How Richard Dawkins led me to Islam

Anthony Ratcliffe.
A student at Cambridge Muslim College.

 

I grew up in a town in Northern England. It is an area where many Muslims, predominantly from a South Asian background, settled in recent decades so the world I was brought up into was not entirely monocultural. However, as a child you accept what your parents say without question.

My parents were regular church-attending Christians of the Baptist denomination. The churches are plain and simply decorated without statues or icons, and believer’s baptism is practiced, following what they believe to be the practice of John the Baptist (Yahya). This is to purify people from their sins and let them be ‘born again’ with a new life in Christ.

I was a thoughtful child, with a lot of questions. Nevertheless, I liked the way church worship songs made me feel and the beautiful teachings of Jesus from the Gospels. I also had an aptitude for learning the stories of other prophets, so I enjoyed Sunday school and continued to attend into my early teens. Several times I attempted to read the Bible from start to finish, which is unusual amongst Christians. I also started my prayer with ‘Dear God’ most of the time, rather than the more Islamically problematic ‘Our Father’ or ‘Dear Jesus’. I also remember in religious education class that we were once asked to draw a representation of what God meant to us. I went against the majority by simply leaving a blank sheet of paper, for I believed that in some sense God was light and impossible to represent.

Things changed when my family moved to Australia. A totally different natural environment (where Christmas, a pagan winter festival, falls in the middle of summer) and a failure of my parents to settle comfortably in one church led me to fall away from regular attendance, and whereas before I had eagerly prayed for the Holy Spirit and ‘Jesus to enter my heart’, I started to think more critically as I realised the diversity of Christianity. I attended an Anglican high school with very traditional services including a pipe organ, stiff wooden benches, enrobed clergy and swinging incense burners. I started to wonder if singing was really worship, when schoolboys used to sing with such bored or mocking expressions.

Around this time, I came across a YouTube clip of my great uncle Howard Conder, who has an evangelical Christian television channel in the UK. He had invited Richard Dawkins, the outspoken evolutionary biologist and atheist, as a special guest. The conversation began as a discussion of creationism, but Dawkins quickly moved to refute several of Christianity’s core doctrine, notably original sin and the blood atonement. While it was performed maliciously, I must credit my disillusionment with Christianity today to this argument. He pointed out the futility of an All-Powerful God requiring an ultimate sacrifice to pay for human sin and paying for it Himself with His Son (sic). If he were beholden to a higher Law of Justice He would not then be the monotheistic God.

I read widely and at that time I found a copy of Plato’s Republic in the library. I was entranced by the beauty of classical philosophy and decided henceforth that I believed in a God of Platonic forms. Although at this point I started to study Earth science at university and accepted the geological evidence that the world is much older than the Bible says, I maintained a foothold in metaphysics through Plato that enabled me to escape the reductionist materialism, logical positivism and agnosticism which affects so many in our age. I still prayed and read the Bible, but I grappled with its historicity. I watched an online lecture series at this time to find more about the compilation of the Bible over centuries.

University opened my experience to the diversity of our world, and along with many international or locally born students from an Asian or African background, I made friends with a young Muslim woman online from Singapore. Our conversations were very enlightening and gave me a fresh, Eastern perspective. In the summer holiday I decided to travel to Southeast Asia to do some volunteering and visit my friend while passing through her country. While there, I picked up an English translation of the Quran on Arab street and began to read it slowly from cover to cover. As I read I became convinced that it was from God and with my friend’s example I did not rush to the worst conclusions about the difficult verses. The anti-anthropomorphic aspect resonated with me, as well as the potential (that I saw at the time) for interpreting it in a universalist manner. I was very concerned with the Divine Justice. If Allah is Most Just, surely the people who had not encountered the message of monotheism, such as the Buddhists I encountered on my travels, would not be automatically condemned. They must be judged according to if they lived a moral life and acted according to their knowledge. In this sense I also reinterpreted Islam as a kind of lay-monasticism, a path of spiritual purification which allowed people to remain ‘in the world’ of marriage and jobs.

Unfortunately, the Islam I encountered when I visited my first Friday Prayer in Perth did not accommodate such subtleties. It was led by a man from Saudi Arabia thundering from the minbar about the evils of the Jews. I was told to roll up my trouser cuffs and tuck in my shirt almost immediately upon entering the mosque. Searching for ‘Islam’ on the internet brought up videos of similar preachers or their websites, or else vile anti-Islamic hate speech which brought many doubts to my mind. I decided that although this had been a true message, its followers had turned it into an ugly religion.

In one visit to a local mosque I had encountered an odd young man whom I shall called Swami, although he went by many names. Born to Muslim parents from Bosnia and Fiji, Swami still attended the mosque on occasion although his views were somewhat like my own still forming ideas. He took universalism to its logical conclusion by practicing whatever religion took his fancy that day, and after befriending him I joined him. One day he would practice Tibetan Buddhist meditation, on another he used Kriya Yoga from the Hindu tradition, and on some days, he would go to church. I used to enjoy philosophical discussions with him over coffee in the city centre between lectures. One day I was disturbed to realise that he was unperturbed by a Danish Buddhist giving a lecture which demonised Islam as the ultimate ‘religion gone wrong’. When I asked him, he said that he felt all of the ‘spiritual paths’ were valid except Islam and perhaps Judaism. Later I found out that Swami had suffered a mental breakdown one day in the mosque and had spent some time in an asylum. It also became clear that he was a homosexual and desired me, so I distanced myself from him.

By the end of my bachelor’s degree my energetic pursuit of truth had reached an impasse. The message I had received from my Singaporean friend before we lost contact was that I should try to follow the religion I was born into to the best of my ability, a sort of idea of ‘dharma’ very common in Asia. I tried to fit in with my beer swilling and recreational drug-taking companions and suffered increasingly as these substances took their toll on my health. I had put the Quran on a high shelf by this point, dusty and far from sight, and had continued my research into world religions by reading the Bhagavad Gita and the Dhammapada. At one point I realised I needed to clean up my act to pass my degree and stopped taking any intoxicants. I also took a paid internship in Indonesia, which led to a year-long role in Malaysia. I was aware of the diversity of these countries from previous travels, and I think that part of my motivation for going there was to see all the major world religions being practiced authentically. It was there, at Thaipusam, the Hungry Ghost Festival etc, that I observed the demonic and less savoury aspects of the Indic religions which are marketed in the West as peaceful and non-judgemental. Meanwhile out of the Abrahamic religions, I had never considered Judaism because Jesus is not accepted, and it is restricted to an ethnic group, while Christianity was a continuing concern. Part of me wondered if this was all a test from God. Would I accept Jesus as ‘Saviour’ with blind faith although it disagreed with my intellect? The other option appeared to be the Baha’ism epitomised by the organisation’s founder.

Eventually I was given a community centre to run in a rural town of northern Malaysia. I had free rein most of the time and engrossed myself in the community, learning Malay and following local customs. When Ramadan came I tried to fast almost the entirety of it, ostensibly to ‘support’ my local Muslim colleague, whose apathy to the spirit of the sacred month taught me a lot about why Muslims fall short of the ideal. Meanwhile I had made friends with another colleague who came from Egypt and introduced me to the concept of taṣawwuf and scholars such as Sheikh Hamza Yusuf. It was shortly after Ramadan that I realised I was encouraging my colleague to practice his own religion, and this showed some subconscious acceptance of the religion. Although Islamic scholars have devised brilliant proofs to defend their stances, a certain amount of surrender is required, which is a psychological issue. I took shahada in early August 2015 at a small village mosque with a bemused imam. I have since travelled to Egypt and the UK to continue my Islamic studies.

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