Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Conspiracy theories and scientific miracles in the Qur'an

According to the famous July 2011 Pew Global Attitudes survey, the majority of Muslims in the world do not believe that Muslims/Arabs were responsible for the 9/11 attacks:
  "Nearly a decade after September 11, 2001, skepticism about the events of that day persists among Muslim publics. When asked whether they think groups of Arabs carried out the 9/11 attacks on the U.S., most Muslims in the nations surveyed say they do not believe this.
There is no Muslim public in which even 30% accept that Arabs conducted the attacks. Indeed, Muslims in Jordan, Egypt, and Turkey are less likely to accept this today than in 2006."

Put another way, the vast majority of Muslims* -including my convert friend- believe in one or other conspiracy theory which hold that the US government and/or the Israeli security services plotted to murder thousands of US citizens (and the UK government carried out a similar atrocity against its own people on 7/7!)

Such beliefs are based upon various pieces of "evidence", none of which withstands a careful and dispassionate examination of the facts.

It is not my intention here to debunk the theories (but I'd be delighted to explain in the comments section why each and every one which claims to raise "unanswerable" questions is nonsense, should any reader still be  labouring under these misapprehensions) but rather to examine the link between a willingness to believe such errant twaddle and a desire to see scientific and other miracles in the Qur'an.

In his 2009 book, Voodoo Histories - How Conspiracy Theory has shaped Modern History, David Aaronovitch quotes the Pulitzer Prize winning playwright David Mamet's fourth collection of essays which almost starts with the words, "It is in our nature to dramatize". Aaronovitch explains, "By this Mamet doesn't mean we are bit histrionic sometimes, but rather that we need to construct, or have constructed, dramas and  stories for ourselves [...] which is to say to order the universe into a comprehensible form." Later he refers to the human biologist, Lewis Wolpert's theory that to dramatise events in such a way is nothing less than a biological imperative. Humans evolved with an inherent need to understand their surroundings and where this was impossible, to create stories to do so.

Thus, conspiracy theories are ultimately reassuring in that they suggest causes and explanations which are easily grasped, reinforce our prejudices and may help us to ignore the awful possibility that the world is absurd and our lives are meaningless. Paranoia may often be a defence against indifference, as the American psychoanalyst, Stephen Grosz believes. Or, as Susan Sontag has it: I envy paranoids. They actually feel people are paying attention to them.

A willingness to ignore Occam's Razor (the theory that states among competing hypotheses, the one that makes the fewest assumptions should be selected) and a tendency to cognitive dissonance (whereby people want their expectations to meet reality, creating a sense of equilibrium whilst avoiding situations or information sources that give rise to feelings of uneasiness, or dissonance) can also be seen in those who choose to believe the pseudo science pushed by the charlatans like Yusuf Estes and those (almost exclusively) converts to Islam at iERA. 

Thus to believe that the Qur'an contains miraculous scientific knowledge is to reassure yourself that your God is real and that those who follow other faiths or no faith at all are mistaken. To seek out internet sites and information that reinforces your preconceptions and to ignore the evidence that contradicts your beliefs is exactly like the quasi-religious zeal of the 9/11 Truther fraternity - a zeal which leads them to persist in believing that the US government was capable of murdering thousands of its own citizens. 

Whether it be the claims of preternatural knowledge of microscopic embryology based upon a few vague verses and the "additions" to a text book by the ludicrous and plainly insane al-Zindani, the infamous suggestion that the speed of light or the expanding universe is somehow predicted within its pages despite such information being so vague that no translator prior to the actual discovery of these facts thought to interpret the verses in such a way, or simply that Allah was the first to tell us about the curative qualities of honey (and what of the Egyptians?!) these desperate and wild interpretations serve only to belittle genuine faith.

That so many intelligent and apparently otherwise rational Muslims should have fallen prey to the sharks in both camps is deeply worrying, but also perhaps not unexpected. 

For it is surely the case that many of the apparent required beliefs of Islam can be seen to encourage a tendency to paranoia. Take the idea that the Bible has been tampered with to remove "most" of the references to Muhammad, and the concomitant conviction that there however remain many references to the Prophet that these agents of deception somehow overlooked. In other words, Muslims believe that somehow the collators/writers of the Bible conspired to hide the "truth" (that Muhammad was predicted by the Old Testament prophets and that Jesus himself referred to the Islamic Prophet). That they ignore the obvious response that a Jewish text is in all likelihood going to refer to a Jewish messiah and instead stretch the credulity of their adherents with far-fetched theories reinforces the feeling that a desire for conspiracy is hardwired into humans.  Indeed, one of the greatest conspiracy theories in history (and one which is ultimately hugely insulting to Christians)  is that Jesus was actually never crucified but rather was removed from the cross and replaced with a "ringer" is contained in the Qur'an. Thus Muslims are brought up to believe that they have inside knowledge about the other great monotheistic religions denied to their adherents and are thus ultimately superior to them.

For those of us who are atheists and who see no evidence whatsoever for a benign creator (in fact, if there is a God he surely appears to be a vicious, sadistic and heartless deity who has allowed unimaginable cruelty and injustice to be inflicted on His creation for millenia) the need for a rational examination of evidence is more pressing than ever. 

As I always respond to my Muslim convert friend's assertion that "all the arrows point to there being a God and that God being the God of Islam" 
"On the contrary - all the arrows point to there being no God and to the writers of the Qur'an and the Bible being entirely human and fallible."

*and many other supposedly rational people!


  1. and what makes you so sure that your belief in the official version of events is not a form of cognitive dissonance?

  2. Yes, I have noticed this phenomenon as well - the blame culture.
    It's (and by "it" I mean - "anything") is almost always something or someone else's fault - which means that responsibility is never taken, change is never made and lessons never learned.
    It's very annoying as it goes from large scale (like your example) to very small scale, daily things which really do not require blame, denial or any other the other responsibility-dodging things.

    By biggest denial beef is when you say "what about this community-behaviour (like FGM for example) or that community behaviour (like forced marriage)?" and you get: "thats not the real Islam, the people have changed it" ...err...well, for crying out loud if none of the currently practicing Muslim communities are not practicing the "real Islam" - then there are officially no Muslims left on the planet, just a bunch of people practicing the "unreal Islam" - most likely all because of the Jews and the Americans. Deny, dodge and blame - these are the current pillars.

    Honestly, bang your head on a brick wall - you will get further.