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I don’t really like the word “atheism.” It is a label I’d rather not have placed on me. The only kind of “-ist” I readily concede to being is a “humanist” (“scientist” might also conceivably be an adequate descriptive term, since that was my formal academic training, but I do not currently labor as one, so it is only in a tangential, semantic sense that it could apply to me). That said, I am definitely not a “theist.” Neither am I a golfer, nor a “poetry-slam” aficionado (though I love actual poetry), nor a Somali. Much in the same way that I see no need to coin words to describe my relation to golf or to “slamming” or to the nation of Somalia, I fail to see any need to refer to my relation to any specific “god” concept using the word “atheist.” If anything, the closest I feel that I come to fitting any of the words currently used to describe a person’s relation to theism would be “ignostic,” which is the position that, until an adequate and unambiguous definition of what an actual god might be, the very question of its existence is a meaningless one.
This is not to say that I am unfamiliar with many of the concepts of god(s) that have been formulated through the ages, however. On the contrary, as a lifelong student of culture and of history I have a deep fascination with these god concepts in the Jamesian sense that they are indispensable parts of ongoing mythological complexes consisting of devotional writings, symbols, metaphors, and archetypes that can be individually distinguished and described within the sociological and historical contexts of the cultures in which these concepts germinated and developed. In this mythological sense, Zeus exists and the Great Spirit exists and Oduduá exists and Yahveh exists—hell, even Superman exists in this cultural phenomenon sense. But I realize that this is not the ontological sense that most people mean when they use the word “God.” What they usually mean by that word is an actual personal being/entity, one which created and which transcends the cosmos, and, perhaps more importantly for their worldview, one which continually interacts with it in some way. I also realize that this god concept is so pervasive and so ingrained into their respective religio-cultural contexts that the convention of referring to those outside of this theistic paradigm as “atheists” is here to stay, for better or for worse (I vote “worse”) and that there’s nothing I can do to change that custom, no matter how logically nonsensical it may be, and so, in the course of dialogue with any such theist, for the sake of an argument, I will occasionally reluctantly don the term for a moment when confronted by people seeking to challenge me about my indifference to their religious zeal. Their first question is almost invariably, “Why don’t you believe in God?” My answer is terse: “Because I have no reason to.” It’s really that simple to me. If you want to believe in some supernatural super-being, I say, “Go for it.” If you have decided to subscribe to or adopt the strict mandate of a given religious tradition, even though I may think it is pure folly, you are surely free to do so. I won’t stop you. “God” is a useful metaphor when discussing the numinous aspects of the world. I don’t object to its use per se, and in fact even I use it myself in this sense from time to time. The problem only arises if someone starts to imagine that his chosen religious mandate somehow extends to the point that it encompasses not just him, but me (and everyone else around him) as well. I find that notion to be problematic and highly offensive.
This does not mean that I think religion is offensive in and of itself. Not at all. I am aware that religions vary in terms of their beliefs and their practices and their functions and that it would be facile and unfair to use such a large brush to paint them all as equally nasty (or as equally benevolent, for that matter). They are decidedly not all the same. Satanists in their hedonistic self-worship are clearly infinitely more repulsive than Jainists in their radical pacifism. Moreover, sometimes even different factions within a single religion can vary in their levels of offensiveness. Compare and contrast, for example, the altruistic Christian faith of someone like Albert Schweitzer with that of the repugnant, hate-filled Westboro Baptists. The crux of the matter for me boils down to what the prescribed conduct of such a group is, particularly if it focuses on missionary activity and/or exclusivist rhetoric. The way I see it, the opinion that everyone should (nay, that everyone must) adopt one’s own religious mandates, or else be considered somehow spiritually “deficient” (or worse) is a special kind of misguided and myopic selfishness.
I state this caveat up front because, before I begin to address Islam specifically, I feel a necessity to establish some standard of measurement, a lens through which a discussion can proceed without veering off into accusations of either ‘theophobism’ or ‘islamophobicism.’ The fact is that, although I have no reason to believe in any personal gods, I really don’t care what anyone “believes.” I have no stake in it. It’s none of my business. I am not anti-anything; I simply reject most theist claims.
Nevertheless, this lack of belief in gods is relevant and prior to such a discussion in that, since I have no use for any god, this necessarily means by extension that I also have no reason to take seriously either the ‘divine revelation,’ or the ‘prophesy’ that this god is supposed to be the source of. Once this superstitious veneer is put aside, all that is left is a historically/literarily/culturally documented tradition. Nothing more.
This post is just an introductory one, serving the function of disclosure viz a viz my own stance in relation to general theism. In the next post I will proceed to explore the topic of Islam and the Koran proper.