Islamic apologetics bears many similarities to Christian apologetics, both in content (similar arguments for God; similar excuses for evil; etc.) and method (same fallacies; same dishonesty; same disrespect for the facts). But there are distinctive features to be aware of that sometimes arise and require special preparation or acquaintance. I will address two broad categories of such: barriers to effective counter-apologetics against Islam, and unusual (or unusually common) arguments in defense of Islam. Here is a basic primer on how to argue with Islamic apologists. And after reading this, you can dive even further, asking all kinds of questions about it, by joining us in my online course on Counter-Apologetics, which starts just next week (and repeated yearly).
A Principal Barrier to Effective Counter-Apologetics: Ignorance
On the one hand, Islamic apologetics is extremely naive. It looks very much like Christian apologetics from over half a century ago. Because, due to historical contingencies, Islamic states are so consistently locked into third-world national structures, which are consistently backward in terms of corruption, authoritarianism, and human rights abuses, that freedom of speech and thought has not been a defended value. Consequently, Islam has rarely had to face well-organized counter-apologetics. And in result, it is poorly prepared for it. By contrast, Christianity has faced such ruthless and unabated counter-apologetics in an open society for so long, that it has had to retool itself again and again, and become more and more sophisticated, so as to escape the embarrassment of its once naive and often even childish defenses. The poor quality of education in Islamic countries only compounds the problem, particularly when Muslims have the political power to doctor educational content to suit their religious aims, just as Christian creationists wish to do in Western countries (and continue to fight tooth and nail for). And actually still do in some cases (from home schooling to specialized private schools).
With increased economic productivity spreading, and resulting improvements in education likewise spreading, and with globalization that allows instant worldwide communication, as well as the increase in Muslim populations within the first world, Islam is now entering this crucible phase. Its apologetics will similarly evolve into more sophisticated forms. But until then, it remains in a state scarcely better than Christian apologetics in the days of the Scopes Monkey Trial.
Nevertheless, do not mistake their naivety with your knowledge. Islamic apologists still have an enormous advantage over you: they read Arabic; and they know their religion and its history and traditions and interpretations and sectarian options far better than you. This allows them to embarrass you, and thus discredit you as a critic, by exposing your ignorance. You must not allow that tactic to be deployed. Arrogantly blustering into this area can actually have the opposite effect you intend: by actually becoming a tool of Islamic propaganda yourself. All they have to do is point to your lack of knowledge and resulting mistakes, and claim this proves atheism cannot defeat Islam honestly or informedly, and you will have simply handed them a coup that will increase and reinforce Muslim belief.
This requires a special approach. Not for someone who actually has college degrees in Islamic or Middle Eastern studies, or someone who is already an ex-Muslim themselves, someone who knows Arabic, and was an informed insider long enough or in enough respects, that you can go toe to toe with the best of them and not look uninformed. But most people lack these requisite background skills or access to resources needed to prevail in such a debate. And if that’s you, it’s vitally important that you approach Islamic counter-apologetics in a particularly careful way. There are several tips to keep ever in mind when doing that:
- First, repeatedly concede that you are not an expert in the Quran or Hadith (etc.), but just want to understand why they believe what they are saying is true. Make it about their knowledge rather than yours. Let them hang their own religion with their own words.
- Try to reframe any debate as about the logic. Say you are willing to concede all their premises for the moment, and then argue over whether their conclusion actually follows logically even from those premises. Logic is universal. So you won’t need specialized knowledge to catch out their fallacies. Nor can they claim you are ignorant of logic. That would make them look ignorant. And that discredits them. Which is the opposite of the effect they want. But precisely the effect you want.
- But if their logic holds up, then go after the premises. Or if their premises are so demonstrably false you won’t risk looking ignorant arguing they are, but rather they will. When attacking fact claims like this, ignore fact claims about areas you lack knowledge in (e.g. Arabic language; Muslim customs, interpretive traditions, and obscure histories; etc.) and stick to independently verifiable facts: that is, facts as well known to you as them, such as the facts of science and of objectively verifiable history. Try as best you can to avoid making claims about what an Arabic word or phrase means, or how Muslim scholars have interpreted it, or what the specific customs and enacted values of Muslims are, and so on.
- An exception to that last rule can be navigated, by reverting to step one again: have them explain those things, and then catch out logical inconsistencies in their assertions, by asking questions as if you don’t understand something (which you typically won’t, so you won’t have to pretend, but do take the conscious pose of someone who doesn’t). Thus, for example, if they insist an Arabic word means something, and you are pretty sure it doesn’t, have them prove this to you with examples (other passages in the Quran that use that word, etc.), and/or have them quote dictionary entries at you, or otherwise explore how they know the word means what they claim. And when you see the evidence doesn’t line up with what they are claiming, ask them how they reconcile those discrepancies. Then ask them if they think their method of reconciling them sounds legit to them. Because it will sound fishy to you. So you can say why it sounds fishy to you, and have them respond.
