It’s no big secret that atheists on the left have taken Islam in under their wing. The loudest voice of Islamic apologetics in the West comes not from Muslims themselves, but from secularists whose pro-feminist, pro-choice, pro-gay ideologies seem in conflict with the religion of Islam. Yet although their conclusions may differ, many of their assumptions are surprisingly similar, particular when they pertain to Christianity.
Both Islam and secular atheism are post-Christian ideologies. Today’s new atheists descend from predominately Christian societies, never arising in Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, etc. cultures. They resent their parent Judeo-Christian ideology as much as Muslims resent Jews and Christians. In coming to their post-Christian conclusions, they operate under several common assumptions. Ironically, in trying so hard not to believe Christianity, what they end up believing about Christianity is demonstrably false. While there are certainly many more commonalities, the Top 5 that I’ve identified are:
1. Paul changed the Christian message from the teachings of Christ to the religion we know today.
This assumption appeals to Muslims because they want to believe Jesus was a prophet but not the Son of God and definitely not God. Muhammad never mentioned Paul either way, but using him as a scapegoat for the deification of the prophet Jesus has been a convenient way to reduce Jesus to just a man. For this same reason, it appeals to atheists who don’t have the audacity to deny a historical Jesus altogether, but need a reason to explain how Jesus the moral teacher became Jesus the Lord and Savior. At first glance, it does seem like a legitimate question. Flipping through the New Testament from the Gospels into the Pauline Epistles, one will certainly notice the difference in Paul’s tone and writing.
But the reality is, the chronological narrative of our New Testament is not the same as the literary chronology. The Gospels were written well after the conversion of Paul, when his epistles were already in circulation. Luke was originally combined with Acts, so the accounts of Paul and Christ were always connected. There never was a church with a scriptural tradition that did not accept them both. Many people erroneously believe that Paul never quotes Christ, but that’s just not true (in fact, Paul references a lot of material in Matthew that I’ll cover at a later time). If one was going to try to make this argument, they simply couldn’t do it with the present canon, which brings us up to the 2nd myth:
2. Books that belonged in the Bible were removed in the Nicene Council.
The theological differences between the Qur’an and the New Testament are too big to be blamed solely on Paul. The injil (gospel) referenced in the Qur’an cannot be the same as the Gospels in the Bible, since Muhammad never quotes the canonical Jesus and rejects both the crucifixion and the resurrection. On the other hand, Muhammad does quote non-canonical sources like the Infancy Gospel of Thomas (Qur’an 3:49, 19:29) and the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew (Qur’an 19:22). It’s a reasonable conclusion for Muslims to conclude that their “real” gospel isn’t in the Bible at all, and atheists like this assumption because it suggests the religion of Christianity as we know it today is actually just derived from a piecemeal collection of texts unrelated to the original message.
For reasons I can never figure out, these critics always seem to point to the Council of Nicaea as the point when the allegedly corrupted canon was settled. This in itself is easily refuted because the Nicene Council had nothing to do with canonization, but what about these “other” gospels? This argument really doesn’t help the Muslims because they agree with the Jesus in these non-canonical books even less than they do with the one in the Gospels. Of all the heterodox sexts in the first Christian centuries–gnosticism, sabellianism, arianism, basilidianism, etc.–none of them concur with Islamic theology, let alone Islamic Christology. Ironically, the book that does seem to be an agenda-driven mixed bag of various sources is actually the Qur’an. The books of the New Testament were acknowledged by the Church Fathers (Clement, Eusebius, Ireneaus) well before the 4th century, and aside from some questionable works like the Shepherd of Hermas, 1 Clement, or the Epistle of Barnabus that fell into disuse, the canon as we know it today has persisted through history intact. Contrary to what atheists seem to think, Christians don’t just believe everything that’s written. Unable to diminish the integrity of the canon, the only recourse left is to question the accurateness of the existing canon.
3. There are too many versions of the Bible to know what it really means anymore.
Muslims don’t really want to throw out the Gospels altogether. They do like to claim that the Paraclete in the Gospel of John is a prophecy of the coming of Muhammad, but they don’t like the Christological content in the rest of John. Their solution is to argue that the Bible has been copied and translated too many times too many times to be reliable anymore. The ones who really know nothing about manuscript evidence or translation just say there are too many versions of the Bible and leave it at that.
