Rejection of Darwin and the Failure of Islam

Talk presented to the Atheist Society, Melbourne, 10 February 2009

Two hundred years after the birth of Charles Darwin, and one hundred and fifty years after the publication of "On the Origin of Species", many fundamentalist religious groups continue to deny the reality, and the factual nature, of evolution. However there is only one major religion that systematically rejects Darwin's discovery, and that therefore fails to accept one of the major findings of science: Islam.

The evidence of biological evolution exposes the contradictions of faith. It will be argued here that the failure within Islam to come to terms with these contradictions is symptomatic of a wider failure within Islamic society to come to terms with modernity. To understand why this is the case, certain aspects of the nature of religious belief must be recognised.

Religion and rationality

The essential feature of religious belief is that it is not rational.1 Religious faith contradicts reason and science. Religious faith is belief without reason and evidence, or despite reason and evidence. This inevitably invokes non-rational cognitions. Many religious arguments are blatantly illogical, yet seem reasonable to believers.

All believers indulge in wilful blindness to contradictions. They are all aware of at least some contradictions, since they are all aware, at least, of other religions. They generally lack curiosity about the basis for authenticity of their own beliefs. They have an aversion to issues that may challenge their faith. This blindness of faith is why religious beliefs are characteristically delusional, and are not merely mistaken beliefs.

Of course, this fact is disputed by religionists. The reason for this, of course, is that those who suffer from delusions lack insight into their own perspective. Atheists do not suffer from this lack of insight. No one has perfect knowledge. However those who seek to rely on reason and evidence, rather than faith, are more rational and less likely to hold false beliefs.

Which religion is true, and why? When challenged to back up their assertions with testable evidence, believers are unable to do so.2 Instead, challenges to belief lead to cognitive dissonance and sometimes to an emotional reaction or disturbance amongst believers, and often to deeper resort to faith. This behaviour is characteristic in all religions but is more pronounced in Islam. The challenge to faith that is posed by Darwinian evolution is one that Islam has avoided rather than confronted. The reasons for this lie in the doctrinal characteristics of Islam.

The coercive nature of the submission to Islam

The Catholic Church and mainstream Protestant groups accept the reality of the science of evolution. They can accept that the Genesis story is not literal. However Muslims cannot accept that the creationist statements in the Koran are not literal. There are no Imams, Muftis, Islamic leaders, or Islamic scholars who admit or accept that the Koran is flawed, is incorrect, and is not literally true. To be a Muslim, one cannot do this. So Muslims must necessarily reject evolution, at least in the Darwinian sense, where no god is required or evident.

Non-Muslims who are accustomed to living in a Christian or multicultural society may have trouble understanding the all-encompassing and coercive nature of Islam. As Muslims themselves often attest, they see Islam not as a religion but as a "way of life". Muslims have great difficulty, if not an inability, to distinguish between religion and science, between religion and politics, and between religion and reality.

The reason for this is the critical importance that is assigned to the Koran in Islam, and the critical importance that the Koran assigns to the punishment of non-believers. The psychological effects of the exposure to such intense fear and the threat of torment, especially on the minds of children, deeply entrench adherence to Islamic doctrine. For Muslims, there are punishments for criticising or attempting to leave the religion. In this sense Islam is more like a mass cult than a religion.

The coercive submission to doctrine in Islam leads, in key areas, to the rejection of rationalism and free inquiry. The consequences of this are not benign. The effect has been to inhibit human progress in Islamic society. The rejection of the application of scientific method and the denial of the fundamental findings of science are symptomatic of the relative decline of the Islamic world over the last 800 years. Muslims once led the world in science. The rigid adherence to Koranic doctrine has, over centuries, had devastating consequences on the economic, social and democratic development of Muslim societies. This has intensified in recent decades. Islam has failed its adherents.

