Maybe I’d convert them to the joys of secularism…

I just got this invitation.

Hi Dr. Myer,

Our Global Islamic outreach organization,
shares the message of Islam across the world and especially
on college campuses. We also make presentations on why
the Quran is a scientific miracle.

However, we would very much like to hear from you on why you feel
the Quran is not a scientific miracle.

We would like to arrange a panel discussion on an Atheist youtube
channel called Modern-Day debate

It’s on a site called Modern-Day debate (it’s run by a Christian, not an atheist, by the way), and I hate debate with a passion, so I’d normally just say no.

On the other hand, discussion is good, and I like discussing things with people I disagree with. So that tells me that maybe the right thing to do would be to talk with them, in a non-competitive format.

On the third hand, that is a stupid topic. There’s nothing miraculous or scientific about a holy book, so I ought not to waste my time.

On the fourth hand, is there an intelligent audience for this sort of conversation? Do people want to hear me talk with these dogmatists? Let me know in the comments.

I do have four more hands, if necessary. They’re also mix of yesses and nos.

I sent them this reply.

I dislike debates, and find them to be nothing but rhetorical games. If you’d care to send me a written summary of your best argument that “the Quran is a scientific miracle”, I’ll consider addressing it. I have a few conditions: you should define what you mean by “scientific miracle”, and I would prefer that any examples you use discuss it from the perspective of biology, since that is my area of expertise.

If they answer, I’ll make my answer here.


  1. ANB says

    Addressing your “fourth hand,” I dare say there’s not an intelligent audience for this. But if you do choose to “discuss” this matter with them, you might start by agreeing with them that the Quran is a “scientific miracle” considering how perfectly Muhammed was able to transcribe the “word of God” so infallibly.

    Really, you already know the answer. There is never a reasoned “discussion” with dogmatists (of any stripe).

  2. wzrd1 says

    I’ve ran into the Quran is a scientific miracle crowd a few times.
    First, what they proclaim as science isn’t science or right, worse, it’s not even wrong.
    Worse, they refuse to acknowledge scientific facts and evidence, but usually ignore the hell out of that information to blithely blaze ahead at full speed with not even wrong by the bucket load. Alas, the bucket isn’t a household bucket, but a heavy earth mover bucket. And to add injury to insult, it’s like trying to debate a recording, combined with a Chinese Room exercise.
    You’ll hear jems about how the Quran predicted DNA, astronomy described in astrological terms and don’t even get me started on biology and evolution!

  3. Bruce says

    Some old books call the world a circle. This “proves” those religious people learned from their god miraculously that the planets are spheres. Thus science was revealed by god and their books are true in everything else.
    They invite you to listen to variations of the above for an hour. Then they will post how the great Dr “Meyr” agrees and was convinced by them.
    Discussions or debates are only useful for open minded or undecided people in the audience. I would suffer through and do it if I thought it would be watched by kids brought by their parents, and would show your arguments unedited. But I am not convinced of either criterion.

  4. platypuschutney says

    I could be worthwhile. From what I’ve seen, Muslim apologists are actually very bad, probably because in most countries it is illegal to argue with them. As a result, their arguments are usually very poor and unrefined.

    The main frustration is that their common practice seems to be completely ignoring good rejoinders and plowing on ahead with a new argument, or repeating themselves. They virtually never address the points of the person arguing with them. While this is standard to some extent will apologists of all stripes, it’s especially bad with Muslim apologists.

    I think it comes down to the format of the event. If you’re allowed to speak enough to get your points across, then it could be very worthwhile to expose new people/theists to the logical responses that can easily counter these apologetics.

    Even then, be prepared to have the other side simply repeat their script, likely one that makes bizarre claims about what you must actually believe as an atheist, or insisting that it’s common sense that x, y, and z. Prepare to make remarks that therefore stand on their own, rather than try to convince the other side or repeatedly give the same response to their repeated arguments.

    It’s very possible they will try to repeatedly lead your down the same rabbit holes to waste your efforts and get you bogged down in logical albatrosses. Don’t expect a good faith “dicussion” to necessarily take place.

  5. a_ray_in_dilbert_space says

    “I have heard it remarked, that men are not to be reasoned out of an opinion that they have not reasoned themselves into.”–attributed to Jonathan Swift, but more likely Fisher Ames.

    Science is atheistic–inherently so. That doesn’t mean that a scientist cannot believe in God, but that God must stay out of the science.

    Put another way, the more God does, the less viable a scientific approach becomes–and since science has been more successful at helping humans understand the universe than any other activity, God must have more executive time on his hands than Darth Cheeto..

  6. rpjohnston says

    I kind of want to ask these jokers, “So what about the future? Has ALL the scientific insight in the Koran been discovered, or are we going to find more as real science makes discoveries?”