- Certainly always remember you can be snowed about the Arabic, and you can fall into the trap of the Exegetical Fallacy, which is assuming your (or anyone’s) interpretation of a verse in the Quran is the interpretation of that verse. Different authorities within a sect, and different sects, may have different ideas. Just as in Christianity. To see an example of how both problems can trip you up, and how you can deploy caution to avoid them, see this example in a comment and my ensuing replies there.
The best approach to Islamic counter-apologetics is simply to just repeat the same generic arguments you have already learned in response to Christian claims of the same kind. Indeed one of those common approaches is to get the proponent to state the facts as they believe them, then show that their own stated facts do not lead logically to their own conclusion (for example, as I did using Christian apologists’ own “prophecy criteria” to refute their own claims in Newman on Prophecy as Miracle at the Secular Web). And this can include questioning their facts, by getting them to spell out why they believe even their premises.
Although if they start misrepresenting the facts, you often won’t have any way to know they are doing that, or how to prove they are. More so by far than with Christians, where (a) there actually are good resources generally available for catching them in a distortion, as I teach in my Intro to New Testament Studies course at The Secular Academy (which I will also teach again within a yea), resources that even allow you to look at the meaning of a text in Greek or Hebrew without knowing Greek or Hebrew, for example, as well as resources on the textual reliability of a passage, and so on; and (b) most atheists already have a lot of experience with and background knowledge of Christianity to work from (and indeed are often ex-Christians themselves, or operating in close cooperation with such); and (c), by historical contingency, most Christian claims have already been ground under by professional and widely available critiques by now, whereas Islam has largely not passed through that crucible yet (per above), so it’s easier to find well-vetted and tested critiques to rely on. Not so much, for Islam.
That last point is worth noting because it evokes another caution: there are a lot of anti-Islamic sites online (and books published) that have been produced by Evangelical Christians and their organizations. These, however, have not been well-vetted or tested, and come from people we already know to be extremely unreliable: Christian apologists. Use these with extreme caution. Christians often don’t understand Islam or the texts or histories they are using, and as we well know, Christians often misreport facts, lie, or use fallacious reasoning. They do this every bit as much against Islam as they do against atheism. And they are often just as ill informed about Islam as they are of science or secular humanism. Remember that.
Better would be locating ex-Muslim counter-apologetics resources. But those have not been developed anywhere near to the utility and scale as Christian counter-apologetics resources. But Ex Muslims of North America is a growing resource in that direction, as also the Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain. Though both need to cultivate a more extensive and user-friendly library to assist with counter-apologetics, they have only just begun (for example, akin to BibleHub for the Bible, we now have QuranX, and also WikiIslam). There are also many books worth perusal by ex-Muslim critics of Islam, like Ibn Warraq and Abdullah Sameer. You can also use actual Muslim resources, when deploying the “grant their premises” or “use their own scholars against them” approaches to argument (for example, the handy translation and commentary on the Quran, and other resources, at AlIslam.org; or the books of Abdullah Saeed). Goodreads has a decent list of both Muslim reformers and ex-Muslim critics.
Good material like this is still hard to find, though, in a sea of bad or dubious or unvettable stuff, most of whose reliability you can’t confirm. But sometimes you can find and make use of informed critiques from real experts. I’ll quote an example from Mubin Shaikh from his Vice interview (to be cited below), as it illustrates the kind of expert arguments you might be able to use when you find them, but also why you rarely can argue like this yourself, as you probably do not have any of the relevant knowledge in Arabic or Islamic history he had to deploy to make this argument himself:
I do find it ironic that ISIS and New Atheist types, or anti-Muslim types, quote the same verses in the exact same way. They say, “Islam is about terrorism, and here are the verses to prove it.” So I remind them that I also used to believe this stuff. I also used to cherry pick and misquote the verses the same way both of them do it. So in Chapter 9, Verse 5, I used to say the same thing. I said, “Look, the verse says, ‘Kill the kuffar, wherever they are’.” Now, in fact, that’s not what it says. I mean, it’s a portion of a longer verse. And that portion actually says, “Al-Mushrikin,” it talks about polytheists. So when the scholar in Syria was trying to de-radicalize me, he said to me, “Tell me, do you normally begin reading chapters from verse 5? Maybe you should start with verse 1. I don’t know, it’s just a thought.”
So Verse 1 talks about “The polytheists… This is in regards to the polytheists with whom you made a treaty and have violated the treaty.” If you look at Verse 4, which directly precedes Verse 5, it says, “Not included in these instructions are those polytheists who kept the covenant, the treaty, and did not assault you and participate in violence against you. Then keep the term of your contract with them.” So it makes it very clear. The content is very specific, it’s those people who are actually fighting you unlawfully, because you’re a Muslim. Because, in that context, the polytheists were fighting the Muslims just because they were Muslim, because they believed in one God and they made the call to one God. So looking at that context and, as opposed to what they’re doing today, you can see that [the Islamic State] has completely [distorted it]. Now they’ve applied this verse to include even Jews and Christians.
So when speaking with potential Islamic State sympathizers I show them the Islamic sources, I take screenshots of verses, I take screenshots of a scholar’s commentary on a particular verse, what the Prophet [Mohamed] has said about these deviant groups like ISIS who come in the garb of Islam; they pray, they fast, they strive hard and worship, but they falsify the meanings of the Qur’an and most of all they kill Muslims, even more so than they kill non-Muslims.
