It has been a moment, hasn’t it? There have been a few changes to my personal and professional life which necessitated the absence. During that time, I’ve had a lot on which to reflect. So this post, in keeping with the previous entries thus far, will be somewhat personal.
What should be obvious by now, if you’ve been keeping up with this blog, is I am an atheist. I walked away from faith officially in 2014, but in the interests of honesty, I actually fell away from practice sometime in 2011. See, religion has left its indelible mark on me emotionally, mentally and to a lesser extent physically. This is going to be very personal and to be honest, I shudder with insecurity just writing this. But, in my old age (I’m 37, but I feel damn near 60), I’m growing bolder and realizing that the fewer fucks I give, the happier I feel.
I was raised as a Catholic when I was younger. My mother had converted for reasons I no longer remember, and she raised me, my older brother and sister as Catholics. I was an altar boy in sixth and seventh grade (keeping it real, I just did it to drink the wine). As much as my church tried to shove God up my ass, I was lucky in the sense that my mother valued knowledge and instilled that value in me and my sister. At a young age, I knew when something sounded weird. That analytical mind sharpened and dulled as I grew, but by the time I was thirteen, I no longer prayed, went to church, or read my Bible. I gave up. I never stopped believing in God, but like many so-called religious folks, I was nonpracticing.
When I entered college, I took an active interest in Islam. This was partly due to my fascination with Malcolm X. Growing up in a single-parent household in an urban setting populated with low middle-class, single-parent families, gangs and drugs was difficult. Compounding that, I am a black man living in a racially hostile country. Hopefully, you can see the type of stress that causes. While I was smart enough to know the difference between the Nation of Islam and Sunni Islam at the time, I wanted to embrace Sunni Islam because of the bravery and intelligence Malcolm gained while affiliated with the Nation of Islam. As silly as this sounds now, Islam felt like the natural religion for the black man–at least that’s how the Nation branded it. I wanted to be just like him (without being assassinated), erudite, articulate, loquacious and intellectual. I wanted to be Malcolm so I wouldn’t feel stupid and insignificant anymore.
I had grown up most of my life believing I was born broken and this was partly due to the idea of Salvation popular in Christianity. So, when I learned Islam did not support the notion of original sin, I was convinced I’d found the truth. I converted to Islam in 2003. My mother was not happy with the idea. Not from any hatred of Muslims but from concern that I might be hurt to due anti-Muslim bigotry at the time. But my mind was made up. I wanted nothing more than to be a Muslim, to be Malcolm. I read books on Islam, spoke with Muslim friends about the faith, but to my detriment, I hadn’t cracked open the Quran and actually read it objectively. It intimidated me, honestly. I feared it would be as dull and dense as the Bible (it is) and I feared I would never understand it. But my lack of knowledge didn’t stop me from doing it. I desperately wanted an identity, and Malcolm had provided me with that. So with the help of a brother, whom I still hold dear to my heart–though it remains to be seen if he feels the same way about me, I recited the Shahada and became a Muslim. I shit you not, by the end of that day EVERY Muslim on CSULB’s (Go Beach!) campus knew who I was. It was simultaneously unnerving and exhilarating. I did it, I made the plunge, but the excitement did not last long. Soon after that, feelings of dread germinated and in less than a year, I immediately regretted my decision–but pride, inherent dishonesty, and a stubborn determination wouldn’t allow me to admit it.
For the next nine or so years, I gradually learned more about my religion and rather than illuminate any divine wisdom or profound morality, it baffled the fuck out of me. I tried to make it fit somehow, I desperately wanted to make rational sense out of many of Islam’s seemingly arbitrary and draconian rules. For example, in traditional Islam, one is NOT allowed to illustrate any pictures of any sentient organisms either mythical or real (like a Griffin or a person and depicting the prophet is a BIG no-no). One was only allowed to illustrate or paint scenic landscapes or nature sans any animals. Such a ridiculous prohibition was put in place to prevent people from worshipping idols as doing such would’ve violated the first article of faith, belief in Allah. Shirk was to give the love, respect, and worship which was supposedly due to Allah alone to anything other than Allah. The drawing was seen as a form of shirk in a sense. At the time, I wanted to get back into drawing and take classes to improve my technique. To say it disappointed me that I had to abandon that dream to remain in God’s good graces is an understatement. Also, drawing is seen as an affront to Allah, an attempt to usurp creation. As punishment, the “image-makers” will burn in Hell until they can give life to whatever they drew or painted. I thought that surely Allah was smart enough to know the intention of the artist. Allah is supposed to be the all-knowing. Wouldn’t intention count for anything? How could the illustrator be held accountable for what other superstitious people did, assuming some village idiot would take to worshipping a drawing or painting? Couldn’t Allah see how unreasonable he was being? Intention or niyah is a big thing in Islam. I couldn’t reconcile why God would give certain people the gift of artistic expression and then severely limit that speech under a penalty that certainly wouldn’t and does not fit any supposed “crime.”
It didn’t stop there. I learned that I could not date anyone as a Muslim–which profoundly affected me as there was a charming young woman who fancied me at the time. I remained steadfast believing in such ascetical bullshit would be a blessing, my reward was depression and sexual frustration. Oh, and I lost the girl.
