Book Review: The Divine Reality: God, Islam & The Mirage of Atheism

So, I’ve been on Easter holiday with my family and had some time. I posted on Facebook looking for book recommendations and one of my good friends who is a Muslim recommended me to read Hamza Andreas Tzortzis’s The Divine Reality: God, Islam & The Mirage of Atheism.

Initially I rejected him saying “somehow I think this is going to be a waste of time”, however after some discussion between the two of us he agreed that in exchange for reading this book, he would read The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins. A deal’s a deal, and I had to be fair.

EDIT: My friend never actually landed up managing to get through the God Delusion it seems, so I am the sucker here!

So I read the book, and figured since I’d spent the time doing that, I might as well spend a little more writing a book review both to share my thoughts with my friend himself in a more structured way, and leave this article here as an open review “to the world” in case people search for a review on this book, and in case they are interested in hearing some kind of critical response to the text.

Before I begin, I think it’s important to setup a premise point: we are talking about ideas. I sincerely hope no one interprets this as an attack on this person himself (Hamza Andreas Tzortzis) or my good friend or Muslims generally. I am going to be scathing in some of this review, yes, but again, it’s mainly a criticism of the ideas, not of the people who espouse them — as they are generally good, well-intentioned people.

High Level Summary

I’m going to maintain no pretence and get straight to the point. I found this book some combination of incredibly boring, very tedious, filled with poor argument and logical fallacies (many of which I actually expected the author should have been able to realise, given his academic credentials), and filled with unoriginal and non-novel ideas and arguments that I’d heard many times before from multiple religions.

To speak in more professional terms: The book is completely unconvincing to a “well-inoculated” non-Muslim reader.

To use a quote from the psychologist William James (who studied religion and religious experiences extensively) to set the stage:

“The truth is that in the metaphysical and religious sphere, articulate reasons are cogent for us only when our inarticulate feelings of reality have already been impressed in favor of the same conclusion. Then, indeed, our intuitions and our reason work together, and great worldruling systems, like that of the Buddhist or of the Catholic philosophy, may grow up. Our impulsive belief is here always what sets up the original body of truth, and our articulately verbalized philosophy is but its showy translation into formulas. The unreasoned and immediate assurance is the deep thing in us, the reasoned argument is but a surface exhibition. Instinct leads, intelligence does but follow. If a person feels the presence of a living God after the fashion shown by my quotations, your critical arguments, be they never so superior, will vainly set themselves to change his faith.” William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience ~p 58 PDF here

In my simpler words:

This book would only seem cogent (convincing, logically powerful) to someone who has already been indoctrinated into Islam. The logical arguments used in the book in themselves are extremely poor and flawed in so many ways. But because a Muslim’s “inarticulate feelings” have “already been impressed in favor of the same conclusion” the book’s arguments would appear convincing to that person — such is the nature of apologetics generally and in all religions.

Or in even simpler words “The echo chamber is real”!

Format of this review: challenges with worldview vs. worldview

The book itself is a good 322 pages long and covers a large variety of topics. Reading time is about 6-7 hours.

It is possible for me to review every single sentence, commenting on each thought as it is presented in the narrative — because as I was reading it I was doing that exact thing in my mind. However, if I took the time to do so then it would really be a full length book of a response.

I would genuinely do that if I thought the response would be read by enough people. But judging by the Amazon profile of the book with only 18 reviews (as of 21-04-2017), I’m not sure there would be enough interest to justify that.

Besides, I do believe every idea in the book has been challenged and discussed in other literature. If you took a combination of the following two books, you’d probably get a good level of coverage to the ideas:

  1. The God Delusion (Richard Dawkins)
  2. The End of Faith (Sam Harris)

One of the challenges of reviewing books like these is that the theist worldview is just that — a worldview. A worldview is a large framework of assumptions, ideas and beliefs that relate to each other. It is analogous to a large and complex building or structure.

At the surface, the (mono)theist worldview and the atheist worldview may swing on just one belief: whether or not there’s a theist God. But when one evaluates these worldviews at length the discussion goes way farther than just that — into things such as fine tuning arguments, discussions on the purpose of life, reliability of holy books, reliability of logic and many other ideas.

Hence the process of challenging a worldview is just that — a process, not an event. One has to analyse each part of the framework one at a time, challenging and pondering the assumptions and conclusions individually. One has to effectively “weigh up” each individual piece of each puzzle against each other, and thus analyse the mosaic of each puzzle, with each individual brush-stroke being a single argument — such a process can take a long time, I know that, because I’ve spent over 1 000 hours of my life in intense research doing just that.

Given all of that, and the length of the book, I am just going to review some of the most salient and / or interesting arguments of the book from my perspective. The rest I will leave to the other books mentioned above.

Theist worldview as a house of cards

It’s my conviction that the theist worldview is a house of cards. A large, elaborate and complex set of arguments that, when analysed critically and objectively, ultimately can and do fall down.

Not all of the connection points in this house of cards are equally interesting. So in my review, I will pick out what I think are some of the more critical weaknesses or interesting structural points on which other areas of the worldview “hinge” on.