You probably won’t be arguing with terror advocates. So this won’t be a particularly useful example (hence it’s just illustrative). Most of your interaction with Muslims in the arena of counter-apologetics will be with Muslims who agree with everything Shaikh just said. Just as most of your interaction with Christians in the arena of counter-apologetics will be with Christians who reject the defenses of genocide and slavery and the murder of gay men and the subjugation of women and other horrible things in the Bible.
Which brings me to the last piece of advice in this category: of course, avoid expressions of Islamophobia, as that will just make you look like an angry crank, and validate their belief that only irrational fear motivates rejection of Islam. Don’t try selling narratives about Islam being an existential threat to civilization (it’s not, any more than Christianity is, and most Christianity isn’t); get better informed, so you don’t make ignorant claims (e.g., female genital mutilation is not predominant in Islam, nor a peculiarly Islamic problem—for instance in Nigeria, it’s predominately the Christians, not the Muslims, who are practicing it—and its actual basis in Islamic teaching is vague); don’t confuse Islam with race (most Muslims are not Arabs; Turkey and Iran and Indonesia and Nigeria, for example, are not Arabic countries); don’t conflate all Islamic peoples (Egyptian or Pakistani Muslims have very little in common with Kurdish or Turkish Muslims, in politics or values or opinions or practices); look at conservative Muslims as not much different from conservative Christians, and not as alien beings who can’t ever reform their religion (in fact they can, just as Christianity has been doing with its own increasing liberalization); and don’t confuse radicals with mainstream conservatives (for every Boko Haram there are a dozen Kenyan Busriders; for every Muslim running to join ISIS, there are over thirty running away from it; indeed, for every ISIS, there is an ISIS).
To the contrary, sympathize with the Muslims you interact with and the Islamophobia they face, acknowledge it exists and is unjust and a social problem and that you oppose it, and that only reasoned discussion and argument should exist. To familiarize yourself with the problem, see my article “You Might Be an Islamophobe If…” But I also highly recommend you read We Spoke to a Former Jihadist About How Young People Become Radicalized by Aaron Maté at Vice. Not because you will be arguing with Islamic radicals (I doubt that would be any more productive than arguing with a white supremacist or Christian militiaman), but because it will help you understand better why most Muslims are not radicals, and what it actually is that creates radicals out of Muslims, which will temper your assumption that the Quran is some sort of dark magical talisman that turns anyone who reads it into evil, and instead aid in your ability to understand and sympathize with the non-radical Muslims you most likely will be interacting with, as they have to deal with not only this problem within their community (of the danger of radicalization, which they are also fighting, just as Christians fight against their own right wing) but also with the external Islamophobic perception that all Muslims are teetering toward radicalization and thus must be monitored with Orwellian suspicion, akin to McCarthyites spying on atheists because they are obviously all Traitorous Agents of Communist Russia. Their being on the receiving end of that puts them in a very difficult and stressful position. Recognize that.
Unusual Arguments in Defense of Islam
If you will be debating or arguing with any Muslim about the truth of their religion specifically or the existence of God generically, there are some useful things to do and know, that won’t have come up as often in your similar interactions with Christians. Note, of course, that most Christian apologists really only defend the existence of a generic God, too; rarely do their arguments actually amount to a defense of their own particular religion, and they often don’t even realize this—Muslims do the same. So a lot of what you’ll be arguing will be familiar territory. You can deploy the same exact arguments for atheism as always. Their defenses against them will be pretty much the same. And so your counters will be pretty much the same. But here are some exceptions…
Step One: Does religion actually stand on evidence and reason? Because of the particular historical and political reality of Islam today, much as if you were arguing with Christians in the 16th century, you will be in the weird position (by today’s standards) of first having to ascertain if they believe compulsion should exist in Islam (despite Quran 2:256 declaring it mustn’t…presumably). Ascertain if they believe you should be allowed to choose their faith or not, based on reason and evidence, and thus have no repercussions (neither execution nor prison nor tax nor discrimination or mistreatment of any kind). And politely ask with the assumption that they agree. If they oppose that (most won’t), then ask them how many people we must therefore conclude believe because they have to, and not because it’s actually convincing? And ask why we should debate the evidence or reasons, if we are not even allowed to choose anyway? Those debates will probably not be productive. But they will at least establish that there is no point continuing to argue with them. Instead, they will either have abandoned their position (and admit freedom of choice must exist if their religion is to have any honest claim to being true) or they will have proved they don’t respect evidence or logic, and don’t believe their religion can be defended with either (hence it requires compulsion—the last resort of the tyrant who has no actually persuasive argument to make).
When you have someone worth continuing with, because they admit freedom of religion is necessary, you will be in familiar territory if you know the history of Christian opposition to freedom of religion (from the pre-Revolutionary era to the present), and all the ways Christians seek to bypass it. For example, even today, in their effort to defend mandatory theistic pledges of allegiance, and teach their god in public schools, and bully outspoken atheists in public schools, and foster stigma against all non-Christians in an effort to exclude them from political office, etc., all of which accumulated micro-aggressions aiming to coerce people into claiming to be a Christian rather than face these obstacles. Get them to agree that these are all forms of compulsion, and as such indicate that the religion cannot actually be defended by logic and evidence. For if it could, it would have no need of any of these efforts at compulsion.
