Kaveh Mousavi is a blogger over at Freethought Blogs (FTB) who very kindly reviewed my Beyond An Absence of Faith book on his excellent blog On the Margin of Error blog. He is an atheist living in Iran; I have a lot of respect for such courageous people. Here is his account:
I already have written a very long book as my memoir to narrate my experience as an atheist in the theocratic Iran, and its name is the same as my blog, On The Margin of Error. First I wanted to choose some various excerpts for this guest post, but ultimately decided to choose one single excerpt which chronicles my deconversion. This is in the honor of Jonathan’s (and Tristan Vick’s) book, Beyond an Absence of Faith, a book which I greatly enjoyed. Chapter three of the book is the shortest chapter, and here it is.
Losing My Religion
My life could be narrated in a series of summaries of books. The most important events of my life – the most formative ones – have taken place in the mysterious intersection of the text and the reader. The most important aspect of my life for me is my fiction writing. And many books have shaped me as a fiction writer, from the works of Dickens who taught me that narration is a delicate craft to Marquis de Sade who inspired me to look at writing as a form of rebellion, to Lawrence who taught me how history and story are weaved together. And this is not limited to my making as a fiction writer. I became a staunch liberal after reading John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty and being wholly convinced by its arguments, I fell in love with skepticism and science after reading The God Delusion. I was made a whole-hearted feminist by Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own. My antagonism to religion was mostly shaped by Anton LaVey’s The Satanic Bible, possibly the most important non-fiction book in my life after On Liberty, and to a lesser extent by God Is Not Great. Hitchens’s book modernized my anti-theism and framed it in the political understanding of the world I always had. I don’t think Hitchens taught me anything I didn’t already know, but he was instrumental in giving me an outlet and a language I could identify with. Up until this day, I know of no atheist with whom I identify as much as Hitchens.
But when I became an atheist I didn’t know Dawkins and Hitchens existed. I knew of historical atheists like Nietzsche and Sartre and Camus and Bertrand Russell, but I had not read them yet. None of these books made me an atheist. Another book made me one.
It was the Koran.
I actually remember the exact verses of Koran which made me an atheist. I’ve considered having these verses framed and hung on my wall, but I have never followed upon this impulse.
They come from Al-Baqarah, the second surat, and the longest one, at the very beginning. Verses 6 to 16.
Indeed, those who disbelieve – it is all the same for them whether you warn them or do not warn them – they will not believe. Allah has set a seal upon their hearts and upon their hearing, and over their vision is a veil. And for them is a great punishment. And of the people are some who say, “We believe in Allah and the Last Day,” but they are not believers. They [think to] deceive Allah and those who believe, but they deceive not except themselves and perceive [it] not. In their hearts is disease, so Allah has increased their disease; and for them is a painful punishment because they [habitually] used to lie. And when it is said to them, “Do not cause corruption on the earth,” they say, “We are but reformers.” Unquestionably, it is they who are the corrupters, but they perceive [it] not. And when it is said to them, “Believe as the people have believed,” they say, “Should we believe as the foolish have believed?” Unquestionably, it is they who are the foolish, but they know [it] not. And when they meet those who believe, they say, “We believe”; but when they are alone with their evil ones, they say, “Indeed, we are with you; we were only mockers.” [But] Allah mocks them and prolongs them in their transgression [while] they wander blindly. [source: http://quran.com/2]
Of course, I had heard and read these lines before and they hadn’t caused me to renounce Islam. I had heard them in school, from theology teachers. I had heard them in Arabic numerous times but of course no one in our class could understand Arabic, most of the Koran we heard was meaningless to us. I remember those lines sticking out because our teacher used them to warn us against moderate believers; those who say they “believe” and want to “reform” the religion. As I have said, at that time I was a staunch supporter of moderate Muslims and reformists (still am), and this was really offensive to me, how my teacher had dared to misrepresent the word of Allah to advance his propaganda against reformists.
I came across these lines again when I was reading the Koran. I didn’t read the Koran to examine my faith; I read it because I wanted to be a perfect Muslim. I had heard – from those reformist Muslims I adored – that the main problem of Islamic societies is that we have not read the Koran. I had believed them that the Koran was this liberal feminist manifesto of social justice, and I wanted to become a better Muslim. I didn’t want to be one of those Muslims who hadn’t read the Koran.
So, I began reading Koran, and the critical edge of my thinking was blunted down as far as possible. But the Koran proved to be like a butter, even the bluntest of minds could cut it easily.
I was dismayed at the frequent mention of Hell, of the graphic depictions of violent torture, of all the imagination that went into them. But even more, I was disappointed at people who were condemned to this mindless violence. Disbelievers, idolaters, people committing small crimes. In my Muslim mind Hell was a special place reserved for the most loathsome of people, like Saddam (who was the quintessential symbol of evil among Iranians, like the role Hitler plays for westerners). I thought it would be impossible that people like Einstein or Mandela would go to Hell simply because they were not Muslims.
Even the more radical Islamists wouldn’t say all non-Muslims would go to Hell. They said Heaven has many levels; people like Einstein go to the lower levels. I thought it was obvious that Hell was for bad people, not for people who disagreed with us.
I should have noticed something was fishy though. Why should piety be the criterion of how high your level would be in Heaven? Why would someone who had revolutionized modern science and had benefited billions of people as a result be less worthy than an aging cleric, spending his days in useless contemplation and prayer, collecting money and passing down an ancient wisdom to his pupils, unaltered, like a river storing sediment over sediment. It was against my rationality, and even the peculiar faith that I had.