OK, so with that unnecessarily lengthy preamble, on to the review:

Chapter 1: Russel’s teapot and the burden of proof

The first facepalm in this book was in the first chapter where the writer says atheists have the burden of proof to produce evidence that there is no God.

Surely the writer is familiar with Bertrand Russel’s teapot, but readers of the book might not be, so I will quote the argument here:

“Many orthodox people speak as though it were the business of sceptics to disprove received dogmas rather than of dogmatists to prove them. This is, of course, a mistake. If I were to suggest that between the Earth and Mars there is a china teapot revolving about the sun in an elliptical orbit, nobody would be able to disprove my assertion provided I were careful to add that the teapot is too small to be revealed even by our most powerful telescopes. But if I were to go on to say that, since my assertion cannot be disproved, it is intolerable presumption on the part of human reason to doubt it, I should rightly be thought to be talking nonsense. If, however, the existence of such a teapot were affirmed in ancient books, taught as the sacred truth every Sunday, and instilled into the minds of children at school, hesitation to believe in its existence would become a mark of eccentricity and entitle the doubter to the attentions of the psychiatrist in an enlightened age or of the Inquisitor in an earlier time.”

To my Muslim friends: when lightning strikes my house, can you PROVE that it’s not Zeus releasing his anger at me for being such a heathen? If my wife falls pregnant when we’re trying to have a child, can you PROVE that is not due to the grace of Hathor to whom we prayed the night before? When someone dies can you PROVE that they don’t go to Hade’s realm — where millions of human beings believed they would go at one point in history?

How silly would it be for me to tell you to disprove my religious dogmas? Like Russel’s teapot, religions apologetics hides behinds smokes and mirrors, asserting that you can’t disprove God, but then continuing to assert that God is beyond our comprehension, transcends time and space, is everywhere at once, etc. Any difference between that and “the teapot is too small to be revealed even by our most powerful telescopes”? — of course not.

Another mistake is to claim that atheism is a belief, or that atheism is a “positive assertion”. This is just silly. Atheism is a belief in the same way that not playing golf is a sport. Atheism is a lack of belief. Atheism is active disbelief. Just like most adults actively disbelieve in Santa Claus or Fairies, so atheists actively disbelieve in various religion’s definitions of the theist God.

But you can’t prove that there are no fairies! You can’t prove there is no Santa Claus? Perhaps they are invisible and beyond our conventional means of detection! Therefore you MUST believe in Santa — because you can’t prove he doesn’t exist!

We may not be able to completely disprove the existence of fairies, but we have good reason to not believe in them because we can trace where the idea comes from and reason about it — same with God.

The word atheist should not even have to exist. If mankind would stop making up gods to believe in then atheists could stop asserting their disbelief. To continue the golf analogy, if a large majority of the people in the world played various forms of golf, and then someone approached me and asked “hey, what sport do you play?” and I respond “well, I don’t play golf” — that’d be a silly reply. That’s atheism, a silly reply to a presumptuous question (that everyone believes in some kind of God).

Chapter 1: Can we disprove God?

As Dawkins discusses in detail in The God Delusion, we cannot disprove the existence of God through scientific means — just like we can’t disprove the existence of fairies — this is obvious, there’s no point dwelling here.

However, if someone asked you to disprove fairies, how might you go about it?

A good method would be to drill down into history and dig out the historical idea of the fairy — how did the idea develop? Who is it told to? What is the function of the idea? And so on. By digging out in the history one cannot completely disprove fairies, but one can go a long way to explain why fairies are just an idea created by humans and have never had a basis in reality.

The same can be done for God — certainly for the various versions of the theist God swimming around in the three great monotheistic religions (Judaism, Christianity and Islam).

Where did the idea of (the Islamic, monotheistic) God come from? What are its ancestors?

The religious history of mankind is an interesting and lengthy one. I’ll try write a (brief) summary:

Religious belief is, at its heart and in its simplest form, a misconstrual of intent behind reality or physical phonomenon. 

A hunter-gatherer is in the forest and hears a noise behind her. There’s a 1/10 chance that it’s an animal that might threaten her life, and a 9/10 chance that it’s just the wind. Instinctively, she turns around to look and interprets the sound as a manifestation of intent of some being. 

In this case, there are four possibilities:

  1. Heard the noise, turned around, and it’s just the wind 9/10, person survives.
  2. Heard the noise, turned around, and it’s a deadly animal 1/10, person (might) survive.
  3. Didn’t hear the noise or interpret it as something dangerous, and it was nothing, 9/10 person survives.
  4. Didn’t hear the noise or interpret it as something dangerous, but it was, and gets eaten 1/10. person dies.

Note from this, interpreting some action as having intent behind it is selected for by nature; a true positive with the interpretation of intent gives a higher chance of survival than a false negative with no interpretation of intent. Better be swinging your head around 9/10 times erroneously than don’t swing it that one time that it matters.

Extrapolate this forward, and intent gets added to other things that don’t have intent behind them.

Sooner or later, we arrive at the earliest form of religious / spiritual belief: Animism. I won’t go into detail here, but animism is the belief that animals have spirits, there are spirits in the wind, water, etc. and it is also highly varied in its different forms.

Over time, Animism was pushed further, and animal gods start to take on a larger plane of existence. Thus we arrive at polytheism — multiple gods in “the sky” that transcend our world and interact with each other, and can be propitiated for various gains.