That may take some arguing. But once you get them to admit that, ask them if Islam does any of the same things. And then connect the two points: if Christianity cannot defend itself (and thus must rely on compulsion), and Islam does the same, then isn’t it the case that Islam also cannot defend itself? That it, too, requires compulsion or else few would have any sound reason to believe it? At this point you can start asking them how free they themselves actually are to leave Islam—altogether or for another religion—should evidence and reason lead them there (as it has many ex-Muslims): How would their friends, family, peers react? How would their community or society treat them? Get them to realize they aren’t as free as they think. Whether they admit it or not, that realization will haunt them for a long time. And it will make them all the more concerned to be sure their religion does stand on facts and reason alone. And that’s your starting path. And may end up being theirs. You will also have brought attention to the real psychological barriers they are going to be struggling against.
Step Two: Avoid honor attacks. It isn’t always the case, but it is often enough the case, that predominately Muslim cultures heavily preserve honor-shame systems of social dominance. Arguments that insult Mohamed are therefore not only a waste of time, they are actually almost always going to backfire, having the opposite effect you want. You will be perceived as disrespectful and only intending to humiliate and offend, rather than sincerely wanting to make a reasoned case. It does not matter whether this is a sound perception or not. It will still be the perception. And you have to avoid that perception if you want to succeed.
Accordingly, you will do far better to focus on the evidence for God. Once you get them doubting God, the rest will follow. Likewise, aim to criticize their religion respectfully by following the procedures I outlined in the first section: rather than lambaste passages in the Quran, approach questionable morals in the Quran in a questioning manner, telling them what bothers you about it, but then asking them what it means, and then asking them why they conclude that, and whether that’s what the passage was originally intended to mean (and how they know that), and so on. In other words, play Socrates: get them to “teach” you the Quran, rather than acting like you can teach them the Quran—but using questions that lead them to see on their own what might be problematic about what they are saying. In other words, walk them through their own maze. And just point out what seems to be weird about it as you go.
Step Three: Expose ignorance of history and science. Islamic apologists (even their published scholars) are often weirdly ignorant of the actual facts of history and science. When you can catch this being the case—as in, you can clearly and reliably show the facts are different than they claim or presume—definitely show this. The more so if this is a source they are relying on, a particular apologist’s website or book, as the more they start to question the reliability of their own authorities, the more they will start to think for themselves, and start to change their mind about things. Distrusting their own authorities is a crucial step to deconverting anyone from any faith tradition. So be ready with reliable online sources, e.g. TalkOrigins, and be patient with their Ken-Ham-style echoing of pseudofacts they’ve been told, but aren’t aware are false.
Beyond that, is familiarization with arguments. Islamic apologists will deploy their own unique arguments from prophecy and whatnot, just as Christians do, and there you will have the same generic tools to use on them (along the lines suggested in the first section). You won’t need specialized knowledge. You can simply deploy the “grant their premises” procedure most of the time. Again, that means, both at the prima facie level, and at the next level below that, or beyond: that is, the level of also questioning their premises, by asking them to present their sub-premises, and their argument from those to the premise you now want to question. At every step you can simply grant their premises, and analyze their own reasoning from there, until you catch them out at a generic fallacy. The same goes for any peculiar deployments they make of other generic arguments you meet with even from Christians—especially, for example their naive creationism: you can always just deal with the common generic structure, and with objective facts, and not even have to bother with anything that’s peculiarly Islamic about it.
But there are three particular arguments commonly used by Islamic apologists that you need special preparation for. There may be more. But these are the ones I have encountered myself several times interacting with Muslims:
- First is the Argument from the Scientific Miraculism of the Quran.
- Second is the Argument from Atheism Sucks.
- Third is the Argument from Islamic Presuppositionalism.
I have debated Muslims in various venues before (links below to those that remain available online). Some form of all three of these came up more than once among them.
The Argument from the Scientific Miraculism of the Quran
The claims of “miraculous” predictions of modern science in the Quran never hold up to scrutiny, of course (see RationalWiki for examples). As an actual historian of ancient science, I know of what I speak. See my first three articles in the link list at bottom for a full treatment of how to deal with these claims. Generally, they use three fallacies to get to their conclusion. They use a specious translation, which you can show simply by pointing them to multiple authorized translations (see my first section above on how to engage them further on such a tack). They get the modern science wrong, which, when you show that, destroys their argument even on their own premises. And they misstate both the availability of scientific knowledge when the Quran was written and the ease with which primitive people could guess correctly. In fact, a lot more science was known in antiquity than is assumed. But also, when the claim being made is vague, the probability of simply having guessed correctly goes way up. An actually miraculous prediction needs to be clear (it should require no dinking around with the translation), correct (it can’t contradict but must actually fully match modern science), not previously available (e.g. ancient embryology was more advanced than is often believed), and hyper-accurate (it shouldn’t be vague but have very precise numerical or other facts that can’t be guessed at). No such item exists in the Quran. Keep bringing them back to that conclusion.
