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.