Richard Dawkins. Photograph: Getty Images
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Mehdi Hasan vs Richard Dawkins: My faith in God is not foolish

God is the best answer to “why is there something rather than nothing?”

‘‘You believe that Muhammad went to heaven on a winged horse?” That was the question posed to me by none other than Richard Dawkins a few weeks ago, in front of a 400-strong audience at the Oxford Union. I was supposed to be interviewing him for al-Jazeera but the world’s best-known atheist decided to turn the tables on me.

So what did I do? I confessed. Yes, I believe in prophets and miracles. Oh, and I believe in God, too. Shame on me, eh? Faith, in the disdainful eyes of the atheist, is irredeemably irrational; to have faith, as Dawkins put it to me, is to have “belief in something without evidence”. This, however, is sheer nonsense. Are we seriously expected to believe that the likes of Descartes, Kierkegaard, Hegel, Rousseau, Leibniz and Locke were all unthinking or irrational idiots?

In trying to disparage “faith”, Dawkins and his allies constantly confuse “evidence” with “proof”; those of us who believe in God do so without proof but not without evidence. As the Oxford theologian (and biophysicist) Alister McGrath has observed: “Our beliefs may be shown to be justifiable, without thereby demonstrating that they are proven.”

The science bit

Those atheists who harangue us theists for our supposed lack of evidence should consider three things. First, it may be a tired cliché but it is nonetheless correct: absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. I can’t prove God but you can’t disprove him. The only non-faith-based position is that of the agnostic.

Second, there are plenty of things that cannot be scientifically tested or proven but that we believe to be true, reasonable, obvious even. Which of these four pretty uncontroversial statements is scientifically testable? 1) Your spouse loves you. 2) The Taj Mahal is beautiful. 3) There are conscious minds other than your own. 4) The Nazis were evil.

This isn’t just about metaphysics, aesthetics or ethics: science itself is permeated with unproven (and unprovable) theories. Take the socalled multiverse hypothesis. “It says there are billions and billions of universes, all of which have different settings of their fundamental constants,” Dawkins explained to a member of the audience in Oxford. “A tiny minority of those billions and billions of universes have their constants set in such a way as to give rise to a universe that lasts long enough to give rise to galaxies, stars, planets, chemistry and hence the process of evolution...”

Hmm. A nice idea, but where’s your evidence, Richard? How do we “prove” that these “billions and billions” of universes exist? “The multiverse theory may be dressed up in scientific language,” the cosmologist Paul Davies has admitted, “but in essence it requires the same leap of faith [as God].”

Third, there are plenty of good, rational and evidence-based arguments for God. You don’t have to agree with them, but it is intellectually dishonest to claim that they, too, like God, don’t exist.

Take the Kalam cosmological argument – first outlined by the medieval Muslim theologian al-Ghazali, and nowadays formulated by the Christian philosopher William Lane Craig as follows:

1) Whatever begins to exist has a cause.
2) The universe began to exist.
3) Therefore, the universe has a cause.

Whether you agree with it or not, it is a valid deductive argument, a genuine appeal to reason and logic.

Or how about the argument that says the universe, in Davies’s words, “is in several respects ‘fine-tuned’ for life”? Remember, the late Antony Flew, the atheist philosopher who embraced God in 2004, did so after coming to the conclusion that “there had to be an in - telligence behind the integrated complexity of the physical universe”. To pretend that Flew, of all people, arrived at such a belief blindly, without thinking it through, “without evidence”, is plain silly.

For Muslims such as me, faith (iman) and reason (aql) go hand in hand. The Quran stresses the importance of using science, logic and reason as tools for discovering God. “Will you not then use your reason?” it asks, again and again. But hasn’t the theory of evolution undermined Islam? asks the atheist. A few years ago, Dawkins accused British Muslims of “importing creationism into this country”. He has a point. These days, the vast majority of my coreligionists see Darwin as the devil.

Yet this is a new phenomenon. Many of Islamic history’s greatest scholars and thinkers were evolutionists; the 19th-century scientist John William Draper, a contemporary of Darwin, referred to the latter’s views as “the Muhammadan theory of evolution”. As I pointed out on these pages back in January, “one of the earliest theories of natural selection was developed by the 9th-century Iraqi zoologist (and Islamic theologian) al-Jahiz, 1,000 years before Charles Darwin”. And almost 500 years before the publication of On the Origin of Species, the acclaimed Arab philosopher Ibn Khaldun wrote his Muqaddimah, in which he documented how “the animal world then widens, its species become numerous . . . the higher stage of man is reached from the world of the monkeys...”

Stages of man

There is, indeed, nothing in the Quran that prevents Muslims from embracing evolution. In his recent book Reading the Quran, the Muslim commentator Ziauddin Sardar notes how creation is presented “as a dynamic, on - going phenomenon that is constantly evolving and changing”. Sardar points to verse 14 of chapter 71, where “we are specifically asked to reflect on the fact that ‘He has created you stage by stage’ ”.

Yet the theory of evolution, whether Muslims accept it or not, doesn’t explain the origins of the universe, the laws of science or our objective moral values. In short, most of us who believe in God do so not because we are irrational, incurious or immature but because He is the best answer to the question posed by Leibniz more than 300 years ago: “Why is there something rather than nothing?”

