Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Thoughts on atheism

This morning, while listening to the Diane Rehm show on NPR, I got to hear her guest, Robert Wright, try to explain his vague and bizarre belief system in such a way that the public wouldn't just slaughter him left and right. Here was the segment's brief description listed on the main show site:
Diane and her guest discuss the evolution of how humans have thought about God - from the Stone Age to the Information Age. A look at the forces changing Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, and how science and religion might be reconciled.
A person who doesn't believe in God must be under the impression that the rest of humanity who does believe in God (as according to their fitrah) is under some mass delusion. And Mr. Wright said as much on the show, that believers are essentially deluded. He also said that atheism is the world's largest growing belief system. How can atheism qualify as a belief system? A person doesn't really need to have a system of beliefs to be an atheist, right?

In my opinion at least, an atheist is someone who has deluded himself into thinking that there's no God, (and thus, no accountability.) That can make a person more adherent to socially moral law, as some claim, by thinking that there is no life after this life, so as we're all equal we should make this life the best for everyone. But that belief stems from a religious belief in the first place--that human beings are equal. But atheism can also make a person less adherent to socially moral law--in it only for himself, in this life.

Nowadays, people will say that reason and science trump faith--in fact their argument with faith and religion in the first place is they find it contradictory to reason (and/or science.) This is one thing that Mr. Wright mentioned on the show also--that in order for him to accept a belief system, it would have to be compatible with reason and science.

All that says to me is that he considers himself more important than God. His mind, his logic, his understanding is superior, at least according to him, than that of any religion, and consequently of God. Because for him to believe in God, God would need to essentially play by his rules.

Silly, isn't it? (BTW, he has a website, but I'm not linking to it.)

I want to write another post inshaaAllaah on Islam and reason vs. obedience.


UnBeguiled said...

"Mr. Wright mentioned on the show also--that in order for him to accept a belief system, it would have to be compatible with reason and science.

All that says to me is that he considers himself more important than God."

No. Robert Wright does not believe in any gods at all.

So you believe in your religion based on something other than reason and science? How did you acquire your beliefs? What is the method you used? If others used this method, would they come to the same or similar beliefs?

Amy said...

I like the phrase, "God gave you a brain, so use it."

I can't describe a method for "acquiring" my beliefs, I consider them to be a gift more than anything else, which cannot necessarily be a determined output of a defined procedure. I think there's a few essential ingredients--sincerity, and a person's natural inclination. If one or the other is suppressed, then truth remains elusive.

For instance: I believed in God to start with, and so I prayed to God for guidance. Now if you believe in God, and you pray, that doesn't mean that you'll get the same thing I got, does it? :-)

I don't think so. And I don't think reason alone can get you to faith, and it won't get you to believe in God. Believing in God is something natural (fitrah), but I suppose it's possible to suppress that inclination which is what, in my mind, results in atheism.

So use reason if you like--you're probably far more adept at constructing logical arguments than I am, so I don't see any need to fight here. But my underlying premise, even before the use of reason, is that God gave you that faculty in the first place.

UnBeguiled said...

"I believed in God to start with, and so I prayed to God for guidance."

I think that is unlikely. Are you claiming you were not taught about this concept you label "God"? Perhaps you read about it in a book.

There are many competing books about God(s) and people have contradictory notions of God(s). They cannot all be right, but they can all be wrong.

To wrangle out of this muddle, we need a reliable method. Prayer seems an unlikely candidate, since folks who pray to God(s) get conflicting messages compared to other folks who pray.


You did not "start" with a belief in God. You are an animal, like me. We all "start" by relying on our senses to navigate and survive in this world. Over the last 300 years, humans have figured out how to combine and record and even extend the use of our senses.

This process of acquiring knowledge is called "science", and boy does it deliver the goods. As the mere existence of this conversation testifies.

Amy said...

Let's see:

(1) Are you claiming you were not taught about this concept you label "God"?" I'm not claiming anything of the sort, of course I was taught about God, and read about it. But I don't believe in everything that I was taught, or everything I read. And not everyone who reads those things I believe in will also subscribe to my beliefs.

(2) To wrangle out of this muddle, we need a reliable method. Prayer seems an unlikely candidate, since folks who pray to God(s) get conflicting messages compared to other folks who pray. I said as much before, and it's because prayer is not wish fulfillment.

(3) I don't have a problem with science, your "process of acquiring knowledge." But as the title of my blog should reflect, I believe in something else, namely hidayah. Guidance.

UnBeguiled said...

But is "hidayah" a reliable method?

Let's test it. I just wrote down a 27 digit number. Using hidayah, what is it?

(hint: it is not 236985489276632517895539648)

You said:

"For instance: I believed in God to start with"

I now understand that you admit that that statement was false.

Amy said...

Hidayah isn't a method at all. I'm getting the feeling that you're trying to extract certain things from what I'm saying in order to fit your argument. What I can admit is that I will fail at arguing with you.

I don't need to prove my side to you, nor do I see why you're trying to prove yours to me.

Let me explain now what I mean by saying "I believed in God to start with." I am a Muslim, although I was not born into a Muslim country, a Muslim family, or in a place at all related to Islam. I wasn't taught Islam from an early age, nor did I read it. I was taught Christianity. And quite frankly I had several issues with Christianity. Issues with Christianity, not issues with believing in God.

So when I found my current belief system, which is Islam, I already believed in God. I was a Christian, despite my issues with Christianity.

Now, I also believe in something else, something that Islam has a name for, which is a person's fitrah. Basically, that every person has within himself at birth an inclination to believe in the concept of God. Not "gods" or "Jesus" but to believe in One God. That monotheism is natural, because God who created us put it in us.

