Two views of life on Earth

I’m struck by the wildly diverse views of life on Earth held by two books I’ve been reading lately. This is something that should strike any reader of religious scripture the moment he or she ventures out into the world of scientific literature. The two views of our place in the universe couldn’t be more different. The first is from the Qur’an:

“Have you not observed how God causes water to descend from the sky, making it flow as springs on the ground, then through it causes crops of diverse colors to sprout forth, then the crops dry out and you see them yellowing, then He turns all into stubble?” (trans. T. Khalidi)

The passage from the Qur’an is milder, less hectoring in tone than others I’ve mentioned on this blog. Don’t let that fool you. It’s buttressed by the same repetitive threats of hellfire and eternal pain for the unbeliever. You never have to go more than a paragraph from where you are to find them. In the Qur’an, there is a familiar omnipotent, benevolent (well, not really) and omniscient being who gets very offended when his little creations don’t blindly submit to his greatness. The fact that they don’t actually have to do anything in particular, behave in any particularly righteous way, abstain from noxious behaviour is telling here. It seems all that is expected of them is faith. That appears to me to be the entirety of the Qur’anic message. If you don’t have faith, if you live a perfectly good life by any other standard but deny the revelation of this book, you are destined for an eternity of punishment. And if you do have faith, and you happen as well to be a murderer, a liar and philanderer you will be rewarded with delectable fruits in heaven. The second is from Carl Sagan’s book Pale Blue Dot:

“Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.

The contrast here is clear enough. 

I still haven’t finished reading the Qur’an

I started blogging about the Qur’an last year, and I’m still reading it. I haven’t dedicated it much time, really, although I do intend to finish it one day. In fact, I’m almost there. At times I’ll read a sura on the toilet, other times over breakfast. The truth is that it’s pretty boring, the poetry is mediocre, the wisdom juvenile and the threatening tone cloying.

Take this example, from “Arrayed in Ranks”:

“Is this a better welcome or the tree of Zaqqum, which We set
as an ordeal for the wicked?
It is a tree which grows in the pit of hell, with fruit like heads of demons.
They shall eat from it and fill their bellies;
Then, in addition, they shall have a scalding drink,
Then will they be returned to hell.” (trans. T. Khalidi)

That’s really spooky, I suppose, if you’ve been raised to believe in an omnipotent being whose arch-enemy is the unbeliever. More than any other religious scripture that I’ve read, the Qur’an relishes in this kind of gratuitous punishment for – as they are quaintly called – “wrongdoers.” But the wrongdoers aren’t people who murder, enslave, mistreat others, lie and steal  – as one may suppose – but rather they are those who simply don’t believe. “All they can expect is a single Scream, which shall sieze them while they dispute…” Ah, disputation, the enemy of God! 

“You shall surely taste of the most painful torment,” it reminds us. That kids are taught to memorize this nonsense, often in place of actual education, is tragic.

Meet “Sam”

I know I shouldn’t be doing this, but this comment is so stoopid it’s irresistible. Blame P.Z. Myers.

“First off, there is no such thing as atheist (but is there such thing as “Sam?”), it is indeed plain simply (I think you mean “plain and simple”) arrogance and utter rudeness to the scientific community let alone the religious one (I never made any promises), their claim in itself is a positive one (which claim?), u (you) can( )not provide proof of his existence (whose existence?), whihc (ahhhh!) make u logically at best agnostic who lack(s) humility (who me?) to accepting lack of knowledge (of what again?).
in so far as the quran goes, seems like u were expecting mathematical notions, or some scientific formula “although there scientific stuff in there” (there be science!). are u mad (those be my initials, genius)?
t(T)he point is about, the highly likelihood of his being, rather than nothing coming out of nothing, and forget about the quantum fluctuation and string ripples (what’re you smokin’, dude?), the numbers dont add up (what numbers???). and there is already been proved that universe paradox, is a logical fallacy in itself. (pot, kettle)

In case anyone is wondering, this was posted as a comment to Another atheist reads the Qur’an. I don’t mean to make fun of “Sam”, but he could’ve put a bit more thought and effort into making himself comprehensible to someone so hard-hearted he offends both the scientific and religious communities in the same breath (in your dreams, pal!)

I should’ve taken that job as a proofreader.

Will I make it through the second half of the Qur’an?

Because I’m getting bored with it. It offers the most monochromatic worldview of any book – holy or otherwise – that I’ve ever read. I’ve been carrying it around for ten days now on the subway, my eyes just skipping over the paragraphs lazily, hoping something will happen. It’s just “God knows. God is compassionate. God will make sure you suffer for your unbeleif.” Yawn.

I suppose I’m being unfair, though. If I were to consider the possibility that this book hid “truths” somewhere among its thorns, or that it might indeed be in some novel way the word of a god, or God, then I might be more inclined to give weight to its insistence on, well, the omniscience of God. But it’s just the hypochondriacal rantings of a religious fanatic. It’s Sister Ray for the godly, without the fun of shooting meth and sucking on a transvestite’s ding-dong.

So, as an offering, take this passage from Hume:

Should a traveler, returning from a far country, bring us an account of men, wholly different from any with whom we were ever acquainted; men, who were entirely divested of avarice, ambition, or revenge; who knew no pleasure but friendship, generosity, and public spirit; we should immediately, from these circumstances, detect the falsehood, and prove him a liar, with the same certainty as if he had stuffed his narration with stories of centaurs and dragons, miracles and prodigies.

Hume’s “far country” is much like the Qur’anic paradise, a place where believers lounge on couches – yes, couches – in friendship among shady trees and rushing streams. Fruit grows in abundance. There is never a lack or a care in the world, and everyone just jives in the divine presence doing nothing for the rest of eternity.

