By Nawar Fakhry Ezzi
The Washington Post published in May 2013 a study by WIN/Gallup International which included the percentage of atheists in 40 different countries. Saudi Arabia was one of the countries where the study was conducted and the unexpected finding was that five percent of Saudis were atheists, which is the highest percentage of atheists among the Islamic countries included in the study and is the same as some Western countries. Although this percentage is not significant, it can be considered high for a declared 100 percent Muslim population who live in the heart of the Islamic world. As new royal decrees contain provisions which include atheists in the definition of terrorist groups, many Saudis have been trying to discover the reasons for atheism in Saudi Arabia and how to combat it. Some Saudis claim that this relatively high percentage could be the result of reading "philosophical" books or the interaction between Saudi students and atheists abroad. It is interesting though how people still cling to the myth that living in isolation physically and intellectually would protect us from straying from the right path even when it has backfired on us and proved to be wrong on so many levels.
Rene Descartes, the French philosopher, said: “If you would be a real seeker after truth, it is necessary that at least once in your life you doubt, as far as possible, all things”. Doubt is the key to inquiry, which leads to seeking knowledge and no truth is reached without knowledge. As Muslims, we find in the Holy Qur'an a dialogue between Prophet Ibrahim (peace be upon him) and God, which says: [And (mention) when Ibrahim said, “My Lord! Show me how You give life to the dead.” (Allah) said: “Have you not believed?” He said: “Yes, but (I ask) only that my heart may be satisfied.” (Allah) said: “Take four birds and commit them to yourself. Then (after slaughtering them) put on each hill a portion of them; then call them – they will come (flying) to you in haste. And know that Allah is exalted in Mighty and Wise.”].
Although it might seem like Prophet Ibrahim (pbuh) had doubts, many scholars argue that according to this verse, he did not doubt and was not questioning God’s power, but he merely wanted to see how resurrection was done. In either case, Prophet Ibrahim (pbuh) asked because his heart needed to be "satisfied". This satisfaction would come from experiencing the phenomenon first hand through his senses, which would convince his mind and put his heart at ease. More importantly, God did not scold him for voicing his concerns or warn him about asking too many questions. For those of us who are not prophets and cannot have similar experiences, to "satisfy" our hearts, we can use our intellectuality to find answers to our inquiries.
"Overprotecting" people from diversity and lack of exposure to the "other" cripple people intellectually and make them vulnerable and unequipped to process and deal with different points of view. The more conservative and secluded the community people live in, the bigger the culture shock they get when they go out to the real world. This culture shock sometimes is so severe, yet appealing, that people reject everything about their culture including their religious tradition and immerse themselves in this new culture. The mere interaction with atheists should not lead to atheism because then all the people in secular countries would be atheists.
Thus, the answer is not to treat people as incompetent individuals by denying them access to the "wrong" kinds of books or by further isolating them. On the contrary, parents and schools should teach children about cultural and religious diversity which exists in the world with appreciation and acceptance. When parents create a safe environment where different opinions are respected, their children will come to them to discuss their doubts and concerns. There is no guarantee that confusion will not occur at one point, especially if there is conflict between their religious and educational background, but this confusion could lead to "enlightenment". Our brains need to be cluttered sometimes with ideas and conflicts in order to reach clarity and find a new equilibrium after chaos. Only then, will belief be based on conviction rather than convention.
Isolation leads to weakening people’s faith rather than strengthening it because of the sense of insecurity they always feel. Nowadays, encountering diversity is inevitable whether through books, social media or personal contact. “Read” was the first word revealed to Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him). We cannot blame books and people’s beliefs or lack of them for our own shortcomings. We should not take our religion for granted and attempt to nourish it with good deeds when it is built in shallow water. The foundation should be built on a "satisfied" heart, which can be achieved by addressing our doubts and concerns as Prophet Ibrahim (pbuh) did.