Mehdi Hasan is political director of the Huffington Post UK and a contributing writer for the New Statesman. His interview with Richard Dawkins was broadcast on al-Jazeera English on 22 December and can be watched here. This article is crossposted with the Huffington Post here

Update 24/12/2012 16:00 In the antepenultimate paragraph, the verse pointed to by Sardar was mistakenly named as "verse 71 of chapter 14". This has now been updated to "verse 14 of chapter 71".

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

This article first appeared in the 24 December 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Brian Cox and Robin Ince guest edit

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In focusing on the famous few, we risk doing a disservice to all victims of child sexual abuse

There is a danger that we make it harder, not easier, for victims to come forward in future. 

Back in the 1970s when relations between journalists and police were somewhat different to today a simple ritual would be carried out around the country at various times throughout the week.

Reporters, eager for information for their regional newspaper, would take a trip to the local station and there would be met by a desk sergeant who would helpfully skim through details in the crime Incident Book.

Among the entries about petty thefts, burglaries and road accidents there would occasionally be a reference to an allegation of incest. And at this point the sergeant and journalist might well screw-up their faces, shake their heads and swiftly move on to the next log. The subject was basically taboo, seen as something ‘a bit mucky,’ not what was wanted in a family newspaper.

And that’s really the way things stayed until 1986 when ChildLine was set up by Dame Esther Rantzen in the wake of a BBC programme about child abuse. For the first time children felt able to speak out about being sexually assaulted by the very adults whose role in life was to protect them.

And for the first time the picture became clear about what incest really meant in many cases. It wasn’t simply a low level crime to be swept under the carpet in case it scratched people’s sensitivities. It frequently involved children being abused by members of their close family, repeatedly, over many years.

Slowly but surely as the years rolled on the NSPCC continued to press the message about the prevalence of child sexual abuse, while encouraging victims to come forward. During this time the corrosive effects of this most insidious crime have been painfully detailed by many of those whose lives have been derailed by it. And of course the details of the hundreds of opportunistic sexual assaults committed by Jimmy Savile have been indelibly branded onto the nation’s consciousness.

It’s been a long road - particularly for those who were raped or otherwise abused as children and are now well into their later years - to bring society around to accepting that this is not to be treated as a dark secret that we really don’t want to expose to daylight. Many of those who called our helpline during the early days of the Savile investigation had never told anyone about the traumatic events of their childhoods despite the fact they had reached retirement age.

So, having buried the taboo, we seem to be in danger of giving it the kiss of life with the way some cases of alleged abuse are now being perceived.

It’s quite right that all claims of sexual assault should be investigated, tested and, where there is a case, pursued through the judicial system. No one is above the law, whether a ‘celebrity’ or a lord.

But we seem to have lost a sense of perspective when it comes to these crimes with vast resources being allocated to a handful of cases while many thousands of reported incidents are virtually on hold.

The police should never have to apologise for investigating crimes and following leads. However, if allegations are false or cannot be substantiated they should say so. This would be a strength not a weakness.

It is, of course, difficult that in many of the high-profile cases of recent times the identities of those under investigation have not been officially released by the police but have come to light through other means. Yet we have to deal with the world as it is not as we wish it would be and once names are common knowledge the results of the investigations centring on them should be made public.

When it emerges that someone in the public eye is being investigated for non-recent child abuse it obviously stirs the interest of the media whose appetite can be insatiable. This puts pressure on the police who don’t want to repeat the mistakes of the past by allowing offenders to slip through their hands.  And so there is a danger, as has been seen in recent cases, that officers lack confidence in declaring there is a lack of evidence or the allegations are not true. 

The disproportionate weight of media attention given to say, Sir Edward Heath, as opposed to the Bradford grooming gang sentenced this week, shows there is a danger the pendulum is swinging too far the other way. This threatens the painstaking work invested in ensuring the public and our institutions recognise child abuse as a very real danger. 

Whilst high profile cases have helped the cause there is now a real risk that the all-encompassing focus on them does both victims of abuse and those advocating on their behalf a fundamental disservice.

As the public watches high -profile cases collapsing amidst a media fanfare genuine convictions made across the country week in week out go virtually unannounced. If this trend continues they may start to believe that child sexual abuse isn’t the prolific problem we know it to be.

So, while detectives peer into the mists of time, searching for long lost clues, we have to face the unpalatable possibility that offences being committed today will in turn only be investigated fully in years or decades' time because there is not the manpower to deal with them right now.

So, now the Goddard Inquiry is in full swing, taking evidence about allegations of child sex crimes involving ‘well known people’ as well as institutional abuse, how do we ensure we don’t fail today’s victims?

If they start to think their stories are going to be diminished by the continuing furore over how some senior public figures have been treated by the police they will stay silent. Therefore we have to continue to encourage them to come forward, to give them the confidence of knowing they will be listened to.

If we don’t we will find ourselves back in those incestuous days where people conspired to say and do nothing to prevent child abuse.

Peter Wanless is Chief Executive of the NSPCC.