So before I even started learning Christianity from my family and from my culture, I already inclined to a belief in God. And when I started wrestling with my issues with Christianity, I went down to the very basics of what I believed, and I found that I believed in God, already--and that's where I started. And then I found Islam.

Maybe my statement makes sense to you now.

Anonymous said...

UnBeguiled - As per my hidayah, you didn't think of a 27 digit number. And I am 100% sure about it :D

UnBeguiled said...

I think you have something partly right. Humans do have an innate tendency to "explain" things they do not understand by appealing to supernatural agencies of one kind or another. You will learn this in a rudimentary anthropology class or even a good comparative religion class.

What you are clearly wrong about is your claim that humans have a tendency for monotheism.

Monotheism has only emerged in the last 2 thousand years or so, which is about 1% of the time that anatomical modern humans have been around.

So this Islamic notion you call "fitrah" is false. Study extant hunter-gatherers. They would find your concept of Allah incomprehensible. One God? How silly, they would say.

It makes a nice story though. It seems that your faith brings you some kind of peace or contentment.

But the fact that a belief causes a warm and fuzzy feeling is no indication that that belief is true.

And some of your beliefs may be true, but only accidentally, since you have acquired your beliefs using unreliable methods. But, for many people the warm and fuzzy feeling is more important than truth.

Anonymous said...

Amy, why do you think that logic is in opposition to the nature of God? For example, the Catholics say that logic is compatible with God and that it is possible to come to God through either reason or faith.


UnBeguiled said...


Did she say that somewhere other than in the original post or this comment thread? I don't see it.

Regardless, can you identify a belief that a person could not come to by faith?

My point is that any belief is possible if you consider faith a legitimate epistemic tool. I have faith that I can fly like Superman. I have faith that I look like George Clooney.

If you allow 'faith' as a proper method for supporting your beliefs, then your beliefs are un-constrained. It seems to me your beliefs should be constrained by reality.

Amy said...


How can you say that monotheism has emerged only in the last 2000 years? Judaism is monotheistic and extends back in excess of 5000 years. According to my understanding, the roots of even Hinduism are monotheistic and that the polytheism crept in later for the masses while the elites maintained monotheistic belief. Huston Smith in his study of religions has found One-ness underpining all belief systems around the world, linking them, from Catholicism to Buddhism.

I've not studied anthropology, but I'm pretty sure I have a vastly different understanding than you have, based on what I have studied.

The Islamic view is, in case you're not aware, that mankind was created (Adam) and taught monotheism straight off, taught the oneness of God, and reliance only on God. We are taught specifics, but I maintain that the basics of the faith are inherent.

I think of the example of a person who is drowning, or in some immediate peril--a plane crashing, for instance. Wouldn't that person, even if he called himself an atheist, call out to God at that instant for help? Because there's nobody else to help at that point. I think anyone would, in that situation, ask God for help, even if they didn't really "believe" in God. And that's kind of what the fitrah is. A person doesn't call out to gods, but just to the one that's understood is there. Not something I could ever prove of course, but it's something that makes sense to me.

So Islam teaches that after Adam, people began to worship other than the One God. Polytheism, paganism, these things crept in, as corruptions of monotheism. And so God continued to send mankind messages and messengers to direct them to the truth.

Now, I wouldn't say my faith gives me a warm fuzzy feeling--sometimes I'm genuinely afraid because of it. But perhaps it does give me peace--Islam, after all, is submitting to God in order to obtain peace.

On the other hand, it definitely gives me purpose.

Amy said...


I'm not sure I ever said that logic is in opposition to the nature of God. That's not my belief at all. Rather, I think both faith and reason are necessary to have a complete belief.

It's interesting however that you say logic is sufficient to arrive at belief in God, while referring to Catholicism. It's interesting because Islam has a number of logical arguments against Christianity. Can you imagine that using logic alone, anyone would arrive at a belief in the Trinity? It's one thing that just defies logic.

As a Muslim I don't see how belief in God should be illogical--I consider it to be innate. What is illogical are some manifestations of people's beliefs, and like UnBeguiled has said, perhaps even "faith" should have some restraints, lest people believe in just anything at all.

So in short, I do think that reason and faith are compatible, and excluding either will stunt a person's ability to believe in God and act on such beliefs. They ought to compatible, and reinforcing each other, without one having to be subservient to the other.

Shawna said...

I'm sorry I didn't read the discussion. I just wanted to say I've always thought science (and evolution) and God go together. No reason why they shouldn't. For further research, you might enjoy leafing through a few copies of The Fountain, the Turkish Gulen magazine. It's "a magazine of scientific and spiritual thought" and quite interesting at times.

UnBeguiled said...


For most of their history, Jews were monolatrists, not monotheists. That means they believed in many gods, but just thought Yahweh was the best one.

I am familiar with the myth story of Adam. All over the world we have thousands of contradictory creation myths. What makes you think the creation myth that Islam stole from the Jews is the correct one? Isn't it more likely that all the creation myths are false?

Your drowning man story is precious, but mistaken. There are many examples of atheists in peril who did not succumb to primitive superstition. Read Touching the Void. Also, a drowning man 5000 years ago would likely call out to the sea god, but would likely pray to the war god before a battle.

Your ignorance of history in general and religion in particular is quite appalling. Your appeal to "Hidayah" has demonstrated that it is a feeble epistemic method. Since hidayah has caused you to harbor so many mistaken notions, if you actually care about what is true, you ought to find a better method.

Amy said...

I never claimed to be an expert at history or other religions--but your insult on that point does little to reinforce the merits of your argument.

And I will reiterate here that hidayah is not a "method."