Before continuing, it should be noted that this is not to attack Muslims, or any other believers, as people. Nor does it impugn their abilities and intelligence. What is provided here is a critical analysis of belief. This is something that is chronically lacking in Muslim societies. It should also be noted that Islam itself is not the only reason for the relative deprivation of Muslim societies and communities. For example, the implementation of the Judaic concept of the "promised land", in the creation of a Jewish state, has led to an acute travesty of justice for the Palestinians, and inflamed Islamism worldwide, to the detriment of all.

Why is Darwin's discovery such a problem for believers? Evolution does not just indicate that their sacred texts are erroneous: acceptance of evolution makes the relevance of the concept of the creator god obsolete. Of course many religious believers deal with this by assigning their god a supervisory role in the evolutionary process. Muslims find it hard to do this, as the Koran is so explicit about Allah being a creator god. However as with all religions, there is a multitude of ways in which Muslim apologists try to justify and reconcile the impossible.

Because the complete submission to the doctrines of the Koran is a required tenet of Islam, the contradictions between the findings of science and the Koran are systematically rejected or denied by Muslims. As will be outlined here, this has led to such a systemic failure in the economic and social development of Muslim societies that it should be recognised as the failure of Islam.

The Koran and creation

The Koran mentions Allah as a creator god over forty times. For example, Allah is the creator, the shaper and the fashioner (59:24). However the accounts of the creation of man and the universe are brief and contradictory. "The heavens, earth and all that lies between" are several times described as being created by God in six days (7:54, 25:59 and 32:4).

The chronology of creation in the Koran is not specific. Of the six days, it appears that the earth was created in two days, (41:9), mountains and sustenance were created in four days (41:10), and the heavens in the following two days (41:11-12). This interpretation 3 differs somewhat from the biblical ordering, but in similarity, it is obviously geocentric.

Compare this with the Genesis 1 order of creation: day 1, day and night; day 2, waters and firmament; day 3, earth and sea, grass and fruit trees; day 4, sun, moon and stars; day 5 whales and fowls; day 6, cattle and things that creep, man, male and female.

As with the biblical account, the Koran errs in saying that the sun was created after the earth. It copies the logical flaw in Genesis, that if there were no sun, then where was the light coming from and how were day and night determined? Muslims claim that "six days" is figurative, and that longer time periods are intended. This is certainly consistent with the proposition that without a sun, a "day" may be of arbitrary length. But then why did Allah, supposedly speaking in the Koran, refer to it as a "day"? The supposed creator has no awareness of creation outside of 7th century Arabic folklore.

There are other problems with Koranic cosmology: the earth is "spread out" as if flat (15:19), and the sky is a roof without apparent support. (21:32). This is again a geocentric concept of the universe. Confirming it, the sun is described as being in orbit around the earth (21:33 and 36:40). Given all this, it is easy to understand that scientific inquiry causes an enormous amount of cognitive dissonance for Muslims.

As for evolution, the Koran is even more problematic. "God created every beast from water" (24:45). There are numerous differing accounts of how man was created. Man was created from clay (6:1, 15:26, 23:12) and in other verses from water (21:30, 25:54), from dust (3:59, 30:20, 35:11), from the earth (11:61), from wet earth from a germ (16:4), from nothing (19:67), from a drop of ejaculated semen (75:37), from gushing fluid (86:5) from a little germ (80:18), from clots of blood (96:1), from dust and germ (18:37), dust, germ, then clot of blood (22:5), (40:67).

There is no room for interpretations that allow the evolution of humans from our ape-like ancestors. The creator god of the Koran has no need of such time-consuming processes. "He is the all-knowing Creator. He need only say 'Be' and it is" (36:82).

Muslim responses to evolution

Given all the specifically creationist statements in the Koran and the coercive nature of Islamic belief, Muslims adopt various strategies in dealing with the facts of evolution:

Regarding the first, there may be some justification for the claim that early Muslim scientists may have talked about species evolving. However this strategy suffers from the obvious flaw that Muslims, having once owned the concept, now cannot accept it.

