, is a little bit less than a billion years – about a billion years less – so yes, we’d expect a bit more complexity, especially with natural selection as the driving force. I’m sure in a billion years, the camera might be a little more complex too.

A predator that has a greater – even to a very small degree – perception of light and depth through mutations to a form of photoreceptor, has an evolutionary advantage and the gene will eventually pass on and slowly improve if necessary. Basic science. It is the reason bacteria become immune to vaccines. They adapt. The eye did the same thing. The eye is naturally advantageous, so of course it is complex. There are not “so many signs” for a creator. There are however vast amounts of collected evidence, and vast amounts of significant study into the evolution of the eye. The speaker here dismisses them all. He isn’t challenging the litany of thesis backed by evidence, he’s simply displaying his ignorance of it. Therefore, he is not promoting thinking, as he seems to believe he is.

“Science tries to justify that all this can come from none, when it’s a simple sum, zero plus zero plus zero can not possibly give you one.”

– Yes. I guess if you’re willing to suggest that all physics can be reduced to basic 2nd Grade maths, this is true. In reality, it’s nonsense. I also suspect he abandons that sum, the moment that the “one” in the equation is called “God”. Indeed, it isn’t science that says we “came from none”, it’s his own faith:
Qur’an 19:67:

“We created him before out of nothing.”

– What the poet is telling us then, is that whilst science is wrong to suggest “something came from nothing” (incredibly simplistic interpretation of scientific inquiry), it’s fine for religious folk to say “something came from nothing…. when eternal magic sky man does it”.

Science has never suggested something comes from nothing. It claims a singularity. The big bang was an incredible moment at which the form of energy that existed at the unfathomable singularity changed and began to expand. We know this. We don’t know how it began to expand (there doesn’t need to be a ‘why’ is began to expand). But not knowing, is not evidence for a God. It never has been. We also know that at a quantum level, virtual particles spring in and out of existence – from nothing – all the time. It is only scientifically illiterate religious folk that cannot comprehend science; they prefer the simplistic answer.

Science goes where the evidence points, not where philosophical conjecture points, and science is not here to place “God” in the gaps of understanding. It is an accumulation of knowledge, not a guess. The existence of “nothing” is of course, self defeating. There has always been something. Existence requires time. Time and space are necessary for causation to exist. Time and space sprang into existence at the singularity, therefore, there was no time or space for a cause of time and space to exist. Causation is a product of the universe and applies to the sum of its parts, it need not apply to the universe itself.

“Everything has a maker, a creator”. “We can believe in the Big Bang but I’d rather believe in He who caused it to explode.

– Again, I suspect this little equation is abandoned, the moment we ask “so who made God?”

I wrote on the idea of “before” the Big Bang here and so wont repeat myself too much, but an excerpt of my argument is important for this point:

“If you conceive of a “before time”, you have created Neverland. A place where time doesn’t exist, but causation exists. You have divorced causation from time, you have divorced time from the universe. I see no reason to accept this as a reasonable proposition, simply because not a shred of evidence is ever provided for such an extraordinary revision of all known physical laws.”

– Following from this, and in relation to the poem, the speaker uses the term “caused”, which suggests that he believes causation has no link to time or space. He of course provides no evidence for this extraordinary claim. He simply places ‘God’ in the gap in our understanding, and has decided that is a logical position to hold, despite the fact that every time the God of the gaps has been invoked throughout history, it’s always turned out to be wrong.

For a poem that is being promoted as some sort of supreme da’wah, it is inconceivably weak on absolutely every point it endeavours to make. It achieves the opposite of what it sets out to achieve, it is several minutes worth of trying to justify the dogma of the God-of-the-gaps. Whilst the poetics, and the over dramatic pronouncements make it seem attractive, the proselytizing fails the moment it begins. Though if we are to take one thing from this video, one idea that the poet makes, that is to question everything, including claims made by way of poetic da’wah.