This works very well for Muslims, because the majority of Muslims have never read any version of the Bible anyway; for that matter, half of all Muslims are illiterate and have never read the Qur’an either. In some Muslim countries you can get a reduced prison sentence by memorizing the Qur’an in Arabic, even if you don’t understand Arabic. For Muslims, the Qur’an is a book forever locked in Arabic; the entire Muslim world translate fewer books than small countries like Spain, so most Muslims have no exposure to translations of any literature at all, and don’t understand that in the English language, translations of the Qur’an are just as divergent as translations of the Bible. On the other side, most atheists that I’ve talked to have never read either book, but of course, it’s easy to dismiss a book you’ve never actually read; it’s much more difficult to read it and base your conclusions off that. Thanks to the internet, however, anybody could compare any Bible verse of any translation and see that for the most part (except for, say, the Joseph Smith “Inspired” Translation or the Jehovah’s Witness’s New World Translation), they all say the same thing. Those that don’t really have no excuse.
4. Christianity spread through Colonialism.
It’s astounding how many atheists I’ve encountered who don’t know that the Coptic Christian community in Egypt or the Roman Catholic community in Iraq pre-dated Islam. Even if they’re aware, they’re prone to take the Muslim viewpoint that Christianity is the intruder in Muslim territory. Rejecting all historical evidence to the contrary, both generally blame colonialism and European occupation for spreading Christianity.
Of course, they conveniently ignore Islamic conquest and occupation that can attribute to the presence of Islam in territories such as India-Pakistan. But while empires and armies are a small contributing factor to the spread of a religion, the history and the facts just don’t support this claim about Christianity. It’s funny that Muslims can accept 19th century conspiracy theories such as Jesus Christ dying a natural death in India (while at the same time they reject this theory’s proponent, Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, as a heretic), yet they can’t accept the natural migration of Christianity. Much of that is due to the Islamic complex that can’t understand anyone in their right mind converting from Islam. Atheists like to believe this myth just because they find Christian proselytizing in the West annoying, but Muslims believe it for much more menacing reasons. Muslims feel irrationally threatened by anyone practicing another religion in an Islamic country (don’t believe it? just look at Saudi Arabia, Iran, Pakistan, Indonesia, etc.), but as long as they can frame the other religion as the remnant of a perceived occupation, then adherents of this religion are valid targets (seen as “oppressors” despite being the minority). Sadly, even though Christians are one of the most persecuted minorities in Muslim countries, you won’t find much sympathy for them from the modern atheist.
5. Christians and Muslims worship the same God.
Atheists usually don’t care about the major differences between religions since they view them all as superstitions. Thus it’s no big deal for them to accept the Muslim position that Jews, Christians, and Muslims all worship the same God. When members of other religions criticize the god of the Qur’an, Muslims love this canned response because it gives the appearance of inclusion and tolerance. But as always in Islam, tolerance is on the Muslim’s terms.
Their response isn’t actually inclusive because it doesn’t acknowledge any truth to Christianity. Rather, Islam is a syncretism of beliefs, so in reality this is a claim of exclusivism, because it only enables Christians to share the god of Muhammad on Islamic terms. One really has to ignore that Muslims don’t worship Jesus as God, or believe in his death or resurrection, which are the essence of the Christian faith. Muslims also are never willing to accept that they worship the same god as Bahai’s, because the Baha’i Faith redefines Islam the same way Islam redefines Christianity.
What’s really unusual is that some will hold to all of these myths even though they can’t all be true at the same time; who “invented” Christianity, Paul or the Nicene Council? That’s really no surprise to me, I’ve heard atheists reject religion because of the problem of evil in the world in one breath and then in the next breath claim religion is a crutch to deal with the problems of life. For Muslims, promoting these myths is usually from ignorance; just as Muhammad was not a scholar, most Muslims will never study any of Christian history themselves. For atheists, these Islamic myths are a simple way to dismiss Christianity. Although they don’t believe Islam either, the way Islam redefines Christianity is appealing to them: Jesus Christ is just a good man, the Apostle Paul is wrong, the Bible is unreliable, and Christianity is a forceful invader oppressing poor and defenseless Muslims. Of course, they’ll also tell you that Muslims are just as bad as Christians, so at the end of the day, they really only support Muslims when Muslims oppose Christianity. Since neither side is engaged in any research to uncover the truth, it will be up to Christians to be knowledgeable about the facts.