Over the past few years, countless people, both friends and trolls alike, have asked me about my religious views. The accusations that I am a shill on the payroll of the Iranian government have made some believe I desire a Shia Islamic theocratic state in Bahrain. Yet what with Charlie Hebdo and the Islamic State being such an important part of the past year, I can’t help but talk about my own religious beliefs, or lack thereof. This is a work in progress, but I wanted to get my ideas out there, and have people share their own.
I was brought up Christian, Church of England I think. I say ‘I think’ because frankly, I have no idea. I went to Sunday School briefly, and my mum would read the bible to us and ensure we said our prayers before we went to bed. As with most things of this kind, I did not enjoy them (I quit the Cubs after about three weeks, and never made it to the Boy Scouts). Sure I believed it all for a while, even to the point of OCD, where I’d say short prayers in my head asking for forgiveness every time I did something wrong – like swore, or had raunchy thoughts. I guess God seemed so badass and the idea of hell was so scary that I did not take my chances. I even remember wondering how people could not believe in a God. After all, the universe must have come from something. Of course it did not take long to realise, ala Bertrand Russell, that that argument is problematic; by asking that question, I was also asking – how can God come from nothing? I realised I was using the law of the conservation of energy to justify a metaphysical being, and using it badly.
Nonetheless, I was not particularly superstitious. I was actually the annoying person who told others that the idea of Santa Claus was ludicrous. How could one guy visit all the world’s children in one night, and know if they’d been naughty or nice? (nowadays of course, Mr. Claus would probably fall under suspicion in operation Yewtree, but that’s beside the point…) Like many people I simultaneously harboured rational and irrational beliefs, yet the religious upbringing was not a myth knowingly concocted by my mum, it was something even she believed! But God did not come up too much in day-to-day conversation. If it did, then my memory is poor. However, one chat remains in my head. When I was about 11, a friend told me that he stopped believing in God when he prayed for his favourite football team to win and they lost. I simply said, ‘what about all the other people who prayed for the other team to win’?
At the age of 12, during my own ‘enlightenment’, or periods of critical reflection, I realized it was the principle of fairness that undid my idea of God. I am not sure where this principle came from, but my reasoning was fairly simple. According to the bible, the earth was only about 4,000 years old, yet I knew from biology that creatures had been around for billions of years, and humans hundreds of thousands. I also believed that humans had evolved, as did most of my cohort, religious or not. I then began to wonder whether humans, who had existed before the existence of Abrahamic Gods, went to heaven or hell. I mean, if they didn’t know about God from the prophets, it was surely not their fault, so it would be unfair for them to go to hell? If they did go to hell because of their ‘ignorance’, then surely that’s not fair! Similarly, if they went to heaven because of their ‘ignorance’, then knowledge of God is surely just a burden. Ignorance was bliss, as they say!
With this newfound revelation, I more or less decided religion was hokum. Yet due to my upbringing, I always found it hard to say I was an an atheist. I guess I had that ‘residual fear’ of damnation. It was silly of course, but fear is a powerful thing. Harbouring my cynicism, I still found religion interesting. Often I explored it indirectly through relationships. I dated a Baha’i girl for a while. When we first met I thought she said ‘I’m bi’, which I thought remarkably forward. Joking aside, I loved the Baha’i community. They were kind, welcoming, and tolerant. However, I found out like most Abrahamic religions there were undercurrents of misogyny and homophobia, so I discarded it (admittedly, this was more in doctrine than the hearts of my friends). Yet I still have fond memories of that time. I was never compelled to believe, or encouraged to convert, and people did not throw it in my face. Indeed, most of our socialising was done through food. Maybe someone told God that the way to an agnostic’s heart was through his stomach?
I have also dated Muslim women. On one occasion, a father said ‘I don’t care who you marry, as long as he’s not Shi’a’. Another girl to whom I had become very close and who told me she loved me said that we could not marry as I was not a muslim, and I refused to convert. To me, conversion just meant succumbing to intolerance and bigotry. After all I did not expect her to convert, so why should I? And also, I objected to the argument that religion derived from the father; it was generally acceptable for muslim men to marry non-muslim women, and not the other way around. Again, I thought this a patriarchal anachronism. For me, converting, even in name, was to appease a judgemental family by succumbing to their perception of religious or communal superiority. I would certainly ignore my own parents advice if they did not want me to marry someone on account of their religion, race, or skin colour. I understood the pressure, but for me, principle transcended love.