Over time, and with more anthropomorphism, humans arrived with not (just) animals in heaven, but humans. Gods like Zeus, Aphrodite, Hades, and so on (a later form of polytheism).

Then, over time the idea of multiple humans / gods in heaven breaks down as one major god emerges. Much of the Old Testament is dedicated to this “selection” process of the one god over the others:

“3 Thou shalt have no other gods before me.

4 Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.

5 Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them: for I the Lord thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me;” Exodus 20

So, polytheism evolves into monotheism. That’s where we are today for most (but not all) religious belief. Still, Animism and Polytheism both exist in the world today.

This little cartoon summarises this progression quite well.

Well — there you have it. You cannot disprove people’s current notion of God, but you can show where it came (and evolved) from.

Alright, I’ve spent a lot of time on just chapter 1. The book contains a lot more content. Again, I am just skimming to grab the interesting arguments.

Chapter 2: Arguments from Beauty

I’m not gonna say much about chapter 2. The writer has prefaced his extensive comments with an honest preface in this chapter:

“The following discussion may not provide a rational case for God, nor does it follow that God exists simply because life without God seems absurd.”

This shows the author is familiar with the concept of argument from beauty. He’s being honest about it. I appreciate that.

Before I move on just one short comment: it is my philosophy that we first figure out what reality is, then figure out how it is (or is not) beautiful. The argument about the beauty, meaning, depth, etc. of reality comes after figuring out what it actually is — and is not an honest feature in persuading people of what it is in the first place.

Because I could spend all day responding to this chapter, I am just going to skip this for now.

Chapter 3: What I call “C.S. Lewis Crap”

For those that don’t know, C.S. Lewis was a famous British Christian apologist and academic.

Chapter 3 of the book presents the old classical argument “rationality cannot emerge from nothing, therefore atheists who think we can use reason to arrive at atheism are shooting themselves in the foot”.

C.S Lewis produced this argument a while back, and I’ve written a more lengthy rebuttal to it in my blog here.

Since his version is a bit more terse than in this book, I will replicate it here. The version in this book is much more detailed but the argument is the same:

“Supposing there was no intelligence behind the universe, no creative mind. In that case, nobody designed my brain for the purpose of thinking. It is merely that when the atoms inside my skull happen, for physical or chemical reasons, to arrange themselves in a certain way, this gives me, as a by-product, the sensation I call thought. But, if so, how can I trust my own thinking to be true? It’s like upsetting a milk jug and hoping that the way it splashes itself will give you a map of London. But if I can’t trust my own thinking, of course I can’t trust the arguments leading to Atheism, and therefore have no reason to be an Atheist, or anything else. Unless I believe in God, I cannot believe in thought: so I can never use thought to disbelieve in God.”

Of all the most nonsensical things theists say, this one takes the cake for me. So, aside from my response to CS Lewis in another article (which points out the issues with this argument in “theist world”), let me write a bit more on this argument from “atheist world”.

OK, let’s start here.

The mind evolved naturally. It evolved in an environment that selected for certain characteristics. Among those, having a coherent, non-contradicting worldview is immensely useful for survival.

Think about it this way: Simultaneously believing that the local watering hole HAS and DOES NOT HAVE water in it is illogical. Sure, one can hold such a belief, but it’s not useful for decision making (E.G, “where should we go to get some water?”) — so the mind “evolves” cognitive dissonance as a mechanism to solve this problem — or, rather, the animals who have this mechanism are selected for, as they tend to survive better.

Great, we have one element of basic logic: the idea of contradiction, and guess what? It emerged from the natural world! It emerged as a result of the structure of the universe we find ourselves in. 

Now, let’s turn to another example:

So, we’re an ancient hunter-gatherer group with basic language. I ask my mate next to me: “hey, is there water in the nearby watering hole?”, he answers “yes”.

Can I believe him?

Didn’t he lie that other time just to get me away so he could chase the girl I’m chasing too? What if there are crocodiles in the watering hole and he’s trying to get rid of me permanently?

BOOM: here we have the concept of credibility emerging as a useful construct, out of the natural world. We instinctively analyse the statements of others, and analyse their credibility, because doing such a thing helps us build a coherent worldview, which is incredibly useful for survival.

Extrapolating this further: Logic, reason, and argument can and did all emerge out of the natural world — there’s no need for them to have been created by a higher source, they could be “figured out” “as we go along”. (This is why the human brain is so great, it is adaptable, it learns, it takes feedback from the environment, and certain types of brains are selected for over others). 

Now that’s only half the argument, again, if you want the other half, go to my other article. The major quote of it is: “Regardless of whether there is a creative intelligence behind our brains, we cannot trust our thoughts to be true “just like that”. Because so many people are thinking inaccurate thoughts.””

Finally, does this mean we are great at reasoning? Not at all. So much of what we believe emerges from issues with how we think: as examples, argument from beauty or appeal to authority. These are useful “tricks” of logic, but they are shortcuts that lead to many issues.

Chapter 3: More Teapot, and “theism is default”

By More Teapot I am referring back to Russel’s Teapot as explained earlier. I won’t repeat anything.

