I left both Christianity and Islam behind: "It was the problem of evil and innocent suffering that truly led me out of religion"

Raised a Lutheran, I converted to Islam at 19, not long before 9/11. But that's not what ended my life as a Muslim

Published August 29, 2015 9:00PM (EDT)


Recently NFL pro-bowl running-back Arian Foster, of the Houston Texans, “came out” as a nonbeliever to ESPN Magazine. It was a bold move in a multibillion-dollar business where religion (mainly Protestant Christianity), militant nationalism and sports are deeply intertwined. Foster, an ex-Muslim, is part of a growing segment of America that identifies as religiously “unaffiliated,” an inclusive designation that encapsulates agnostics, atheists, secular-humanists and the spiritual-but-not-religious crowd. Recent studies, such as those conducted by the Pew Research Center, indicate that Americans see nonbelievers as bad or worse than they see Muslims, a startling admission in an age where groups like ISIS and al-Qaida have fomented rampant Islamophobia in American society. For instance, a 2014 poll by Pew, using a thermometer scale, found that Americans had a 41 degree (“cold”) rating toward “atheists” out of a possible high of 100 degrees. Only Muslims rated lower at 40 degrees. Given the present climate, it makes sense for American nonbelievers to stay quiet, pretend to believe when necessary (e.g., saying “under God”), and go along with the crowd, especially if you live in the “Bible Belt,” as I do. Nevertheless, as Arian Foster has bravely done, it is important to have an open discussion about unbelief and confront the many erroneous characterizations of nonbelievers that exist in America (e.g., that we're "immoral"). And perhaps most important, to discuss the impact that religion has had on contemporary public life.

Like Arian Foster, I was not raised as a nonbeliever, or as a secular-humanist (the latter being my preferred self-designation). I was raised as a Protestant Christian in western New York. My father graduated from a Norwegian-heritage Lutheran college, and he was an active member at our church in a suburb of Rochester, New York. His maternal grandfather was a Northern Baptist minister and administrator at a Baptist college in the Midwest (a rival to the Lutheran school my father attended). My older brother was raised, like me, as a Lutheran, and he proceeded through confirmation at our church and even listened to Christian rock bands like Stryper. When he got older and rebelliously switched to bands like Slayer, I recoiled at his displays of posters and album covers with devils and inverted pentagrams. He’d embraced a type of unbelief rooted in counterculture, something common to angst-ridden American teenagers. (He has since returned to the Lutheran church.) But I still believed. I read the Bible for myself (as a Lutheran should) and contemplated its teachings. I was searching for a "truth" that would provide meaning and order to human existence. 

My teenage years were spent in the Finger Lakes region of western New York, just up the road from the scenic liberal bastion of Ithaca, New York. The most convenient church for us was a Presbyterian one down the road. But my parents divorced, my brother was most interested in heavy metal music at the time, and I kept reading. Much more than the Bible, I studied texts from many different religious traditions. Religion as a whole fascinated me, and I was particularly interested in Judaism, perhaps as a result of having several Jewish friends. Judaism was the most visible non-Christian presence in my life at the time. I had come to question certain theological positions held by mainstream Christianity and sided increasingly with Jewish views. Most important, I'd become deeply convinced that the Trinity was an erroneous doctrine and that the Christian belief in the divinity of Jesus of Nazareth (as the Incarnation) violated and contradicted the Tanakh (“Old Testament”) and even the New Testament, especially the three synoptic gospels (John is non-synoptic). I saw myself as a firm monotheist. Polytheism in all its forms (whether overt, or carefully nuanced) was wrong in my view. I also agreed with Judaism that there was no need for Jesus to act as a blood sacrifice for God (a deity who was also presumably Jesus) to forgive us for breaking the rules. After all, Jews repent and ask for forgiveness from an ineffable God for transgressions, and do not see the need for a death in Roman Palestine 2,000 years ago to do that. The doctrine of the atonement in Christianity seemed to me rather like the rationalization of a failed messianic movement. I no longer attended church and identified more with Judaism and various New Age “spiritual” ideas than I did with Christianity. The ideas of Eastern religions like Buddhism only added to the complex stew that formed my angst-filled teenage spirituality. Then came college and new educational opportunities.

I attended a small liberal arts college in Rochester, New York. It was founded by Roman Catholic nuns, the Sisters of St. Joseph, in 1924. The school had been nondenominational since the 1970s, but many (if not most) of the students were Catholic (including my roommate), and despite its small size, the school had a good religious studies program. Given my interest in religion, I enrolled in a World Religions class for my first semester of college. The course provided an academic introduction to six different religious traditions of the world. My professor was a Catholic nun (as well as a Ph.D. from Syracuse) and used Huston Smith’s work as her pedagogical framework. There was nothing unusual about using Huston Smith, a longtime scholar of world religions. But as a religious studies professor myself, I would never use a text by Professor Smith for a course. Now an impressive 96 years old, Smith is a non-dogmatic believer (identifying as a Christian) who sees the “sacred” in all the world’s “wisdom traditions.” I can appreciate the spirit of tolerance in his approach, but as a mode of academic inquiry it is problematic. His writings treat religion as a global human response to an ambiguous and mysterious ineffable reality. There is an overt liberal progressive spirituality in Smith’s work, featuring a non-dogmatic pluralistic God that can wiggle around intellectual challenges and the inconveniences of the historical record. It is oftentimes more apologetic than critical and seems intent on speaking to the spirituality of students as much as their intellects or understanding of human history and world cultures. Smith once wrote (wrongly in my view): "Religion is not primarily a matter of facts; it is a matter of meanings."

