Being brought up in a moderate Muslim family I understand the hardship and frustration that the majority of Muslims living in the west face today. I am not talking about the explicit ‘Islamophobia’ presented by groups such as the EDL, but rather the fear of losing one’s identity and culture when immersed in a society which holds different values.
Muslim women (more so than men), face this reality on a daily basis, because many of them choose to wear the hijab or niqab and so have their ideology constantly on display. Islam is not simply an intellectual ideology for most Muslims, but rather something that is completely intertwined with their sense of identity and understanding of the world. This is pretty clear to me, because I was strongly religious only a short while ago. After getting into the ‘religion versus atheism’ debate however, it slowly become clear to me the need to communicate Atheism better.
I don’t expect many Muslims who read this article to suddenly change their minds about their world view, indeed it took me a few years to be able to do that myself. I am hoping though, that this article will make the reader take the time to explore their own beliefs a little more. I am focusing specifically on Islam because it is the religion I am most familiar with, but also because there aren’t too many ex-Muslims that have spoken about their loss of faith.
It is important to first make clear what Atheism actually means. It is often misunderstood and this has caused a lot of confusion. Atheism is a non-belief, and most people are atheists in some sense, because they do not believe in Zeus or Thor. Today, ‘atheists’ are normally referred to as people who do not believe in any god. Hence, the main difference between a Muslim and an atheist is that the atheist does not believe in Allah. That’s it. It does not say anything about what the Atheist actually believes in. An Atheist can still be spiritual, although they do not believe in anything supernatural.
The main reason that I became an atheist was that I valued evidence and reason. Even when I was most religious, I always believed that Islam was a logical and coherent religion that valued evidence and reason. This belief was supported by the fact that the first surah sent to the prophet was surat Al-Alaq which states in the first ayah “Read in the name of your Lord who created”. In this case “Read” has been interpreted to mean understand or seek new information. This is an important point to consider, because this distinguishes many religious people from each other. In order for someone to have an open mind, one must be willing to accept new information. Reason and evidence needs to be the most important tools to search for truth because otherwise the persons belief system is completely static. It is vital that our beliefs are constantly changing, because in doing so, we can get closer to understanding the reality that we find ourselves in. If we were to hold static beliefs then important changes such as the abolition of slavery, women’s rights and countless other liberties would not exist. If a person does not hold these prerequisite values, then they are very unlikely to change their beliefs and have an open mind. People who hold these values can be called scientists, and it is these people that this article is aimed at.
Science is also often very misunderstood by many Muslims and religious people in general, causing yet more confusion. Science is a process that uses the scientific method in order to analyse the world. This method uses reason and evidence to learn about the world and create a model of how the world works. As I stated earlier, if reason and evidence are not valued, then there is no point in having the argument in the first place. Although the scientific method has provided us with an amazing understanding of the world, there is nothing to suggest that it is limitless or can answer all our questions. Most scientists understand this and tend to be humble when it comes to the big questions. A question such as “What happened before the big bang?” is a difficult question to answer, and many scientists have attempted to answer it. Though there is also nothing wrong with saying “I don’t know” and in many cases, this position is completely acceptable. This point is very important to consider seriously, because it draws a line between a core belief in science (namely nothing is a hundred percent certain and we try our best to approximate the world), and the concept of faith in religion.
I take faith to mean belief without sufficient evidence. The idea of faith can be destructive regardless of the ideology it is being applied to. If one has faith in their country, then that can be just as destructive as having faith in a particular religion. Any ideology that rejects reason and evidence can be considered dangerous because it is very difficult to change it if it happened to be wrong or potentially destructive.
In order to be a Muslim, one must of course have faith in Allah. The most important statement in Islam is the shahadah
“Ashhadu Alla Ilaha Illa Allah Wa Ashhadu Anna Muhammad Rasulu Allah” or
“There is no God but Allah, and Muhammad is his messenger.”
This of course is a statement of fact. A Muslim cannot say “Well, by looking at the evidence it seems Allah is likely to exist and Muhammad does indeed seem to be his messenger”.
When such a statement is made, it is important to take into consideration other statements of fact about the world. Take a well understood fact about our universe, such as the existence of electrons; we have a mountain of evidence suggesting that electrons exist, but no one claims this information is completely correct. We can model them, and the idea of electrons works well with theory and in experiments, but they are still not completely understood. For example, we do not know how an electron can be in two places at once and interfere with itself. We do not know how they can behave like both a particle and a wave depending on measurement. This means that the appropriate statement for the existence of electrons is “yes, they do seem to exist, but we are not entirely sure that they do so in the same way other objects exits”. What it means ‘to exist’ seems to completely fall apart in the quantum world because particles come in and out of existence all the time. When comparing this statement about a well defined and understood physical phenomena, we see that the statement about gods existence seems to be to be a little too confident of an assertion.
It is important for anyone who values evidence to start analysing their own beliefs with questions like: how great is the evidence that Allah exists? Can we really be sure that Mohammed is his messenger specifically? What sort of evidence is required to support such claims?
We know that we cannot trust eyewitness accounts or vague historical texts because these do not provide the compelling evidence needed to make a dramatic statement such as the shahadah. I am not trying to belittle ancient historical documents such as the Qur’an, the Bible or the Torah, but when making statements about the creation of the universe, then we need more and potentially better evidence to support our beliefs. The question of what sort of evidence is needed to support the shahadah is a scientific one. We must be able to find experimentally testable and verifiable evidence that indicate both a divine creator and a human medium by which divine communication was carried out. Some Muslims might take issue with the idea that I am asking for evidence that is experimentally verifiable because science cannot test for everything and hence cannot expect to find the evidence it requires.