However something else turns up in this chapter that I have heard before: the assertion that belief in God or a creator is natural and instinctive in humans — the writer even cites some studies on the subject.

I’m not going to dwell on this point, but these studies are not the whole story. They are (without looking at them in detail I’d wager) primarily focused on cultures and countries that the research institutions can conveniently reach, which are most often countries dominated by monotheism.

To support my point, here is an example of a rebuttal study: Cambridge article

The point is, if you do a study in a monotheist dominated country asking people if they believe in some form of God, you get yes.

If you raise a child without inculcating the idea of God into them; it turns out they don’t believe in God!

Also, so-called “self-evident truths” are not as self-evident as the writer proposes. Take for instance his reference to solipsism. Solipsism is a valid philosophical problem! Yes, OK, we do believe others have concsciousness, but we genuinely “cannot know for sure!”.

Chapter 5: Coming from nothing

I’m not going to dwell on this. “Nothing” is merely a human word to describe something that as far as I know doesn’t translate to the physical universe outside of our mental models and their weaknesses — thus requiring the term.

We simply don’t know what was there before the big bang! it’s our cosmic horizon and we can’t see beyond it.

That doesn’t mean fairies did it!

And of course, this is tedious but: “where did God come from?”

“Independent” yes?

Why not have “reality” be independent?

Chapter 6: Argument from dependency

“The universe is just a brute fact… This position is frankly an intellectual cop-out.”

OK, at the end of the day, something is just a brute fact.

For “atheists”, “the universe” is a brute fact. Or “reality” is a brute fact.

For theists, God is a brute fact.

Who made God? Why does God exist? — no answers, because these are “brute facts”.

God solves one philosophical problem by creating an even bigger one:

  • God came from nothing,
  • God’s existence has no objective purpose dictated by a higher being — his purpose is the one for himself! — hence somehow God makes his own meaning / purpose, but humans can’t.

For me, God is the real intellectual cop-out…. since we don’t understand where reality / the universe came from, we invoke a God!

Referring back to my statements of intent in the history of religion above. This all comes back down to this.

Theists insist the universe must have intent behind it. The insist life has a purpose and so does the universe. This kind of brain has been selected for.

Of course we should be curious — we should ask “what caused humans to emerge as the dominant species of the earth?” “Why is there something rather than nothing?”

But not all questions make sense. For example “what colour is jealousy?”

The question “What is the purpose of life? What is the purpose of the universe?” I suggest is a question borne of our tendency to project intent onto everything we see — talked about back in Chapter 1 comments.

“But that would make life absurd!” — going back to argument from beauty. “Absurd” is a human construct, life “just is”, the universe “just is” (in the same way theists think God “just is”). That random rock on the surface of Mars 10 KM from the rover right now “just is” — it doesn’t have to have meaning. Meaning is something we as conscious agents (with intent) experience exclusively. Meaning is “special” — it is the exception for matter in the universe, not the rule.

Chapter 7: Consciousness proves God

This chapter goes through a long and complex philosophical argument about the nature of consciousness and how it infers a higher being who created it.

I’m not going to analyse the entire “card” in the house of cards, instead I’m going to talk about its base — with one simple statement:

It’s not called “the hard problem of consciousness” for nothing — but it doesn’t mean fairies did it!

AKA, yes, consciousness is a wonderful mystery. But we have no reason to believe it emerges from anything but the physical and chemical processes in the human body — which evolved. Example: apply a global aesthetic to someone’s body and they lose consciousness entirely. Nothing magical or mystical going on here.

Or, in other words, don’t sell yourself a cheap answer to a royally exquisite question. We seem all too eager to jump on the theist bus when any beautiful mystery comes along. Super eager to sell ourselves the truth of the religion that we either were born into or ran into at some point.

Chapter 8: Fine turning and Anthropic principle

OK. I am not going to repeat the content of the book — instead respond to it. Let’s just assume everyone reading this is familiar with the fine tuning argument (which intends to get one from “atheism” to “deism”).

My response: the fine tuning argument is looking at the situation from the wrong side. Yes, life is incredibly improbable and the ways of analysing that probability are incredibly complex and multi-tiered, yet here we are, and when analysing it we see it is indeed within the realm of normal probability for a universe (or multiverse):

Imagine I had 100 unbiased coins. I flip them and about 50 land on heads, and 50 on tails.

Imagine all the coins that land on heads become conscious, while the coins that land on tails remain inanimate.

Those 50 look at the situation and say “wow, look how lucky we are to become conscious, we’re so lucky to have hit heads!” —

Now let’s change the probability.

Imagine a coin only has a 1 / 100 trillion possibility to hit heads.

How do I get a conscious coin?

Well, I just need to flip enough of them. perhaps 1 000 trillion? Then chance has it at least 10 should hit heads and become conscious.

Now, let’s change the probability.

Imagine a coin has X possibility to hit heads, where X is the possibility of life emerging spontaneously from “reality”.

What do we have to do?

We just have to flip enough of them. Eventually you get the heads one. It wakes up, looks around at the vastly inanimate universe around it and declares “I am special!” — Yes, we are special, life is immensely improbable, but, it has enough coin flips, eventually you hit a heads.

