Historical Narratives Affect our Views

When I was in high school, I used to take classes on “World Civilizations”. What that really meant was that we studied a detailed history of Western Europe, such as the wars between the French, English and Spain, a history of Rome, an overview of the Greeks, the splits within the Church, and other uniquely Western European lessons. The few times we looked into other parts of the world, it was Egypt under the Pharaohs, maybe China and parts of South America where (again, related to Europe) the Spanish explorers had colonized the land.

Perhaps the course was misnamed. Why is this a big deal? While this seems trivial, one’s view of the historical narrative profoundly affects the conclusions that one derives thereof. And though these conclusions are solely dependent on what part of the world you study, our ignorance leads us to believe that these conclusions are objective and true. Perhaps the most vehemently defended example of this is the separation of “Church and State”, which was codified in the Establishment Clause of the constitution. Consider the following historical narratives and the conclusions that are drawn from it:

During the European “Dark Ages”, the papacy held considerable authority over state affairs. This time was strongly correlated with the worst social problems Europe had ever seen. To list a few, widespread poverty, disease, illiteracy, opposition to scientific inquiry, persecution of the Jews, and many others. Continued scientific development was perceived as hostile to Biblical interpretation of reality and violently opposed. The Dark Ages are regarded as the worst period for Europe. This era was succeeded by the Renaissance, a time when government and intellectual thought were secularized. This was correlated with the greatest advancements and achievements that Europe had seen in the fields of economics, art, science, medicine, and others.

Those who study exclusively Western History might conclude that state-law directed by a religion stunted human development. Conversely, secular governments leads to economic, social and scientific progress. Therefore, it behooves a people to opt for a secular government over one led by a religious institution. In other words, as we Americans call it, the “Separation of Church and State”. Religion is strictly a personal matter. Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s. (Mark 12:17)

Now compare this to the Muslim historic experience. When Muslims applied Islamic law to the state, this was correlated with the greatest era of Islamic rule, nostalgically referred to as the “Golden Age of Islam“. Muslims excelled in all areas of human intellectual endeavor, such as philosophy, science and medicine. Islamic intellectual thought never perceived continued scientific developments as conflicting with Islamic belief. Instead, they were an explanation of the way God acts in the universe. This is in sharp contrast to recent developments in the Muslim world, where Islamic law has been replaced with secularism. (It is a wide-spread myth that Muslim-dominated countries adhere to Islamic law. Anyone who has even basic knowledge of Islamic legal principles would immediately recognize that literally all Muslim-majority states are secularist. At best, only some token aspects of the society implement Islamic law ). And in complete opposition to the European experience, the Muslims are now going through their dark ages, with economic stagnation, oppression of women, wars, corruption and countless other social problems.

If this was your historic narrative, you might conclude that the implementation of religious law leads to human progress and success. Therefore, it behooves us to implement religious law in the state. Conversely, secularism is correlated with societal degeneration.

The conclusions of the West and the Muslim world are diametrically opposed, not because one is objectively correct and the other is objectively wrong. The real difference lays in their historical experiences. Unfortunately, we Americans and Westerners in general (of which I am unapologetically one) are profoundly ignorant of the history of other parts of the world. Things we take for granted stem from our uniquely Western historical experience. If we take the time to educate ourselves about the rest of the world regarding their differing presumptions and unique historical narratives, we will gain a better appreciation of why others are the way they are, or even come to question concepts we take for granted.

The above is not only true regarding historical matters, it is also true regarding all aspects of the human experience, such as philosophy, economics, gender dynamics, religion, and more…

Comments? Thoughts?

Extraordinary Claims Require Extraordinary Evidence

“Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence”

This quote was popularized by Carl Sagan, the astronomer, educator, physicist and skeptical philosopher. His quote is used by many atheists to reject the belief in God. They argue that the claim of the existence of God is so grand that any evidence to support this claim must be equally grand. In this short essay, I will explain why this statement is not only grossly subjective, but in reality the claim that there is no God is more difficult to prove than the claim that there is one.

What is an extraordinary claim?

Really, how do you define what that means? What one defines as extraordinary another might define as ordinary, and vice versa.

For example, I personally know people who consider it common-place to see visions holy men of the past. Not only do they experience these visions on a regular basis, their fellow community members also experience these apparitions. (And for the record, these are sane, educated and coherent people). For me, their experiences are extraordinary, but to them they are common-place and not even worth discussing. Conversely, I heard a story of my grandmother seeing a TV for the first time and being completely perplexed about how a man could fit inside a small box. To her, that was an extraordinary occurrence. And most some see the idea of God as well within the realm of normality.