On top of these experiences I have read a lot of religious texts. I personally find most a collection of relatively incoherent parables, stories, and fables. The Old Testament in particular is full of the most virulent and cruel passages, as is the bible in general. As for role models, Abraham’s conspiracy with God to murder his son Isaac did not endear me to religion.To me, God can only be defined by the interpretation of the holy texts in which he exists. Therefore, if most old testament books are to be believed, God is a bizarre paradox. Simultaneously merciful and ruthless, kind and cruel, just and unjust, open-minded and petty. In short, God seemed like a bit of a dick. Indeed, if there was a greater testament that such a god was man-made, it is surely these contradictions. God was man-made, a human construct.
For me, attempting to derive peace and serenity from these contradictions evoked the most crippling cognitive dissonance. I am not saying there is no good to be found in it. Far from it. Just a lot of bad too. Same is true of the Koran, which, to me, seems like it is plagiarized from the old and new testament. It condones slavery, places women beneath men, and advocate grisly punishments. Coupled with the hadiths (depending which you see as valid), scholars can justify all manner of things. Muhammad too, also struck me as a bit of a bad egg. How a prophet set an example by marrying a six year old, killing people, and conveniently having revelations when it suited me just seem like a total confidence trick. Some say not to take it out of context, and that it was an ‘improvement’ at the time (though try telling that to the ‘pagans’ and Jews in Arabia), but if that’s the case, then why is it still relevant now? Also, any ‘good’ is also being taken out of context. Yet picking and choosing from religions is bizarre, especially in the case of the Koran, which is seen as the literal word of God.
Indeed, people seem to distill what they want from religion, whether it be calls for a peaceful existence or a violent campaign against an ‘other’. For this reason, religion cannot = peace. Peace is a convergence of every human endeavour throughout history that advocates peaceful and communal living. To say Islam, Judaism, or Christianity is peace, is to give in them undue credit. Peace = peace, and that’s it. Without a central authority or arbiter of religion, then who is able to define who is a true christian for example? Is it the pope? Does he only speak for Catholics. He is infallible after all…As for Muslims, who is the authority? Is it Al Azhar in Cairo, is it Fadlallah in Lebanon, or the Indonesian Ulema Council for example? If this is not the case then surely defining faith becomes about consensus among Muslims as a whole? Yet how do you gauge this? If belief becomes a democracy, and the tenets of religion as a ‘truth’ are undermined by the fact it is simply a book of advice that’s meaning derives only in its interpretation. If it is about truth, then defining who is a Muslim should be left to God, and not the vote. ‘ In this respect, if those who committed the acts in Paris define themselves as Muslims, who are we to say that they are not?
I realise I am focusing on Abrahamic religions, but that is just because of my own upbringing and current events. I posed on Twitter the question, ‘I take issue with all religions in the Abrahamic tradition – Does that make me an Abrahamophobe?I do not reserve any special dislike for any Abrhamic religion, although I am against ambiguity. And to me, Abrahamic religions leave so much scope for interpretation, that they can justify almost everything, from wondrous good, to complete evil. Personally, I believe social justice is unambiguous. Where is the ambiguity in equality? Where are the clerics or vicars attempting to rationalise a verse about allowing slavery, or dashing babies against rocks? They do not exist. I also dismiss cultural relativism, as it can justify all manner of what I perceive to be evil. Of course, I do acknowledge that my beliefs are constructed. I mean, we are all just animals, but that does not mean I do not believe in a value system. That value system is fundamentally about social justice; about equality, fairness, compassion, and empathy. It is constructed of course, but I like to believe it does not discriminate. Maybe some of my values derive from religious teachings, but not just one, and there is no exclusivity there.
‘Each to their own’
To those who say ‘each to their own’. There is much merit in this, yet one’s ‘own’ is already problematic as it emphasizes exclusivity of communities, and separation. It is also a complete aphorism, as our belief systems, especially religious, are constructed from birth. People are often, as I was, indoctrinated with religious beliefs. To actually realize this ‘each to their own mentality’, people should practice it, and explore WHY this saying is relevant. For example – if I was to apply that mantra to bringing up my offspring, I would have to justify; ‘we say each to their own because their are multiple religions in the world, and no one of them can be said to be better than another because that would lead to friction, and maybe violence, and violence is bad’. At least then we can assume that people who say ‘each to their own’ believe violence is bad. For damn sure many prophets did not believe ‘each to their own’, as they are, by definition, prophets who ‘propheteer’ from proselyting.
Thus saying ‘each to their own’ is an implicit assumption that religions are not universal, but that many people accept the sanctity of peace. For me, to criticise religion or a belief system is incumbent on all humans. If we did not, we would simply believe everything we are told, and the only way that such indoctrination is acceptable is if it conforms to generally acceptable means of socialisation in the immediate cultural context. Raising someone with beliefs that encourage hatred or violence towards a certain group will lead to strife, unless everyone in that community is of that disposition. This issue becomes more acute in multicultural societies, where people of different beliefs, genders, or sexualities, rub up against one another. But the world is a multicultural place, by definition, and the identities of states and their esoteric laws cannot hide that.