One man’s freedom fighter…

December 6, 2013

one man's freedom fighter is another man's terrorist, one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter, freedom, mandela freedom, mandela lincoln, hamas freedom

It is a thoughtless cliche that paradoxically seems to endure. It is used to defend the most horrendous atrocities that seek to control every aspect of the lives of others. It is an extreme show of cultural relativism that appears to link those who fight for equality, justice and freedom, with those who fight to prohibit equality, justice and freedom.

It may be said that whilst ‘freedom’ is an end, terrorism is not an end, but a way to get to an end. However, I find this particularly flawed, because it discounts my contention in this article, that terrorism can and often is used to implement a system of perpetual terror – Taliban controlled Afghanistan, for example – upon those who are outside of its narrow supremacist vision. Fighting for the power to put others in your cage, cannot be considered freedom.

It would appear to me that the word freedom is self explanatory. Any system that seeks to control others, by elevating a particular race, or gender, or sexuality, or religious belief above others, is not freedom. It is supremacist. Indeed, any system that institutionalises privileges for a particular race, or gender, or sexuality, or religious belief, is not freedom. It is supremacist. If you fight to uphold or to implement a supremacist system, controlling the lives, loves, thoughts, and the words of those who do not fit your narrow spectrum of what is considered decent and correct, you are a terrorist. You advocate perpetual terror. You are not fighting for freedom. You are fighting for oppression.

Freedom does not, and should include the freedom to oppress others according to your ideology. A freedom granted to one, must be a freedom granted to all. This includes the fundamental human right to think and speak freely without fear of oppression. The breaking down of patriarchal barriers that seek to oppress women as if an object to be owned and controlled by men. The freedom to love, regardless of sexuality. The freedom to assembly. The freedom from any form of discrimination based on the colour of one’s skin. The freedom to choose leaders. The freedom to believe whatever you choose to believe. The freedom to seek the life you wish. Freedom is the leveling of a playing field. If you fight for these principles, you are a freedom fighter.

I have heard often the excusing of the oppressive nature of Hamas, with the phrase “one man’s terrorist”. It’s a cliche that appears to attempt to link the cause of Hamas to great freedom fighters of the past; to those fighting the oppression of an opposing structure. As if freeing women or gay people or non-believers, can be considered as morally equivalent to caging women or gay people or non-believers. As if oppression is relative, and therefore acceptable. Hamas have nothing that could defined as ‘freedom’ etched into their being. They use violence in an attempt to implement a system of perpetual terror based on the supremacy of one religion. There is nothing that can be described as ‘freedom’ about this.

There are many strands to Hamas’ anti-freedom agenda. Crucially, religious supremacy. This seems to feed their heterosexual supremacy, and their patriarchal supremacy. Article 6 of Hamas’ constitution reads:

“The Islamic Resistance Movement is a distinct Palestinian Movement which owes its loyalty to Allah, derives from Islam its way of life and strives to raise the banner of Allah over every inch of Palestine. Only under the shadow of Islam could the members of all regions coexist in safety and security for their lives, properties and rights(11). In the absence of Islam, conflict arises, oppression reigns, corruption is rampant and struggles and wars prevail.”

– For some inexplicable reason, Hamas have decided that they have a natural right to impose their ideological structure upon all people living in Palestine. They then contradict their inherently oppressive message, by complaining that anything other than their own oppressive system, is oppression. Yet the implementation of their strict “moral” structure sees the horrendous treatment of gay people, the oppression of women, and the torture of anyone who critiques their beliefs. This isn’t freedom, nor are those fighting for it to be considered “freedom fighters“. Nor are those who forgive it, or support it – George Galloway for example – to be considered anything other than religious supremacists.

