Why I Do Not Believe
“Good people will do good things, and bad people will do bad things. But for good people to do bad things—that takes religion.” – Stephen Weinberg
After spending ones life being a ‘believer’ a religious moderate so to say the very idea of disbelief is somehow anathema. Even while writing this essay, there’s a part of me that’s in denial about where I stand today.
I’ve always held religious conservatives in open disdain being of the opinion that their regressive ideals are a product of a flawed intellectual conclusion, with the idea that they do not adhere to the faith so much as to a dogmatic view promoting a very specific agenda. I still believe that to in essence be true.
Over the past year I’ve been undergoing what I now see as a cathartic experience of rejecting the last vestiges of unreason from my life.
Due to various events I was forced to reexamine what I believed in and what the essence of my faith was. I was doing this with the intention of further solidifying my beliefs and buttress them against conservative forces which I as always thought to be anti-thetical to my belief system.
I beefed up on my reading about theology and Islamic history, one of the best books I read during this period was Reza Aslan’s “No God But God” which proved very illuminating. One of the key points that somehow in my utter naiveté had eluded me was that previous leaders were just like the leaders now “What does any man with power want? More power” and as such were willing to employ any measure at their disposal including corrupting faith at will. Reading about Caliph’s declaring themselves to be the “Caliph of Allah” instead of the more pedestrian “Caliph of the Prophet”. Power grabs even in the metaphysical world .
There was tension from the very beginning between those that simply believed and those that wanted to understand their beliefs. Early Islamic history is littered with great thinkers, scientists and philosophers. What we aren’t usually told when people look back nostalgically is that all of these thinkers weren’t representative of the mainstream faith but were ostracized. Ibn e Sina one of the greatest muslim scholars if not the greatest had multiple attempts on his life for his so called ‘apostasy’.
The Golden period of Islam wherein the Islamic culture contributed massively to the advancement of the world and preservation of knowledge ‘being a product of Islam’ was a myth. As today the masses were superstitious and deeply irrational with religious zealots holding sway over them. The only difference being the scholar’s patrons (Caliphs and Royal Courts) allowed them to flourish both by defending them and with monetary support.
Correlation does not equal causation, simply because those advancements occurred during Muslim rule does not by fiat mean that the Conservative narrative of it being the product of Islam is true. The scholars that produced all the amazing feats and revivified science were invariably branded heretics by the religious right so to speak. Most of them drank, questioned the existence of god etc etc. Not to mention the questions they raised traumatized the religious then as they do now. I might be confusing the exact name but I believe Ibn e Sina survived three assassination attempts on his life for being a heretic. The ‘golden age’ that occurred was in spite of Islam not because of it. The primary reason for that in my opinion being that the ‘faithful’ did not hold the reins of power at that point.
This flickering light went out with Imam Ghazali almost single handedly destroying rational thought (Fire does not intrinsically burn but only direct action of God causes the burning action…..). The conservative ideal of all knowledge flowing from religion rather than reality gained supremacy. The immediate consequence of this was a wholesale slaughter of all rational thinkers in the Islamic sphere. If you follow the flowering of Islamic scientific discoveries they whither n die within a century of Ghazali (12/13th century).
Upon further reading various inconsistencies became glaringly obvious. For example for those that adhere to the Hadith , there is a Hadith in Sahih Muslim that expressly forbids the collection of Hadith. Why would a successful businessman married into wealth who actively encouraged literacy among his followers refuse to learn how to read and write? Why would Shia’s still believe in the Imamat when the Imam-designate Ismail died during the lifetime of the prior Imam Jafar Sadiq (with it being supposed to be passed on generationally). Why was Mariyah never mentioned? The sheer quantity of questions and contradictions that I hadn’t ever encountered reading any classical Islamic text was an obvious indicator of the self-censorship being exerted.
I suddenly found many aspects of the faith to be deeply troubling.
In that vein I had previously discounted the Islamic homophobia as being a cultural issue and that perhaps my understanding of it was deficient. On the one end I was giving God a free pass for homophobia while believing that denying anyone their rights as human beings is a grotesque violation. The idea of a God that would smite down an entire nation for the high crime of sodomy is the very definition of bigotry. The fact that this is prominently mentioned in the Quran makes any excuse of it simple denial. (Ref Sodom n gomora). How is it just and right for a God to create a segment of the population to have differing sexual needs and desires and then punish them for following through on them? Imagine being forced to go against your natural sexual instinct (If you’re a heterosexual imagine being forced to be with a member of your own sex) at the risk of not only being killed in this world but suffering eternal torment in the next.
One of the pillars of my belief was justice, that faith itself wasn’t as important as content of character, I guess you could call it a further extension of the Prophet’s last sermon. The idea that the most important thing in life was not which diety you worshipped but the good you did in this world, people like Mother Teresa, Gandhi, Mandela etc would be judged by what they did not what they believed/disbelieved. I often quoted “Those who believe (in the Qur’an), and those who follow the Jewish (scriptures), and the Christians and the Sabians,- any who believe in Allah and the Last Day, and work righteousness, shall have their reward with their Lord; on them shall be no fear, nor shall they grieve.” – 002.062, as evidence of the same. Anyone with a critical eye will notice the erroneous conclusion I drew. The verse specifically mentions the belief in Allah being a pre-requisite, one if charitable may take that as monotheism but even with that charitable definition, a sizable majority of the world including the Christian Trinitarians (Mother Teresa etc) are condemned to hell. Denying so seems to be denying the Quran itself.
From the same Quranic section when Lot was asked to hand over the angels as sexual fodder for the local heathen population, he defended them as any rational human would but then he runs counter to all moral values wherein he offers his daughters up for rape to save his male guests. Again its worth emphasizing that this is verbatim from the Quran itself which turns the idea of female rights on its head.
Around the same time a friend sent a paper she was working on (for her thesis) which was about a Coptic slave Mārīyah that the Prophet received as a present. The prophet was so taken with her beauty that she became his favorite companion in bed. The altercation with Hafsa mentioned in the Quran was a direct consequence of this. Hafsa walked in on the prophet spending time allocated to her with Mārīyah. Up until this point I was in denial, including a friends explanation about the slavery bits in the Quran being incorrectly interpreted. But on the other hand if the prophet himself had a sex slave all other bets were off (and that’s without going into his wives)
Moving on to the parable of Abraham….
Oh God said to Abraham, “Kill me a son”
Abe says, “Man, you must be puttin’ me on”
God say, “No.” Abe say, “What?”
God say, “You can do what you want Abe, but
The next time you see me comin’ you better run”
Well Abe says, “Where do you want this killin’ done?”
What parent in their right mind would consent to killing their offspring regardless of what power is presented or what repercussions lie ahead. The very idea of parenthood is to protect ones offspring not to offer them up to the first deity demanding homage. Again this is something that’s usually justified and thought of in the abstract, but why do we afford it such a luxury. Imagine your own niece, daughter, nephew son etc , their faces and imagine taking their life, can you honestly say you can contemplate any scenario where you could do so or where the societal response will be anything beyond sheer horror and revulsion. Why then do we treat Abraham with kid gloves? The same goes to Lot beyond the women’s right issues, this great prophet was not exactly what one would call the perfect parent.
Switching gears for a moment what is the nature of miracles? Is it that which is highly improbable, one in a million chance perhaps? one in a billion? What’s the threshold between improbable and miraculous. Does someone recovering from a terminal illness with a survival rate of 0.1% constitute a miracle? Or is that person just the 1 in a 1000 case illustrated directly by the survival rate.
Looking at some of the miracles quoted in the Quran stretches its credibility to say the least. I personally had been of the view that God did not intervene in the worldly plain but had set things in motion, being an omnipotent omniscient being he had the foresight of knowing what decisions mortals would take, and miracles though extremely improbable did not involve suspension of natural law.
Unsurprisingly examining these same miracles with a critical eye yields a very different result.
Adam for example was supposedly the first created human, on the flip side of which we have a clear evolutionary line of human lineage that dates back over the course of millions of years. Disregarding human evolution we have ample evidence that all life on the planet originated from common origins. How then does one special case human beings without any evidence and disregard all evidence to the contrary? How is that not the ultimate expression of human hubris?
Jesus borne of the Virgin Mary, the infamous immaculate conception (3:47 She said: “O my Lord! How shall I have a son when no man hath touched me?” He said: “Even so: Allah createth what He willeth: When He hath decreed a plan, He but saith to it, ‘Be,’ and it is!). Looking at the same through the lens of reason, there Is no known instance of that occurring, and modern history has covered somewhere north of 10 billion people being born and the countless other mammals with no other known instances. At this point the faithful would chime in with yes that is precisely why it was a divine miracle. But we now know that human sexuality is determined by the male genetic contribution, having a female egg simply split providing extra genetic material would result in two X chromosomes and the result would be Miss Jesus. Actually in nature that does happen, there are animals (some reptiles) that can and do reproduce asexually by a process called Parthenogenesis. The problem being that the resultant offspring are all female, notwithstanding the fact that due to the way mammalian pregnancy progresses Parthenogenesis is impossible in humans.
During Noah’s term on earth there occurred a great flood wiping out disbelievers. According to the story the earth was drenched in water killing all flora and fauna in addition those that disbelieved. Due to the scale of the event Noah had to preserve life by preserving the various species along with him. The obvious problem being the ability to collect and preserve the complete species of our planet is impossible. The diversity that we live in is far beyond even all our technical capabilities today. Every day scientists discover new species, new forms of life. Even with all our advancements we have not managed to catalog all life. The idea of being able to preserve it a catastrophic incident is beyond laughable well into the territory of absurd. Ignoring that though an event as cataclysmic as that would have left an imprint in the geological record of the earth or in the fossil record, no such event exists that coincides with human existence.
The tale of Moses and the exodus of the Israelites features prominently in all Abrahamic faiths. The quran asserts the series of Miracles, ranging from plagues to crossing the red sea to divine sustenance and yet throughout that period god was continually doubted by the Israelites, can you imagine the power and awe someone would feel on seeing a sea parted in front of them for their survival while drowning their oppressors, the sheer power of such a god would convince the most cynical minds, yet according to the Quran itself, this was not so. To put this in context, imagine a man doing a feat of that magnitude today coupled with the other miracles, how many would believe his claims despite our current technological prowess.
What benefits do we as a civilization, as a species garner from faith itself?
One of the key idea that is used for justification of faith is Human Morality. Without faith we are told that we would have nothing to anchor us to provide us with a sense of right and wrong. The argument is fallacious; do you believe that if today you were given a blank check by god to do as you please, without any ramifications to your eternal life, you would turn into a serial killer, a child molester? The answer for the vast majority of the human population would be an unequivocal no.
This idea also fails to address the universality of human ideals far beyond the reach of religions. There exists a set of basic ideals, basic principles upon which the edifice of human morality rests. These cross all racial, religious and geographic boundaries. Human beings defend their own; believe that killing their own (group) is abhorrent, that have empathy for others, so on and so forth.
All of these behavior patterns are not unique to humans but are present in higher primates. Chimpanzees have been observed to leap into water to save a drowning member of their group… Chimpanzees are not of fond of water and do not swim. An experiment was conducted on a rhesus monkey wherein it was denied food, the food was available at the push of a button, the associated side effect of this was electric shocks to a companion of the monkey…turns out the hungry monkey chose to starve rather then torture…
Directly equating human morality with primate morality is not completely accurate though, there’s one significant difference, we took these basic rules hard wired in our brain for survival and quite literally ran with them. We infused these with our intellect to create a framework of ethics over the millennia. The code of Hammurabi being a prominent early example.
The corrosive influence of blind faith and the extremes it has driven humanity to are something that is an obvious concern. No the claim that all wars are because of religion and would cease to exist is obviously spurious. On the other hand the appeal to unreason that is an essence of organized religion is something that has held back society for thousands of years. It stunted the growth of Islamic civilization in the 12th century. Similary Roman and Christian influences destroyed the Greek civilizations march towards rationality.
Similarly today most Muslim countries are stuck in a medieval society simply because of the group-appeal of unreason. These range from the well documented human rights abuses to a certain fatalism about ones fate and control over one’s destiny to the complete lack of a scientific initiative. From Pervez Hoodbhoy’s excellent treatise Islam and Science: Religious Orthodoxy and the Battle for Rationality; Israel with a population of 6 million outpublishes (scientific papers) the entire Muslim world of 1.2 billion put together. Ascribing these massive disparities to external factors is again ignoring the reality of the situation where thinking is not only actively discouraged but feared and condemned. There’s a video available online of Sam Harris talking about his book The End of Faith wherein one of the initial comments is would he able to formulate his thesis and speak about it publicly in a Muslim country without fearing for his life? The thread of intolerance and unreason is something common to all major religions, ranging from the churches condemnation of condoms quite literally ending the lives of millions of believers that as a direct result got infected with HIV in Africa, or the denial of taboo social issues in Muslim countries to the popularity of obscene pseudo-science authors (Harun Yahya et. al) that mislead a pliable audience. Faith is more then just complicit in all this and more it is the primary source of it.
As you may have noticed in all the above one of the ongoing themes was intellectual dishonesty and denial. Happily (or sadly depending on your point of view) that can only last so long. Enter stage left, Richard Dawkins with his documentary on Faith being “The Root of All Evil”. Even though I knew most of the arguments coming from an evolutionary biologist one of the themes that I hadn’t come across was his moral outrage and complete condemnation of religious moderates.
The thesis of his argument was that religious conservatives believe in their religious text and follow it to the letter. Moderates on the other hand fuse secular ideals that have evolved over the past millennia with their religious ideals and pass this off as being the best of both worlds. In reality they filter out inconvenient sections of their religious treatises thus being unfaithful to their religion. On the other hand adhering to a set of beliefs that by definition are resistant to logic, runs counter to reason itself.
What exactly does it mean to be a moderate adherent? By definition regardless of which faith you look at moderates cherry pick what they believe and disbelieve in. On the other hand the idea of faith flowing from divine authority is that right and wrong is ordained from up high. If one was selectively implementing, selectively interpreting verses, sections then one has already made themselves to be the ultimate arbitrar. They themselves are deciding what constitutes right and what constitutes wrong not the divine text itself. In essence the very idea of moderation in faith is bankrupt.
The point itself became evaluating faith from a neutral standpoint, without giving it any free passes on reason. As laid out above, logically questioning the faith leads to the conclusion that the divinity of the message is suspect.
Further, my belief-set is largely inspired by what I believe to be good and true and with hindsight I was projecting the same back onto the Islamic message not the other way around. There is obviously significant overlap between the two due to which I believed for so long, not to mention the formative influence it has had on me. On the other hand treating it as something divine rather then another codex of laws derived from a man that was trying to make the world a better place is an untenable position that I can no longer subscribe to.
There is no evidence of a divine being, of any religion on the planet having any more of a grasp on reality or divinity then Zeus on Mt. Olympia did. The argument of where did the universe originate does not implicitly prove that there is a god but actually raises the question of where did God himself come from? Employing Occam’s razor the probability of a simple uncreated universe is much higher then a complex uncreated god. Not to mention, my opinion of a god is far more just, inclusive, humane and compassionate then what’s articulated in the Quran.
The parable of the teapot from Bertrand Russel comes to mind:
“If I were to suggest that between the Earth and Mars there is a china teapot revolving about the sun in an elliptical orbit, nobody would be able to disprove my assertion provided I were careful to add that the teapot is too small to be revealed even by our most powerful telescopes. But if I were to go on to say that, since my assertion cannot be disproved, it is an intolerable presumption on the part of human reason to doubt it, I should rightly be thought to be talking nonsense. If, however, the existence of such a teapot were affirmed in ancient books, taught as the sacred truth every Sunday, and instilled into the minds of children at school, hesitation to believe in its existence would become a mark of eccentricity and entitle the doubter to the attentions of the psychiatrist in an enlightened age or of the Inquisitor in an earlier time.”
At the moment I personally hope that there is a divine presence but that is all it boils down to, the human need to belong, to mark ourselves with something less ephemeral then our brief existence on this rock we call home, on our need for justice and equality where we see none. I too share that hope but acknowledge that it is a hope nothing more.