By Omar Shahid
11 May, 2012
In Religion for Atheists, published earlier this year, Alain de Botton suggests that religion has a lot to teach atheists. It is far too important to be regarded as completely redundant, he argues, because it promotes “morality” and “teaches us to become polite, honour one another, to be faithful and sober”. This is all true. Denying the wealth of knowledge and benefit that can be found in religion is hubristic.
But religion is also the cause of many of the world’s problems: it’s dangerous. Religious people often accept exoteric, literal interpretations of religious texts, without using their rational faculties. Religion without reason is blind, ruthless and leads to discrimination.
But 21st Century secularists are also guilty; they have dismissed and lost the ethics taught by religion. Contemporary media focus is too heavily weighed on the out-of-date issues which religion appears to have a regressive and pejorative understanding of.
In an article he wrote in February for the New Statesman, Journalist Bryan Appleyard described how a “neo-atheism” – by which he means “the conviction that science provides the only road to truth and that all religions are deluded, irrational and destructive” – has emerged over the past two decades.
de Botton echoes this view when he writes that when an atheist says ‘I think religions are not all bad’, he or she is subjected to “savage messages” calling them a “fascist, an idiot or a fool”.
One religion, however, is widely understood for its moral benefits. Buddhism – which, by its nature is a much less proselytising faith than the Abrahamic religions – stresses disengagement from worldly affairs and meditation, while it insists on maintaining a healthy relationship with the world.
It is this kind of emphasis on moral and spiritual benefits that the other faiths need to tap into; dogma, perfunctory rituals and overzealously propagating one’s religion are often a hindrance to their progression. There is nothing wrong with propagating faith, but how about doing it through acts of kindness, smiling and helping one’s neighbours, not through shouting on a pedestal or condemning others.
Two things are clear: many religious teachings are beneficial to humans – and there are a great many atheists who deny this truth. While religion has been in steady decline since the early 20th century, particularly in the West, it still plays a prominent part in many countries and will do so for a long time. So instead of completely rejecting it, we need to work with it and, more importantly, redefine it.
The Bible is still interpreted literally by many Christians and, consequently, we have seen the “issue” of homosexuality – which is condemned in the Old Testament – creep back into the headlines in the past few months. Religious leaders, basing their opinions on pre-modern scriptures, often speak insensitively about homosexuality. Why some Christians – even intelligent ones – still hold the Bible as a text that should be interpreted literally is a mystery, and potentially perilous. According to leading New Testament scholar Bart Ehram in his New York Times bestseller Misquoting Jesus, The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why, the Bible is far from a divine revelation and has been altered, intentionally and unintentionally, on numerous occasions.
What is needed, however, is the quintessential message of love which suffuses much of the New Testament to override all other hostile attitudes to other people. There also need to be more progressives like Dr. Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury, who although firm in their faith, are not afraid to challenge scripture.
Islam, like Christianity, is also failing in the field of hermeneutics; modern exegetes are unable or unwilling to interpret the texts to conform with our current world. This is partly because sects like the strictly orthodox Wahhabis in Saudi Arabia, who are intent on not allowing innovation (which is a grave sin in Islam) into the religion, have a huge say on the Islamic literature disseminated throughout the world.
Then again, there are Muslims calling for change; in a blog called Contemporary Muslims are in need of spirituality, the Oxford academic Tariq Ramadan claims “Sufi movements have re-emerged” within Islam. Sufism is the inner, mystical version of Islam which places greater importance on asceticism and God’s love; the adherents, Sufis, are generally more liberal. The Sufi movements, Ramadan says, contrast with the “ritualistic traditionalism [and] Islamist activism”.
Muslims, according to Ramadan, have lost the essence of their religion which is the quest for meaning and the peace of heart. “The time has come,” Ramdan argues, “for a spiritual and religious emancipation.”
Many Muslims have neglected the inward dimensions of faith and have placed more importance on the outward. In a time when many Muslims’ faith has been shaken to the core, particularly since the bombardment of anti-Islamic sentiment following 9/11, the spiritual teachings of Islam are needed to restore a sense of equanimity more than ever. And none more so than for many intellectuals who see little import in “mainstream Islam”, an anthropomorphised God and other metaphysical concepts which seem farfetched.
The Muslim discourse on what traditionalism really is has been hijacked by literalists and has been exacerbated by 9/11: instead of Muslims saying what they are, they have become too preoccupied in saying what they are not.
A Facebook page dedicated to the 13th century Sufi poet Rumi who, according to Time Magazine, is one of the all-time best selling poets in the USA – reached 300,000 ‘likes’ last week. Rumi’s vision for Islam is one that is refreshingly inclusive compared to the doctrinal fundamentalist forms which are so often the focus of news media.
“Come, come again, whoever you are, come! Heathen, fire worshipper or idolatrous, come! Come even if you broke your penitence a hundred times, ours is the portal of hope, come as you are,” he writes, encouraging people to the positive messages of the faith. While his writings may not conform with everyone’s particular interpretation of Islam, his candid understanding represents the depth and openness with which religion can understood and practised.
It is not just inclusivity that is needed but rather a more open and discerning mind that Muslims need to embrace. Debates around homosexuality and evolution as well as the effect that our increasingly sexualised world is having on young Muslims is, to a large extent, brushed under the carpet . It’s as if scholars and exegetes hope that by brushing these issues aside they will not resurface in the minds and daily lives of the Muslim community who are in need of answers.
But conversely, we cannot underestimate what the four horsemen of New Atheism – Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens – have done to widen the divide between religious believers and non-religious believers. Their articulate presentation of their views and deeply convincing writings shouldn’t blind us to the essence of religion and our need to reinterpret and redefine religious texts. If these leading atheists are really in search for cosmic or absolute truth, instead of incessantly thumping religion, they should encourage religious erudition, contextualisation and reasoning, as some of the answers they may be looking for may be buried deep in these ancient texts.
We often condemn religion as something simple and backward but we treat philosophy and science as pursuits of rigorous and profound study. Perhaps the reason why Dawkins et al. fail to see the profundity in religion is because, as Plato said, an individual can only master one art. The four horsemen are all leading experts in their respective fields, and indeed know more about religion than the masses – but, ultimately, they are pseudo-experts on religious texts. Sam Harris, for example, loves to talk about Jihad as if the term is linguistically synonymous with fighting and war; it’s not: Jihad means ‘struggle’, and the highest form is to struggle against one’s innate, evil tendencies. What’s so wrong with that?
Islam, according to American convert and intellectual Hamza Yusuf, is suffering from a crisis of authority, as he elucidated in a debate at Oxford University with Tariq Ramadan, entitled “Rethinking Islamic reform”, in 2010. Christian Catholics have a leader, the Pope, Tibetan Buddhists have the Dalai Lama, but many Muslims are demanding a leadership of their own, the caliphate.
So who are the right people to lead their respective religious communities? Many of the religious leaders and old establishments that are in place today clearly aren’t fit for the purpose: child abuse has been found to be widespread among Christian leaders and too many Muslim leaders in this country can’t connect with the young – indeed, 97% of Imams in Britain are foreign, mainly Urdu-speaking Pakistanis.
Christianity, Islam and the other world faiths shouldn’t be completely disregarded. Many of the ethics they teach – and the faith, and in turn, the security which they offer believers – are far too valuable to ignore; what needs to change is our understanding. It is up to the intellectual religious leaders, who have the ability to engage with the intelligent as well as the uneducated, to renovate religion.