As noted above, freedom does not include a supposed inherent right to oppress whomever you wish. It is the equivalent of the Confederate State of America in the 1860s insisting that any leveling of the racial playing field, is inherently oppressive to white people, and that by fighting to uphold white supremacy, they’re actually ‘freedom fighters’. How ludicrous. Threatening and breaking supremacist ideals, is the promotion of freedom. Hamas, the Taliban, and others like them, do not get to call themselves freedom fighters. It is preposterous to do so. In the same way that it would be preposterous to define Jefferson Davis as a freedom fighter. Those who defend their actions, insisting that Jefferson Davis was in fact a freedom fighter, must lay out what freedoms he was actually fighting for. Their argument must be stronger than those who think differently, otherwise the argument fails.

The distinction between freedom fighter and those fighting to establish a system that enshrines oppression can be seen most clearly if we contrast Article 6 of Hamas’ constitution above, with the Bill of Rights of post-Apartheid South Africa:

“Everyone is equal before the law and has the right to equal protection and benefit of the law. Equality includes the full and equal enjoyment of all rights and freedoms. To promote the achievement of equality, legislative and other measures designed to protect or advance persons, or categories of persons, disadvantaged by unfair discrimination may be taken.

The state may not unfairly discriminate directly or indirectly against anyone on one or more grounds, including race, gender, sex, pregnancy, marital status, ethnic or social origin, colour, sexual orientation, age, disability, religion, conscience, belief, culture, language and birth.”

“Everyone has the right to freedom of expression, which includes ­
freedom of the press and other media;
freedom to receive or impart information or ideas;
freedom of artistic creativity; and
academic freedom and freedom of scientific research.”

“Everyone has the right to use the language and to participate in the cultural life of their choice, but no one exercising these rights may do so in a manner inconsistent with any provision of the Bill of Rights.”

– These provisions establish the right of everyone to speak freely, to associate, to love, to believe, to live without fear of oppression. It establishes a line of equality that no gender, sexuality, race or religion can rise above. This was an incredible achievement. It is not often that those who fight for revolution in an oppressed nation relinquish power once they have it. Robespierre, Castro, Lenin; all forged oppressive power for themselves out of the structures they fought to break down. Those who fought Apartheid to frame a system in South Africa upon which freedom is enshrined, rightfully earn the title ‘freedom fighters’.

The distinction between ‘freedom fighter’ and ‘terrorist’ is clear. Motive is important. If you are fighting to implement or uphold a system that openly restricts rights, threatens punishment for exercising basic rights like expression or love, and oppresses those who do not fit into its structure, you are advocating the power for yourself to cage and chain others. This is terror. If however you fight to break those chains, to free people from an oppressive cage of illegitimate power structures, and establish a line of equality upon which supremacy is prohibited, and all are considered equal, you are a freedom fighter.

Freedom and terror are incompatible.

Let Freedom Reign. Nelson Mandela 1918 – 2013.

December 5, 2013

Source: Wikimedia Commons. Author: South Africa The Good News /

Source: Wikimedia Commons.
Author: South Africa The Good News /

There are very few names in the history of mankind, that have the ability to unite us in remembrance of such astonishing inner strength, for such wonderful achievements, and for inspiring the human spirit across classes, across borders, and across cultures.
I am humbled to have lived at a time when one of the greatest among them lived.
For those of us who value free, democratic principles, and equality, he is the archetype, the promise, and the inspiration.
His outstanding contribution forever etched in human history, a name forever associated with the cause and struggle for freedom not just for South Africa but for the World, will outlive us all.
A true testament to the strength of the human desire to be free.

Let freedom reign. The sun never set on so glorious a human achievement
– Nelson Mandela.
1918 – 2013.

The Hamza Delusion.

December 4, 2013

Hamza Tzortzis is an interesting chap. I’ve seen him debate live a couple of times. A few things strike me about Hamza. Firstly, he’s an excellent public speaker, very engaging, and incredibly articulate. Secondly, he doesn’t really say anything of substance. He tends to repeat the same arguments that Theists have always presented, with brand new sparkly language that he seems to think gives credit to the points he makes, or he completely rewrites scripture to mean something that it clearly doesn’t mean.

