Atheists; critical thinking and tradition


In  a  debate  last  year  (2012)  with Rabbi Lord Sacks, Richard Dawkins was  asked  by  a  member  of  the audience if he brought his children up  in  “the  atheist  tradition.”  To  this, Dawkins  replied:  “There  is  no  atheist tradition.   The   atheist   tradition   is: ‘Think for yourself. Be critical’.’’ In other words,  Dawkins  believes  that  atheism is  a  purely  rational  set  of  beliefs  and therefore   not   something   which   can be  inherited  or  received  uncritically.  We  can  presume  that  he  thinks  the absolute  opposite  is  true  of  atheism’s  arch-nemesis, religion.

In the run-up to the UK census in 2011, the British Humanist Association launched   a   campaign   urging people   to   identify   themselves as  ‘no  religion’  if  they  did  not genuinely  believe  in  a  religious tradition.  The  results,  published in  late  2012,  showed  that  25% of people (up from 15% in 2001) had  indeed  stipulated  that  they did  not  have  a  religion.  This  is not the same as the hard atheism of  Dawkins,  but  it  nevertheless reflects  the  fact  that  a  growing number of people in Britain think that  there  is  no  grounds  for  religious belief of any kind.

Today  there  is  a  widespread  perception that atheists are intrinsically more critical,  rational  or  evidence-based  in their beliefs than religious people. This fallacy has been popularised by the New Atheists,  many  of  whom  are  scientists and  intellectuals,  who  –  whether  on the  grounds  of  science,  philosophy  or morality  –  are  determined  to  portray religion   and   religious   believers   as emotional, irrational in their beliefs and averse to asking questions. By contrast, they   portray   atheism   as   a   logical, evidence-based  position  that  anyone who carefully reflects on life’s big questions will arrive at.

But these assertions are more polemic than fact. More than a thousand years of   Muslim   theological   enquiry   belie Dawkin’s claim that rational, evidence-based arguments are the sole preserve of  the  atheist.  In  the  works  of  the Islamic  scholars  of  discursive  theology (kalam),  reason  and  rational  certainty are    considered    paramount;    blind-following  is  not  allowed  in  matters  of doctrine – meaning that each and every individual  believer  (even  if  they  were born into a Muslim family) has a moral duty  to  investigate  the  rational  arguments  and  evidence  for  their  beliefs. The Qur’an repudiates the idea of belief in the absence of evidence, “…they say, ‘We  will  rather  follow  what  we  have found   our   fathers   following.’   What, even if their fathers neither applied any reason nor were guided?!” (2: 170)  In other words, the Islamic tradition is, at its  root,  nothing  less  than:  ‘Think  for yourself. Be critical.’

Moreover, there are many atheists who clearly   want   something   more   than abstract  rational  arguments  for  non-belief  which  Dawkins  subsumes  under the heading of “critical thinking”. Atheists  have  long  created  parodies of  religion  (mainly  Christianity), like  Pastafarianism  (don’t  ask!), but  there  are  now  straight-faced atheist  “churches”  springing  up in London and other cities whose Sunday services, while differing in content,  closely  mimic  the  style of  a  Christian  congregation.  This clearly  shows  that  there  are  non-rational  (though  not  necessarily irrational) aspects to religion that atheists  value  and  wish  to  retain, even  in  the  absence  of  religious belief. Whether this is couched in terms of  community  or  public  affirmations of  “faith”,  it  is  precisely  these  non-rational  dimensions  which  constitute a   “tradition”   rather   than   a   set   of rationally-arrived  at  beliefs.  It  is  intellectually dishonest to pretend that this is anything else.

This  shows  that  people, while     cynical     towards     organised religion,  are  still  looking  for  two  of  its two  major  components;  a  set  of  rational, evidence-based  beliefs  and  a  larger  tradition  in  which  they  can  participate.  Framed thus, it appears that Islam has a great deal to offer. Our vibrant tradition of scholastic learning has provided us with a wealth of rational and textual arguments for the beliefs we hold. Not only that, but in a time when there is widespread disillusionment with the breakdown of traditional values, Islam –  a social religion par excellence –has the potential to revive virtues such as honesty, family and community,  which  many  British  people  would  like  to  see  a return to. Perhaps this is why, at a time of declining religious belief in general, Islam continues to attract five thousand new converts every year in Britain alone.

But while Islam has a great deal to offer the world, can the same be said of us? How critical have we been in the adoption of our beliefs? If we don’t know why we believe, we are hardly in a position to convince others. People find faith in a myriad number of ways; some are initiated through being brought up in a Muslim family, some through marrying a Muslim partner, others because they have Muslim friends; some embrace Islam through  careful  deliberation,  others fall  in  love  with  God’s  religion  at  first sight.  But however  we  came  to  the  faith is only part of the equation; the real question is how are we keeping the faith? When families fall  out,  partners  split  up  and  friends move away; when we find ourselves in difficulty, without  a  loving,  caring  community  of  fellow believers,  what  keeps  us  on  the  path?  When  we go through the Dark Night of the Soul, what guides us through to the other side? If we don’t have good reasons for believing, then sooner or later we will find our belief is not enough to carry us through.

But  how  do  you  know  if  you  have  good  reasons  for believing?  People  often  carry  out  mock  job  interviews either  with  themselves  or  with  the  help  of  a  friend;  try instead questioning your beliefs (whether alone or with a friend) and ask yourself what you believe and why. Then probe your answers and see if you can find anything you are unsure about.  Write down your questions  and  go  in search of answers. Remember the famous saying of Imam Ali (a) :  ‘Knowledge  is  a  treasure  house  whose  keys  are  questions.’  In this way you  can  strengthen  your  own  beliefs  and ensure  that,  should  the  opportunity  ever  present  itself,  you can explain them in a coherent manner to someone who is interested in Islam.

Faith  is  not  ‘belief  in  the  absence  of  evidence’  (despite  the erroneous claims of both theists and atheists alike); true faith is  the  fruit  of  intellectual  certainty.  That  certainty  can  only come  from  educating  ourselves  and  interrogating  our  own beliefs. So while atheists may brandish the slogan ‘Think for yourself.  Be  critical.’  and  believe  it  belongs  to  them,  with  a little more critical reflection on their part, they might realise that we’ve been saying this all along.

Written by Alexander Khaleeli

This article was originally published in Islam Today magazine.

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  1. Thank you Alexander for this thoughtful piece.

    Could you elaborate on why someone would choose religion y over religion x from an Islamic viewpoint, eg how does Islam suggest one should select a religion?

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