A friend recently told me that when we first met, he was surprised to find out that I believed in God because he “thought that all smart people were atheists.” I used to think that too because, after all, I did some very stupid things as a religious adolescent. But then I met some really stupid atheists. And I did some stupid things as an atheist too. I’ve gone through phases of both ardent religiosity and deep skepticism. I know what it’s like to squirm while someone tries to press upon you religious convictions that you don’t agree with or just don’t want to hear. I’ve also been the person doing those awkward things.
Once, after dwelling perhaps too deeply on a hymn, I announced to my eighth grade English class, “I have decided to adopt the eagle as my personal mascot.” I also invited my best friend to my Catholic youth group and then warned her to mind her atheist manners—which, it turns out, was the wrong thing to say. I wouldn’t be surprised if this blog forayed into such awkward material at a future date, but I’m going to try not to make that happen right now.
I have a lot of atheist friends—certainly more atheist friends than Muslim friends—and I’ve been trying to figure out how to bring them into the conversation of this blog, to have the kind of respectful discussion that I’ve always enjoyed with them. In Yann Martel’s book Life of Pi, Pi feels that atheists are his brothers and sisters of another faith. What I feel is that we share a faith in human reason and the value of rational discourse.
Where we differ is in our understanding of where that reason comes from. I believe that the human intellect comes from God, and that we have a responsibility to use that intellect to the best of our ability. It seems like so many problems in the world come from people refusing to use their brains and from the incessant dumbing-down of cultural and global conversations. We find it easier to assign blame than to think about things, and unfortunately, people in power stand to benefit from and pander to that eagerness to stop thinking. It also seems like the refusal to think is sometimes blamed on faith in God. But my faith tells me to think. In fact, I can only understand the force of God in our world by using my intellect.
When I was moving away from agnosticism and toward Islam, my dominant feeling was that there was something transcendent about the world and our existence in it. In her posthumously published Moments of Being, Virginia Woolf writes:
From this I reach what I might call a philosophy; at any rate it is a constant idea of mine; that behind the cotton wool is hidden a pattern; that we—I mean all human beings—are connected with this; that the whole world is a work of art; that we are parts of the work of art. Hamlet or a Beethoven quartet is the truth about this vast mass that we call the world. But there is no Shakespeare, there is no Beethoven; certainly and emphatically there is no God; we are the words; we are the music; we are the thing itself.
I loved this quote when I was an agnostic, and I still love it now. Woolf’s hidden pattern is what I call God. Some deists call it the Oversoul. Quantum physicists call it the collective unconscious. It’s something that unites us and connects us to the physical world and to each other. It’s there to be discussed and experienced. The mere idea of God should not have to be a source of strife. Because if it is, we’re playing into the powers in this world that wish us to stop thinking and sharing ideas. That’s part of the anti-intellectualism we face.
Some of the most ethical, moral people I know are atheists or agnostics, and it’s easy to talk to them about social justice and philosophy and politics and concerns that embrace all of humanity. For me, the fact that we can access morality through our reason is one of the proofs of God. In his book, In the Footsteps of the Prophet, Tariq Ramadan writes, “Islam and its message came to confirm the substance of a treaty that human conscience had already independently formulated.” Ramadan is referring to a specific treaty that the Prophet Muhammad—may the peace of God be on him—participated in before Islam, and that he upheld after Islam.
What I take from this is that in secular society, it is our responsibility to use our reason to establish justice. This seems like such an obvious thing to say. Both atheists and Muslims, along with many other religious people, find this manifestly true. Yet we see rational thinking coming under attack, especially in this election season. Whether you find it obvious or surprising, atheists and Muslims are on the same side—along with people of all other religions who value justice and reason. We need to think and act like it.