    It’s all post-hoc rationalization, emphasis on post. If the Koran is so great, the people of the time should have been able to use it to advance science, and we should be able to use it to this day to advance our understanding.

  7. Michael says

    I’m sure I’d find it entertaining, even if I find myself shaking my head/banging it against a wall. I enjoyed those recent Kent Hovind debates, since in both cases, he fared poorly.

  8. wajim says

    Huh. No. Guess I’m with jack16. I say more spiders, less dumbassery. Wait, is that a word? Guess it is now.

  9. marner says

    Possibly my favorite PZ moment was 2011 in Dublin when while you were trying to explain embryology to a Muslim apologist he tried to you own you by asking if you were an embryologist.

    So yes… I would love to see it.

  10. wajim says

    @rpjohnston: yeah, I agree, but before Islam the people of the levant were definitely on track to what later folks in Europe called “the Enlightenment.” Even more. Think base ten. Think the notion of “0” which is more profound than most of us realize. Think of the foundation of our language. The people of that time in that place had no notion of what we think of as “science.” But some of them invented it. Then others of them, like our own fundamentalist reactionaries in the “west,”, strangled it, for a time.

  11. psanity says

    I would not touch it with a long, forked stick. Besides the fact that it’s just another version of debating with creationists, which you already know is pointless and counterproductive, anything you say will be denounced by certain parties as Islamophobia. As in “Myers can’t criticize me for my constant demonizing of brown people who might be Muslims, because he does the SAME THING!!!”

    Danger, Will Robinson. No, no, no. Do not. No.

  12. expat says

    I vote “yes” – the more we stop fighting religious wackos, the more powerful and influential they become.

  13. whheydt says

    If in spite of everything, you decide to go ahead with this, I suggest that you insist that a hosting site be picked that actually is run by an atheist. Also, make sure that you get a complete and unedited copy of everything, with the right to post any or all of it, as you choose.

  14. says

    If the koran is so great and prophetic why did the Kwarezmian Shah get sound advice not to fuck with the mongols, thereby dooming islam to also-ran status?

  15. devnll says

    I suspect there is an audience… and it consists entirely of people whose minds are already made up, one way or the other. Religious folk watch these sorts of things to see the atheist taken down a notch. Atheists watch them to giggle at the inconsistent nonsense. Both sides will occasionally intentionally drum up audience as if the whole issue were a popularity contest, and they want everyone to see that they’re winning. Both sides will find a way to look at the results and view it such that they “won”. No one tunes in thinking “Perhaps my deeply-held beliefs are wrong; lets see if they can convince me.” (Which, to be fair, it would be pretty unrealistic to expect anyone to do.) So if you’re happy to entertain some people on both sides by confirming their preconceived notions, and want to get your name out there, go for it. There’s nothing wrong with entertaining people… as long as you’re aware that’s what you’re doing.

  16. marcoli says

    You might plant the seed of reason in someone in the audience. That is the only reason to do it. There is no other reason to do it. If you did influence any listener, you will very likely never know it, and will only see indications that you had gotten nowhere.

  17. says

    Eh, to the public most of these “informative panels’ shows are just boring so nobody (including me) will watch. I can imagine a sports talk radio kind of format, but by day two most of your callers are going rant that you are going to hell or ‘you need Jesus’; a few weeks of that the phone screeners are going to cost more than the rest of the show.

  18. DanDare says

    Its for the audience, not the opponent so there is value in it. However, don’t follow the opponents lead. Note stupid points as stupid but give yourself a main message and stick to it. Probably about epistemology.
    Note the oponnent will certainly be preacing to the audience.
    Finally, if you do it, nail down the video editing rules so they can’t misrepresent the debate.

  19. says

    My advice is to run away as, fast as, you can. I have read the tripe that passes for science in the Qur’an and barely survived without brain damage. What they clam as science is convoluted terrible and very WRONG. Besides there are plenty of Muslims tackling this craziness. As for debate they typically don’t do that. Usually it is the “great scholar” waffling on with varying degrees of incoherence on stage followed by answers to carefully screened written questions. In one public lecture with one of the xspurts, Dr Zakir Naik, (he is a medical doctor but I’d avoid getting treated by him), was grilled by an undergraduate biology student who challenged his views on evolution during a live Q&A session. The student kept coming back pointing out the errors in his answers. Eventually the Dr lost it and responded with “What do you know, I’m a, doctor” and stormed off stage. The moderator announced they would be taking a, short break followed by written questions. Naik isn’t the only one doing this there is a thriving industry promoting “science” in the Qur’an. Fortunately there are real Muslim scientists who debunk this rubbish.

  20. John Morales says

    I’d lose a bit of confidence in your integrity, PZ, were you to do so; after all, you’ve made your stance about such “debates”/”discussions” most clear over multiple posts, and it was pretty compelling for me.

    But it would not be a big deal, I’m not one who thinks people should not change stances as they see fit, and a panel format is a bit different anyway. Nothing much wrong with being the token atheist.

