Enforced religion stole a large chunk of my life. This is precious time that I will never get back because a religion was forced on me, scarring my childhood in the process. At five years old, I was forced to attend Qur’an classes where I was taught stories about messengers of God who slaughtered their own children for holy sacrifice. Later on, I would visit a mosque and witness adult men beating themselves with chains until they bled, a predominantly Shiite practice. Above all else, I was made to accept the fatuous notion that I am an abject slave to a voice in a whirlwind. None of this was my choice.
I can’t speak for every atheist, but I felt more lost in monotheistic religion than I have ever felt as a nonbeliever. I became an atheist at age seventeen after reading Christopher Hitchens’s The Portable Atheist: Essential Readings for the Non-Believer (Boston: Da Capo, 2007). I’ll never forget: there was one line in the book that stood out to me, and it was this particular sentence that prompted me to sever all ties with organized religion: “The human species has been in existence for 150,000 years. In order to subscribe to monotheistic religion, one must believe that humans struggled and expired during this time. And yet, heaven watched with indifference and then—and only in the last 6000 years—decided to intervene.” Critical thinking enables us to form sound beliefs and judgments and, in doing so, provides us with the basis for a rational and reasonable life. Through logical reasoning, I acquired a means of assessing and upgrading my ability to judge well.
Even as a religious person, I never felt attached to faith. Holy scripture of any kind bore resemblance to Disney fairytales, and God struck me as nothing more than a celestial dictator. I could not get one particular thought out of my head: If God is so great, why does he need me to remind him of it five times a day? The more literature I read on atheism, the more God came across as a jealous, insecure figure who was so petty that he insisted even on convicting me of thought-crime. Nonetheless, the remnants of religion seeped into every facet of my life growing up. Religious doctrine dictated which hand I used to eat food (consuming with the left hand is considered sinful) and how I viewed my moral compass. The hardest part as a woman was coming to terms with the fact that I wasn’t allowed to look or feel sexy.
For very valid reasons, I take personal offense to the term Islamophobia. I was mentally tortured by religion, especially as it was forced on me, stripping me of agency, personhood, and any sense of empowerment. Islamophobia is a linguistic dodge used to deflect any legitimate criticism of faith. It has become a catchall criticism applied to anyone who is worried about Islam 1. I consider it a cop-out on many levels. For someone with visceral experience of what it means to be Muslim, it is hurtful to know that a myopic concept of this kind even exists.
Monotheistic religion stifles individuality. There is no question about it. It stood in the way of my education, prompting me to relinquish all curiosity about details of the origins of the existence of God. It discouraged me from learning about history, from the big bang up until the development of societies today. It encouraged me to remain willfully ignorant, to abandon the principles of debate and discourse, opting instead for superstition. Any questions I had about the natural world were shot down. I mean, what use was it for me to learn about the purpose of chlorophyll if God created everything? What use did I have for the knowledge that the human brain has as many as thirty visual areas? And astronomy? Well, galaxies and constellations are a result of God, so there is no point in embarking on a study of the grandeur of the universe. What an existence! To be proud of one’s shortfall in knowledge, and to bask in it, even promoting it to others as a noble way of life—this is the real danger of religion. It pollutes natural curiosity.
Once I escaped the shackles of organized religion, I began to refine my faculties through the grace of literature. The likes of Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, and Christopher Hitchens have been fundamental in shaping my worldview. In his Unweaving the Rainbow: Science, Delusion and the Appetite for Wonder (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1998), Dawkins taught me that we are a privileged few who have won the lottery of birth against all odds, and in the teeth of such stupefying odds I find great solace. “How dare we whine at our inevitable return to that prior state from which the vast majority have never stirred?” With his books, Harris taught me that scriptural literalism, intolerance of diversity, mistrust of science, and disregard for the real causes of human and animal suffering—too often, these are how the division between facts and values expresses itself on the religious Right. With her book Infidel (New York: Free Press, 2007), the deft and fearless Hirsi Ali cemented my belief that tolerance of intolerance is true cowardice. And as for Hitchens—well, let’s just say, many an hour has been spent binging on “The Best of Hitchslap” YouTube videos.
Why do I value science? Science is one of the most important spheres of human activity. The application of scientific knowledge helps to satisfy many basic human needs and improve living standards. Science is the engine of prosperity; not only does it contribute to economic growth, but it is the greatest collective endeavor. It contributes to ensuring a longer and healthier life, monitors our health, provides medicine to cure our diseases, alleviates aches and pains, helps us to provide water for our basic needs—including our food—provides energy and makes life more fun, including by giving us sports, music, entertainment, and the latest communication technology. Last but not least, it nourishes our spirit.
