Insights from Atheism

by Paul L. Heck

Some might be surprised to discover that atheism is not new but actually quite ancient. It is also not unique to the West but exists across varied cultures. Moreover, atheism does not exist in isolation but is always part of a larger conversation on the nature of reality. It takes the form of a response to—or reaction against—a set of beliefs that made sense for a period of time but that has ceased to do so. Just as beliefs vary from time and place, so too does lack of belief. Society changes, but it sometimes takes time for beliefs to catch up. Certain figures arise to express their incredulity. “Those beliefs are ridiculous. How could anyone adhere to them?” Such a query itself would not have made sense at a time when the beliefs under attack were vital to the nation’s purpose and policies. This is the point. Just as a set of beliefs makes sense at one time but not at another, so too does the questioning of beliefs.

It is in this sense that atheists help a nation come to terms with a system of beliefs that no longer makes sense within new socio-political circumstances. The beliefs under attack may have held the nation together at one time, but things change, and it is no longer clear how past beliefs relate to present concerns. This is not to say that core beliefs change, such as justice and mercy, hope and charity, even faith. Rather, we formulate our beliefs differently as society changes, and atheism has a role to play in the process. For example, the new atheism that has made something of a splash over the last years is best seen as part of a process that took on urgency especially with the end of the Cold War. The Judeo-Christian heritage had been vital to the nation’s welfare during the Cold War. The reason was simple enough. Atheism, in the form of the Soviet Union, was the enemy. The Judeo-Christian heritage became deeply enmeshed in the nation’s struggle against Soviet Communism. At that time, atheism was not simply a conclusion one might draw after years of personal reflection. It was a statement of political disloyalty to the nation. That changed with the end of the Cold War. Indeed, atheism has become rather fashionable now that it no longer endangers one’s reputation in society. Be that as it may, the point is that atheism prods a nation to reconsider its beliefs in light of shifting socio-political paradigms.

Atheism, then, has a role to play, helping a nation transition from one set of beliefs (or one way of formulating them) to another. But adherents to traditional beliefs also play a role. Theists of various stripes have also expressed incredulity about past forms of beliefs and the way such beliefs were used. They may not go as far as atheists, but they, too, are not satisfied with past formulations of beliefs. They scrutinize them and look for ways to make sense of them anew. Jews and Christians over the last decades, long before the appearance of the new atheism, had forged new visions of themselves as communities in positive relations with other peoples, including those with atheist beliefs. To be sure, this has not been the case across the board. But the point remains: Atheism represents but a single point on a broader spectrum of approaches to beliefs in a changing world.

A similar dynamic can be seen in Islam where atheism had place in the broader theological conversation from as early as the ninth century. Just as atheism worked to poke holes in the theological edifice that had reigned in America during the Cold War but that no longer has a clear relation to the nation’s interests in the eyes of many today, so, too, atheism in Islam pushed scholars over the course of the ninth and tenth centuries to reconsider the way they spoke of beliefs. Adherents to a highly rationalizing movement by the name of Mu‘tazilism had constructed a seemingly impregnable fortress of beliefs. They sometimes disagreed among themselves but still shared a common conviction in the power of theological discourse to explain the ways of God. There was no topic for which they did not have a comprehensive answer. Islam’s beliefs, as they articulated them, hung together in a close-knit system: God rewarded the good and punished the bad. How else were the promise of paradise and threat of hell as issued by the Qur’an to be understood? Was it reasonable to assume that God might reward the bad and punish the good? This, of course, meant that humans had freewill. What could be more irrational than God rewarding and punishing people for acts they did not commit on their own volition? This also meant that humans could distinguish good acts from bad ones. If not, how would they be able to know what would earn them a place in heaven from what would land them in hell? They’d be left to act randomly, hoping but never certain that they were doing God’s will, if it were not for the power of the mind to discover and even determine (!) the truths of the moral life.

The discourse of Mu‘tazilism is dizzying in its details. It emerged when Muslims were a minority in their own realm. Conquests had brought vast territories from North Africa to Central Asia under the rule of Islam, but conquered peoples were generally not forced to convert, only to pay a poll tax to their new overlords. As a result, extraordinary diversity of belief existed within the Abode of Islam—Jews, Christians, and Zoroastrians, along with Muslims of varied kind. This gave rise to the need to defend Islam’s beliefs in rational terms. The partisans of Mu‘tazilism were simply more successful than other groups in that respect. But their success came with a price. In defending the beliefs of Islam with rational precision, they made it seem that answers existed for all conundrums. In other words, they became dogmatists. It did not take much for figures to arise to pose unanswerable questions: If God is really omnipotent, why can’t he make someone sit and stand at the same time? If the world is not eternal but was created by God in time, why did he create it when he did and not five minutes earlier or later? If God is really omniscient, why does he issue commands to unbelievers when he knows full well that they will disobey them? Maybe he is not so omniscient after all.