But, as Hume points out, such a paradise in indistinguishable from a fable.

Something decent in the Guardian

Every so often the Guardian publishes something I like:

I am an atheist. I imagine that the typical Cif belief reader may not think this is a particularly big deal, but it is for me, because I’m not just an atheist – I’m an apostate from Islam. Apparently there are people who would happily kill me for making such a statement. But I’m not expecting to be killed, or even threatened; despite what the BNP and certain elements of the press might want you to think, the overwhelming majority of Muslims are not rabid fundamentalists who respond with violence to every perceived slight.

Comments are always revealing, and sometimes they are incomprehensible. Like this one:

As it says in the Qur’an, there is no compulsion in religion. Thanks and good luck.

Well, either the Qur’an I’ve been reading was translated by Sam Harris, or this commenter has an extremely flexible idea of what “compulsion in religion” is. There’s scarcely any content in the Qur’an which is not explicitly compulsive. If indeed it can be said that this book is “about” anything, that something is the compulsion to faith. Unbelievers are cordoned off to one side and proscribed from the believer’s worlview. They must be fought with zeal and gusto.

If you don’t believe me, read the book for yourself.

“The Table,” “Cattle” and “Battlements”

It’s getting worse. I’ve found a few breathtakingly humane passages in these chapters, like the one from “Cattle” about showing loving kindness to your parents and not murdering one’s own children out of poverty. The rest might read something like this:

“Yadda yadda. Blah blah blah kill the infidels. Yadda yadda piety blah blah reward will be yours if only you are faithful to the word of God. Yadda yadda blah blah blah. God is Compassionate to all (except the evil nonbelievers who will pull up sheets of fire over themselves as they roast forever in burning hell).

I know it’s not much help to those who haven’t yet read the Qur’an, but it’s the feeling I have reading page after page of the same exact rhetoric. If ever any book was in need of a decent editor, it is this. The whole thing might boil down to a single tweet:

Be faithful God knows the pious will be rewarded and the unbelievers will burn yadda yadda yadda.

And I think there are still some unused characters in that. I don’t know if I’ll make it all the way through unless Allah creates some action, or some characters, or some really great poetry. Say what you will about the Bible, it is a more dimensional read. I’m getting bored. Help.

A further thought: how would Moby-Dick have turned out had Herman Melville been raised as a Muslim? And you thought the whaling chapters were pedantic?

Flotilla and “Women”

While the Flotilla Incident was happening I was busy reading the Qur’an. Since the waters are still murky around Gaza I’ll refrain from commenting. It’s going to be a long week.

I’m on the chapter called “Women”, ostensibly because there are passages of Leviticus-like lawgiving on the the treatment of women interspersed among further injunctions to “kill them wherever you find them.” Here is to be found a brilliant commandment to convert the unbelievers on penalty of death:

Do not take them for friends until they emigrate in the cause of God. If they refuse, sieze them and kill them wherever you find them, and do not take them as friend or ally, etc…

It’s not much worse than much of Deuteronomy, really, except that it was written a thousand or so years later. So Muhammad no longer has the excuse of antiquity for this kind of barbarism.

From “The Cow” to “The House of ‘Imran”

God has hardened my heart. I guess he wanted it that way, otherwise I would be a Muslim.

By now I’m far enough into the Qur’an that its repetitiveness is beginning to wear thin. “God is compassionate to each” is frequently followed up with the usual asides about the fires of hell being stoked for the unbelievers, blasphemers and the like. We are the scum of the Qur’anic earth.

Bible stories retold in digest version are recast as Islamic fables. Pious Jews and Christians are really Muslims, because Islam is the only true faith of the pious. The others are imposters, pious frauds, evildoers. It’s difficult to imagine a more polarizing conception of humanity.

Piety, faith, blah blah blah. There are some fair poetic passages reminiscent of the Psalms, but they are outweighed by the Qur’an’s obsession with the People of the Book. If you feel this book represents truth on any scale, and you wish to be among the pious, you might just devote yourself to its message. The alternatives presented here are dire.

Money quote: O believers, do not adopt as intimate friends those outside your circle. I guess that explains why I don’t have too many friend requests from Muslims on Facebook.

Another atheist reads the Qur’an

Alright, so I finally bought a copy of the Qur’an with the intention to read it. I was inspired by the fact that two new translations have recently been published by those erstwhile publishers of the world’s best books, Oxford and Penguin Classics. The Oxford edition is weighted down by lots of notes and footnotes, and the text is cluttered. That’s no way to approach a book like the Qur’an for the first time. After much reflection, I opted for the Penguin, which has the advantage of alternating between prose and verse. The pages are neat and there are spaces between the paragraphs. So Penguin won my hard-earned 10 euro.

For the record, I’m not out to diss the Qur’an. So no death threats, please.

Update: Halfway through the sura The Cow – which is the longest one – I’m getting a bit tired of being called names. Deaf. Dumb. Blind. I do not understand. I am as dumb as an ox. Why? Because I ask too many questions. The Qur’anic message thus far is, believe because I say so. Oh, yeah? Even the Bible tries to draw you in with finely woven tales of God’s miracles, good and evil behavior, natural wonders. It makes an attempt to convince. It goes out of its way to persuade. The Qur’an is the realm of absolute certainty, utter piety and eternal fire for the unbelievers.

Nonetheless, I’m enjoying it despite pronouncements like, “Your women are your sowing field; approach your field whenever you please.” That wouldn’t go down well in our home.