Examining my Disbelief

Often, believers in God or a religion reach a state where they begin to develop doubts in what they previously held. This is a frequent occurrence and not unique to any particular cult or creed. As is the trend in our modern times, believers dwell on their doubts and this eventually leads to disbelief, either in the form of apathy or atheism. I can honestly say that I have been through the early stages of a similar, painful experience where I have, and continue to, doubt my faith. But, few who go through this ponder over the legitimacy of their own disbelief or its trigger. What caused their disbelief now, whereas they previously disbelief? This question is seldom asked. Instead, they rationalize their doubts through distractive arguments, which serve merely to back-fill their new positions, instead of arriving at them independently.

In this entry, I hope to self-analyze my own doubts, expose its illegitimacy, expound on its temporarily solution, and lament over my inability to find a makhraj (way out) – except with the help of God, for which I hope and pray.

When I am not in a perturbous state, I find myself imbued with the presence of God in all things I do. This attitude is healthy and productive. But when I am made uneasy by the pains of life and am alone with my thoughts for an extended period of time, I develop a feeling of restlessless, despair, and depression. Since I believe that God is capable of doing all things, the complains and petitions go to Allah for relief. But invariably, those prayers are not answered (According to Islamic theology, all prayers are answered, but not necessarily in the way the person desires). At this point, the proper approach is to recognize the wisdom in God’s decision and submit to it. I can personally attest to recognizing profound wisdoms in not having my prayers answered as I wanted, but it took see that. As Allah says in the Qur’an.

وَعَسَىٰ أَن تَكْرَهُوا شَيْئًا وَهُوَ خَيْرٌ لَّكُمْ ۖ وَعَسَىٰ أَن تُحِبُّوا شَيْئًا وَهُوَ شَرٌّ لَّكُمْ ۗ وَاللَّهُ يَعْلَمُ وَأَنتُمْ لَا تَعْلَمُونَ

…but perhaps you hate a thing and it is good for you; and perhaps you love a thing and it is bad for you. And Allah Knows, while you know not.
– Surah al-Baqarah, Verse 216

But recognizing a wisdom requires submission and breaking yourself. Its not easy to do. Not only that, it can seem absurd. Our Western culture chases material glory and does not create a space for spiritual growth through pain. Absent of being able to recognize that wisdom, the believer experiences frustration and anger with God. Why did God do this? He should not have! Allah says in the Qur’an:

لَا يُسْأَلُ عَمَّا يَفْعَلُ وَهُمْ يُسْأَلُونَ

He is not questioned about what He does, but they will be questioned.
– Surah Al-Anbiya’, Verse 23 

Frustration and anger of all kinds weaken a person’s rationale and relegate him to emotionalism. Trapped in this state, he may choose to take revenge on God, so he actively disobeys what he previously obeyed, comes to hate God, and ultimately makes the concious decision to disbelieve in Him. In an interview, Ustadh Nouman Ali Khan explains this as a deep psychological disorder:

After the person makes his decision, the arguments for atheism become increasingly appealing. The disbeliever uses the arguments as a cover for the real reason he left his faith, not as the primary reason. After all, if his reason was purely intellectual, why did he do so only after a traumatic experience? And why didn’t those same arguments appeal to him earlier? He might read the books of contemporary atheists, or repeat witty atheist mantras without contemplation. But even if this person was intellectually defeated, he would not leave atheism. Reason and arguments have little to do with atheism, just as they have little to do with faith. And because their disbelief is primarily rooted in pain, a common characteristic is to appeal to the pain of others around the world, such as orphans, the destitute, or other disadvantaged people.

I have, and continue to go through a similar experience. In short, a traumatic experience, coupled with seemingly sustained silence from the Heavens has left me bitter, frustrated, angry, and in despair. I don’t know know what to think anymore. Where is God when I call upon him? Perhaps he’s not even there, does not exist! I never outwardly said “I am not longer a Muslim”, but I know I had no reality of faith in my heart, suddenly arguments against faith made sense. As I write this, if there is a God, it is by his divine Mercy that I am a Muslim. I also recognize the profound wisdom in why what happened happened, but it took many years to get to that point.

But this type of disbelief won’t bear to critical examination. It is rooted in an inability to accept the traumatic event, to recognize its wisdom, to recognize that a wisdom does exist. It is buttressed by the spiritual impotence that thrives in a cultural backdrop that urges satisfying one’s every desire and refuses to teach him to deal with deprivation. Thus, the life experiences of the poor and disadvantaged condition them for the pains of life, and force them to rely on God, unlike the rich and privileged who feel self-sufficient and not in need of God.