The Argument from Atheism Sucks
The Argument from Atheism Sucks generally takes some form of “atheism causes depression” or “atheism causes crime” or what have you. The depression argument, and all variants thereof, are simply factually false. But they are more ardently promoted among Muslim communities than Christian (although very conservative Christian communities echo this tactic possibly just as much), so you should be ready for it. I have composed a comprehensive rebuttal you can use to the purpose: “Atheism Doesn’t Suck: How Science Does Not Prove Atheists Are Less Happy, Healthy, and Sane” and I added a follow up on “Bad Science: No, Atheism Does Not Cause Suicide.” Muslim apologists will keep digging up bad science like this, but the same points can usually be made against them. Just keep pointing out that they have been lied to by their authorities: the actual science does not support these claims at all.
The “atheism causes immorality” variant can be dismissed by its circular presumption as to what counts as immoral. Although even then one need only compare the immorality of the commandments in the Bible—which Muslims are required to believe was also the Word of God (although see advice below on how to use the NT and OT carefully in countering Islam)—with what they claim atheists are being immoral about (like the trivia of supporting consensual sex and the abortion of nonsentient fetuses) to show that they lose that comparison by a mile. As well as empirically. There is no secular humanist Iran or Boko Haram. So if anything, religion causes more immorality than atheism. Here you can even avoid the appearance of singling out Islam by mentioning that Christian terrorists and Christian police-states have also existed, that the immoral barbarity of female genital mutilation is practiced by Christians as well as Muslims, etc.
Whereas, when democratically free, the more atheistic societies are, the less they experience crime or any other markers of societal dysfunction (like poverty, STD rates, and teen pregnancy). As I listed in my article on “Problems with the Mental Illness Model of Religion”:
See Gregory Paul, “The Chronic Dependence of Popular Religiosity upon Dysfunctional Psychosociological Conditions” [Evolutionary Psychology 7.3 (2009), pp. 398-441] and “Cross-National Correlations of Quantifiable SocietalHealth with Popular Religiosity and Secularism in the Prosperous Democracies: A First Look” [Journal of Religion and Society 7 (2005)] and Gary Jensen, “Religious Cosmologies and Homicide Rates among Nations: A Closer Look” [Journal of Religion and Society 8 (2006)].
Even if the causation is from dysfunction to religiosity (and not the other way around, or bi-directional), this means religion is both caused by systemic dysfunction and fails to alleviate it, which is not indicative of an adaptation. Religion is also highly correlated with violence and physical and emotional abuse, and the suppression of the liberties and well-being of others (e.g., Avalos, in conjunction with, again, Winell, Tarico, and Heimlich).
This can only be rebutted by claiming maybe liberal religion has as much a role to play in making things better. But you can use that against them: if they admit religion must be liberalized for society to experience less crime and other social dysfunctionality, then it follows their Islamic faith must also be liberalized. You may think your objective is to get them to realize God doesn’t really exist and the whole religion is a sham, but don’t forget that shifting a conservative to a liberal is already a huge societal benefit. Just as much for Muslims as for Christians. If we could convert all Evangelicals into Episcopalians, that would be substantial progress. And frankly, it’s easier to get an Episcopalian to atheism than an Evangelical to Anglicanism. Ditto Islam.
In this I have mentioned that you can use standard Christian counter-apologetics to take down Islam by simply exposing the same flaws in the Bible you are used to…you don’t even have to bother with the Quran. Just be aware that they have answers to the argument that “debunking the OT or NT debunks Islam.” The standard response in Muslim apologetics is that the Bible has become corrupted, whereas the Quran is pure. So they can wave off anything you find wrong with the Bible, and the rest they can say the Quran contains the correct interpretation of. They therefore return the debate back to the Quran and away from the Bible. It can be difficult to get out of this circular argument. Some Quranic claims and stories are copied straight from the Bible. The virginity of Mary, for example. So these can be debunked using the same arguments and techniques you already use against Christians. You might be tempted to argue that God would not let his Bible become corrupted, but their response is that that is why God communicated the Quran, to fix that problem.
You might also be tempted to argue the Quran has corruptions, too, but without special skills and knowledge in Arabic textual criticism, that might be outside your competence, and they will use that to discredit you (as I noted earlier). Even so, it’s true. Indeed, that supposedly “amazing” find of a Quran manuscript dating all the way back to the time of Mohammed (or nearly), was of a Quran whose text does not agree with the text used and praised as miraculous by Muslims today. Bit of a problem that.
Argument from Islamic Presuppositionalism
Finally, there is the unusual variant of Islamic Presuppositionalism. Christian Presuppositionalism is farcical (see the RationalWiki and IronChariots entries). Islamic Presuppositionalism is more subtle. Of course, the Kalam Cosmological Argument is famously from Islamic apologetics (it was just popularized by the Christian apologist William Lane Craig), so becoming facile with that in your Christian counter-apologetics training will already well arm you against any Muslim deployment of it. But beyond that is a form of what I call “Evidential Presuppositionalism,” a variant of presuppositional thinking peculiar to Islamic apologists, and perhaps the strangest thing you’ll ever encounter in arguing with Muslims.
