I know what you’re thinking. No, I didn’t stutter when I wrote the title of this post. You’ll see what I mean….
As an orthodox Christian, I obviously have many “problems” with Islam, and not just the violent, extremist version(s). Today, though, I specifically want to look at those addressed in Alex McFarland’s book 10 Answers for Atheists: How to Have an Intelligent Discussion About the Existence of God. Obviously, the book does more than the title suggests. (In fact, the “10 answers” aren’t addressed until nearly the end of the book.) The first few chapters look at things like the “history of unbelief” and critiques of atheism and agnosticism. He also has some material that might be called “comparative religions”. At the end of the chapter titled “Four Forms of Theism”, McFarland briefly examines and critiques two expressions of monotheism — namely, Islam and Judaism.
McFarland offers three “reasons why Islam, though a monotheistic religion like Christianity, does not work as a belief system.” Unfortunately, I don’t like the way he explains those reasons. I’m not sure if it was sloppy thinking or sloppy writing (or both), but I think McFarland could have articulated the reasons better. So, I’m going to put on my editor’s cap and offer some suggestions for improvement.
“First, while Christianity holds that God is one being and three persons — the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit — who are coequal and coeternal, Muslims reject this Trinitarian view of God and believe that God is only one in being and person….
A second reason why Islam does not work as a belief system has to do with the fact that Muhammad rejected the deity of Christ (which followed from his rejection of the Trinity)….
A third reason why Islam fails as a worldview is that Muslims reject the notion of salvation by grace through faith.”
This is how the “problems”/reasons are introduced. I don’t know about you, but what hit me about each is that it is not an objective reason for why Islam is not a “reasonable” view. Why? Because each seems to assume that Christianity is correct — i.e., it “begs the question”, since McFarland is ultimately arguing for Christianity as the best, most reasonable worldview. What the above statements do is say, “Islam does not hold to these Christian doctrines, so it is not Christian (duh!) and therefore ‘doesn’t work’.” This is a rather disappointing slip-up in reasoning.
But, lest I be accused of suppressing additional evidence, in each case McFarland does say more and gives further explanation for what he means.
“The problem with Islam’s unitarian view of God is that it diminishes His character. A unitarian God such as Allah cannot truly express love without being dependent on other creatures. The triune God, on the other hand, is non-contingent, meaning He does not need to rely on creatures to express love since this relationship is already possible between Father, Son and Holy Spirit.” (italics mine)
In my opinion, McFarland should have led with these first couple sentences, because the real problem lies in the issue of Allah’s character and contingency on other beings. It doesn’t make the Muslim position wrong, just philosophically weak. After clarifying this, McFarland could then explain why Christianity doesn’t have this problem.
Regarding Reason #2, McFarland clarifies:
“By rejecting the deity of Christ, Muslims must also reject the reliability of the New Testament documents, even though these documents are incredibly reliable and trustworthy. Not only does this rejection of the deity of Christ not make sense in light of the New Testament documents, but it also leaves Islam without an ultimate and perfect Savior, which Christianity has in the person of Jesus Christ.” (italics mine)
The fact that the Muslims’ position on Christ’s deity forces them to reject a terrific resource for historical information — not to mention a true message of Hope that they are otherwise lacking — is the real problem. They don’t reject a potentially valuable source (i.e., the NT documents) on demonstrable, factual grounds but on theological presupposition. They shoot themselves in the foot.
“According to Islam,… [j]udgment will be based on one’s conformity to the will of Allah. Ultimately, salvation for the Muslim is a matter of his or her works.”
This is helpful, but McFarland then makes the claim that ‘it is impossible to save ourselves’ and backs it up by quoting Eph. 2:8-9. Unfortunately, this is a continuation of the apparent it’s-wrong-cuz-it-disagrees-with-Christian-teaching approach.
“By minimizing the fallen and broken nature of human beings, Islam fails to see the severity of the human condition and our drastic need for radical redemption that only Christ can provide.” (italics mine)
Now, we’re getting to the heart of it. This is the real reason that Islam falls short — an unrealistic view of the true heart of Man, which results in an insufficient, works-based “salvation plan”. Of course, McFarland threw the “that only Christ can provide” bit at the end, which I agree with but think was misplaced in the argument.
How do I think McFarland should have stated things? I think the readers would have been better served if each reason began with the actual reason and absent the assumption of Christianity being true. That’s not to say that the advantages of the Christian system can’t sometimes be woven into the discussion. I’ll give one example by restating the third reason:
“A third reason why Islam fails as a worldview is that, by minimizing the fallen and broken nature of human beings, it fails to recognize the severity of the human condition and our drastic need for radical redemption. Put another way, the Muslim view of ‘sin and salvation’ is the problem. According to Islam, judgment will be based on one’s conformity to the will of Allah. Ultimately, salvation for the Muslim is a matter of his or her works, and even then is still subject to Allah’s capricious whim. But, I think a fair assessment of humanity’s obvious imperfections and rebellion against moral authority tells us that we can never reconcile ourselves to a holy and just God (as per Judaism, Christianity, & Islam) on our own. Works alone don’t cut it.
On the other hand, Christianity has the clear advantage of recognizing how far humanity falls short and of providing the hope of salvation by God’s grace through faith in Jesus the Messiah (e.g., Rom. 3:19-31 and Eph. 2:1-10). Further, God (aka Yahweh) is always faithful, trustworthy, unchanging, and never capricious.”
What do you think? Better? Or, was I unfairly critical from the start?
I suppose I could have related McFarland’s argument against Islam without mentioning, or at least not focusing on, my criticisms of his presentation. But, it was buggin’ me, so I wanted to vent a little. This may seem like an odd way to do so, but despite my frustrations above, I would highly recommend 10 Answers for Atheists. I’m only 2/3 through it, but other than a couple of typos (and what book doesn’t have them?), so far this has been the only glaring nit I have to pick with the book. It’s only 200 pages, written at a lay level, contains some great information and excellent advice for Christians who find themselves trying to respond to the concerns and complaints of non-theists, not to mention brief analyses of other belief systems. Even if you already have a couple or three texts on apologetics, I think you may glean something new or helpful from this book. McFarland has a few other books you might want to check into, too. I know I’m going to.