I recently watched this talk by Hamza, from earlier this year:

– First thing I noted was that for a speech that is intended to show the “rationality” of Islam, it takes Hamza less than five minutes to mention – as if a fact of reality – Angels, and Satan. Not rational explanations for what we’d traditionally call ‘good’ and ‘evil’ and that we now know are based on chemical imbalances in the mind, but instead chooses to stick with Angels and Satan. This is something Hamza wishes us to consider ‘rational’.

Hamza then moves on to present his own reworded version of the old cosmological argument, with the phrase “the universe began“, and that it was “…created by something uncreated“. He calls this a “logical explanation“. It’s important on that point to note that his “logical explanation” is completely divorced from logic at every point. I deal with the cosmological argument and its inherent illogic in another article, here.

The issue that I wanted to discuss in this article, relates to a quote from Hamza beginning at 6:37 of the video above:

“When God always mentions his creative power, when Allah always mentions his mastery of the universe, when Allah always mentions the fact that he is the one who sustains the universe and created the universe and he talks about creation itself, it’s always as a premise, it’s always as a launching pad to launch your intellect into the realisation that not only does Allah exist, but he is one, and he deserves to be worshipped.”

– So ‘masterful’ is Allah’s commanding of the universe, that he doesn’t actually tell us anything we didn’t already know at that exact moment in history. Nevertheless, with the quote itself, I have one main issue – besides the circular reasoning, which Hamza goes on to say “isn’t circular reasoning“, but it most certainly is circular reasoning.

I am almost certain that the Qur’an was compiled at a time of the framing of a new empire, for the sake of the power and stability of that new empire. Most notably, a massive PR offensive was launched during the reign of Abd al-Malik, that continued through his son’s reign, and it is this period in which Islam begins to become what we know today. In my previous article on the birth of the myths of the Prophet, I noted:

“The besieging of Mecca, in 692, with over 10,000 Syrian troops, shows just how serious Abd al-Malik believed the situation had become for the future of his dynasty. Eventually the rebellions, as well as the Byzantines were defeated, and so the next step is to unify the Empire. To further the plan of unification, he needed to solidify his own claims to the Caliphate. It is around this time, that coins start to be inscribed with the name of Muhammad, linked directly to the Caliph. It is also no surprise that the Sana’a manuscripts (the earliest Qur’anic manuscripts we have) are calligraphically dated to the era of Abd al-Malik.”

– It is very difficult to overstate the sheer importance and enormity of the task that Abd al-Malik faced in consolidating his empire and his power in 685ad. I would argue that the Qur’an, and its constant repetition of the power of God was created for the sake of ensuring obedience to the Caliphate and its new ruler. I say this, because almost every time God’s power is mentioned as what Hamza calls a “premise” in the Qur’an, it is followed by a threat for those who disbelieve.

Qur’an Chapter 2:

“I, Allah, am the best Knower. This Book, there is no doubt in it, is a guide to those who keep their duty, Who believe in the Unseen and keep up prayer and spend out of what We have given them, And who believe in that which has been revealed to thee and that which was revealed before thee, and of the Hereafter they are sure. These are on a right course from their Lord and these it is that are successful. Those who disbelieve — it being alike to them whether thou warn them or warn them not — they will not believe. Allah has sealed their hearts and their hearing; and there is a covering on their eyes, and for them is a grievous chastisement. And there are some people who say: We believe in Allah and the Last Day; and they are not believers. They seek to deceive Allah and those who believe, and they deceive only themselves and they perceive not. In their hearts is a disease, so Allah increased their disease, and for them is a painful chastisement because they lie.”

– If you wish to ensure the obedience of a scientifically illiterate population to your new Theocratic empire, there is no better way than to offer a divine carrot and stick approach, by using ones fear of death and the afterlife as a tool. When the state is wedded to the new faith, and the new faith is essentially crafted by the new state, it becomes necessary to say that a threat to ensure obedience to the new faith, is a threat to ensure obedience to the new state.