Simply avoiding the issue is an easy way out and is a practised by many religions. If evolution is not taught and not discussed, the whole problem is mitigated. When necessary, religion and science can be declared as separate and non-contradicting spheres. Then the differing claims can be compartmentalised to different parts of knowledge, different parts of the syllabus, and different parts of the brain. This is not just an Islamic strategy. It is a strategy advocated by Christian philosophers and even by some nominally atheist ones. Their conscience apparently prevents them from espousing a truth that believers may find uncomfortable.

It is said that some Muslims accept evolution in its entirety. However when one looks at the discourse put forward by advocates of acceptance, the conflicts with the Koran are not resolved.4  The Koran may be quoted as if for balance. However it is not acknowledged that acceptance of evolution must involve rejection of creation as depicted in the Koran. Faith, and blindness to contradiction are invoked, as if this somehow resolves the problem. This claimed acceptance of both Darwin and the Koran does not seem to be the most common Islamic approach to evolution, perhaps due to its embarrassing lack of coherence.

Denial and rejection of evolution is the classic fundamentalist strategy. The term "fundamentalist" actually derives from the religious movement that was formed in response to Darwin's work. All official Islamic advocates seem to be in this camp, adding weight to the claim that all Muslims are inherently fundamentalist. Indeed Muslim advocates, such as the popular Melbourne identity Waleed Aly, resent the terms "moderate" and "fundamentalist" when applied to Islam, claiming them to be Christian constructs with no application to Islam.

For a Muslim not to be a creationist would require a rather explicit rejection of Koranic doctrine. When avoidance and obfuscation will not suffice, an avowed Muslim will invariably assert that according to their belief, Allah is the creator. Even the concept of guided evolution, a popular Christian rationalisation, appears to be beyond the pale for Muslims. While some may accept evolution in part, the idea that humans also evolved, is universally held to be doctrinally unsound. Thus, an Islamic Darwinist may possibly exist, but there appears to be no evidence that one does.5

Given the parlous state of cognitive dissonance that these anomalies must induce in the minds of Muslims, it is no wonder then, that the Christian concept of "intelligent design" has been adopted with enthusiasm by many Muslims. The website Islam Online has issued a "Call for Muslim Scientists to Join the Scientific Dissent from Darwinism". They maintain that evolution has been discredited and that a new theory has replaced it:  Intelligent Design.6

Intelligent Design is the ploy that there are things that we (or believers, at least) do not understand, that are "irreducibly complex", and that therefore an "intelligent designer" must have been involved. It is still creationism, but where the creator is relabelled a designer. Its advocates imagine that this is a brilliant scientific innovation. In reality I.D. has been exposed as little more than a ruse to subvert the US Constitution and get creationism back into American public schools.

A more direct Muslim strategy has been to popularise an Islamic version of creationism. In this regard there has been a massive publicity campaign emanating from Adnan Oktar, a Turkish philosopher who writes prolifically under the pen name of Harun Yahya. His books, website7 and DVDs are all very professionally presented and expensively produced. Numerous university scientists and members of the media received copies of his book "Atlas of Creation" as an unsolicited gift in 2007. His works have become very popular in many Muslim communities.

Such creationist propaganda falls on fertile ground. Data from a 2007 sociological survey revealed that only a minority in five Muslim countries agreed that Darwin's theory of evolution was probably or almost certainly true: 16 percent of Indonesians, 14 percent of Pakistanis, 8 percent of Egyptians, 11 percent of Malaysians and 22 percent of Turks.8 A separate survey on this question (so not strictly comparable) showed that acceptance of evolution was highest  in Japan and Sweden, (around 80%), generally high in Western Europe, (above 60%), rather low in the USA (around 45%) and surprisingly low in Australia (about 55%).9 The billions of dollars Australian taxpayers provide to religious schools may explain this.

The belief in the inerrancy of the Koran has spawned numerous utterly fanciful propositions that the Koran contains all kinds of miraculous scientific predictions that now accord with recent scientific knowledge. That intelligent people can put forward such nonsensical argument is sad testimony of the degree of dysfunction in rational cognitions that the religion can induce. It would seem that a Muslim scientist, to conduct research, has no need of laboratory equipment or academic references. He need only open his Koran. This type of mentality is severely degrading to the progress and well-being of Muslim societies.

