I was in college in the middle of the cold war. The news was dominated by the clash of communism and capitalism. It was clear to me that I had to understand communism to understand the news. When I read Marx, I absolutely loathed it. He would make wrong assumptions on nearly every page, and go right on building on that thinking he’d proven every step. For another source, I spent a lot of time in bull sessions arguing with leftist college students, which was rough going because there were a lot more of them that there was of me and they would gang up and be abusive and rude. But it was really important to me to understand them so I kept at it and did get a pretty clear view of the leftist mindset.
After 9/11, it was clear that the news for a very long time was going to be dominated by the clash between western culture and Islam. So, just as I had to learn about communism before, I had to understand Islam to understand the news. So I studied it a lot. I read an abridged Koran cover to cover, which was stupid, because all the dirt had been abridged out. So I started reading an unabridged Koran.
I did not enjoy reading the Koran. At all.
In the Koran, Allah is talking to you, divinely revealed to Muhammed who dictated it to scribes. Everything is phrased as though Allah is speaking directly to the reader. In Arabic, there is a special pronoun that Allah uses to refer to himself, and translating that to “I” in English doesn’t really communicate the effect well, so in English he refers to himself with the royal “We”. And I really personally disliked Allah, he was not the type of person I would want to befriend, let alone worship. He was not what you would describe as a “nice guy”. He was more of a stern father type, who would beat some sense into you if you got out of line or gave him any lip. His values were in total conflict with mine.
But I was trying to have an open mind, and one thing about the Koran, is that it is constantly filled with vivid, detailed threats about how Allah (not the devil, but Allah) is going to horribly torture you in hell if you harbor the slightest shred of disbelief of anything this book says. And so, on a rational level, the book wasn’t very convincing, and on a personal level, I didn’t like Allah, yet on a purely emotional level, I was being intimidated into believing this book against my will. It was turning me into a Muslim. It really was.
I saw what this was leading to and quit reading the book. Basically, I couldn’t get through the book without a dire risk of enslaving my mind to someone I didn’t respect, couldn’t stand, and believed probably didn’t exist. I was very upset about this, because it was so important to me to become knowledgeable about Islam and the Koran.
The Internet saved that day. I found a website with links to dozens of other anti-Islamic websites that had done a lot of research into Islam and the Koran. And I found chat rooms where Islam was discussed. This was 6 months after 9/11, and the non-moderated chat room was filled with Islam-haters who were saying things like how they were using the Koran for toilet paper. It wasn’t terribly informative. But another, moderated chat room was a far better resource. There were all these really intelligent Muslim scholars there. If you asked an honest question, it would make it past the moderators and you’d get an answer, usually with specific scripture references, 4-8 hours later. I got to quite like some of those guys, and they didn’t mind me because it was clear that I was there to learn. I kept at this for a couple of months while unemployed during the dot-com bust.
I got to understand Islam better than pretty much any other person I know who was raised Christian.
One exercise that I had done was to go to the various anti-Islamic websites and see which violent quotes they would cite, and eventually I was hearing the same ones, over and over, and I thought, OK, now I’ve seen the worst of what the Koran has to offer.
Right around this time I had started going to a Humanist group in Silicon Valley, and someone there started emailing me appalling Bible quotes. I had attended Bible studies as a wannabe believing Christian at times in my adult life, but I had never subjected the Bible to the sort of inquiry that I had just done to the Koran, and decided now was the time.
The verdict is clear — the Old Testament is far worse than the Koran.
If a Muslim claims that all the violence in the Koran is about killing soldiers, not civilians, I can respect that. Historically, after Muhammed, some of the more violent passages were used to justify genocide, but it would not be unreasonable for someone to claim that that was not what Allah or Muhammed had intended. In the Old Testament, they are very specifically clear about exterminating men, women, children, babies, livestock, and pets — “anything that breatheth”.
There are some passages about religious tolerance in the Koran (superceded by more intolerant quotes made later, particularly in book 9, the final and most belligerent book — there are a lot more than 9 books, but they’re not in chronological order, and book 9 was the last). In the Old Testament, religious tolerance is generally seen as one of the greatest possible sins.
The Old Testament is fundamentally and centrally extremely bigoted against gentiles, sometimes genocidally so. I saw a statement in the Koran, on the other hand, saying not to put too much stock in a person’s complexion. The Old Testament is all about being born into the tribe, while the Koran welcomes anyone willing to believe it, of any ethnicity, from the get-go.
As far as I can tell, there is no afterlife in the Old Testament. The worst thing that can happen to you is that your bloodline will be wiped out, like happened to King Saul. That’s it. The New Testament, as far as I can tell, invents the afterlife, and it’s very vague — something about fire in hell, and Heaven’s very nice without saying exactly how (but there’s specifically no sex in Heaven, everybody’s above that sort of thing up there). In the New Testament, Hell is forever. In the Koran, the afterlife, particularly Hell, is all over the place. There’s lots of sex in Heaven, and gay sex with boys, which is forbidden while alive, and non-alcoholic wine. But in the Koran, almost no one goes to Hell forever. That only happened to a few guys who really personally pissed off Muhammed. Everybody else, you’re in Hell until Allah figures you’ve learned your lesson, then you get to Heaven and, if you’re male, get your virgins (every male gets at least 2).
Once I asked the Muslim scholars “About these virgins — do they have souls? Are they interesting to talk to? Are they capable of sin?”. Nobody answered me.
One of the biggest value clashes that I have with Islam is that the ideal of the marketplace of ideas as a search for truth is very, very central to my world view. For this to work, you need freedom of speech and ideological tolerance as pretty much your highest ideals. Islam doesn’t think that way at all. Allah knows, if not defines, what’s true, and he told it to Muhammed, who arranged to have it written down, and that’s that. Anyone who disagrees should get his ass kicked or worse.