One verse of one chapter of course might not be enough to really drive home the message that this new empire is directly linked to heaven itself. And so just to make certain that potential non-believers understand the message, well, maybe another chapter will do the trick:

“Alif, Lam, Mim. Allah, the Ever-Living, the Self- Subsisting, Who sustains the entire order of the Universe – there is no god but He. He has revealed this Book to you, setting forth the Truth and confirming the earlier Books, and He revealed the Torah and the Gospel before that for the guidance of mankind; and He has also revealed the Criterion (to distinguish the Truth from falsehood). A severe chastisement lies in store for those who deny the Signs of Allah.”

– Remember, these are written at the beginning of the chapter. This ensures the reader knows that if he or she does not accept what comes next, severe punishment awaits. There is no intellect involved here. No thinking. No rationality. It isn’t asking you to think or to consider. It is demanding obedience at gunpoint.

And so it goes…

“[10:1] Alif. Lam. Ra’. These are the verses of the Book overflowing with wisdom. [10:2] Does it seem strange to people that We should have revealed to a man from among themselves, directing him to warn the people (who are engrossed in heedlessness), and to give good news to the believers that they shall enjoy true honour and an exalted status with their Lord? (This seemed so strange that) the deniers of the Truth said: “This man is indeed a plain sorcerer!” [10:3] Surely your Lord is Allah, Who created the heavens and the earth in six days, then established Himself on the Throne (of His Dominion), governing all affairs of the Universe. None may intercede with Him except after obtaining His leave. Such is Allah, your Lord; do therefore serve Him. Will you not take heed? [10:4] To Him is your return. This is Allah’s promise that will certainly come true. Surely it is He Who brings about the creation of all and He will repeat it so that He may justly reward those who believe and do righteous deeds, and those who disbelieve may have a draught of boiling water and suffer a painful chastisement for their denying the Truth.”

And it goes…

“[13:1] Alif. Lam. Mim. Ra’. These are the verses of the Divine Book. Whatever has been revealed to you from your Lord is the truth, and yet most (of your) people do not believe. [13:2] It is Allah Who has raised the heavens without any supports that you could see, and then He established Himself on the Throne (of Dominion). And He it is Who has made the sun and the moon subservient (to a law), each running its course till an appointed term. He governs the entire order of the universe and clearly explains the signs that you may be firmly convinced about meeting your Lord. [13:3] He it is Who has stretched out the earth and has placed in it firm mountains and has caused the rivers to flow. He has made every fruit in pairs, two and two, and He it is Who causes the night to cover the day. Surely there are signs in these for those who reflect. [13:4] And on the earth there are many tracts of land neighbouring each other. There are on it vineyards, and sown fields, and date palms: some growing in clusters from one root, some standing alone. They are irrigated by the same water, and yet We make some excel others in taste. Surely there are signs in these for a people who use their reason. [13:5] And were you to wonder, then wondrous indeed is the saying of those who say: “What! After we have been reduced to dust, shall we be created afresh?” They are the ones who disbelieved in their Lord; they are the ones who shall have shackles around their necks. They shall be the inmates of the Fire, wherein they will abide for ever.”

And it goes…

“[14:1] Alif. Lam. Ra’. This is a Book which We have revealed to you that you may bring forth mankind from every kind of darkness into light, and direct them, with the leave of their Lord, to the Way of the Mighty, the Innately Praiseworthy, [14:2] (to the Way of) Allah to Whom belongs all that is in the heavens and all that is in the earth. Woe be to those who reject the Truth for a severe chastisement, [14:3] to those who have chosen the life of the world in preference to the Hereafter, who hinder people from the Way of Allah, and seek to make it crooked.”

And it goes…

“[15:1] Alif. Lam. Ra’. These are the verses of the Book, and a Clear Qur’an. [15:2] Soon will the time come when the unbelievers will wish they were Muslims. [15:3] Leave them to eat and enjoy life and let false hopes amuse them. They will soon come to know. [15:4] Whenever We destroyed a town, a definite term had previously been decreed for it. [15:5] No people can outstrip the term for its destruction nor can it delay it.”