But the Koran was very clear: non-believers go to Hell. They go to Hell for the simple crime of non-belief.
I tried to white-wash it. Yes, definitely this refers to the non-believers at the time of Muhammad, and they were certified dicks, not to all non-believers.
When first reading the Koran, the greatest trial for me was surat al-Nisa. That is the section of Koran which can basically be called a misogynist manifesto. It is in these verses that the omniscient creator of the universe casually suggests to beat your wife when she disobeys you, and sets down all the sexist laws of inheritance and divorce.
I whitewashed them too. I told myself that Islam has clearly improved the situation of women in comparison to pre-Islamic society, like banning live burial of daughters and giving them rights, so these laws are clearly meant only for the society of the Prophet’s time, and we need to look at the spirit of Islam, to improve the condition of women and give them equal rights based on the standards of our own time.
It is the same Surat which contains this gem:
They wish you would disbelieve as they disbelieved so you would be alike. So do not take from among them allies until they emigrate for the cause of Allah. But if they turn away, then seize them and kill them wherever you find them and take not from among them any ally or helper. (Source: http://quran.com/4)
Yes, this verse clearly says kill everyone who doesn’t believe. Just like that.
I did not – could not – whitewash this one. I still didn’t know of the moderate Muslim justification of this verse (which is too asinine anyway). It didn’t end my relationship with Islam, but it was the most serious blow. It was the first time I didn’t automatically assume there was an explanation. Something was born inside me.
Doubt. It was too familiar for me to recognize it. I have always been the skeptic, I was born one. Even my faith was a skeptical one. And now that the clouds of doubt were gathering, casting their looming shadow on the desert of my faith, I did not panic. Later I learned many accounts of doubt, and they all seem to be narrations of crises – but doubt was no crisis to me. No, it was the silence preceding the denouement, it was empowering, it was liberating, it was me.
I had come to the Koran a pupil – I had come to learn. But now the power dynamic had changed. Now I was a peer. Now I was here to judge. Now I was here to decide.
Without making a decision, I made a mental note of this verse, not deciding if it could be justified or not. I read on, but my attitude had changed. And I began to see the awfulness more clearly. Before that, only noticeably atrocious verses jumped at me; now I could see the subtle villainy behind the seemingly neutral and friendly verses too.
I finished with the Koran. I thought about it for a while. During that time, I openly preached about the liberal nature of Koran. How it is actually a tolerant book. I mentioned the few scattering lines that could be interpreted as tolerant, (many of them are revealed to be intolerant in context), and I said that my faith was justified.
But inside my brain I was much more scrupulous and critical. This is an aspect of my character. I usually don’t express my negative thoughts and express only the positive ones, but I am very aware of them. I wait. I give people, ideas, and movements, a second chance. I continue to defend them in the face of criticism. Then, suddenly I turn away and cut my ties. This means that they have lost all their second chances. I never alert people that I have given them a second chance, that I am aware of the problem. I don’t know why I am like this. Many people have told me that I need to talk about the problems and air them before reaching the point of no return, but that’s not in my character. I don’t talk. I leave subtle clues.
So while I was fostering doubt in my heart, I decided to read the Koran again.
It was a very short read. I came across those lines, the ones I quoted at the beginning, and I lost my faith in Islam.
I mean, just look at them.
First of all, it’s very clear that they are just condemning people to torture just for a different opinion. They are well-meaning people too. They want to reform, they even proclaim to be in the same group as the believers, but they need to be severely punished just for their dissent, and in-group dissent at that.
Now, looking back, I can easily see that this is one of the most distinguishing marks of a totalitarian system. Loyalty is either complete or worthless, and no reform or criticism within the system will be tolerated. I wouldn’t have been able to systematically explain it at that young an age, but I knew what I was opposed to even then.
And then, God purposefully puts barriers in front of their eyes, he purposefully prevents them from finding the right path and then he punishes them for it.
This moves beyond pure villainy. It’s being a psychopath. It’s deliberately and meticulously planning out the demise of honest critics, and it’s also childishly vindictive and pathetic. This is what Allah is basically saying here: “I’m going to stop you for not believing, I’m going to grotesquely torture you for not believing, and I am merciful and compassionate!”
This was no god of mine. This god was by no means praiseworthy; this was a tyrant defined by grudge and hatred.
It’s funny how years of faith quickly dissipated in the course of seconds. To me, the dissipation of my faith and progressing from Muslim to anti-theist took only seconds.
I lived in Iran. I had already witnessed the evils of religion. I had seen the destructive effect on my family and those I loved. I had already learned to oppose almost everything that resembled the tenets of Islam, the clergy hegemony, the concept of theocracy, the inhuman rules of sharia.
What had kept me a Muslim was a lie. The lie that the Islam of the ayatollahs was the fake Islam, that they used Islam for their own gains, that the true Islam, the Koranic Islam, is liberating and fights for a just world. When that lie was revealed, it was made clear to me that the ayatollahs were right all along.
I still wouldn’t call myself an atheist – the concept was not very clear to me. But I knew that the face of Islam had become the face of my enemy. I already knew that I would be fighting Islam from then on, not defending it.
I didn’t even read on. The Koran was finished for me.
Years later I read it again. Many more times. I read the Bible too, the Old Testament and the New. In [the name of my BA university, redacted] I came across atheist books for the first time. But that all comes later.
What came next was coming out.
I came out very soon, to a teacher. School had made praying mandatory. The teacher asked me to go upstairs and join the group prayer.
I said no.
He asked why.
I said because I don’t believe.
And thus, with uttering a simple sentence, began a new chapter in my life for earnest, and I became who I am today.