The Temptation of Disbelief

Image Credits: National Geographic, September 1999, Kashmir: Trapped in Conflict

Sheikh Shahid 

“The greatest question of our time is not communism versus individualism; not Europe versus America; not even the East versus West. It is whether men can live without God.” – Will Durant

OUR evening tete-a-tete turned into a solemn conversation when a friend remarked, “I am waiting for someone to return from his grave and set me free”; in response to my question – “Are you sure there is no God?”

The terse conversation makes manifest the ambivalence and the curiosity of humans befuddled with the question of God. Is there some supernatural intelligent design at work or are we left in lurch in a godless pit? Perhaps, the thought of the supernatural and its denunciation is as old as thought itself. But historians of ideas trace the origins of disbelief from the 6th century BC Ionian or Milesian philosophers like Thales, Anaximander and Anaximenes of Miletus – one of the Ancient Greek colonies on the coast of Asia Minor. They are called physical philosophers as they rejected everything else which was beyond the natural and tangible confines of this universe. Their ideas led them to ask some of the big questions that confront human mind, like the ultimate origin of this world and two centuries down the time’s lane their ideas ended up in the atomistic theories of Leucippus and Democritus. These Milesian philosophers’ iconoclastic worldview was in sharp contradiction to the traditional mythological writers like Homer. They are believed to be the first to have rejected the mythological explanations and instead put their weight behind the naturalistic worldview. If earlier, the workings of this world were explained by the nitty-gritties of mythology, the Ionian philosophers believed that the world was a self-sufficient system working in accordance with the laws intelligible enough for the human mind. No longer was the unrequited love the undoing of Aphrodite, no longer did a man act reckless because Athene willed it, and no longer did Zeus take away anyone’s wits. Many centuries later, this naturalistic view would echo in the words of Richard Dawkins, in his book - The God Delusion, where he describes an atheist as someone who “believes there is nothing beyond the natural, physical world”.

This pre-Socratic period could be said to have commenced the scientific outlook, though not in the current experimental sense. However, this radical turn of thought did not replace mythology by science only, rather it was replaced with a rational explanation in general. For instance, Herodotus’ History is populated with mythology so that the gaps are plugged while Thucydides wrote perceptible history dotted with facts or in Bernard Williams’ words, the history of Thucydides aimed at “telling the truth” plainly. So, we could argue that what supersedes myth is rationality. So that there is only room for reason, evidence and opinions which are wide open to rational scrutiny. Therefore, the naturalism of Milesian philosophers stems from rationalism which in turn is the fundamental basis of Atheism.

Through the Islamic Lens

The Islamic word for Atheism is Ilhaad, which literally means “deviation”. The word Ilhaad is derived from an Arabic root word lahad, which is used to describe the grave where a trench is dug straight into the ground and then a side pocket is carved for the deceased. The side pocket marks a deviation from the main trench. So, in this sense Atheism is considered a deviation from the natural or straight path. From the Islamic perspective, Atheism could be said to have emerged from the 8th century Dahriyya movement, who were empiricist thinkers believing that only through empirical means could knowledge be acquired. They reasoned that everything in this universe always existed as it is, hence there is no need for the inclusion of a creator. Faraj al-Isfahani in his book Kitab al-Afghani mentions Abu Hanifa, the famous Islamic jurist and the founder of one of the Islamic schools of thought, who debated many Dahriya in the 8th century and intellectually confronted their claims. There were many other Islamic scholars like Al-Ghazali, Ibn al-Jawzi, Muhammad Shabab, Abu Isa al-Warraq, Ibn Qutayba etc, who responded to the Dahriyya claims of disbelief. In his book – Kimiyai Sa’adat (The Alchemy of Happiness), Al-Ghazali has described Dahriyya as reductionists bereft of any holistic understanding of the universe and its purpose. He compares them with ants on a piece of paper that cannot lift their eyes from the ink and thus fail to see the writer who holds the pen.

Beginning of Avowed Atheism

Historians agree that the first use of the term Atheism could be traced down to the Greek scholar John Cheke in his translation of Plutarch’s – On Superstition. However, many historians are of the opinion that the avowed atheism did not emerge up until late in the 18th century. David Berman, in his book - A History of Atheism in Britain, writes that the first avowedly atheist work is Baron d’Holbach’s The System of Nature published in 1770 and first such writing - Dr. Priestley’s Letter to a Philosophical Unbeliever was published in Britain in 1782, the authorship of which is still disputed. James Thrower in his book Western Atheism – A short History also unambiguously states that while some works of Democritus and Lucretius are atheistic, D’Holbach was the ‘first unequivocally professed atheist in the Western Tradition’. Hamza Andreas Tzortzis has mentioned the 17th century Polish thinker Kazimierz Lyszczynski as having denied the existence of God in his De non existential dei wherein he writes that God is a creation of man and that humans created the concept of God to oppress others. Similarly, in 1674, Matthias Knutzen produced such atheistic writings and in 1700s Atheism saw the emergence of the intellectual promulgation in the likes of David Hume and Voltaire. Voltaire claimed deism accepting the existence of a creator while rejecting the revelation or word of God. For Hume, the idea of an omnipotent God was incomprehensible given all the suffering and evil in this world. The question of suffering and evil has led many generations of thinkers to ponder and question the existence of God. Professor Bernard Schweizer, after scrutinizing a number of literary works of many prominent writers like Zora Neale Hurston, Peter Shaffer, Philip Pullman, Elie Wiesel, Charles Swinburn, Rebecca West et al, comes to a conclusion that there is one common thread running throughout these profound works – that all of them seem to be struggling with the idea of a merciful god in a world full of suffering. He says that the Misotheist (one who hates God) is psychologically troubled and it is ‘quite true that the psychologically, emotionally, and physically wounded are most likely to turn away from God’. Another avowed proponent of atheism was the 19th century member of British parliament – Charles Bradlaugh who fought for atheism to be acceptable for society. In his essay – Humanity’s Gain from Unbelief he defends atheism and charges society of bearing prejudices against atheists and those who are falsely suspected of atheism.