Atheism, then as now, did not exist in isolation. It arose to question the prevailing theological edifice—one could say theological arrogance—of Mu‘tazilism. Atheists, then as now, were not alone in doing so. Muslims also raised questions about Mu‘tazilism. Could God’s ways really be so precisely defined? Was it so important to lay emphasis on God’s justice (rewarding and punishing people exactly as they deserved) over his merciful willingness to cover over their sins? In contrast to Mu’tazilism, other schools of theology in Islam had greater reservations about what humans could know and say about the ways of God.

Still, atheism left a unique mark. Other Muslims might have raised questions about the dogmatic assertions of Mu‘tazilism, but they still remained committed to the idea that God extends guidance to humanity via prophetic messengers. To be sure, the beliefs of atheists varied no less than those committed to revelation from God, but they all agreed in rejecting the teachings of Islam. (Indeed, some believed in God, just not the God of Islam.) Guidance, they held, came from the mind alone apart from any revealed message. Many a pious scholar in Islam sought to refute the claims of atheism, arguing for the existence of God, his goodness in creating humans and his mercy in sending them guidance (notably the message of Islam) to help them live in his favor. Atheists, of course, had their responses. God’s message differed from one religion to another. Did God contradict himself? Which one is true? Indeed, the mind seemed to be as good a guide to life as revelation, even better, since believers of different faiths disagreed and inevitably brought harm to society as a result of their disputes and conflicts.

All of this inspired Muslims to theologize even more deeply. Atheism might be a threat, but since it exists, so some believers held, then it must be part of God’s plan in some way. Again, many a scholar sought to refute the rationality of atheism, but there were also those who were ready to find place for it within the overall vision of Islam. These scholars were not relativists. Islam was the pinnacle of truth in their view. But it is rather remarkable that they sought to broaden the ambit of monotheism to include atheism.

One example of this comes from a conversation that took place in the early part of the eleventh century between two leading scholars, one a gifted littérateur by the name of Abu Hayyan al-Tawhidi, the other a keen-sighted historian by the name of Miskawayh. They were both learned in philosophy and also committed Muslims. Fortunately, we have a record of a series of conversations (in a book entitled al-Hawāmil wa-l-Shawāmil) that took place between the two.

In one of these conversations, Abu Hayyan asks Miskawayh why atheists do good works. They enjoy beauty, keep promises, act righteously, have mercy on the afflicted, and help those in need and also those who have been unjustly treated. Can one be good with God? If so, Abu Hayyan wonders, how? It is astounding that the question was taken seriously in the eleventh century, demonstrating the richness of the theological discourse of the age. Abu Hayyan, pressing his query, indicates that he means atheism in the full sense: They do not seek to be rewarded by God or expect even to return to God. What makes them good if they have no fear of a final reckoning? Is it, he probes, because they desire to be thanked, do not wish to be hated, or fear punishment from the authorities? And yet they do good works even when there is no reason to be cautious and no cause to expect to be thanked. What is the secret in this matter? And, he adds, what does it say about the monotheism of Islam?

Miskawayh’s response is no less remarkable than the question. It amount to a reflection on the theological import of humanity on its own terms apart from any guidance revealed by God. Or to be more exact, in speaking of humanity, including atheists, Miskawayh seeks to understand the ways of God more fully. Thus, to include atheism within the scope of monotheism (knowledge of the existence of God), he argues that all humans are guided to the good by their very nature as created by God irrespective of beliefs. This does not mean that Miskawayh thinks that Islam does not matter. He does think it is better to accept Islam than to reject it. But he is very clear that humans can live well without revelation because they have minds and natures that direct them to do good things. Islam can work to cultivate these things more fully in humans, religion thus serving as additional motive to do the good and live virtuously, but human nature is enough to explain why humans live well. In other words, a moral order exists and can be known even when people disagree in their beliefs.

Who would have thought that a conversation ten centuries in the past might offer us wisdom today? How are we to understand why two Muslims spoke of a humanity common to theists and atheists alike. Miskawayh makes the point as the conversation closes: The capacity for good in the human condition reflects the oneness of God’s ways. Human nature itself is ordained to the good. However, this deeper theological reflection about the human condition would not have happened had it not been for the positive spur of atheism. It brought Muslims like Abu Hayyan and Miskawayh to a richer theological consideration of the human condition on its own terms–and thus fuller insight into God’s ways. To be sure, the idea that human nature alone leads people to pursue the good (and thus fulfill God’s will) contrasts with the claim of many Muslims that all humans are born Muslim. In this view, human nature is Islam. Those raised according to other beliefs, that is, the beliefs of other religions (including Judaism, Christianity, and Zoroastrianism), fall away from this pristine condition. Their true nature, Islam, becomes corrupted as a result of false beliefs. In this view, one’s beliefs, it would seem, are a factor in the value one has as a human. How, then, to explain the richer theologizing as seen in the conversation between Abu Hayyan and Miskawayh? There are traditional beliefs, but they only make sense when tested against lived experience in the company of others. Muslims, like other peoples, have their beliefs, but history shows a readiness to reconsider them in light of their own lived experiences in the company of other peoples. As it turned out, in classical Islam, atheism had theological insight to offer. Who would have believed it!

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