I have to say, enlightenment is tantalizing. I remember the first time I learned about the big bang; I couldn’t shake the feeling of excitement for days. Vilayanur Ramachandran’s The Tell-Tale Brain (London: Windmill Books, 2012) has been essential to my enlightenment process. According to Ramachandran, there has not been an upheaval as big as us since the origin of life itself. We are the first and only species whose fate rests entirely in our own hands and not just in chemistry. We are something unprecedented, transcendent, and truly new under the sun. One of the book’s core attractions is its optimism about how the human brain—unlike, say, the human liver or heart—is unique and distinct from that of the ape by a huge gap. It is a common fallacy to assume that gradual, small changes can engender only gradual, incremental results.
Highly complex processes can emerge from deceptively simple rules or parts, and small changes in one underlying factor of a complex system can engender radical, qualitative shifts in other factors that depend on it. At a key point, incremental changes stop having incremental effects and precipitate a sudden qualitative change called a “phase transition.” Over the millions of years that led up to Homo sapiens, natural selection continued to tinker with the brains of our ancestors in the normal evolutionary fashion—which is to say gradual and piecemeal: a dime-sized expansion of the cortex here, a 5 percent thickening of the fiber tract connecting the two structures, and so on for countless generations. With each new generation, the results of these slight neural improvements were apes who were slightly better at various things.
Then sometime about 150,000 years ago there was an explosive development of certain key brain structures and functions. All the same old parts were there, but they started working in new ways. This transition brought us things such as full-fledged human language, artistic and religious sensibilities, and consciousness and self-awareness. Within the space of perhaps thirty thousand years, we were more or less finished with genetic evolution but had embarked on a much faster-paced form of evolution that acted not on genes but on culture. Knowing this, I feel exceptionally proud to be human. The purpose of existence is not to avoid suffering; it is striving.
Another venerable figure for me has been Sam Harris. According to Harris, atheism is not a philosophy or a worldview; it is simply a refusal to deny the obvious. His astute reasonings have always captured and moved me: for example, his claim that if God exists, either he can do nothing to stop the most egregious calamities or he does not care to. God, therefore, is either impotent or evil. Consequently, only the atheist is compassionate enough to take the profundity of the world’s suffering at face value. This makes atheism a moral and intellectual necessity. Believers, too, must shoulder some of the blame. It is perfectly absurd for religious moderates to suggest that a rational human being can believe in God simply because this belief makes one happy, relieves one’s fear of death, or gives one’s life meaning. There is something truly infantile in this presumption.
Ultimately, to believe that God exists is to believe that one stands in some relation to his existence such that his existence is itself the reason for one’s belief. As Dawkins has observed, we are all atheists with respect to Zeus and Thor. Only the atheist has realized that the biblical god is no different. Most people live on autopilot, because our neural pathways operate under the law of least effort or the path of least resistance. This mode minimizes the need for the metabolically demanding act of critical thinking, because periods of additional mental effort require more brainpower. So much of our self-talk is unconscious, unchallenged, and runs in the backs of our minds like a script on repeat. While a passive life may be easier, it is critical for us to do what is right, not what is easy or popular.
It is a rather bizarre feeling being me. Sometimes I cogitate on the fact that had my parents not immigrated to the United Kingdom when I was three, I would be living in a desert in Kabul—illiterate and married off at a young age. Much like cattle, I would have bred livestock and not much else. I am eternally grateful for being British; this wondrous country has been critical to the development of my personal identity. I can’t imagine a life without neuroscience, existentialist philosophy, or stoicism. Books are my closest confidants.
Enlightenment, I have come to find, is incremental. It asks a lot of you, but in return you are awarded the most priceless gift of all: erudition. One who looks inside awakens, and the greatest healing of all is waking up to what we are not.
The capacity to reflect on one’s sense of self is an important component of self-awareness, and the accuracy of one’s sense of self will concomitantly impact one’s ability to function effectively in the world. Self-awareness provides the information essential for conscious self-monitoring (metacognition). Metacognition is a tool for consciously controlling behavior and adjusting our experiences of the world. It is essential for learning by conscious experience, not only within ourselves but, importantly, also between individuals. As such, introspection is an indispensable part of our experience of the world, whether it is minimal self-awareness (pre-reflective, with automatic sense of ownership of the experience) or narrative self-awareness, extended by the retrieval of personal memories.
Indeed, I have encountered religious people who claim that they look forward to death because it means returning to their creator. While growing up I was taught not to enjoy my life because it was not mine to enjoy. Life, I learned, is merely a dress rehearsal/test for the afterlife. It is easy to look down on such individuals (their views are frankly toxic), but I still wish them the best. Yet I know, with conviction, that there is nothing sweeter in life than to enjoy the fruits of one’s enlightenment, the succulence of awakening. No heaven comes close.
- For an excellent discussion of this matter by Sam Harris and Ayaan Hirsi Ali, see https://samharris.org/lifting-the-veil-of-islamophobia/.
- E-an Zen stirringly explores this concept at https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.5408/0022-1368-38.5.463?journalCode=ujge19.