This is true, science may not be able to test everything that exists inside (or outside?) our universe, but the claims that cannot be tested cannot be trusted. This is why important and seemingly plausible theories such as string theory and the multiverse theory are not accepted as fact. Testing for dark energy and dark matter seems also problematic even though our best models predict the existence of such things. Scientists are careful when talking about these theories and are quick to note their validity. These theories are not claimed to be facts and are constantly discussed and revised. If we cannot experimentally validate a physical claim (even when it seems to all intents and purposes correct) then we cannot trust that claim. It is important for a Muslim to really consider whether their belief in the shahadah is reasonable, is the evidence for Allah and his Messenger greater than that of string theory, the multiverse theory or dark matter/energy?
To make sure that the belief held by the individual is reasonable, we must check that it is falsifiable. This means we need to ask the question “What evidence would I need for my belief to be potentially wrong?”. If you cannot answer this question about any belief, then you might have a problem. Science does exactly that in order to confirm it’s findings. If we take the evidence for evolution, we can see that there are many, many things that we could find in order to discover that the theory is potentially incorrect. A famous example of trying to falsify evolution would be to find ‘Precambrian rabbits’ or rabbit fossils that date back before the Cambrian period. Because mammals should have evolved much later in evolution, it would indicate that the theory is not accurate enough and that revisions need to be made. In this way science corrects itself and creates more accurate models of the world. These corrections are actually celebrated and encouraged in science, because in doing so we have understood more about the world we live in. Surprisingly Islam seems to indicate that it recognises falsifiability as important because in the Qur’an in surat Al-Baqarah it states:
“And if you are in doubt as to that which We have revealed to Our servant, then produce a chapter like it and call on your witnesses besides Allah if you are truthful. But if you do not – and you will never be able to – then fear the Fire, whose fuel is men and stones, prepared for the disbelievers.”
This challenge does not seem to be that impressive because of it’s subjectivity. How do we know that say Shakespeare did not create something much better than that chapter? What if I write a long piece of poetry and ask someone to create something like it, would they be able to compare them directly and decide which one is better objectively? We can get into a lot of linguistic and semantic arguments about which one is better and why, but nothing will be certain. Many Muslims consider such statements to be impressive and are counted as Qur’anic miracles, but when thinking about that verse more objectively, it just seems like a vague attempt at falsifiability.
Even so, the most compelling thing I find about Islam is the Qur’an. When listening to Surat Az-Zalzalah for example, you do indeed get an amazing feeling of awe and wonder. This is especially true if you can speak Arabic and understand what is being said. The poetry in the Qur’an is impressive and I still feel humbled by it’s beauty. I could probably sit and write pages upon pages about the beauty of some aspects of the Qur’an or Islamic culture, but does this indicate that the ideology is correct? Not really. In the same way that I get a sense of wonder when watching the night sky, or looking at an animal or just being present to the moment, I am still aware of my place in the universe and the likelihood that there is any god out there.
I think it’s really important for the reader to sit back, put their beliefs on hold and seriously consider the possibility that they are wrong. It can be a very frightening thing to to do because it does not simply mean that you are intellectually wrong, but that your family and friends are wrong too. People that you highly respect have been wrong all along and suddenly the world seems bigger and more mysterious than you could have ever have imagined. It means that years of prayer have been going to waste and all that preparation for the after-life is pointless. Your life may indeed be pointless in the grand scheme of things, but maybe not to your friends and family.
Personally, it was these thoughts that I struggled with the most. I found that I really had to ask myself whether I was worried about offending Allah or offending my family when my doubts really started sinking in. I also frequently thought that people who doubted gods existence or did not believe in Islam, failed to understand something about Islam that I had understood. What about all those scientific miracles in the Qur’an or the argument from design, the kalaam cosmological argument, the historical argument and the moral arguments? I was pretty convinced that these arguments were sound when I was religious, I even used them to debate atheists. But I slowly found that these arguments were flawed or at least not very convincing.
I will not try to debunk all the arguments mentioned because many others have already done it, and are much better at it than me. The likes of Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennet and Lawrence Krauss have been through many of them meticulously and a quick google search will give the reader all the information required.
The strongest arguments for the existence of god were actually given by people like William Lane Craig or Hamza Tzortzis (both having essentially the same argument – namely the kalaam cosmological argument) but again, once you really sit down and look at the science you will probably find the flaws in them too.
The main thing I can suggest to the doubtful Muslim is, keep reading and have an open mind. You don’t really need to change all your beliefs or take anyone’s word for it, indeed don’t take my word for it. Find out for your self. Using reason and evidence to guide you, you can’t get too far from the truth.
Denouncing islam can be very problematic for a doubtful muslim because it would probably result in hurting your loved ones and a loss of respect from both your peers and wider community. This is understandable because they believe you know better but have made the choice to end up in hell. It essentially labels you as an ‘unbeliever’ and puts you in the ‘them’ category in the ‘us versus them’ mentality. Confessing your lack of deen can even be a death sentence in some countries and so keeping quiet about it can be more important to your own well being than the alternative. This is why I can’t always recommend coming out as an atheist. It is really a matter of risk analysis, if you feel like you can get away with confessing your atheism without being completely destroyed then I hope that you will do so. You will play a part in changing culture itself and in the future, generations of other similar minded individuals will be grateful that you did.