AN OPENING NOTE to the atheist: congratulations. You are using the brain that you were given. You are making use of the critical thinking, the instinct to second-guess, and the fearlessness before authority that, in my opinion, are so tragically sparse in our religious communities today. As a believer, I say this without even a touch of sarcasm: I admire you.
After all, how could we not second-guess? For the last half-century, global institutions of power have proven with only-growing frequency that they are willing to lie to us and use us in order to satisfy whatever cold-blooded interests they keep on the other side of the board-room door. From our executive leaders to our intelligence agencies—from our police forces to our world banks—institutions that have, in words, pledged their service to the public, have consistently shown something very different in their actions. And what is religion but another institution?
People have blamed all kinds of things for the modern push away from religion. Some say that worship has turned in on the self—that the average person has become too arrogant to acknowledge something higher than her or himself. Others say that money is the new god. I doubt it’s anything this grandstanding or melodramatic. In my opinion, the reality is this: people are exhausted. All that we see from the power-centers around us are deception, exploitation, and betrayal. We are disposed to distrust. Even if we wanted to, we are now nearly incapable of placing our faith in any woman or man standing and commanding a group of eager listeners, no matter how benevolent they may seem. We are taught, by experience, that those people couldn’t possibly mean what they say. Any promises of good are too good to be true.
In short, the move away from religion is just one limb attached to a much larger trend of people, particularly young people, rejecting all authority. Their hearts have been too bruised to be handed away with ease. And at risk of repeating myself: who can blame them?
There is a reason why I feel such intellectual empathy for atheists. I was one. ‘Atheist,’ however, is probably too weak a word. By the time I entered my teen years, I had already finished devouring the written works of Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens, and I had become what Hitchens liked to call an Anti-Theist. Not only did I laugh at the idea of God, I believed that religiosity was akin to a Schizoid delusion. It was a bitter phase in my life. I bumped Rage Against the Machine, and I couldn’t stand George W. Bush—raging against religion seemed to fit the package.
I’m an older, wiser man now. Not yet old, and not yet wise—but more so of both than I once was. I still bump Rage Against the Machine, and I still dislike George W. Bush (though my feelings have transformed over the years into something closer to pity). But I am now a Muslim. Alhamdulillah. Be that as it may, I remember what it was like to not believe. I remember the feelings of distrust, of caginess. I remember what it was like to have heard only one side of the discussion.
This is the reason that I felt compelled to write this article. Most young people today have heard the name of at least one of the Anti-Theist writers that I listed above. A lot have probably been exposed to their arguments through lectures or debates on YouTube, or shows like Real Time With Bill Maher. And even if they’ve never even been in the same state as a copy of The God Delusion, they’ve probably nurtured their own gnawing questions and understandable doubts about their faith, and been disturbed by a seeming lack of answers. If they’re anything like I was, they’re probably thinking to themselves one (or more) of the following things:
- Science is leaving no room for God – Before Isaac Newton mapped out the motions of the celestial bodies, we believed there were angels towing them through the sky. Before Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species and The Descent of Man, we believed that God had simply molded human beings in their refined form from raw clay. As we continue to demystify these phenomena through mathematics and observation of naturally-occurring patterns and mechanisms, it feels as though God’s dominion is drawing back. Maybe “God” was simply an explanation by simpler, less civilized people for phenomena that were far outside of their realm of understanding.
- Religion is Anti-Intellectual – Wherever religion exists in the world, free thought suffers. And it always has. Faith itself is inherently irrational, and all intellectual development in history has occurred in spite of religious institutions’ attempts to hold us back.
- Religion leads to violence – Every major conflict in history has its roots in religious disagreement. Religious thought is too uncompromising; it leads people to do unreasonable things to others and themselves, and it encourages hate for people who disagree or are different.
- How could an all-powerful, all-loving God allow misfortune to fall on innocent, undeserving people? – What is the most common thing people do when faced with their own imminent mortality? Pray. And sometimes, even if they’ve prayed their hearts out, they die anyway. Sometimes, in ugly ways. By all appearances, the universe is indifferent to us, no matter how purposeful our lives may feel. You don’t need to look far to find evidence. Either our God is all-powerful and cruel, or all-loving and powerless—and in the latter case, the word “God” loses its meaning entirely.
What Dawkins, Hitchens, and Harris have done is opportunistic. They have taken advantage of a cultural trend, stepping into the ring with an opponent who was already dazed, and using points like those listed above for easy knockout punches.
I, personally, was knocked unconscious for a long time. Things really only changed when I went away to a Catholic College, and was forced as part of my core requirements to sit and scoff through a religious studies course.
Four years later, I graduated with a BA in religious studies, having taken the shahada and converted to Islam. What changed? I had been forced, under pain of a failing grade, to sit and listen to what the other side had to say. I had learned that the talking points and arguments that I had borrowed from my Anti-Theist heroes were, in fact, thousands of years old, and that libraries could be filled with the responses written by religious scholars across time and borders of faith. I’d learned that I had wasted years of breath saying truly rotten things about whole groups of people that I had never for a moment paused to listen to. And I had learned that, once I listened, I actually preferred what they were saying.
I had an opportunity that many people don’t. I lament that there is so little willingness, especially in the Muslim community, to grapple openly with the religious doubts that are plaguing young people. When left unaddressed, this creeping cynicism is at its most corrosive.
So, here’s the plan:
This article is the first in what I intend to be a series in direct response to the criticisms of religion that I myself once championed. My hope is to show that theism is not an “irrational” position, and that belief in God does not, by default, make someone less intelligent or more violent. I will devote a new episode to each of the above bullet points, lifting from published works and synthesizing some of my own arguments, in the hopes of showing the young doubters in the Muslim community, and beyond, that there are answers for those who seek them. I am not looking to convert anybody; I wouldn’t be that presumptuous. Instead, I’m looking to lift the growing stigma that religion and the religious are in some way out of date or ignorant to their critics. If this along the way stirs you, it’s a happy side-effect.
Point and counterpoint aside, there is little that can be done about the greater air of distrust in our culture. This runs deep. The most that I can offer is this: many of the greatest religions have been founded by people looking to root out oppressive and manipulative elements in our world. Islam itself came to a man who was deeply affronted in part by the economic injustices imposed on the people of Mecca by the ruling class, the Quraysh.
It is true that certain religious institutions have, at one time or another, let humanity down. For this, we have the right to be angry. But to bury the idea of belief itself is an unreasonable response. Instead, perhaps we should take this opportunity to go digging—to reexamine our traditions in ways that have been lost. To recover and dust off that shining core that once transformed us as separate tribes and nations, and brought us together to know one another. We can start that process, you and I, right here. Stay tuned.