As I explain the distinction in my review of the Barker-Rajabali debate (linked below):
Traditional Presuppositionalism, advanced by several Christians today … is a logical or a priori argument. It argues that, in effect, human reason is impossible without God, therefore the atheist must either confess to being irrational or else presuppose God’s existence even to argue against it. On this argument, the nonexistence of God is impossible—unless, of course, we acknowledge that there is no such thing as reason or rational argument. Since that is a logical possibility, presuppositionalist arguments are not really valid arguments for the existence of God—even advancing evidence that reason does in fact exist does not help, since all evidence of reason may be an illusion created by our lack of rationality. Thus, presuppositionalism counts on the audience finding this possibility so personally repugnant that they would rather confess belief in God. That this is actually not a rational ground for belief-formation is an irony quite lost on presuppositionists. Of course, the argument is more gratifyingly refuted by demonstrating that no god is needed to explain the existence of reason and rationality.
Rajabali’s approach was quite different. Rather than starting with a logical, a priori position, he starts from an evidential, a posteriori position: we observe that we and the universe exist, but this is impossible without God, therefore God exists. This is a presuppositionalist argument because, according to Rajabali, it is logically impossible for this universe to exist otherwise—that is, you can never have a universe like the one we observe without a god, therefore it is impossible for God not to exist. In other words, the undeniable evidence of the senses presupposes there is a god and, therefore, atheism is absurd. Though the argument is for a logical impossibility, its premise is evidential (the universe as we observe it). Therefore I call it Evidential Presuppositionalism.
Consequently, Muslim debaters will often want the burden on you. They will insist, for example, that a debate be over the claim “God Does Not Exist,” rather than “God Exists,” because, to them, the existence of God is prima facie obvious, and therefore the burden is on the one who would deny this. The critic must therefore prove God does not exist. Rather than the Muslim having to prove God does.
This should not be confused with the Christian variant, which focuses more on the necessity of God in order for logic to exist (or mathematics or reason etc.). Although if you encounter Muslims using more components from the Christian variant, familiarity with the Christian variant will suffice to arm you. I have dealt with an evidential form of Christian presuppositionalism called the Argument from Reason, which does not operate presuppositionally, but in traditional manner (those who use the AfR argue from evidence to a conclusion; they do not presuppose anything, nor try to shift the burden of evidence onto the denier). That treatment covers all the angles you can just as easily adapt to presuppositionalism that targets math or logic (see Reppert’s Argument from Reason). I have also dealt with the Argument from Mathematics, another variant of the AfR (see All Godless Universes Are Mathematical). And the Argument from Modal Properties, which is an even more obscure variant (see Defending Naturalism as a Worldview).
But Islamic “evidential presuppositionalism” is a different animal than these. It has more in common with Ontological Arguments, including the argument that “only nothing can come from nothing,” therefore everything must come from a God (the mere fact that anything exists at all, therefore, proves God exists), and Fine Tuning or other Design Arguments, in particular the argument that such astonishing scales of natural order cannot exist without an organizing mind behind it all. Though Bayesian reasoning converts all of these into arguments against God. And it does the same for Islamic Presuppositionalism.
You can try arguing pre-debate over how to frame the debate, i.e. who has the burden of evidence, but I generally find that a distraction. In fact, it is almost designed to prevent you ever getting to any substantive point as to why belief in God is unreasonable. If you argue forever over the burden of evidence, they have successfully prevented you from ever making a case for atheism or questioning their religion at all. And in some cases, I suspect that is exactly their intent. Don’t fall for the trick. Go ahead and let them have their way: take the burden of evidence. Then show them that you win even then.
This actually destroys all forms of presuppositionalism, so it’s a useful tack to know how to carry off. Generally, you win a positive case for atheism by showing that we have hypotheses that explain every single thing they claim we “can’t explain” and that those hypotheses are either (a) already scientifically proven true, or (b) already supported by scientific evidence more than any alternative is, or (c) inherently just as likely as any supernatural alternative can claim to be, and actually in fact far more probable owing to the fact that all past cases have turned out likewise (the argument from prior probability), so we have every reason to expect this one will turn out that way, too. If they come back with something to the effect that you can’t claim your unproven speculations to be true, you simply need point out that they have just refuted themselves with that argument—for their alternatives are just as speculative and just as unproven. If not even more so (hence (a), (b), and (c)).
In Christian presuppositionalism, this generic approach requires knowing why every physical universe will obey logic and be described by mathematics and contain abstract truths, therefore one cannot argue any mind is required to be behind it for any of that to be the case. In effect, they cannot explain what a physical universe would look like that didn’t obey logic or couldn’t be described by mathematics or wouldn’t contain abstract truths. Their imagined godless alternative is impossible. Consequently, all godless universes will obey logic, be described my mathematics, and contain abstract truths. For the moment you have a godless physical universe, you logically necessarily end up with those three things anyway. There is no conceivable way they wouldn’t exist. Being able to get to that conclusion effectively in short time is the hard part and requires knowledge and practice. But familiarity with a robust and coherent naturalist worldview is an essential asset to the case, and providing that is the function intended by my book Sense and Goodness without God.
