I agree with a lot of what Richard Dawkins says, especially with his views on pseudo-science, New Age beliefs, and the current obsession with combining science and religion into one coherent, harmonious whole.
I think, like him, that it’s a load of crock. It’s bullshit, it’s stupid, it leads to bad science and even worse religion.
I’ll get to that bit a little later. Here’s the funny clincher, though—I think Dawkins, and atheists in general, have gotten religion wrong.
The Un-Nameable Cause
The ironic thing about my beliefs is that I am a hard scientist. I like my science hard and deterministic, the universe devoid of any intrinsic unifying meaning, there being no Great Bearded Being in the sky.
And yet, I am a Muslim. Yes, I hold witness to the affirmation that there is no God but Allah, and Muhammad is his messenger.
It seems like there’s a contradiction there. Let’s leave that contradiction for a bit and revisit it later.
Reason and reason alone.
Listen to the fight between the forces of Reason and Enlightenment versus the forces of Faith and Superstition and you’d think that there was only one way of seeing the world, One True Way, and all other ways were… well, stupid. Foolish. Misguided. Nonsense, meaningless.
This of course fails to take into account on what role faith and reason have in the modern world. We know reason has a role—take away reason and you can see the immediate consequences, economically, politically, militarily. But it seems that if you take away faith, nothing happens. Apparently.
Which is ironic, since religious fundamentalism and New Age quackery is on the rise, despite our best damn efforts to leave superstitious claptrap behind. The promised fruits of abandoning Old-World Superstition—the end of killing, the abandonment of war, the elimination of self-righteous blindness—seems even further than ever.
One of the arguments that anti-religious people seem to trot out—that religions inspires people to do horrible, horrible things—looks hollow in the face of this cold historical fact: that the driving force behind the the biggest human and technological catastrophes of the past 100 hundred years wasn’t even religion.
The Real Killer
It isn’t. Take the top five catastrophes. And I mean the top five, in terms of what impact it had on how many people. You’d be surprised. September 11th, however horrible it was, doesn’t even come close to what we can do to each other.
Hiroshima. Chernobyl. The Soviet Gulags. The Killing Fields. The Great Leap Forward. Exxon Valdez. While to say that religion didn’t play a part in at least some of these is preposterous—but it wasn’t the be-all and end-all. There were other causes—technology run amuck. Nationalism. Racial hatred. Ideological insanity.
Even the even that shaped our national policy today—the May 13th riots—was less about religion and more about the politics of race and economics of inequality. Religion wasn’t fashionable then, as it is now. We did not need to cry out for ‘jihad’ then as we do now.
But the parade of horrors I’ve just shown you was meant to tell you one thing—you do not need religion to justify your horrors. We thought it was, once. We were wrong.
But enough of that. Let’s talk about something else.
Meat and Bread.
But what good is religion? It doesn’t explain the universe—it’s terrible at it, and attempts like Intelligent Design and trying to justify universal events through Scripture just read like a rather pathetic attempt of stealing the throne science wrested away very recently—at least in historical terms—from religion.
You’ve lost the throne, children. Move on.
Science does a great job in giving us explanations. It doesn’t do a lot good for meaning... at least for me. Some people don’t need it, which is why they can find wonder and joy in the real world. But those people aren’t everyone, at least not yet. Maybe not ever.
For others, there’s always those nagging questions: “Why? What are we doing here? Do we need to do anything? What is the sum total meaning of my life, really? Am I here merely to exist, to breed until I cannot, and then, to merely die? Why should I?”
And here’s the moment where you think I’ll sell you religion, right?
The search of meaning
That, ladies and gentlemen, is what preoccupies us a lot these days. We look for something to anchor us, to give us context in our lives, to make some sense of it all. Yes, we are a collection of baryonic particles held together by coincidence and goo, transient and evanescent.
Try getting out of bed in the morning for that. Believe me, I tried. For two fucking years. Didn’t work. Got diagnosed with depression.
The Real Use of Religion
Religion is a tool, much like anything else is a tool. I am a Muslim, because, you know, that’s what I am. I tried atheism for a while, you know. I couldn’t do it—I was raised a Muslim, and turning away from God felt impossible. Rather than tear myself away from Him, and risk damaging something, I came back. I made peace with myself.
I could never hope to be a good Muslim, so I settled with being just a Muslim. I relearnt the language of my religion, the cadences that spoke to me1 in a way that philosophy and reason didn’t. I moved away from the absurdity and the contradiction inherent in any religion, and found that that contradiction masked a deeper meaning that really can’t be expressed in words. You have to experience it to get it.
When you don’t have meaning, life is empty, pointless. It doesn’t have to be religion—you can believe in your fellow man, in a political ideology, in your family, in your culture, in something, anything—we’re adaptive that way. But look for something, and hold on to it.
I chose Islam, Hani and my family. centerpide chose Jesus and Christianity, and hey, that works for him. Other people choose mystical and magical paths, others choose relgion, a few adopt a philosophy of life, others devote their lives to serving others or escaping desire and pain.
Everyone has their own goddamn path, and there’s not a lot you can do to convince the other person to your way—only to guide them into whatever it is they need.
It isn’t religion that’s the danger, to be honest—it’s being blind to the truth, that there are other people around you, and that not all of them share what you believe. To live in the modern world means abandoning any kind of ideological certainty, or to be in danger of repeating the same meaningless horror over and over again.
No, it’s not pleasant or easy. But since when has life ever been that?
1 And that was the thing that people don’t get about Osama bin Laden. He used language, at least in the early days of him in hiding, in a way no non-Muslim or moderate Muslim could. They were good at it. We had a lot of catching up to do. We still do.