What is an extraordinary claim, by the definition Sagan intended, is subjective from person to person.

Whose claim is more extraordinary?

The only objective way to measure whether a claim is extraordinary is by the amount of evidence required to make the claim. What the evidence consists of is inconsequential, as previously explained. Based on this objective standard, the atheist claim that there is no God requires more evidence and is therefore more extraordinary than the claim that God exists.

To understand why, consider a sample population of one million people. To make the claim that amongst them is a redheaded person, you would only need to produce a single redheaded person out of the million. This one person would be sufficient to support your claim. Conversely, if you wanted to say that there was not a single redheaded person amongst the population, the only way to verify this claim would be to check every single person amongst the million. Even a single exception would violate the claim, so one’s examination would have to be absolute.

The positive claim that a redhead exists in the population requires only a single piece of evidence. But, the negative claim that not a single redhead exists requires an examination of every single person in the population- one million pieces of evidence. Therefore, the statement “no redhead exists amongst the population” is an extraordinary claim that requires more evidence.

Now compare this to the belief in God. A believer must bring forth only a single piece of evidence for his belief in God. However, the atheist must examine every corner of the universe and personal experience claiming that God exists and conclude that they are mistaken. This is complicated by the fact that Jewish and Muslim theologians argue that God’s existence is outside of time and space, and we are incapable of examining outside of time and space. The claim of the atheist requires more evidence and is therefore the extraordinary claim.

While Sagan and other atheists used this quote to reject God, in reality, its reality goes against them.

Personal Experience or Empirical Evidence?

In this short essay, I am going to explain why I believe “personal spiritual experiences” are a valid form of evidence for the belief in God. Let me start with the objection:

Atheist Objection: One of the main problems with the “God hypothesis” is the complete lack of evidence. If one wanted to prove the existence of, say, an apple, he would bring forth observable, demonstrable evidence of its existence. This can come in many forms, such as a picture, its weight, or even its taste. These observations can be confirmed by others and thus we can conclude that the apple exists. However, the same method of analysis cannot be performed with God. To date, there are no objective measurements of God. Thus, just as a person with the complete lack of evidence of an apple is likely to conclude that the apple does not exist, no theist can demonstrate the existence of God. Therefore, we conclude that God does not exist.

I say: While the reasoning is acceptable, the main problem with this argument is the rejection of certain kinds of evidence. This is usually done through ridicule rather than a genuine argument. When a theist attempts to bring forth evidence in support of God, his evidence is dismissed as a delusion.

To understand this, juxtapose a deaf person and a person who can hear, both in a concert hall. From their vantage point neither can see the orchestra. But, the person without the physical challenge can hear their music. He insists that the orchestra is around a corner. But, the deaf person demands proof. From the deaf person’s perspective, there is no evidence whatsoever of their existence. In reality, the deaf person is not aware of his own state- his lack of auditory faculty. To him, no evidence exists. To the one who can hear, his experience of the sound is proof.

To the person who can hear, the orchestra’s existence is confirmed by the personal experience he has of the sound it produces. The skeptic deaf person may reject the orchestra’s existence because he has had no experience. Similarly, it is because of the personal experiences that a believer has that he believes in God. This is why core testification of Islam can be understood as “I witness [ie. personally experience] that there is no God but Allah”.

Atheist Objection: The problem with the “personal experience” evidence is obvious. It cannot be independently verified or objectively measured. For example, if a theist is in a state of experiencing God, there is nothing that an atheist can do to experience what he is experiencing. It is more reasonable to conclude that his experience is either a self-created delusion that has no reality.

I say: This response is rooted in ignorance and inconsistency. By its nature, all experience is personal. For example, the deaf person could not personally experience sound because he lacks the faculty to perceive it. But, that does not mean it has no reality. The atheist is arguing from this perspective- a person who cannot hear and therefore denies the existence of sound. The Qur’an refers to the spiritual heart as the root of his faculty of the perception of God and parallels this with other faculties by calling those who deny it as “deaf, dumb and blind”. Thus, on would argue that the atheists have dead hearts.

As for independent verification, it already exists. Attend any Pentecostal church on a Sunday. One can witness many individuals all going through the same personal spiritual experiences, and is therefore independently verified. It can be repeated, every Sunday or day of worship. It can even be measured, as many comment on the strength of their experiences with the Holy Spirit or other divine beings.

I say, all experience is personal. In fact, to say “objective observation” is an oxymoron, because observations by definition are personal and subjective. But, we arbitrarily define some as empirical while relegating others to subjective and potentially delusional. This is leads to our conclusion that there is no evidence for the existence of God.