The inability of Islam to come to terms with Darwin in the way that Christianity has done is characteristic of the damaging domination of doctrine over scientific knowledge in Islam. The loss of the rational basis for the existence of a creator is the biggest challenge that any religion with creationist foundations must face. Christianity in general (apart from fundamentalist creationists), has faced the challenge by means of a retreat to a presumed compartmentalisation of knowledge. The ability to ignore the contradictions between belief and science then becomes more manageable. The failure of Islam to take this step is indicative of a dogmatism and fundamentalism that has wide social consequences.

Adherence to doctrine and the failure of Islam

The genius of Muhammad as a military general, mainly due to the degree of fervour he was able to instil in his troops, certainly meant that Islam was highly successful at military conquest during the early days of Islam.10  Until about the 12th century, when the "gate of ijtihad", or door to independent thought, was closed, Muslim society led the world.11 The emphasis on the gender role of women as child-bearers in Islamic society means that Islamic societies are still highly successful in achieving a high population growth rate. These factors are not beneficial attributes in today's society. The main reason it may be said that Islam has failed, and failed its own believers, is in a humanitarian sense.

Blindness to contradictions inhibits rational thought. Rigid adherence to doctrine, of which the rejection of Darwin is symptomatic, leads to an aversion to scientific method, and a slower rate of technical advancement. In the long term, technical progress is the source of all wealth, increases in living standards and the betterment of human well being. Thus, submission to Islamic doctrine does not just impose limitations on the acceptance of science. It inhibits social and economic progress generally.

Numerous other doctrinal features of Islam that inhibit scientific, social and economic development may be identified. A telling description of the consequences, identified as a "knowledge deficit", may be found in the United Nations Arab Human Development Reports. 12  A brief list of doctrinal factors that may contribute to this deficit is as follows:

All these factors, reflecting the submission to dogmatism, rather than the pursuit of knowledge via the exploration of doubt, engender a fateful degree of fatalism in Islam, and are the reasons for the failure of Islam.

Darwin's major contribution was his identification of evolution as the explanation of our human and biological origins. He made the concept of a creator god unnecessary, redundant and obsolete. He helped us to overcome ignorance and superstition, and to recognise humanity's true place in the universe. Atheists, humanists, rationalists and secularists, however, may rejoice. Let us hope that Muslims, Christians and all other religious wishful thinkers may soon join us in acceptance of reason and science. As ever, universal secular values, based on the principles of compassion, honesty, freedom and justice, provide the best path to peace and prosperity.

Dr John L Perkins is a Melbourne economist and is a founding member of the Secular Party of Australia.
 (C) Copyright 2009 John L Perkins

1.   This is an argument in response to one put by Prof. Graham Oppy, in his lecture of 9 Sept 2008.
2.   There has so far been no response to my $100,000 Religious Challenge.
3.   This is my own interpretation, using the Dawood translation. As with the Koran in general, the ordering of the days of creation may not be supposed to be chronological.
4.   See for example "The Muslim Response to Evolution" by Abdul Majid, in The Science - Religion Dialogue.
5.   See Darwin and God: can they co-exist? The Guardian, 03 July 2006.
6.   See Call for Muslim Scientists - Join the Scientific Dissent From Darwinism,
7.   See  Harun Yahya - An Invitation to The Truth,
8.   See "Evolution Arguments Headed for Islamic World",
9.   See "The Big Religion Questions Finally Solved" by Gregory S Paul, Free Inquiry, Vol 29 No.1, Dec 2008 / Jan 2009.
10.    This is outlined in the book Muhammad: Islam's First Great General by Richard A Gabriel, University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, 2007. For a review see Islam's origins - Muhammad's military genius
11.   For more details see "Prosperity and the rise and fall of Islam", by John L Perkins
12.   For an account see "Islam and Arab Human Development" by John L Perkins, Free Inquiry magazine, Volume 24, Number 3.