Now, in my analogy, the coins are the matter of the universe, the flipping is the random events that happen in the universe: the coalescing of matter, the explosion of supernovae, etc, the state of the laws of physics (which in the multiverse version, if that is correct, vary from universe to universe, just another tier of coin flipping).

This is the anthropic principle: looking at the situation from the other side. The probability of life is small, yes, and the universe is “fine tuned” in a sense yes. But that’s just the coin managing to hit heads once. It’s a BIG universe. It had A LOT of chances to “try”.

Further info. There’s so much that could be discussed just on this topic, easily entire books.

Chapter 9: Objective Morality

Morality is a whole other subject. I consider myself firmly on the side of the moral landscape (Sam Harris).

Summary: Well-being is good. Suffering is bad. Morality is about maximising well-being for conscious creatures like us. If anything is “good”, it is working to reduce the suffering and increase the well being over the board of beings capable of experiencing both.

Chapter 10: Oneness of God

If I don’t believe in the theist God, then this whole chapter is “cards above the foundation” which I have written about. These are higher up arguments. No real interest in commenting.

Chapter 11: Suffering & Theist God

“For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts.” Isaiah 55:9

These arguments in chapter 11 are common theistic arguments about suffering, and the usual “smoke and mirrors” of “God is higher than us” “we can’t understand his reasoning”, etc.

These could be used to defend any idea of God or Gods. Why doesn’t Zeus reduce suffering in us? Why doesn’t Zeus stop the lightning bolts from hitting human beings? Because His ways are higher than our ways, we can’t hope to understand Zeus in all His power and majesty.

Welcome to religious apologetics 101! 🙂

Chapter 12: Science disproving God

No, of course, science hasn’t disproved the existence of God and the Russel’s Teapot, I think all the Chapter 1 comments cover this as well.

Chapter 13: Qur’an divine authorship & Arabic

Now this chapter I was interested I wanted to see how, in the words of Christopher Hitchens, Muslims do the “tap-dance” from deism to theism.

In other words, “After all that argument about why God should exist, how do I now set up an argument about MY brand of theism? Why is the Qur’an true and not the Bible, or the Divine Principle, or the Book of Mormon? Or any other of the hundreds of “holy books” that have gone around?”

The primary argument is, surprise surprise, an argument from beauty. But in this case, it’s the beauty of the Arabic language.

So yes, I read the chapter and this is my response:

I take your word for it that the Qur’an is written in beautiful Arabic. Now, how does that mean God wrote it??? I’m not convinced by what is written here. It doesn’t add up that a beautifully written book must be done by God. That’s a really tall claim with no evidence.

I am very familiar with arguments defending holy books. My old religion, Mormonism, says that the Book of Mormon is the word of God and argues that a poor, uneducated farmboy (Joseph Smith) could not have written a book of such immense richness, complexity, and (they argue) so much “matching” the real world. I have seen apologetic videos / articles that talk about the rich detail of guerrilla warfare in the Book of Mormon that Joseph Smith could not have known. I have likewise read apologetics for the Bible and other books.

In other words: go study the founders of other religions, and you’ll see how the Qur’an is not unique. Study their imaginations. Study their finesse with language. Study their theological background. Study Jesus with the Bible. Study Mohammed with the Qur’an. Study Joseph Smith with the Book of Mormon. Study Sun Myung Moon with the Divine Principle. Study L. Ron Hubbard with Dianetics.

Study these folks and their lives, and you will undoubtedly see many parallels.

Honestly, the creator of the universe could do better than some beautiful Arabic — I have higher expectations than that. The God I would be willing to believe in is grander and more majestic than the God of Islam — getting a book written by unsophisticated and superstitious “prophets”.

OK, we’re almost done here. I am going to skip.

Chapter 15: Worshipping God

Not much commentary here, but I find it rather astounding that according to Islam, the creator of the universe (by definition, the most intelligent and majestic being ever to exist) created all of this for what — for us to worship Him??

That seems really petty to me.

I am a father of two kids. I created them to have life, to live, to enjoy the beauty and meaning of existence, to be happy, to be free. Even I, a primitive homo-Sapiens, wish nothing more than their independence and happiness.  How petty would I be to create them with the express purpose of turning around and worshipping me? And to top it off, I then claim I am doing them a favour.

Yeah, looks pretty strange from the outside boys, not gonna lie.

Besides, these arguments about “bonds that make us free”, are common in theistic religions that are not Islam. This view of worship is not unique. All major monotheistic religions subscribe to this way of thinking and make similar arguments about worshipping, obeying, and those being pathways to true freedom.

We have no reason to believe the character of God, if he/she/it exists at all, is any particular way. The way people analyse the character of God is most often through so-called “authoritative holy books”, and through their own anthropomorphic projections. When people say “I don’t think God cares about X”, really what they’re saying is “I don’t care about X”. When people say “God loves the sinners”, really what they’re saying is “I love (or should love, or feel like I should love) the sinners”.

Given that, let me do the same.

If God existed, I think God would be the most incredible, majestic being beyond our imagination, and I highly doubt such a being would care about humans in all their pettiness, power-mongering, hatred, pride, etc. Definitely that God would not be reducible to the content of the Qur’an or the Bible — written by iron age peasants who knew nothing of science or what we know today.