I couldn’t reconcile obvious misogynistic verses such as:
Men have authority over women because God has made the one superior to the other, and because they spend their wealth to maintain them. Good women are obedient. They guard their unseen parts because God has guarded them. As for those whom you fear disobedience, admonish them and send them to beds apart and beat them. Then if they obey you, take no further action against them. Surely God is most high. ~ Quran 4:34
I tried to appreciate the verse from all manner of different contexts, but I could not understand how a loving god would give men permission to abuse their wives. As the years passed, I started questioning the reasoning behind Islam. I attended seminars, spoke with Imams in attempts to make sense of a religion so absurd, it mandates which foot one should lead with while entering the mosque. Why should it matter which foot I use first? Why such silly and entirely restrictive rules? Music was haram (illegal), sex prior to marriage was haraam (this prohibition did not bother me so much as I had bought into the rhetoric of purity prior to matrimony), sitting next to a girl in a Muslim gathering was haraam (I had hell trying to explain that to my non-Muslim friends). In fact during prayer, women are behind men. The reasoning is that men might become aroused if women stood in front. During prayer, there is bowing and prostrating, which thrusts one’s posterior into the air. So if a woman were to pray in front of a man, her ass would be in his face and BAM, instant erection (of course, when prostrating, one’s head should remain fixed to the ground, so ideally a man would never see any ass in his face if he’s praying right. If.). I hated this reasoning, but cowardly ignored it. It is problematic on a few counts, but the ones which come to mind are that it relegates men to mindless apes (all humans are apes) who are only driven by our desires. I’ve seen women bend over in front of me in non-sexual contexts plenty of times and the Earth didn’t stop moving in any of those cases. The other issue I had with it is that it completely dismisses the notion of WOMEN possessing sexual desires as well. Who’s to say a sister didn’t catch the vapors when she saw my ass up in the air (one can only hope, but I doubt it)?
Seriously, there’s a prohibition against looking at women (Muslim men are expected to lower their gaze when talking to women who aren’t related or to whom they are not married). LOOKING. How realistic is such a prohibition? I have eyes which afford me sight. How can I not look at women–they’re everywhere (and that’s a great thing, by the way)?!
The biggest cause of anxiety for me as a Muslim, besides the pressure to marry and the lack of sex, was Allah’s capricious nature. One phrase kept me puzzled, “If Allah wills.” It kept me scared that no matter how many times I praise him, or fasted, my destiny was dependent on his will. If he so willed, it wouldn’t matter what I would do or already did, I’d burn in hell on his whim. The idea paralyzed me. I was anxiety-ridden over the possibility that I would burn in hell for the smallest transgression. At the time this all came to a head, I was talking to a friend I’d met after converting. She is Muslim still as far as I know. I wanted to marry her, but that wasn’t in the cards (I don’t believe in fate, but I felt like using a cliche on account that it’s late and most of my brain juice is gone). I wanted this girl bad–sorry for sounding like a thirsty fuck-boy, but it’s true. I was torn on how God could instill a healthy sexual desire, but not allow me to act on it unless I pledged my life over to taking care of a family and being the head of a household. I would have to accept a responsibility for which I was nowhere near ready just to get a nut. How fair was that?
An important note to mention here as I skipped it earlier is that I was diagnosed with cancer around the same time I converted to Islam. My brothers told me that when one is sick, God expiates a sin. They tried to comfort me at the time, and like a fool, I swallowed it up. I honestly believed God was erasing some major sins of my past (not major in the sense of murder or rape, but things for which I now know I had no reason to feel shame). How sick is that? What kind of loving God would cause pain as a means of erasing sin? I look back on those days and think while my faith kept me positive, it was not Allah who saved me, but my doctors.
I was just going through the motions until my mother passed away. I considered myself a Muslim up until her death, though I did not practice and hadn’t prayed for a few years at that point. I was so disappointed and disillusioned, I fell deeper into depression. I was angry I had lost 9 or so years of my life to waking up at the asscrack of the pre-dawn morning to pray to a deity who wasn’t there. I had been particularly sick of feeling a sense of futility and emptiness after each prayer like I hadn’t done anything but make myself look silly–which turned out to be the case. The Quran just sounded like a bunch of threats veiled under the constant refrains of how wise Allah was or how just. When my mother passed away, I decided I wasn’t going to live a lie anymore. I left Islam and religion in general. In 2013-2014, I made my atheism public and official.
And it cost me quite a few friends.
One must understand that coming out as a skeptic, a non-believer in this climate of religiosity is a huge deal. In the case of Islam, the punishment for apostasy is death. I harbor no illusions that my life is in danger–I do not think any of my former brothers or sisters will call for my head, but I know that things between them and I are different. Maybe irreconcilable. I wouldn’t be surprised if they feel betrayed–though, they may not have given me a second thought since I left.
I lost a lot of friends after abandoning faith. There was no pomp and ceremony, no theatrics, tears or hurt feelings (I hope). We just fell away, the calls were less frequent, as were the emails. I’m talking about a people so generous that when I needed a bone marrow transplant (probably still do), they held bone marrow drives at their mosques. Not even my Christian or secular friends at the time did that. Though my secular friends did buy me a new computer and printer–new at the time, and they drove me to my hospital appointments when I didn’t have a ride. So it’s not like they did nothing–far far from it indeed and I am forever grateful. But I didn’t lose any secular friends when I became secular myself. In fact, I made more. Still, a part of me laments losing so many friends whom I thought I’d have for the rest of my life. But such is life, and despite all, I am happier now than I’ve ever been.
Despite the bouts with depression, which I’m managing and despite the everyday upheavals life throws at me, I’m happier now than I was as a Muslim. I am no longer afraid of burning in Hell for being human. I know that I only have this life and it’s up to me to make it the best life I can. This could’ve been longer, but I think I’ve made my point. I’d be here forever if I ruminated on every aspect of my life as a Muslim. Maybe another time.
I am an atheist.
I am free.