Atheism or Belief – Discussion Highlights
The Real Dialogue Event – 1st April, 2015
Dr. Arif Ahmed: I think that there are various sources of evidence that Ayyaz mentioned. There was the existence of testimony, the existence of worldwide belief in a more or less common deity, the existence of prophecy and he also mentioned personal experience. So there were at least those four categories; but you’re right, he focused to a large extent on prophecy and I do want to say a bit about that. In the case of the prophecy of Muhammad[sa], he foresaw the bus for instance and the airplane and so on. One thing I would say is that we have to ask whether any such prophecies also exist in the secular world, by people who were clearly not divinely inspired. Let’s say, to take an example almost completely at random, Democritus, hundreds of years before Christ, and the atomic hypothesis to which it took us 2500 hundred years to verify. Somebody might say that he could have had no way at all of knowing about that, had he not been divinely inspired. But of course Democritus took a very sensible view of these things and would be the last person to claim to be thus inspired.
Another example might be Leonardo Da Vinci, who not only foresaw, but actually designed in great detail for instance, helicopters and parachutes and various other things. I mean, it wasn’t that he just said, “Oh it uses fire and it’s got something going round on the top”, he drew in detail exactly how the helicopter or parachute is supposed to work. If Muhammad[sa] came up with something like that – if instead of saying “it eats fire”, he’d said “it’s got a carburetor and this is what it looks like” – that would’ve been impressive. In the case of the other prophecy concerning the First World War, I was sort of thinking to myself whether there was any period in the 19th century or early 20th century, during which it would’ve been false to say that a big war is coming that’s going to destroy an empire and there’s going to be rivers of blood. So for instance, anybody who would’ve said that between 1776 and 1789, somebody could interpret that as having been about the American Revolution and the ultimate collapse of the British Empire that happened much later. Anybody who said it between 1789 and 1815 or any period before that, could’ve been referring to the French revolution, the subsequent wars and the collapse of the entire European order during that period. Anybody who would’ve said it in the years leading up to 1848 would’ve been referring to a huge variety of things that we all know about. Anybody who said it up to 1860s, could’ve been talking about the American Civil War; up to 1870, could’ve been talking about the Franco-Prussia War on the birth of the new empire, and then we’ve got the First World War and the Second World War and so on. So, it would be quite hard to find periods in which a prophecy delivered with the sort of level of vagueness that the initial parts of it were delivered with, would be false.
On the specific things that you mentioned, the issue is not as though Russia was some kind of place of peace and stability in 1905. They just had a big war with Japan as I recall, and there had been anarchist stirrings for quite a while before that in the late 19th century. So it’s not as though, of all the powerful countries of the world: Britain, Prussia, Russia, the United States and China; Russia would’ve been the last place you would’ve expected to last, perhaps. The next thing concerning the sudden occurrence of the First World War is, there was a build up to the First World War for a long period before 1914. It’s true that there was a spark and let us just say one event that started it, but you could say just about any war was started with some occasion and if it hadn’t been that it would’ve been something else that would. All the great power rivalries that had been going on ever since the late 19th century that everyone knew about, meant it wouldn’t have taken a great deal of insight or acumen to predict that there was going to be some sort of war arising out of that. And again as with Muhammad[sa], if he’d really wanted people to believe that he was divinely inspired, surely the sensible thing to do would’ve been to say, “There will be a revolution in Russia in October 1917 and the Tsar and his family will be killed in Ekatringburg, such and such number of months later by the Bolsheviks.” That would’ve been impressive; again, as it is, not so much. Putting it in terms of the criterion that I mentioned, we have to ask how likely is it that we would’ve observed these things if they had been divinely inspired, and how likely is it that we would’ve observed these things if they hadn’t been divinely inspired. My claim is that given the relative non-specificity and the relative ease with which a divinely inspired person could’ve been much, much more specific, I think that the nature of these prophecies is such that they actually speak against the divine origin of them.
Catrin Nye: Ayyaz do you want to respond, why are they so vague, why don’t we have these specifics?