The next question is, what does someone do who recognizes that his disbelief is primarily the disbelief of pain? This process is very hard, and to this day, I do not have the final solution. However, I can provide some temporary medicines to help you keep your faith afloat:

  • Make a conscious effort to maintain a positive attitude. This means refusing to allow yourself to wallow in depression or despair. You cannot control when it strikes you, but you can change your attitude of dealing of with it. This is the hardest part of the entire process.
  • One of the mental tortures is to dwell on the future consequences of the traumatic event. Don’t do that. You have to change what you are thinking about. Don’t make “plans” or create absurd mental scenarios. This is especially difficult late at night, and I don’t have a cure for that time.
  • Reflect on the negative of what would have happened had the traumatic event not happened.
  • Reflect on the positive things around you. Most people who can read this have infinitely more blessings than problems. But, they just fail to think about them. Your food, your eyesight, your computer, all of these things are tremendous blessings. But few people think about them, most are stuck in the inability to see beyond their limited problems.

My thoughts, please share with me yours…

Secularizing Religion

When we think of a religion in the modern sense, we tend to break it down to a set of dogmatic beliefs and occasional rituals that emanate from a holy scripture. While this is correct, this embodies only the lowest common denominator of what any religion entails. This definition relegates religion to merely a set of enumerable creedal statements that are actualized maybe once a week. Traditionally, this was not what a religion was. Religions were a complete way of life that touched upon all aspects of the human conditions. But in modern times, most religions are shells of their former selves, having been secularized by the backdrop of western culture and internal movements within the faith.

Most religions provide mean to life. Meaning permeates all actions, stories, texts and beliefs of the faith. And since most religions claim to be complete ways of living, they in turn provide meanings to all aspects of life. For example in traditional Judaism every Hebraic letter has a sacred value. Hindu pundits wear markings on their foreheads during holy occasions. In Islam, the way you greet a person might be different if the person if of your faith. And collectively, because these subtleties touch on all aspects of life, everything an adherent does holds significance, from the way he eats, slepts, interacts with a person of the opposite gender or even uses the bathroom. While the doctrinal beliefs are important, people did not learn them in such an explicitly spelled out manor. They were just another part of the system of life the religion entailed, to be absorbed and experienced, not taught in a classroom on a chalk-board.

The spread of western culture has proven corrosive to religious traditions. Sacred clothes, languages, law and poetry have been replaced with a suit and tie, English, democracy and sitcoms, respectively. Religions are not conveyed in the traditional manor of an unbroken chain from teacher to student, but are studied in exactly the same fashion as any empirical science, such as in a classroom or through independent self-study. By its nature, this approach not only negates the possibility of guided personal experience of the transcendent, it rigidifies a religion from a lifestyle to a dry list of beliefs and practices. And most distasteful to the layman, minor discrepancies or disagreements are not overlooked in the backdrop of the overwhelming concurrence, but become battle grounds that fuel religious conflict and creates divisions.

What about the dogmatic beliefs? Have they too been compromised? Yes and no. While pure acceptance has been replaced with skepticism and condescension by their own adherents, of all aspects of religion this one has proven the most resilient. Even people who are completely immersed in a secular lifestyle have managed to maintain a token attachment to their creed. One possible reason is that immaterial beliefs that have no practical application in one’s daily life can remain dormant and thus unchallenged. This contrasts with, say, wearing a tefillin which is conspicuous and subject to question.

In the realm of philosophy, all philosophies are ultimately based on untested axioms upon which the rules of logic are applied to arrive at conclusions. Traditionally, the religious philosophers held their own axioms to be true. For example, one of the names of God, Haqq, is the root-word for the Arabic word for reality. The implication is that if God is not the central axiom of your view of the world, your understanding of reality is delusional. But, secular thought replaced this axiom and ones like it with a purely materialistic view of the world, which presupposes that there is no such thing as the supernatural. Even those who believe in God but who were born in such a culture articulate axioms that are antithetical to their own beliefs.

What is causing this shift towards the secularization of religion? It is a combination of both internal and external forces. First is the aforementioned spread of western secular culture. Its vanguard is the New Atheist movement that aggressively challenges the last vestiges of dormant, un-actualized belief. External factors are self-evident. But internal factors require a bit more elaboration.

Nearly all major religions form factions in unbalanced archetypal manors, with one emphasizing mysticism and spirituality (experience-based) and the other focusing on theology and law (text-based). Those upon the spiritual path are less willing to adapt to pervasive western secular culture. But their opposites are more willing to package the religion in the clothes of westernization for the sake of a perceived greater good. This leads to a flashy and attractive manifestation of the religion, which can be more easily conveyed in a “class-room” environment. Therefore, the theological and legal focusing archetype gains prominence amongst the common adherent. By its nature, it focuses on actions and outward manifestations of the religion, while de-emphasizing experience and meaning. Religion becomes dry beliefs and dry actions. Hence the secularization.