Afterword

I really liked the author’s afterword. It was a sincere desire to connect and have honest discussion. He’s obviously a good, nice guy. Thanks for that. I hope my review, while stark and harsh, has not been directly or personally offensive towards the author or any religious person — only towards their ideas.

I can imagine if believing Muslims were to read this review they might be angered by it. Why? Your worldview is merely a set of coherent statements about the nature of reality. Why be angry when someone disagrees with them? Does not the anger reveal how fragile the view truly is — that when it is criticised we get angry about it?

Afterthoughts

“But wait, we’re different!”
Theists are like people who sit in a box but keep insisting that their box is different from the other boxes. However, upon examination, one finds that although there are slight differences, really all of the boxes are more or less the same.

The arguments used in this book are not novel. I had heard almost all of them (that is, excepting the Arabic stuff) before — but used to prove Christianity or Mormonism or various religions to be “true”.

I was sceptical going into this book that it would be any different. I wasn’t surprised. It was really the same arguments recycled again and again.

Frankly nor are my arguments original either! I have quoted famous atheists and recycled their arguments — but I’ll admit that. Theists, however continually insist that “their box is different”.

Gender of God, Gender of Islam: Male Dominated

This was an interesting pickup. In the preliminary notes at the beginning of the book it explains that “The name Allah has no plural and is genderless”.

And yet, for the rest of the book it keeps referring to God as “He”.

Why not “It”? Why not “She”? Why not some new pronoun? Why “He”?

Not surprising of course. God really is a very large anthropomorphism. Islamic culture holds men as the head. So God is male.

Also if you check the author’s website for this book you’ll notice both the author and all the reviews are male. No real surprises.

Some helpful tools

If you asked me “what would you like theists most to understand”? Or “what tools are helpful for an honest analysis of faith?” — I’d throw out this quick list to help someone pick up the trail:

Of course, there is so much more. But, as it always is, people have to be willing to look for themselves and honestly contemplate the possibility that they’re wrong, which is tough and takes a really bold, courageous and psychologically mature kind of person.

Comment about me

Muslims might look at all of this and say “But yeah, YOU have confirmation bias, YOU have motivated reasoning, YOU might be wrong as an atheist!”

Well — Yes and No.

No: Because I have, unlike I presume most Muslims, actually endured a full “faith transition”. Over the period of two years from 2015 & 2016 I went from ultra-orthodox religious belief to atheism through reasoning and research. So in other words, I did observe all of those things within myself; motivated reasoning, confirmation bias, cognitive dissonance, etc. telling me to continue believe in Mormonsim, I reviewed Mormon apologetics and was convinced for a time, but I countered those and went against the grain and transitioned out of belief — against the wishes of many family and friends. I researched many religions extensively, including Islam, to discover that your boxes are the same as mine. (Yes, I’ve heard the stories of people being saved from car accidents and bullets to “find Islam” — it happens for pretty much all other religions too you know 🙂 )

And yes: Because we all do. Yes, I have confirmation bias now as an atheist, looking at reality from the other side. I have motivated reasoning. But I am aware of those traps and do my honest best to be as objective as I am capable of being.

At the end of the day, I need no-one’s approval, well-wishing or good thinking, because I have my integrity.

Alright! That’s my inordinately long review of a much longer book. I’ll just put a few memes and short videos here to wrap up that summarise some thoughts:

 

 

8 Comments

  1. Dennis Sepulveda

    I’m a Muslim myself, and I have read The Divine Reality from cover to cover and then some. I would say I’ve studied the book in quite some detail as i believe the arguments he gives for God’s existence (at least the way he presents them and deals with them) are some of the best I’ve come across.

    Interested if whether any atheists have taken up reading this book, I looked up book reviews by atheists and you are the only one who seems to have posted a review on the net. The rest are from Muslims naturally. Looking for someone to directly challenge the arguments of the book to see if it holds well under scrutiny, I was eager to see how an atheist would give a rebuttal to the arguments for God’s existence.

    I have to express my disappointment when I finished reading through your review, as it seems to me that either you didn’t take the time to attempt to truly understand what any of the arguments were, or you read it without a care in the world just for the sake of getting a review up.

    The reason why I say this is because your responses to all of his arguments were filled to the brim with logical fallacies, either I noticed straw-man arguments here, or red herrings there. Yet ironically, you claim that you found the author committed logical fallacies throughout his book, yet neglecting to see your own logical fallacies in just a short review. To be honest, I didn’t see even a single valid counter-argument throughout your review, which is highly disappointing as I expected much more.

    To list all the examples where you committed logical fallacies would be to basically repost a good portion of your review on here, so I’m not beat to do that at the moment.

    However, I would like to go over one by one, why this response of yours, or that counter-argument, is a red herring/straw-man if you are up for it, starting all the way up from the top of your review. If I can demonstrate to you why nothing that you said are any valid rebuttals to any of his arguments he presented, I’m hoping you would reread the book. This time with the purpose of seeking to understand the arguments that the author is putting forth, then maybe heavily editing and revising your review with either valid rebuttals, or a change of tune regarding your opinion of the book.

    I look forward to hearing from you.