Ayyaz Mahmood Khan: Well, I can see that perhaps if the Prophetsa of Islam had said that a time would come when there would be an airplane and it would have engines fitted to its wings made by Rolls Royce, and they would take off from London Heathrow Airport and land at Dubai International, and go to other airports of the world and the companies that would use them would be KLM, Singapore Airlines and something else, that would be really specific, right? But we have to take into account that these words were not present in the vocabulary at the time. I mean, there’s no such word for the combustion engine because there was no combustion engine. There were no such words in the Arabic idiom to describe these things with such specificity. So what the Prophetsa of Islam did, was describe them as best as he could with the language that was available to him. The donkey is definitely representative of a form of transport and the other aspects of the prophecy which have been mentioned are pretty specific.
Let’s say if we talk about World War I being predictable and anyone with astute political acumen being able to come up with these predictions. I’ve read the historical account around that era and many historians say that World War I was very unpredictable. Some historians have even written (I can show you the references, it’s not a problem) that until June or July of 1914, World War I was not as imminent as many people have said. When hostilities broke out, many people were genuinely shocked and historians even write that it could’ve been solved. It was not something which was a long way coming.
The Russo-Japanese war and the state of the Tsar, that’s also a valid point; I mean if there was enough evidence for someone to gauge that the Tsar is starting to move his position of stability and it’s looking like he’s going to be in big trouble soon, and then he prophesied, that would not be too special, no doubt I agree with you. But we need to take into account that that’s not the only thing which is mentioned; the prophecy states that there would be a global calamity, it would be sparked suddenly, there would be a very large amount of bloodshed as a result of these hostilities, there would be aerial warfare, and the relieving of the children of Israel, all of which is pretty specific. Indeed it did happen in conjunction to the war, and then on top of that, he says this with all of these various individual constituents being fulfilled together. Another way that you can identify whether the event is the event that I’m talking about, is that as a result of that war the Tsar would also crumble. Now, if the Tsar prophecy was fulfilled a day after the end of World War I, he would be proven false and I would agree that that prophecy would be false, but the fact that all of these individual constituents took place together demonstrates that it wasn’t just simple guesswork.
Question: This question is to Ayyaz. You’ve said that what would falsify religion for you would be a prophecy that was false. What to your mind would be the difference between a false prophecy and a prophecy that had yet to be fulfilled? Isn’t it always going to be impossible to say a prophecy is false, because you could say next year it may happen? When the prophet that you spoke about in 1905 made all these predictions, in 1906 were they false? In 1907 were they false? You say wait and then in 1908 you say here’s an event. But isn’t that always going to be the case that with any prophecy, you’re just waiting for an event that’s going to match it?
Ayyaz Mahmood Khan: That’s a very good question. You’re right; if the whole corpus, the whole lot, the whole collection of prophecies were such that the only prophecies that I had were such which haven’t been fulfilled yet then that wouldn’t be real evidence in favour of my case. But prophets don’t just come and make a single prophecy. They come and make many, many prophecies and you will find that you have to test the number of prophecies which have already been fulfilled and that demonstrates the existence of God. If a claimant of prophethood came and said “I’ve made 1000 prophecies but just keep waiting, they’ll be fulfilled maybe next year, or maybe a year after”, that then wouldn’t be any true evidence for the truthfulness of his claim. But when a prophet comes and makes so many various prophecies and many of them are fulfilled, even in the lifetime of the prophet, you will find that also is very good evidence for the existence of God. If the entire basis of my claim was only on prophecies which have yet to be fulfilled, then you would be 100% correct and that wouldn’t be real evidence. But, there are many, many examples of prophecies which are fulfilled, and which are fulfilled in the time of the Prophet of God, which are fulfilled after his demise, which are fulfilled in coming ages and then continue to be fulfilled. So, we have to judge the prophecies that we do have and which are fulfilled, and that demonstrates the existence of God.
Catrin Nye: Does the fact that you have a very specific prophet to follow and that most people of faith choose another faith, does that discount other people of faith?
Ayyaz Mahmood Khan: As a Muslim my religious belief in Islam can only be complete when I accept every single prophet that preceded. We don’t pick and choose one over the other and say “I believe in this one but that other one was false.” That would not be a correct way of going about making a decision. As a Muslim I believe, and the Qur’an teaches this, that in order for my faith to be complete, in order for my religious belief to be complete and acceptable by God, I have to believe in every single prophet of God who came before as well, and that’s a very beautiful teaching of universality. It’s something which is at odds with sectarianism. We accept that all prophets are truthful, because they all come from the same source, bringing the same message for different times.
Catrin Nye: Arguing for belief, do you then argue that people who don’t accept your version of the belief are wrong and that someone who doesn’t accept all those prophets that you think are necessary for your belief is wrong?
