Review by Hamdija Begovic
Author: Hamza Andreas Tzortzis
Publishing: December 2016. San Clemente, California: FB Publishing
Format: Paperback, 322 pages
Generally, there are two ways to critically analyse a belief system: one is to tackle standard arguments countering them by engaging in refutations and counter-refutations – what I shall term the polemical method. The other approach is to focus on ‘unmasking’ a belief system which entails deconstructing and analysing the foundations upon which it is built. This method I will term the sociological one. Given my own background as a sociologist, my preference is predictably with the latter – when performed appropriately it routs an entire belief system in one fell swoop. For example, someone attacking Islam through the polemical method might complain that certain rules pertaining to gender interaction seem objectionable: “I don’t like that Muslim women dress modestly; it goes against my liberal values.” The sociological method would instead entail dismissing the entire structure of Islam by claiming, and trying to demonstrate, that it is no more than the product of a patriarchal society, thus ruling out divine origin.
Western liberals have often subjected Islam to such an approach, yet ironically the very same liberals do not take kindly to post-modernism as it turns the skeptical and questioning attitude back at the assumptions and superstitions of a secular liberal society, calling into question the very foundations upon which their own cherished beliefs are based. Militant atheists are quickly offended with the sociological approach as it questions their atheism as an expression of pure, unadulterated rationality. Edward Said’s approach to orientalism, inspired by Michel Foucault offers a shrewd method; Foucault addressed the relationship between knowledge and power (analysing the scientific community), and with the aspirations of the ‘new atheists’ to influence public policy and exert power there are strong reasons for using this method.
Given this way of looking at things, it strikes me that Hamza Tzortzis’s new book ‘The Divine Reality: God, Islam & The Mirage of Atheism’ will strongly resonate with Muslim polemicists. The arguments in the book are certainly worthy, but since atheism attracts people for social reasons rather than particular arguments, I’m not sure it will convince most atheists. That being said, this point should not detract from the overall value of Tzortzis’s work, as I shall attempt to explain.
The book might best be described as a collection of arguments for theism from a Muslim perspective, and as such, the polemical method forms the basis of the book. However, at certain junctures Tzortzis employs the sociological approach. For instance:
Human beings are not intellectual robots. An array of emotional, social, spiritual and psychological factors determines which worldview we adopt. Unravelling the vast number of variables that lead to certain decisions or beliefs is impossible. However, from my experience, atheism is not a strict intellectual decision born out of reason and science. On the contrary, atheism is deeply rooted in psychology…
His awareness of the sociological factor is also evidenced by his acknowledgement that atheism in China is entirely different to Western atheism, and as such should be analysed differently.
Having articulated my own preference, I must make clear that we should not neglect one approach in favor of the other. There is a vital need to evaluate common arguments and particular issues, and with the plethora of polemical atheist works that are bound to contain arguments that might bear upon young impressionable Muslims, Tzortzis has rendered both the faith and the community a service by writing this book. The arguments presented in it have been tried and tested in numerous debates and discussions with atheists – Tzortzis is a veteran of the British dawah scene – and it shows. The arguments that he selects have been sifted out through years of trial-and-error; tired, clichéd arguments are therefore left out, and familiar themes are presented through a fresh perspective. Possible atheist objections and counter-arguments are dutifully offered to the reader, only to be refuted.
Throughout sixteen chapters Tzortzis deals with issues, old and new. The old ones, such as the problem of evil or the fine-tuning of the universe, are neatly categorised and presented in straightforward accessible prose, which is no small feat in itself, but also tinged with a nice personal touch. For instance, the sections dealing with moral ontology are familiar enough, i.e. atheists who refer all truth claims back to empiricism have no intellectual foundations for believing in moral truths (and yet most of them do), but Tzortzis’s treatment of this issue offers us a charming turn of phrase: atheists who believe in moral truths, he tells us, are guilty of sentimentalism. In another place he throws in a nice little quip about the ‘science of the gaps.’ So, for those already familiar with the theism vs. atheism debate, Tzortzis’s fresh, cliché-free approach makes the book well worth a read.
The book also raised issues that were new to me, and I assume many others. A section in chapter three deals with ‘emergent materialism’, the idea that rationality in human beings can be explained as the sum total of random physical processes undergoing complex interactions. This is an interesting argument which Tzortzis goes on to tackle gracefully. Another issue is the argument from consciousness dealt with in chapter seven. Unfamiliar with these discussions the chapter proved particularly enlightening.
Unavoidably, there are some conclusions I might question, such as whether objective morality really proves the existence of God (see chapter nine). The discussion on moral ontology demonstrates the limitations of empiricism and exposes the inconsistency of the atheist, but I feel one should avoid over-extending the argument. There are also sections where I feel that Tzortzis could do more to bring home his points. For example, where he addresses rationality and physical processes through the example of computer programmes engaging in deductive reasoning, he stops short of the obvious retort that computers cannot be invoked by the atheist since they are created by rational beings.
However, any discussion about the merits of particular arguments and conclusions boils down to personal taste. I suspect that a certain variety of atheists will find Tzortzis’s penchant for analogies and parables a little unsophisticated, whereas others will find it instructive. This tells us that there is a certain amount of arbitrariness to the whole thing: one style of argumentation will appeal to some and deter others.
The book is one that I absolutely recommend, and having felt that it read like an insightful and instructive textbook it would certainly be well placed in Western Islamic schools and among Muslim university students – I certainly would have benefitted from reading it in my formative teenage and early university years. It serves as a valuable introduction to the theism vs. atheism debate for young Muslims who might only just have been exposed to atheist arguments. This doesn’t preclude others from reading and enjoying the work, most notably those engaged in the field of apologetics. One of the main strengths of the book is the up-to-date account of current trends within the theism vs. atheism debate and its references to recent research. Whilst this inevitably means that the work might prove a bit dated after a certain period of time, this is more or less unavoidable for a book on the topic. Here is hoping then that Tzortzis will continue his invaluable efforts and provide us with future updated editions.
 The term is borrowed from the German sociologist Karl Mannheim. “This is a turn of mind which does not seek to refute, negate, or call in doubt certain ideas, but rather to disintegrate them, and that in such a way that the whole world outlook of a social stratum becomes disintegrated at the same time. […] In unmasking ideologies, we seek to bring to light an unconscious process, not in order to annihilate the moral existence of persons making certain statements, but in order to destroy the social efficacy of certain ideas by unmasking the function they serve.” (From Essays on the Sociology of Knowledge)
 Recent examples include the works of Robert Hoyland and Stephen Shoemaker.
Courtesy of Islamicate (UK)