    Reply
    1. shawn (Post author)

      Hi Dennis, thanks for reaching out.

      I hope you don’t mind but I’ve published your comment on my blog article so that anyone else reading the article can see your response as well and benefit from your time spent writing the comment so it scales beyond just our conversation — no personal information is included in the comment (such as your email address).

      I am the only one who’s posted a review because this book itself is actually very small. In the grand scheme of books on religion and other topics in the world it’s tiny. It’s unlikely that many atheists have even bothered to read the book, and assuming nothing changes it’s unlikely that many will.

      I read the book in detail. I think you have mistaken a lack of agreement with arguments with a lack of understanding of them. I understood everything written in the book; in fact as I point out in the beginning of my review it is “filled with unoriginal and non-novel ideas and arguments that I’d heard many times before from multiple religions.”

      The ideas in this book and the content of my rebuttal are nothing new. Debates about theism have raged on for generations, and they likely will continue to rage on for generations. However, there is now a gradual trend picking up worldwide as people are waking up and realising that the religions they’ve inherited from their parents (or society) are just one religion of many, and that it’s unlikely that they won the jackpot.

      But since you have written to me sincerely, and I assume you have an open mind, I will propose to you a deal:

      I am willing to have a (lengthy) conversation with you about this book in which I will give you a full opportunity to present your viewpoint and critique of my review (in fact, I am willing to have this conversation with you via a Skype call that we record and put on YouTube, on a channel I have access to that has several thousand subscribers) but on one condition: first you need to read and review 2 books:

      The God Delusion (Richard Dawkins)
      The End of Faith (Sam Harris)

      If you’re willing to jump through this hoop, then we can talk. Otherwise, (and I genuinely mean no offence by saying this) our conversation about this book would not be worthwhile as I think you wouldn’t have yet given the “opposition” a full and fair chance.

      Kind regards,

      Shawn

      Reply
  2. Kris

    This is in fact what I would have expected. Hamza has made a fool out of himself on so many occasions with:

    – a confidence that does not match his credibility
    – the complete over usage of word salad
    – going through every fallacy in the book

    that even fellow Muslims have spoken out against him (http://www.aqidah.com/creed/articles/apzfw-advice-to-hamza-tzortzis-and-company-iera-part-1.cfm).

    It really came to my surprise that he now felt the need to even publish a book (with a silly title, of course) – saying exactly what he has been saying all the time.

    I can’t help to think that he is a scam – an insecure sharlatan who seeks attention and tries to raise his own profile and that’s it.

    Apart from that, thank you for taking your time writing this review 🙂 👍

    Reply
    1. shawn (Post author)

      Haha thanks Kris,

      Well, since reading the book was a waste of time really, it seemed only logical to turn that waste of time into something positive by writing a review which may be helpful to some people who are sincerely asking some good questions about the faith they were raised in.

      Reply
  3. Yusha

    Hello Shawn. I am agnostic and possibly deist at times and someones whos spent a considerable portion of time researching theism and atheism, including various religions.

    I have skimmed through your review, and i have skimmed through hamzas book due to lack of time i could not read both to its limits( so i cannot comment too much)

    But i will give some positive critisicm from what ive noticed. There are certain things you mention do make sense such as the inability to disprove fairies, santa claus etc as well as the whole purpose of life to worship god which you mention as being opressive/ petty and far beyond a being of such power, knowledge goodness to have and I will agree to that.

    God cant be worthy to worship if he only created ppl to glorify him and yet give humans all sorts of needs and desires eg maslows hierachy of needs being a good example.

    I recently went through hamzas chapter on suffering and problem of evil and i will say that hamzas chapter was disappointing. Alot of overused muslim cliches are there such as testing which then opens up a bigger can of worms etc. Of course some of the theodicies have been useful tbrough time such as morality soul making etc to explain evil on a macrolevel. However these fall short of anzwering the question on a micro level. The problem of evil is actually the problem of excessive evil or injustices. Im afraid the problem of evil at the micro level gets quite complex and hamza fails to demonstrate this simply explaing evil away with submissive muslim cliches. This connects to the problem of heaven and purpose of life being to “worship” god.

    I have noticed though that you seem quite ignorant about religions and their history. Seeing as you mentioned the idea of islam mentioning god as a “he”. In case you didnt know but in the arabic langauge pronouns verbs and nouns are either in the feminine or the masculine. In the Quran the verb used for “He” is “huwa” which is masculine and can also mean “It”. In arabic anything of majesty or power is referred to with the masculine for example the arabic word for sun “shams” is a masculine while the word for moon ” qamr” is a feminine.

    I also take it your knowledge of the quran and its claims as well as the arabic is quite poor. I will suggest you do some sincere research on the literature of the quran as you will find its claims are not merely based on “some beautiful arabic”. However if your mind is already poisoned by western thinking and people such as christopher hitchens who was clearly very ignorant about religions as well as philosophy and quite a prejudiced man, you are naturally prejudiced to think of arabic and the quran as inferior and of arabs. You also mention ” Jesus with the bible” sorry to say but Jesus had nothing to do with the bible we have today.