Ayyaz Mahmood Khan: Well, I have the right to believe that my concept and my belief is right. However I don’t go about throwing statements on other people and their infidelity, and telling them that they’re hell-bound, because that’s not my job to do. I’m really happy that the belief in Islam that I hold and the Qur’an that I believe in, teaches me that I’m not to go about passing statements on certain individuals; that just because you don’t believe my concept of Islam therefore you’re going to hell. I believe in a God that is the God of everybody and He treats all of us like His children and it’s for God to decide who is going to get a place in His pleasure and displeasure. I know many atheists who are perfectly, wonderfully nice people; Arif is a really nice person! That’s not a sarcastic comment, I genuinely believe it. There are many people who are very nice and moral. More moral than certain people who claim to be religious and I appreciate that, but to say that a certain person is hell-bound over the other, that’s not my job, and I never make statements like that. And no religious believer should.
Catrin Nye: You may not want to make the statement but do you believe those out of your faith or not of faith at all won’t get the same place in heaven as you?
Ayyaz Mahmood Khan: I do believe that an individual who isn’t Muslim, if God knows his heart to be sincere and truthful, will also have a place in heaven even if he’s an atheist [gasps from the audience] And the reason I say that is because, once again, I say that I believe in a universal God. Perhaps, a person who is an atheist is a very moral person and has done a great deal of good deeds and Allah desires to reward him for that and I believe that God has the right to do that. It’s not my job to go around passing fatwas on people and I don’t.
It looks like that last answer was pretty shocking for people, “An atheist in heaven!” I genuinely believe that…God knows the goodness of everyone’s heart and He decides, not me or some other Maulvi or Clergyman.
Question: Could I ask about the problem of evil because the problem of evil contradicts the attributes of God. Would you say this is evidence for there not being a God?
Dr. Arif Ahmed: Yes. (Silence, laughter) The argument is sometimes presented as a logical argument, that is to say that God is logically inconsistent with the evil that we observe in the world around us. I didn’t present it in that way because one of the attributes that’s involved in that argument is omnipotence. I didn’t want to assume God was completely omnipotent, but simply that He was very powerful and powerful enough to create the universe. I would’ve thought such a God would have within His power to stop at least one of the African children who died from malaria, from dying from malaria and I can’t see what possible good the death of that child could have done.
Ayyaz Mahmood Khan: It is definitely a question which agitates many minds and it’s a good question. You mention malaria for example, I remember I had malaria; I went to Africa a couple of years ago and I was bed-ridden and it was the worst experience of my life, but thankfully I survived because there was medical help available to me. Now, that isn’t the case with many of the other children who die every year of malaria. There is suffering in the world I agree, but much of the suffering can be removed if humanity plays a larger part in alleviating the suffering of those people. There is enough money in the world, there is enough power for all of the great superpowers, who take so much pride in their power and their money, to make sure that medicine is available to those who are less fortunate. But the fact is that they couldn’t care less and that’s the tragedy. Much of the suffering that we see in the world is man-made. We have enough food to go around so that there would be no poverty; I’m not an expert of economics but I understand that in order to keep the supply-demand chain low, thousands of tons of wheat and food is burned or thrown into the ocean that could go around and remove a lot of suffering but unfortunately it doesn’t.
Catrin Nye: Why does God allow it (suffering)?
Ayyaz Mahmood Khan: Why does God allow it? Okay. Let’s take God out of the equation. Would suffering come to an end? We’d still have suffering whether God was there or not so the existence of suffering does not disprove the existence of God. At most, what it proves is that if there is a God then He’s pretty cruel, but I mentioned that much of the suffering is man-made and suffering isn’t in itself an independent entity. Suffering is a result of being able to perceive pleasure. In order for us to experience pleasure we must have an equal degree of perception to suffering. It’s like there’s no such thing as dark, it’s just the absence of light but let’s look at it from another aspect. For many people, the loss of their child is the worst thing that could possibly happen to them and the reason for that is because they take an equal amount of pleasure in that child being in their life. So, the more you experience pleasure for something, the loss of that is that much worse. For many people today if we walk out of our home and forget our iPhone, it feels like an immense degree of suffering because I can’t live without my iPhone and that’s the case for many people! Thousands of years ago, they couldn’t really care less if they had their iPhones or not, so suffering is also a relative thing too which changes as time goes on.
Catrin Nye: Arif did you want to respond to that?