Some might criticise my values as ‘Westernised’. To me, this is an ad hominem attack based on assumptions derived from post colonial arguments. It also attempts to undermine arguments by dismissing them based on assumptions that such principles of egality and humanity are confined to a singular region, and thus inherently prejudiced. Many people across the globe have such ideas, and to say they are simple ‘Western’ is to dismiss the fact that such ideas are universal, and have been evidenced in Buddhism, Janism, and many other belief systems.
Thoughts on Charlie Hebdo
As for my thoughts on Charlie Hebdo. I am, of course, appalled, by the act itself and the consequences. Richard Seymour yesterday said in the Jacobin that we must fear an Islamophobic backlash as a result of the Charlie Hebdo killing. He is right of course, as most attacks of this nature result in a backlash. There are already reports of grenades being thrown into a mosque in Paris, an abhorrent act that I hope the authorities are quick to condemn. However, my issue is the term Islamophobia itself. It should not be used as a term to undermine valid criticism of a religion. All ideologies should be exposed to criticism, whether Marxist, socialist, capitalism, christian, Muslim etc. A hate crime is a hate crime, and of course there will be those who use what happened as an opportunity to attack those who they perceive to be Muslim, but they should not be confused with those who choose to criticise Islam, the prophet, or its tenets. However, while the gunmen definitely do not represent all Muslims, it does not make them less Muslim. But criticism can be a release. Read ‘Why I am not a Christian’, for example, or ‘Why I am not a Muslim’ by Ibn Warraq. I also think humour is a valid form of criticism, whether directed at a prophet or not.
Ultimately, I have utmost respect all those saying ‘Je suis Charlie’. It represents not bowing to intimidation, and I think politicians and public figures alike should stand by and defend satire, even though much of it is directed at them. Sure, humour can make us feel uncomfortable, but sometimes that is good. It prompts soul searching and exposes truths. As far as I am concerned, religious figures, from Ron L. Hubbard, to Abraham, are fair game for criticism, parody, and satire. To single out one for special treatment, is to exhibit religious discrimination. To not criticize them, is to give them special sanctity deserved by no ideology.
*An addendum for my Bahrain readers
So where does this leave me with regards to Islam and democracy in Bahrain, particularly within the opposition. I think it is understandable for people to be cautious of Al Wifaq – a mostly Shia political society who defer to religious teachings and clerics for much of their ‘policy’. You cannot simply dismiss the fact that most of their gatherings are segregated, or that Isa Qassim has a special influence in Al Wifaq. For this reason, many people believe that a real democracy in Bahrain would result in the domination of one political party – an assured victory for one group (at least in the near future). For those who don’t believe in an Al Wifaq Shia conspiracy, then it is more valid to believe that the quest for democracy for them is also the quest of an assured parliamentary victory for a single, religiously exclusive, society. Unfortunately then, opposition supporters are often seen as de facto Al Wifaq supporters, whether they want to or not.
Of course, as I have said before, I do have sympathy with Al Wifaq and Bahrain’s Shia. That cannot change. They have been discriminated against, and the rise of a Shi’a political party reflects centuries of government persecution, as well as gerrymandering. The presence of a Shia political society is very much the result of government maneuvering and repression, a manifestation of group solidarity in the face of gross oppression. Yet frankly, if Bahrain is to move forward, Al Wifaq need to give all Bahrainis more reason to believe that democracy will not be the swan song of Bahrain’s plurality. Indeed, many believe they should dissolve if their democratic demands are met. I think this would be an act of good faith in any transitional government. Such moves would also help undermine the government’s divide and rule tactics, by removing the presence of Al Wifaq’s alleged ulterior motive.
Anyway, as I have said, religion is not universal. It is also dynamic, as evidenced by sectarianism, schism, multiple religions, and personal interpretation. Why should one religion be over represented in one country? I mean I have no voting rights in Bahrain, but I am of the opinion that even a constitution, like Bahrain’s current one, should not have its roots in religion, Islam or otherwise. Bahrain, like the world, is full of people of all different religions, and if people look to the past, they should see religions change and evolve. To tie one’s constitution to one religion is short sighted, arrogant, and a little absurd. Of course I know I am being idealistic, but there is nothing wrong with that. It is, after all, the 21st century, why not acknowledge that their are thousands of religions. If you believe that, why not just allow people to worship as they please, and derive constitution from a secular template that allows people to practice their own religion. If this were to happen, I imagine Bahrain would be at the vanguard of democratic and humanitarian change, rather than trailing behind.