A few years ago, a dear friend (who describes himself as a “non-practicing, cultural Muslim”) and I (who describe myself as a “practicing, moderate Muslim”) were having one of those half-real, half teasing arguments about religion. Specifically, the discussion was about which vice would be worse to live with in a spouse: drinking (his favorite vice) or smoking (his least favorite vice). At some point during this heated discussion he laughed good-naturedly, threw up his hands and said, “I always forget that you’re Muslim first and intelligent second.”
I chose to take this as a compliment, and told him so (which made him laugh even harder).
I’d largely forgotten about this discussion over the past few years, but recently, have become more and more annoyed with the public personas of notable atheists – people like Christopher Hitchens, Bernard Henri-Levy, or Michel Houellebecq, men whose intelligence, as Marianne Pearl so succinctly said about Henri-Levy “is destroyed by [their] own ego.” This tide of virulent atheism (so similar in its construct to virulent adherents of faith in any religion, and likely a result of the overwhelming religiosity that is sweeping the country and the world since 9/11) takes as its foundation the idea that those who profess to have faith (any faith really) must have lower IQs as a result. There is a staunch extremist idea that religion is simply “an opiate for the masses.” (It seems Karl Marx’s legacy was to have every single idea distorted over time.)
I don’t write about religion much, though I love engaging in open-minded interfaith and intrafaith discussion. Mostly I choose not to write about it because the tone becomes increasingly preachy without meaning to be. But when one of the guys on my favorite podcast (The Nerdist) scoffed at people who believe in the institution of religion in a podcast I was listening to on my drive home from work the other day (Methio!), I began having an internal and imaginary discussion with the guys on the show (because really I love the three of them – Matt Mira, Chris Hardwick, and Jonah Ray, if the podcast were a teddy bear, I’d hug it, and if I were allowed polyandry, I’d marry all three of you).
Disclaimer: I firmly believe that religion and religious belief are tremendously personal and usually private, and that everyone’s entitled to their own beliefs – that no one should be judged or judge on the basis of what or how or if someone believes in God and all those wacky stories we’ve passed down (75% of which are so similar, I wonder why we all even fight). My friends are conservative, liberal, moderate, feminist, LGBT, atheist, Christian, chauvinist, Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist, philanderers, monogamous, alcoholics, agnostic, or all of the above (for seriously guys), and I love them all equally.
Disclaimer #2: I’m Muslim. Alright, get it out of your system. Conjure up all those images: women in burqas, women oppressed, men with beards and flowing man-dresses, terrorists, unibrows, etc.
Now take all those images and put them in a mental box and shove that box off a mental cliff. I’m sane, smart, and moderate, I believe deeply and spiritually in my religion and trim out the crazy interpretations, but am in no way perfect. It’s a work in progress.
So now, back to my imaginary Nerdist conversation. I love science. Back in the day, before things got super fucked up, Muslims were the foremost scholars and thinkers. Thomas Aquinas got his ideas (and therefore the beginnings of most Western thought) from the Muslim scholar Averroes, and ideas were exchanged during the Crusades. You can thank Muslims for numbers, for knowing that planets revolve in elliptical orbits around the sun (al-Zarqali, late 11th century), for cartography which arose directly from the long perilous journey for the Hajj, and for significant contributions to medicine, psychology, sociology, art, and architecture.
What went wrong with Islam? It’s the same thing, increasingly, that is going wrong with the fringe, right-wing elements of Christianity and Judaism – we lost our curiosity. We’ve lost our ability to question in a way that creates meaningful research. Progress and answers are frightening things – to some degree, people want their leaders and television to provide all their answers – TV is rampant with fake reality and our leaders want to keep us so busy with petty trivial wars with each other that we’ve lost sight of the great questions out there.
Being religious and being scientific/intelligent are not mutually exclusive. Things can fit into a framework of religion if you allow your mind to be flexible. The way I see it, if you believe in a Divine Being (God, Allah, Yahweh, Krishna, et al), then why wouldn’t that Being set up new things for us to discover and question? Why wouldn’t He (or She) create obstacle courses of knowledge for us to puzzle out? Watching us twiddle our thumbs or make war with one another is far less entertaining than watching us figure out these little puzzles. The Dude created an entire universe and entire people that are His version of reality TV – and I’ve always found that watching intelligent programming is so much more interesting than watching the mindless drivel. And right about now, with Creationism and mandates on women’s health and honor killings and shock jock radio, we seem to be playing out more like the Kardashians than the Science Channel. The world is an elaborate game of Life (copyright Milton Bradley), and we’re still stuck on “Start.” Maybe research and attaining knowledge are how we actually get closer to uncovering the face of God…the Higgs Boson is after all looking for the “God Particle.” Science + Religion = Love.
And if you’re atheist, well, more power to you. But don’t assume that because I believe in God that I’m not intelligent or striving for the rational. I might see discoveries in a separate context than you, but my part of that Venn Diagram isn’t shoved down your throat – my belief is quiet and personal, and has no impact on the science.