The Four Horsemen

The currents of atheism were flowing subtly underneath without too many people heeding to the rhetoric of its proponents. And suddenly 9/11 happened and the fear and anger it created culminated in the prolonged War on Terror occupying the US and its allies in a protracted war in Iraq and Afghanistan. Most importantly, it provided a renewed impetus to the emergence of a political manifestation of atheism. To describe this new brand of atheism, Gary Wolf, in 2006, while writing a column for Wired, a British magazine, hit on a catchy slogan - New Atheism. Its protagonists were a group of three men who had attracted tremendous media attraction with their bestsellers. Sam Harris with his book The End of Faith (2004), Richard Dawkins with The God Delusion (2006), and Daniel Dennett with Breaking the Spell (2006). And in 2007, the movement secured a new hero when Christopher Hitchens published his book God is Not Great. All these books are first and foremost fueled with raging anger against religion and very much sustained by the events of 9/11.

The New Atheist will not let us off the hook simply because we are not doctrinaire believers. They condemn not just belief in God but respect for belief in God. Religion is not only wrong; it’s evil.” wrote Garry Wolf.

And precisely four days after the 9/11 attack, Dawkins wrote an article in The Guardian in which he mounts a scathing criticism on Religion writing:

“To fill a world with religion, or religions of the Abrahamic kind, is like littering the streets with loaded guns. Do not be surprised if they are used.”

It is certainly true that the Four Horsemen, named in reference to the biblical image of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (Revelation 6.1-8), seen as a portent of the end times, sufficiently capitalized on the events of 9/11 and suddenly everyone was talking about religion and their writings gained a new relevance. God was thought to be vanishing from this world, never to come back from eternity. The Economist, in their millennium issue, had even wrote an obituary of God. But soon afterwards felt a genuine need for a volte-face in their 2007 issue – In God’s Name, writing that The Economist was “so confident of the Almighty’s demise that we published His obituary in our millennium issue’. This is reminiscent of the moment when Time magazine, in their 1980 issue, announced God’s comeback by writing:

“God? Wasn’t he chased out of heaven by Marx, banished to the unconscious by Freud, and announced by Nietzsche to be deceased? Did not Darwin drive him out of the empirical world? Well, not entirely. In a quiet revolution in thought and argument that hardly anyone could have foreseen only two decades ago, God is making a comeback.”

Temptation of disbelief in Kashmir

While writing about any kind of dissociation from religion in the valley, it’s important to note that there is a lack of comprehensive survey in this domain. Also, given the conservative religious society, there is almost no history of avowed atheism. Therefore, the writer has sought responses from different people with different backgrounds and varied beliefs to see where Kashmir stands on the issue of disbelief.

Mohd Yusuf, a self-professed atheist, after completing his masters in Urdu, gained a keen interest in religious philosophy and he started reading from an eclectic trove of writings. It has been twenty years now, since he and his small circle of friends started sifting through the esoteric works of philosophy. He says that over a period of 10 years they met the highly educated people in universities and colleges, doctors and other professionals and found that out of these 20 to 25 percent were those who openly dissociated themselves from any religion. His further opines that about 10-15 percent of overall population in the valley might be irreligious and it could be more as most people fear to express their disbelief. The reason, he states, is the highly orthodox society and the intolerant clerics who issue fatwas on the slightest of suspicion.

Assistant Professor of comparative religion at the Central University of Kashmir, Dr. Nazir Ahmad Zargar, is of different opinion. He wrote in response to me:

“I think atheism is newly born in Kashmir as a fruit of modern western education. Religious contradictions caused by pseudo street preachers, plethora of baseless opinions, posts, lectures on social media, unreal tussle between religion and reason, random reading, moral degradation, being religious meaning backward, and above all materialistic education system and jumping to conclusions without knowledge, are some of the reasons for getting astray”

Saqib Ahmad, who did his masters in Philosophy from Aligarh University, commented that according to his own experience, atheism or skepticism is a growing trend among young generation who have uncensored access to the internet. Sajad Ahmad, assistant Professor of Mathematics and an autodidact in philosophy of religion, is also of the opinion that many young people, especially in humanities discipline, are getting liberalized with an unconventional outlook towards religion.

These are all free conjectures drawn from personal experiences of some curious persons. However, the exact figure is unknown for want of a substantial survey. Whatever the cause, belief and disbelief would play simultaneously till eternity. As Christopher Hitchens himself acknowledged in his book, though ruefully, that religion is “ineradicable”.

  • Sheikh Shahid from Thamuna, Pulwama is a Science graduate with a passion for literature and history. He can be reached at [email protected]

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