In Islamic presuppositionalism, this generic approach requires standard abilities to rebut cosmological and fine tuning arguments. And sometimes a standard anti-creationist grasp of evolution theory, as they often mistakenly use biological design arguments as evidence of order that cannot arise without a mind, a conclusion easily refuted if you know your stuff, the same stuff as you’d need to know to refute a Christian creationist. But otherwise it requires, in particular, knowing how to show that the principle “only nothing comes from nothing” is both (1) self-refuting (if there were ever truly nothing, then there could not be such a principle governing what would happen, since the existence of such a principle would be something) and (2) inapplicable (we have no evidence there was ever a state of truly nothing; there may always have been something, even if that something perpetually transforms into new and different things, or is a mere physical law governing a singular point or random sea of spacetime).
Since their position is that God’s existence is obvious upon observing the world, they are implicitly assuming there is no other way the world can exist as observed. So all one has to do is show that there is at least one other way everything they observe could exist. You don’t even have to prove that one other way is true. As long as it remains logically possible, they have to rule it out before they can rule God in. And that defeats the claim that God’s existence is undeniably obvious. It thus restores the position that, in fact, you have a lot of work to do before you can get from “the world as we observe it” to “there is a God.” The claim of obviousness is thus false. And that gets you off the track of this presuppositionalist nonsense and back into an ordinary debate over what the evidence we have renders most likely.
The Argument from Non-Imperfection
It’s worth pointing out that in conjunction with this evidential presuppositionalism is a common rebuttal tactic that you should also be prepared for. When you argue that there is “imperfection in creation” (of any kind), and that that being the case does not seem likely on the hypothesis that God created it, they will answer this by saying that there are no imperfections in creation: it is only the imperfections in us that cause us to see the world incorrectly. It won’t of course dawn on them when they say this, that this is self-refuting. We are part of the universe. If we are imperfect, then creation is imperfect, and the original point stands. It is thus not logically possible for them to rebut the existence of imperfection in the universe, by claiming an imperfection in us. And that’s before we even get to the fact that this argument is a fallacy of begging the question. Are the imperfections we see imperfections in the world or imperfections in our perception of the world? You can’t just decide arbitrarily which it is. You have to prove it’s one or the other, or that one is substantially more likely than the other. Otherwise, you can’t use this excuse to rescue God from the evidence. Same as every other ad hoc excuse you might try. The rules of probability are the same: How likely is that ad hoc excuse to be true? How do you know it’s that likely?
The same reasoning follows when they try a similar tack against the argument from evil. Islamic apologists often resort to saying that there is no evil in the world, only our misunderstanding of what the ultimate good is in everything. God knows what ultimate good will result, and we are in no position to gainsay or outthink God. This, too, is begging the question (it presumes without evidence that something is the case: that there is an ultimate good that outweighs every evil). But it is also self-refuting. If God allows no evil, and knows that everything turns out ultimately to be for the good, then there is no human evil either. And all acts we perform are righteously endorsed by God and are the best and most moral thing ever. Because God would not allow any other action to occur. Thus all evils, all lies, all murders, all genocides, all terrorism is the greatest good. And no one’s behavior can ever be questioned. Even the greatest villain is doing the greatest good with their every vile deed.
It doesn’t help to say that free will allows us to do evil against God’s will. Not only because many Muslims are determinists (some, in the same sense as early Calvinists, do not believe in free will, and thus will not have this defense available to them—so be aware of that; don’t assume you know what a Muslim’s view of free will is, or even that it’s well thought out at all), and not only because by definition no will can thwart God’s will (a difficult principle for a Muslim to abandon), and not only because if we can thwart God’s will by doing evil that has no greater good purpose to it, then God does allow evil, thus refuting the claim that he allows no evil. No, not just those are problems fatal to the theory. But also the simple fact that: if there can be secret goods to all natural evils, such that natural evils do not exist and every apparent natural evil is in fact the greatest good, then there can be secret goods to all human evils, such that human evils do not exist and every apparent human evil is in fact the greatest good. That is, as soon as you admit the one can be the case, you can no longer deny the other is the case. The evidence for either is the same. So if the evidence you have for all natural evils being secretly the greatest goods is exactly the same as the evidence you have for all human evils being secretly the greatest goods, then if you accept the evidence in the one case, you must accept it in the other. Therefore, any Muslim who uses the one argument, is stuck having to accept the other argument. They can’t arbitrarily pick and choose. That would be the fallacy of special pleading.
They could perhaps bite that bullet and argue that indeed no one can ever argue that anything is evil, not even any human action can ever be condemned as bad, as everything that happens is what God wants, and we should always praise and approve what God wants. But then ask them if they really think that’s a sensible bullet to bite. Because you will have just proved they can never morally judge or condemn any action ever. Not even their own murder. And certainly not the behavior of atheists. Atheists cannot ever be doing anything immoral, if God allows nothing immoral to be done, and everything secretly is fully in line with God’s will—and who are we to question God’s will, or outthink his design? It’s a scary thought. Yet it’s what this reasoning entails. Argumentum ad absurdum.