    (On the gripping hand, other than entertainment value, I see no upside for you)

  21. rvoss says

    I seem to recall you have mentioned in the past that debates are not a good means of getting your point across effectively. Remember the Gish Gallop? Perhaps there is some sort of primer you can request. Would they be agreeable to a written exchange of the subject matter somewhere on the internet (perhaps your website or theirs)? This might give you an idea of their intellectual honesty before you make any commitment.

  22. says

    Tell them you’re too busy breeding giant spiders, you’ll come and debate them when the spiders are big enough to have their own seats on the plane.

  23. chrislawson says


    Nobody is disputing the extraordinary achievements of the Islamic world in the medieval period — the problem is in assigning those achievements to the Quran itself, which after all has no mention of astrolabes, algebra, numerals, cubic equations, the law of sines, the Tusi couple, the radius of the Earth, double-seat valves, kerosene, distillation, optics, camshafts, or cinnabar.

  24. William George says

    The Quran is part of the scientific miracle that is the printing press.

    The biology part can be about how the mashed up corpses of trees allow for paper to be made.

  25. ORigel says

    Islamic apologists are usually even poorer defenders of their faith than Christian apologists are. So perhaps you’d have a better chance of convincing a couple people in the audience than with a Christian apologist. It probably depends on if they know how to Gish Gallop like their Christian Creationist brethren do.

  26. pilgham says

    Firstly, I hate debates. But for it to be a real debate, it would have to be a debate over a question in which you felt a bit unsure. So you could persuade the other side. or you could be persuaded. Otherwise what be the point? You have to agree on one definite thing to argue over beforehand, otherwise it is all a waste.

  27. davidc1 says

    I remember that bloke Dawkins being told by a Muslim school pupil that the koran says that fresh and salt water will not mix .
    The moral of that is always carry a bottle of fresh water and one of salt water in case you have to prove it to a Muslim .

  28. KG says

    If the Koran is so great, the people of the time should have been able to use it to advance science – rpjohnston@9

    Well, professed followers of the Quran – the majority of natural philosophers and mathematicians working in Arabic from the 8th century CE onwards – did greatly advance proto-science, both by gathering the work of earlier Greek, Indian, Persian… scholars, and by original work of their own. They would no doubt have proclaimed that they were inspired by the Quran, although the dominant Islamic philosophical school of the 8th to 10th centuries across most of the Umma, Muʿtazila, subordinated its authority to that of logic and reasoning. Can you demonstrate that they were not so inspired?

    before Islam the people of the levant were definitely on track to what later folks in Europe called “the Enlightenment.” Even more. Think base ten. Think the notion of “0” which is more profound than most of us realize. Think of the foundation of our language. The people of that time in that place had no notion of what we think of as “science.” But some of them invented it. Then others of them, like our own fundamentalist reactionaries in the “west,”, strangled it, for a time.

    The times and places you mean are far from clear, but as chrislawson@30 points out, the arrival of Islam by no means halted proto-scientific advance – indeed, it accelerated it, at least until the 10th century. After that, “Arabic science” (i.e. proto-science done in the medium of Arabic, not necessarily or even mainly by Arabs, and including some non-Muslim practitioners) stagnated (with some exceptions), due in large part to capture of the main centres of intellectual activity by less open-minded dynasties from the Islamic periphery. But proto-science really got going in western Europe in the 12th century, following the recapture of Toledo in 1085 and the 11th-century conquest of Sicily by the Normans, leading to the translation of many Arabic texts (both of ancient Greek works already translated into Arabic and of Arabic originals, the translators were often Jews) and the gradual adoption of paper (neither papyrus nor parchment could have supported the increasingly literate culture of the later middle ages) and of the Hindu-Arabic numerals. West European technology and proto-science then forged ahead, so that by the time moveable-type printing was invented (and European colonialism was launched) in the 15th century, it was second only to that of China, and advancing far more rapidly. This was the period when the power of the Papacy was at its height, and most proto-scientists were clerics or otherwise sponsored by the church. In short, the history of the interaction of religion and science is far more complex and nuanced than many atheists realise.

  29. George says

    I was recently reading about the Libraries of Timbucktoo. That was another flowering of Islamic Thought around the 15th-17th Centuries. Those Muslim writers and philosophers certainly didn’t think the Quran was the be-all, end-all of knowledge. It’s an ongoing pattern you see in cultures from all parts of the world and all ages. There are people who want to explore, discover, revise old ideas, re-discover the past, etc, and they will create these Golden Ages. Then the Reactionaries get all Knickertwistic and start trying to shut it all down in the name of Purity, Piety, and Tradition. It’s never an All or Nothing thing. There are Points of Light in the Darkest of Dark Ages, and Black Holes of Reaction in even the most glowing of Golden Ages.

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