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August 22, 2018

Why Atheism is Necessary

Prof. Dr. Mohamed Elmasry

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Our human genetic makeup is preprogramed with the ability to have faith, or not. That is the "nature" side of our being.

Our “nurture” side is dependent on our upbringing and life experiences, during which we may shift repeatedly from feeling strong faith connections, to having no faith at all, with many degrees of conviction in between.

An atheist is generally defined as one who does not believe in God, or who has serious doubts about God’s existence.

Atheism is not necessarily a permanent condition. It can last for a short period, or one’s entire lifetime. No one is immune from experiencing it, whether they identify with a specific religious group or are completely secular. I have personally known atheists from Muslim, Jewish and Christian backgrounds.

The celebrated Islamic scholar, Imam Al-Ghazali (1058-1111 CE) went through such an experience, documenting his journey from deep faith, to a complete loss of faith, and back to the renewal of faith. His classic book is called Al-Munqidh min al-Dalal (or, Deliverance from Ignorance).

In 1095 at the age of 37, Al-Ghazali courageously admitted that he no longer felt fit or worthy to continue as chair of Islamic Studies at the University of Baghdad, which at the time was the world’s top institution of higher learning.

As a brilliant young professor, he was teaching philosophy, theology, religious history and law. He was also a respected poet and literary figure.

How could he hold such a prestigious and responsible post while at the same time doubting that there is a God? He struggled between being honest about his growing atheism and keeping quiet in order to make a living. His moral principles won out and he resigned.

(By the way, the English word chair used today to indicate the head of an organization or academic faculty came from that era in Islamic scholarship. Professors would lecture from a chair in the middle of an open court while students sat on the floor in a semi-circle.)

Somewhat ironically, Al-Ghazali would teach his students that iconic figures such as Moses went through periods of deep doubt.

Both the Qur’an and Hebrew (Old Testament) Bible report that God "spoke" personally to Moses in various ways. The prophet listened and obeyed, yet longed to physically “see” God to confirm that the Creator was a real entity. But God’s answer came clear and firm from the heights of Mount Sinai: as a human, Moses could not "see" God. If he could, then what he saw would not be God.

To emphasize the point, God told Moses to watch what happened to Mount Sinai when it “saw” God. With thundering sounds so loud that Moses fainted on the spot, parts of the mountain crumbled to dust. The divine damage, scientifically credited to earthquakes (but no less real), can still be seen today.

Modern atheists justify their doubt, or even denial, of God by arguing for example that religion is largely responsible for global wars and injustice. Leading intellects also ask why does this God allow or even create evil?

In his interesting 2010 book Rage against God: How Atheism Led Me to Faith, Peter Hitchens writes about the experience of trying to find common ground with his brother, the celebrated atheist Christopher Hitchens, and to finally answer some key arguments of atheism.

Hitchens is a British journalist, author and broadcaster who worked in the UK and US and reported as a foreign correspondent from Iran, North Korea, Burma, the Congo and China. He now lives in Oxford with his wife and three children.

Hitchens writes that “conflicts fought in the name of religion are not conflicts about religion,” and gives several strong examples. I agree with him and can add my own supporting arguments from Islamic history.

Following the death of Prophet Muhammad (c. 570-632 CE) early Muslims fought each other. While accusing their opponents of “heresy,” they were really fighting for worldly power, clear and simple.

As result of those early conflicts, Muslims today are split into Sunni, Shi’a, and a number of other sects. Similar upheavals have split Christianity into multiple denominations, and Judaism has also undergone historic divisions in belief and practice. In all cases, adherence to a given faith did not condone conflict; wars happen when a faith’s teachings are distorted to fit the agendas of those seeking secular power or material gain. 

Scientific arguments claiming to prove that the universe has no creator are also false.

On the contrary, the more we humans advance in scientific knowledge, the more we discover that our universe is a vast and complex system-of-systems. And still, what we know now is far exceeded by what we don’t know – a state of affairs that will last for infinity.

Finally, when we reflect on why the entire universe and everything in it seems to co-exist with its opposite – bad with good, harmful with helpful, ugliness with beauty, faith with atheism – there is a purpose to this infinite dichotomy, this life of contrasts. God’s wisdom has shown down through the ages that contrast is the mother of choice.

By nature and nurture, we humans have been endowed with the free will to make choices, some of them obvious, many of them subtle and difficult.

Some may claim to have always held an unwavering belief in the existence of God. But those who have journeyed through atheism and later reconnected with their faith understand the strength of experiencing opposites.

That makes the example of Al-Ghazali so compelling and relevant for us in the 21st century. To the question, Is Atheism Necessary? Al-Ghazali would have answered a resounding “yes!”

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