Of course, this would then ultimately turn to the question of probability: Is this assumption that every evil is actually secretly good even probable? In either case (natural or human evils), the answer is no. Is there any evidence for it as a universal generalization? That is, any evidence that it is the case that every evil entails a justifying greater good such that no better course of events could ever have been engineered? Certainly, no. Much less such a peculiar good that would always render impossible our knowing or being told what it was. Therefore, just as there is no evidence for such peculiar goods, neither is there any evidence for such a God. And without evidence for such a God, the evidence of evil remains evidence against there being any God.
This is, again, just another example of adding an undefended, unevidenced, ad hoc excuse for God, designed to explain why God would make and leave the universe to look exactly 100% like a universe with no God in it. An excuse, in this case, that is not just 50/50 as to whether it might be true or not, but extraordinarily unlikely to be true, owing to the vast complexity of facts it requires us to presuppose, in order for every evil to be not only guaranteed to lead to a justifying greater good, but for there to be no other sequence of events imaginable that would have been better, nor any way for us to know or be told about it. Such astounding complexity is mind-boggling. To have to presuppose it just to save your God from the evidence, is pretty much a decisive demonstration of the indefensibility of your belief.
I have met several ex-Muslims in my travels who have told me that they left the faith because of my writing. And it was never because of any of my writing on Islam or any of my online debates with Muslims. This is an informative fact. One account will illustrate what I mean.
I was at a friend’s party once discussing theology with an atheist in attendance, with his wife listening in. About halfway through our discussion, she interrupted, with a surprised question, “Wait, are you Richard Carrier?” I said, perplexed, “Uh, yes. What do you mean?” She asked in particular whether I was the Richard Carrier, atheist writer for the Secular Web. I confirmed I was. She then told me I made her an atheist. And also inspired her to escape Saudi Arabia and start a life in America (she is now a lawyer here). I was astonished. How could that be? She told me. In Saudi Arabia the rules for women in public are so arduous that there is an enormous incentive never to even bother going out. So what women usually end up doing there is staying home and surfing the web. Though that totalitarian state blocks all anti-Islam websites and pages, it didn’t block anti-Christian ones. And, as she elegantly put it, an argument against God is an argument against God. She read all my anti-Christian counter-apologetics online, and realized this whole God business was hogwash. The rest was history.
This of course says a lot for the power of the internet to globally transform the world. There are shepherds in the hills of Afghanistan with access to the internet these days. Access to the internet is commonplace in African countries like Kenya. Though language remains a barrier, English is increasingly spread as the language of trade and commerce (and of self-education). People all over the earth are well aware that the internet is empowering if you can read it’s most predominant language. And that is having an effect. But the more important lesson this story has for us (and it’s not the only such account I’ve met with) is that counter-apologetics doesn’t even have to be Islamically oriented. An argument against God is an argument against God. Never forget that. You can do a lot by not falling into the trap of bickering over the translation of a word in the Quran, when you could just be cutting to the chase of universal questions of logic and evidence.
In her case, the epiphany was pretty thorough. In others, it will take a long period of evolution. We know this from ex-Christian and ex-Muslim accounts of their deconversions: for some, it’s a sudden insight that collapses their faith all at once (albeit still only after long acquaintance and wrestling with challenges to their belief—no one reconverts from a single conversation; hardly anyone within a single year); but for others, it’s a long drawn out process of moving first from fundamentalist to a merely conservative Christian (who admits there are errors in the Bible, for example), then from conservative Christian to liberal Christian, then from liberal Christian to some sort of deist or vaguely spiritual person, then from there to agnostic, and even that for a while, before admitting, yeah, actually, “I’m an atheist.” Hopefully somewhere along the way they get a good suite of humanism software installed so they don’t become an awful person. But such a long pathway in stages, often over many years, is not uncommon.
Islam shows the same dynamic. That means, expect many Muslims to be movable along the continuum of stages more easily than directly to atheism. Just as is the case for many Christians. Be aware that that is often an easier objective to shoot for. So, remember, arguing directly for atheism may be less effective with some people than arguing for a liberalized Islam instead. What makes the difference from Christianity is Islamophobia, which hardens and radicalizes a population. It’s much harder to liberalize someone who is under constant bigoted abuse, suspicion, prejudice, and mistreatment. But also, most Muslims are still in the third world, or only just escaped it barely a generation ago. Polled Muslim populations in Western countries are disproportionately recent immigrants. Social models based on past cases argue that it takes three generations to fully assimilate to a surrounding culture. It is thus often the “third generation” immigrant who is more open and more free to move left on the spectrum toward liberalization or even outright escape from their religion. It is thus extremely helpful to know who you are interacting with, and who is observing that interaction: Muslims in the third world? Muslims only just immigrated to the first world? The children of same? Or their children’s children? Because how to most effectively influence each, will differ, with every stage.
My writings on Islam (as of 2015) that may be of use for further study: