My Leaving Was Not the Effect of a Single Cause
Maha is a Denver-based writer and law graduate, specializing in international criminal law, civil rights law, and international affairs. This is her first piece about leaving Islam. This article was first published at http://myoped.org/?p=245
“If the people of this religion are asked about the proof for the soundness of their religion, they flare up, get angry and spill the blood of whoever confronts them with this question. They forbid rational speculation, and strive to kill their adversaries. This is why truth became thoroughly silenced and concealed.” —Muhammad ibn Zakariya al-Razi
I’ve been asked the same question twice in the past two days, so I thought I’d answer it in a bit more detail: “Did a particular incident prompt you to leave Islam?”
The short answer is no – abandoning a set of personal beliefs is, and continues to be, a process for me. Certain events were influential catalysts –such as estrangement from family, but were not in and of themselves necessarily sufficient to prompt my abandonment of the religion in its entirety.
As much as many parents are influential in the child’s adoption of their religious beliefs, they can also equally influence a child’s decision to abandon such beliefs. There are many reasons why a child may continue to self-identify with her parents’ religious beliefs – including the fear of abandonment and estrangement, as was my case. This is due to the concept of group cohesion and identity. Apostates have long suffered discrimination, oppression, and persecution as a result of leaving their faith. This history is no doubt a scary reality – and doubly so for a dependent child of religious, or culturally religious, parents.
Parents are responsible for their children – after all, they chose to bring a child into the world, or otherwise by some decision of their own choosing the child was born (excluding force such as rape, in which case responsibility is tragically arguable). Their low level of emotional intelligence, or complete lack thereof, may result in their heavy reliance on religious beliefs to substitute for their ability to parent. This jeopardizes their roles as caretakers and mentors. For example, religion can be used as an effective tool to control a child, through fear-mongering, as well as shaming. It can also be used to quell a child’s curiosity by substituting intellectual discourse with religious stories and rhetoric. The parent may not even theologically subscribe to a religion, but by virtue of his or her own upbringing in a culture heavily influenced by a particular religion, still possess beliefs similar if not identical to religious ones. In this case, the child is exposed to both direct and indirect religious ideations and expectations.
A child is not exclusively exposed to parental influence. As she grows, she is (if she’s lucky) exposed to new ideas, people, and experiences through schooling. This was my case. For a curious, young intellect, religious substitution for questions involving the sciences, for example, can only remain satisfactory for so long. Introduction to other schools of thought, such as philosophy or the scientific method, will challenge her to analyze and reconsider which belief system best suits her intellect.
For example, I was fascinated when I learned about evolution and Gregor Mendel’s pea experiments. Unfortunately, these ideas conflicted with the religious beliefs I had been raised with. In fact, they were absent from them. The more I began to study evolution, the more I came to realize that worship of deities and religiosity were inextricably linked in history to the survival of ancient societies. They were, in a sense, a sort of evolutionary adaptive trait. I began to examine the concept of God as this advantageous trait – particularly for an individual in a desperate situation. Concepts of “hope” and “faith” encouraged the individual to show resistance during a time where succumbing to the threat most certainly guaranteed death or serious injury.
That is not to say, however, that whatever religious beliefs inspire the individual to resist in times of despair are necessarily rational or true. But from an evolutionary and psychological point-of-view, these beliefs can be explained scientifically. This accounts, in part, for their continual persistence throughout human civilization. I thought very seriously and deeply about these concepts at an early age. I also developed a liking for authors like Mark Twain, and his historical resistance to religion.
I secretly wrote many essays on the subject of God as an evolutionary adaptive trait in my high school years. I was fascinated by the psychology of religion and its powerful role in group cohesion. Sadly, this would ultimately lead to my exclusion from my own group. I would not say I’m a modern-day Galileo, but I can most certainly empathize with his situation.
I am also often challenged over the concept of science in Islam. I do not find this to be convincing. Galileo, along with hundreds of other scientists throughout documented history, lived in religious societies where apostasy meant certain death. Many Islamic scientists faced the same fate (see here, here, and here for a non-exhaustive list of examples). It was impossible for them, or anyone, to self-identify as anything but Muslim. One only needs to look to the earliest of atheists during the rise of Islam, such as Abu Bakr al-Razi (865-925 CE), to realize how deeply ingrained Islam was in society during these purported eras of Islamic scientism.
Al-Razi understood the hold of religious belief on these societies, which he attributed to several factors. Firstly, systems of beliefs spread mainly through the human propensity for imitating and copying others. Secondly, religion’s popularity rested on the close alliance between clerics and political rulers. The clerics often used this alliance to impose their own personal beliefs on people by force whenever the power of persuasion failed. Thirdly, the lavish and imposing character of the attire of religious men contributed to the high regard in which they were held by common people. Lastly, with the passage of time religious ideas became so familiar that they turned almost into deep-seated instincts that were no longer questioned.
This insight from al-Razi’s work helps to debunk the flawed assertion that all individuals at the time of these scientific discoveries would have voluntarily subscribed to the faith. He is also not an exhaustive list of examples. Sadly, in almost all Islamic countries, the criminalization of apostasy continues today and many are condemned, imprisoned, and executed for choosing to leave their country’s state religion.
The one question which has resonated with me since childhood is this: If a religion such as Islam insists it is inherently peaceful, then why has it struggled since its inception to achieve peace?
So yes, the excommunication served as a catalyst for my leaving Islam. But it was certainly not a single incident which prompted my decision to abandon it.