Examples in the Abrahamic faiths include modern Jews, who emphasize the Halakha (Jewish law) or their racial identity, but de-emphasize Kabbalah (mysticism). Some even rationalize their atheism by arguing that their disbelief in God does not violate the first commandment because rejecting God is not taking a false god. Protestant Christianity is the secularized version of Catholicism. It rids itself of Catholic tradition and history, replacing it with a scripture-only approach, Sola Scriptura. Islam’s Salafi movement de-emphasizes 1400 years of Islamic tradition, and reduces Islam to simplistic interpretations of the Qur’an and prophetic traditions. In my opinion, all of these are shells of their former selves, yet are able to capture the masses by appealing to what they want: unquestioned support for the state of Israel, theatric mega-church services, and beautiful recitations of the Qur’an and religious poetry on Jihad.

So, what does this all mean? Interpret it as you wish, but here’s what I take:

From the perspective of the believers, this has happened so gradually that what they perceive to be the normative manifestation of their faith is but a shell of its former self, masquerading as the same faith that was revealed to the original holy recipient. Feeling threatened, the adherents intensify their religious zeal, strongly clinging to what remains of the outward. But what they cling to is a secularized version of the faith. Their emphasis on merely dry actions leads to religiosity, which in turn causes them to be rejected by the masses and provides fuel for the New Atheists.

“Faith wears out in the heart of any one of you just as clothes wear out, so ask God to renew the faith in your hearts.”

Personal Experience or Empirical Evidence?

In this short essay, I am going to explain why I believe “personal spiritual experiences” are a valid form of evidence for the belief in God. Let me start with the objection:

Atheist Objection: One of the main problems with the “God hypothesis” is the complete lack of evidence. If one wanted to prove the existence of, say, an apple, he would bring forth observable, demonstrable evidence of its existence. This can come in many forms, such as a picture, its weight, or even its taste. These observations can be confirmed by others and thus we can conclude that the apple exists. However, the same method of analysis cannot be performed with God. To date, there are no objective measurements of God. Thus, just as a person with the complete lack of evidence of an apple is likely to conclude that the apple does not exist, no theist can demonstrate the existence of God. Therefore, we conclude that God does not exist.

I say: While the reasoning is acceptable, the main problem with this argument is the rejection of certain kinds of evidence. This is usually done through ridicule rather than a genuine argument. When a theist attempts to bring forth evidence in support of God, his evidence is dismissed as a delusion.

To understand this, juxtapose a deaf person and a person who can hear, both in a concert hall. From their vantage point neither can see the orchestra. But, the person without the physical challenge can hear their music. He insists that the orchestra is around a corner. But, the deaf person demands proof. From the deaf person’s perspective, there is no evidence whatsoever of their existence. In reality, the deaf person is not aware of his own state- his lack of auditory faculty. To him, no evidence exists. To the one who can hear, his experience of the sound is proof.

To the person who can hear, the orchestra’s existence is confirmed by the personal experience he has of the sound it produces. The skeptic deaf person may reject the orchestra’s existence because he has had no experience. Similarly, it is because of the personal experiences that a believer has that he believes in God. This is why core testification of Islam can be understood as “I witness [ie. personally experience] that there is no God but Allah”.

Atheist Objection: The problem with the “personal experience” evidence is obvious. It cannot be independently verified or objectively measured. For example, if a theist is in a state of experiencing God, there is nothing that an atheist can do to experience what he is experiencing. It is more reasonable to conclude that his experience is either a self-created delusion that has no reality.

I say: This response is rooted in ignorance and inconsistency. By its nature, all experience is personal. For example, the deaf person could not personally experience sound because he lacks the faculty to perceive it. But, that does not mean it has no reality. The atheist is arguing from this perspective- a person who cannot hear and therefore denies the existence of sound. The Qur’an refers to the spiritual heart as the root of his faculty of the perception of God and parallels this with other faculties by calling those who deny it as “deaf, dumb and blind”. Thus, on would argue that the atheists have dead hearts.

As for independent verification, it already exists. Attend any Pentecostal church on a Sunday. One can witness many individuals all going through the same personal spiritual experiences, and is therefore independently verified. It can be repeated, every Sunday or day of worship. It can even be measured, as many comment on the strength of their experiences with the Holy Spirit or other divine beings.

I say, all experience is personal. In fact, to say “objective observation” is an oxymoron, because observations by definition are personal and subjective. But, we arbitrarily define some as empirical while relegating others to subjective and potentially delusional. This is leads to our conclusion that there is no evidence for the existence of God.