Dr. Arif Ahmed: Yeah just briefly. I agree that a good deal of suffering is man-made but I think a good deal of it also isn’t. And it stands as a strong argument whose evidential force remains, in my view, as strong as ever against the benevolence of this supposed Creator.
Catrin Nye: What do you mean by that; that a great deal of suffering isn’t man-made?
Dr. Arif Ahmed: Let’s take Ebola for instance, which causes people a horrible death. Why is there a disease which causes death in a way that’s quite so bad? It could’ve been very different. Things could’ve been very different, and it’s not man-made that Ebola is so bad. It’s just a matter of nature, so what possible necessity is there for us, because someone might say evil is man-made, that’s a necessary evil because it gives us free will. But the point is that there are gratuitous natural ills that couldn’t possibly contribute to free-will which still exist, and which are just what you would expect to exist if the world was indeed the kind of chaotic place that atheists think it is.
Question for Dr. Arif Ahmed: Thanks for the excellent talk and the organisers for this event. A lot of theists put forward sort of their own personal level; their acceptance of prayers to their friends, as being a proof of God but of course that’s a bit subjective. Do you think the acceptance of prayer could be a sort of objective measure of whether God exists and whether that could ever be an acceptable form of evidence?
Dr. Arif Ahmed: I can see in principle how it might be the case that prayer or the efficacy of prayer could be tested. You could test it by double blind trials and so on; here’s one group that gets chemotherapy and another group gets prayer and see which one has the higher mortality rate. If it turned out that as a matter of fact the people who avoid chemotherapy because they think prayer works, all end up surviving cancer and the ones who get chemotherapy most of them don’t, that would be good reason to show that prayer was efficacious. Now even that, of course, wouldn’t show that there was divine agency behind prayer. It might show some other kind of effects including psychological or neurological. So I suppose there are two parts; the first part is I can certainly imagine there being evidence that prayer works, though I don’t think there is any such evidence, and the second thing is that even if that evidence were realised there would be plenty of hypotheses that are not religious that would also be competitive.
Ayyaz Mahmood Khan: I believe in a spiritual leader who has a divine connection with God and his prayers are answered. I would be willing to, through his blessings, undertake a test of that nature, by having many, many people, and it’s not the first time that I’d be doing it, even the Founder of our Community proposed this test. He said that bring 1000 ill people on one end and 1000 on the other end; one group is prayed for and the other is not. They shouldn’t know that someone is praying for them and we’ll test and see where the mortality rate is higher and lower, but nobody took him up on his challenge. I’d be willing to do that.
Heckler: Do you want me to tell you the research?
Ayaz Mahmood Khan: Sure! I’ll do it if you like. I’d be willing to do that experiment through us.
Heckler: Prayer is harmful. It actually harms your recovery.
Ayaz Mahmood Khan: I’d be willing to do that experiment through us, so bring them! I’d be willing to undertake a sample test of praying and I would demonstrate that our prayers, and the prayers of our community, would definitely have an effect. I can’t change that if you’re not interested but the offer is there.
Ayyaz Mahmood Khan: I believe that the only form of evidence for the existence of something is not material and you [Arif] agree with that. There are other means of testing the truthfulness of something so I would be happy to demonstrate that the power of my prayers and our prayers of the community are accepted and if God does exist, then it’s a journey that everyone has to take for themselves and if they’re interested in that journey then great and if they’re not then that’s their decision.
Dr. Arif Ahmed: The first thing I want to say is to emphasise there are many important matters, perhaps more important than the one we’re looking at today. I agree with Ayyaz. I think his own religion [The Ahmadiyya Muslim Community in Islam] has almost none of the defects of every other religion. That is, it emphasises tolerance and it emphasises non-violence and persuasive and rational means of bringing people to religion and it is relatively free of many of the other vices that most religions have, including for instance Christianity. The one defect that it shares is falsity, and that was the one that we were talking about today. It seems to me still that there is strong evidence that this religion, like any other, is false. That for any religion and indeed for many cults as well, you could cite supposed prophecies of one sort or another, which could be described as having been fulfilled in such and such ways, that there’s empirical evidence of the sort mentioned just now against some of the central articles of this belief. The last thing I’d say is that look into your own hearts and ask yourselves, “Do I really believe it because I want to believe it or do I really believe because that’s where the evidence compels me?” You should all ask yourselves that question. Thanks!