– This is just a few of the first fifteen chapters of the Qur’an. It goes on and on and on, and the point of all of them is not that God wishes you to know how great he is, nor is it to “launch your intellect” as Hamza would have you think. The greatness of God is followed always by describing torturous punishment to those who doubt. Indeed, a considerable chunk of the Qur’an deals with threats of eternal punishment for the victimless crime of non-belief. The point is power and control, and nothing else. It is violent threats toward those who don’t conform to its dogma, and it is reflected entirely in the needs of the new fledgling empire and the necessity to control a population that wasn’t unified, and threatened rebellion at every point.

It is the case that by the late 7th century, the Prophet Muhammad’s name was suddenly being used to strengthen a fragmented, and fragile political Umayyad state and to solidify the claims of one particular Caliph; coins appear with Muhammad’s name on it; Hadith are being collected in order to provide a legal framework for the new empire; Muhammad suddenly becomes a legendary and much needed figurehead for the reign of Abd al-Malik (followed by his son, who carries on the imperial PR venture), upon his accession to a largely fragmented and warring empire; and the Qur’an is suddenly compiled including threats against those who disbelieve. This is quite obviously politics, this was never ‘revelation’.

I would argue that this is a far more logical, and rational explanation of the opening verses of the chapters of the Qur’an than “God wants to launch your intellect” which appears to be entirely contradicted by the use of threats.

Hamza goes on to inform us that in the Qur’an, God is telling us to reflect upon what we know, reflect upon the words of the text, and we’ll come to the conclusion that God exists. What Hamza doesn’t say, is that if you don’t come to that conclusion – like the majority of the World – then you will suffer intense and horrific punishment. It seems particularly pernicious to me that a God would bestow upon mankind the beautiful ability to doubt and to critique, but then to punish us the moment we come to a conclusion that isn’t based solely on glorifying Him. Hamza’s point is not rational, it is based on nothing of substance, and wholly contradictory. It is easily explained away with history, and at its core, tries to convince you that blindly accepting dogma is itself thoughtful and rational. It is for those reasons that Hamza possesses a unique inability to understand the word “rational”.

The God of the gaps.

December 4, 2013

It could be said that the final and most impressive and awe inspiring gap in humanity’s understanding of the fundamentals of the universe, is a unifying theory of everything. The gap in our understanding is often filled by an ill-fitting “God” hypothesis. We are a species blessed with curiosity and I have no doubt that a unifying theory that brings together quantum field theory and general relativity without the need for a creator, will slowly become apparent as we progress our understanding. Until then, the God of the gaps will continue to endure.

Placing God or Gods within the gaps of scientific knowledge is a phenomena as old as civilisation itself. It is a simplistic means of explanation, when tools of inquiry seem too limited to ever understand the complexity of nature. It is often propped up by what appear to be logical ‘proofs’ – the Cosmological proof for example – full of flaws, but the fact remains that there is not a single time in history when the God-of-the-gaps explanation has turned out to be the correct explanation for anything.

Before we had any understanding of the nature of earthquakes and no concept of seismic waves or geographical faults, humanity chose other beautifully creative explanations. The Greeks were terrified of the wrath of Poseidon. It was a concern for most that an angered Poseidon, with his trident would strike the ground so hard and furiously, that the entire planet would shake violently, that tidal waves would surely follow, and that cities might collapse. This particular explanation had such power that sailors – fearing tidal waves created by Poseidon – would sacrifice a horse to the god before an expedition. Alexander the Great is said to have ordered the sacrifice of four horses to win the good graces of Poseidon at the Syrian shore, before the battle of Issus.