    Lastly you seem quite biased as with all western/white atheists in that you are biased towards your favourite atheists being the heros through which we should all be atheists. You mention why hamza even bothered to write a book and that he simply is restating centuries of arguments. Is this not the case with many atheist writers such as richard dawkins who have reiterated argumentz by hume bertrand russel and so forth.
    You seem to appeal to authority here seeing as you take ppl who have phds and many books and fame to their name to be superior and u take hamza to be inferior due to not having the “dr” title and not being a white man. You also only mention to your readers to engage in two books mainly the god delusion and the end of faith. Is this not the same as a muslim chanting to read hamzas book then talk. If you want to be truly objective I would suggest you suggest both well reviewed books from atheists as well as theists. Your choice….

    Reply
    1. shawn (Post author)

      Hi Yusha, thanks for coming on and commenting. I appreciate that.

      I will try to reply to your message and try to keep it “not too long” 🙂

      I won’t comment much on anything we agree on… I think you make good points.

      “I have noticed though that you seem quite ignorant about religions and their history” – in the grand scheme of things, I have spent many thousands of hours of my life in research (and previously in participation) about religions. Do I know everything there is to know about religions? Surely not, as the number of gods and religious ideas swimming around the world is immense, no-one could possibly know about them all. BUT – do I know enough to secure a key insight? Yes, and that key insight is that “there’s no good reason to believe any religious (supernatural) truth proposition” (up until now, having studied many religions, I have found no single one that manages to be an exception of this simple statement) – in other words, I know enough to know there’s no good reason for me to learn more.

      It’s like the flat earth society. Do you know everything there is to know about it? Surely not, surely it is bigger and their theories more complex and varied than you or I know. But do we know enough to know that life is too short to waste all of our time in it? Yes. Hence you can have a deep, important insight into something without knowing everything there is in the universe to know about it, while others can know more and more and yet miss the basic insight (it’s not true).

      “In Arabic anything of majesty or power is referred to with the masculine” – well, there you go, anything of majesty or power is MALE. I need not add anything lol.

      I won’t be spending any more time on the Qu’ran in my life (hopefully!) the time spent is already plenty, in fact way more than plenty.

      “Lastly you seem quite biased as with all western/white atheists in that you are biased towards your favourite atheists being the heros through which we should all be atheists”

      It’s interesting that you’ve played the race card. I don’t recall anywhere in my article criticising the ideas of Hamza Andreas Tzortzis based on the colour of his skin – I tried to evaluate them purely as ideas. There are also plenty of “western/white” religious folks (like Christians) whose ideas I do not embrace. Identity politics is completely irrelevant, there’s no point of me speaking about it further.

      “You seem to appeal to authority here” not that I’m aware of. I’m not interested in raw “appeal to authority”. But there is such a thing as saying “this prominent person X said Y, and I agree with Y”.

      “If you want to be truly objective I would suggest you suggest both well reviewed books from atheists as well as theists.” – I have done so at great length, and (hopefully!) won’t be spending much time on theism / atheism anymore. As for interest in Arabic culture, I am really no different from any other person in lack of interest in studying it. For example, ancient Aztec culture is probably rich in so many ways, but do I need to go and learn it? How about Indonesian culture? How about Taiwanese culture? Norse culture? The world is filled with rich, interesting cultures, so much so that no one person has the time to learn them all. And in fact, given my personality I am barely interested in my own culture anyway.

      Anyway, good luck on your personal (spiritual / intellectual) journey (wherever that takes you). Thanks for stopping by!

      Reply
      1. Yusha

        You the one that decided to leave a review of a book written by a muslim. Therefore it is necessary for you to include actual/ correct information about the culture/ religion the book mentions which u criticise.

        Nobody said study every culture but if you are writing a review of an aztec religion then of course supply factual information and not your own surface assumptions. If you want to actually inform people a level of intelletual honesty is required.

        No i dont think its like the flat earth claim. If someone claims a supernatural claim you cannot prove it wrong or right whereas the flat earth claim falls part of the physical world and can be falsified through science.

        I will say that from experience that the more indepth research you do of a topic the more you may realise how little you actually knew. Any atheist can come along and say the usual claims such as “quran says earth is flat” ” sun setting in a pool” and so on and so the critcism goes but im yet to find a theist or atheist that can hold a debate while being intellectually honest even with the thing they argue against.

        Food for thought…

        Reply
        1. shawn (Post author)

          Hey Yusha,

          Nowhere in my article did I make the pretence that I was giving any treatise on any culture. The article was specifically focused on the IDEAS presented within the book. Yes, the connection between Islam and local cultures is strong (indeed, that should be enough to inform someone about how “local” a religion actually is), but I made no attempt to speak about the cultures generally. (Also, your point about the male thing seems to make little or no difference to the point about power and masculinity within Islamic doctrine.)

          This is a single book review, not a review of a large group of complex nations and cultures. This article attempts to address and respond to the ideas in the book itself.

          “I will say that from experience that the more indepth research you do of a topic the more you may realise how little you actually knew” — sure, this applies to many domains. Yet my point is not about “how much you know” but “what insight you have”. Case in point, it’s possible to know A LOT about something (say Islam) but miss the simple insight (it’s not true). Often, the difference between raw knowledge and insight is critical thinking.

          Reply

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