Huitzilopochtli was the Aztec god of war and of the sun. He was believed to be in control of the daily rising and setting of the sun. In order to ensure that the sun rose and fell as it was supposed to do, Huitzilopochtli required human blood for fuel. On Toxcatl – a festival day – a Priest would tie a victim to a sacrificial stone, and slowly cut open the abdomen with a flint blade. The still beating heart of the victim would be held toward the sun, as a show of respect to Huitzilopochtli. Human sacrifice – including children – were considered essential for the appeasement of the Gods. Gods placed within the gaps of human knowledge.

We have known for quite some time that a lunar eclipse is the result of the Earth being in between the moon and the sun. The Vikings however thought very differently. According to Viking mythology, two wolves named Skoll and Hati spent their lives hunting the moon. At the very moment a lunar eclipse occurs, the Viking night would be full of frightened screams of those running for cover. This was their nightmare coming to life. Vikings would charge out into the night with swords and shields, believing that if they made as much noise as possible, the wolves would be distracted long enough for the moon to escape. Similarly, the Serrano Indians believed that a lunar eclipse was the result of evil spirits trying to eat the moon, and that it was the tribe’s role to make song and dance in order to distract the spirits so the moon could escape.

There was therefore a time when if you were to encounter a sceptical Serrano Indian, and ask “So where does the moon go?” she might answer “I don’t know“. This lack of knowledge – this gap – is not evidence for evil spirits eating the moon. It is simply a gap in knowledge. To accept that you do not know, is the first step to searching for truth.

The Anishinaabe peoples of the Great Lakes region of the US and Canada tell a wonderfully rich tale of the creation of rainbows. One day, Nanabozho – a spirit – had noticed that all flowers in the meadows were the same. Completely void of colour. He took his paints out and began to paint the flowers. Roses were painted red. Daffodils yellow. Suddenly, two birds chasing each other swooped down and dipped their wings in Nanabozho’s paints. Nanabozho chased them away. The two birds flew toward a nearby waterfall and as the tips of their wings hit the water, it left a streak of colours. They flew back and forth through the mist of the water, creating more and more colour. Nanabozho was overjoyed with the beauty the birds had created in the sky, that he decided that a rainbow would appear where ever light was shone on the mist. Thus, the creation of rainbows.

Supernatural explanations for natural occurrences are a product of our curiosity and our wonder. But we are also rational beings. We have remained rational despite centuries of dogmatic authority often attempting to silence rational inquiry. It is impossible to suppress humanity’s natural reason. There will always be a Galileo. Indeed, if we were to wipe the memory of all knowledge from the collective human mind, we would eventually rediscover gravity, atomic theory, evolution, genetics and medicine. But we would never come to the exact same Theistic conclusions, with the same Gods or Prophets or doctrines. We’d have new myths from rainbows to sexuality. They would be entirely different. There would be evolution, but there would never be Christianity.

We might well say that some of history’s mythical stories may be beautiful and colourful, we must also note that they often contain a sinister tone by way of their demands for sacrifice, for worship, and for war. We see this today, when the Christian story of Sodom & Gomorrah is used to dehumanise gay people; when permanent Bishops in the House of Lords are given the privilege of legislating on behalf of the rest of us based on how much they believe in their particular myth; when the Jewish Mohel mutilates the genitals of a child and sucks away the blood; when not accepting Jesus or the resurrection myth might affect your prospects of running for public office in US; or when Muslims claim rightful ownership over Jerusalem by invoking the al-’Isrā’ wal-Mi’rāj story. Despite the intolerant and exclusive behaviour these baseless myths encourage, they are still given an unearned respect in shaping discourse, and politics. They are perpetuated in schools as truth. Thus, the God-of-the-gaps is not simply a failed science, it is a failed and dangerous political idea that affects all of us.

When we hear those insist that “God is the first cause“, and “you can’t get something from nothing, therefore, God” it is prudent to remember that all they are doing is repeating the timeless tradition of placing a God in the gaps in our knowledge. It is not an explanation, but a wild guess. A simplistic but inadequate science that has always failed every time it has been invoked. It is okay and necessary to indulge our natural and spectacular curiosity, to mind the gap, and to say “we don’t know yet“.