This class was my first thorough introduction to Islam, a religion that I associated most closely with Malcolm X at the time (Spike Lee’s biopic was released when I was 14). It resonated with me. Islam had the absolute monotheism that I'd admired in Judaism, and the emphasis on ritual and daily practice (that I felt Protestantism lacked). And it came without the ethnic exclusivity of Judaism or its rejection of Jesus of Nazareth (as well as Mary and John the Baptist). Similar to Martin Luther’s emphasis on the “priesthood of all believers” and the free availability of divine grace to the believer direct from God, Islam had no priesthood, no need for the intermediary role of any institution, and an emphasis on personal engagement with the revealed Word of God (albeit now the Quran). A year later, at the age of 19, I converted to Sunni Islam at a local mosque, the Islamic Center of Rochester, New York, and a new phase of my life began.

Converting (or “reverting”) to Sunni Islam as an American college student was an odd experience for many reasons; far more than I will discuss here. But as we know, according to the standard view in America, college (unless you attend Brigham Young University) has a lot of alcohol consumption and sexual promiscuity. And yet, I threw myself into an austere religion that prohibited both of these things. I must have seemed very odd indeed. Meanwhile, as any convert to Islam will tell you, when you’re a “new Muslim” you meet people who are “born Muslim” that think Indo-Pakistani or Arab culture is synonymous with Islam and that American converts need to start dressing, speaking and acting like they’re immigrants from a foreign country. This, of course, is completely erroneous and nonsensical, but it’s something virtually every American Muslim convert will face. For someone like myself, who learned about Islam in the context of academia, I also had a decidedly intellectual understanding of Islam. My knowledge of Islam often did not mesh well with the “cultural Islam” of the blue-collar immigrant workers who attended the mosque. I also had no stomach for blindly dogmatic fundamentalist approaches to religion. It didn’t matter whether those sorts of views came from the mouths of Christian, Muslim or Jewish believers. It was all equally unpalatable.

When I graduated from college, I went to study Islam in Cairo for a year. Suddenly I was alone in the largest city on the continent of Africa and one of the foremost centers of Islamic thought. I arrived with virtually no knowledge of Arabic. Yet I survived, learned some Arabic, and my commitment to Islam opened doors to me that I could never have imagined if I’d been an unbeliever at the time. I even adopted the use of an Arabic name. It was a remarkable time, albeit not without its bumps and travails. After nine months, I returned to the United States in the summer of 2001. The horror of September followed. I remember crying for days, not only for the 2,977 victims, the thousands more injured, or the decimation of the great city of New York, but I felt as though the dream of living as a Muslim in America died that day. I felt as though all the work and education efforts that American Muslims had done went down with those towers. The understandable anger that emanated from every corner of the American media-scape took a decidedly anti-Muslim vitriolic turn. It would have been understandable for me to run away from Islam in this environment. But that’s not what happened. I spoke at classrooms and I dedicated myself to refuting and combating Islamist extremist views like those of al-Qaida. A year later, I was enrolled in graduate school, formally training in Islamic studies and Arabic, all within the framework of the academic discipline of Religious Studies. For my master’s degree, I implicitly refuted (for the sake of academic objectivity) the legal judgments of Muslim scholars who advocated the legitimacy of suicide bombing as a warfare tactic. For my doctorate, I returned to the research I’d begun in Cairo and immersed myself in Sunni theology (‘ilm al-kalam), particularly its relationship to politics. As I studied, I attended a local mosque, where, despite my studies and experiences abroad, I was still often treated by foreign-born congregants as a tourist who wandered inside off the street. They would talk to me about trivial things like what kind of hat I should have worn inside the mosque or how I should place my hands when I’m sitting and waiting for the Friday sermon (khutbah) to start. Meanwhile, at the university, I was engaged in parsing the theological intricacies of Sunni Asharite and Athari scholars from the 10th to the 12th centuries and studying under professors from Nigeria, Sudan, Morocco and Iran.

By the time I finished my doctorate, I’d begun moving away from Islam. At the age of 29, after 10 years of practicing Sunni Islam, I could no longer call myself a Muslim in the proper sense. I stopped fasting during Ramadan. I rarely made salah (daily prayer). I no longer shunned pepperoni on my pizza. Chapters (surahs) of the Quran I'd memorized faded. Allah became increasingly abstract in my mind. For a time I toyed with highly nuanced neologisms like “Muslim humanist,” but that didn’t last. My life as a Muslim was over. I did not switch to a different religion or return to Protestant Christianity, though. By leaving Islam, I was leaving religion as a whole. Despite the negatives — bigotry from non-Muslims, ignorance from “cultural Muslims,” barbarous actions by extremists in the name of Islam — it was the problem of evil and innocent suffering that truly led me out of Islam, and most important, out of religion as a whole. In all of my studies of religious texts and the wonderfully intricate and sophisticated theologies articulated by great Muslim scholars, such as al-Juwayni, al-Ghazali or al-Qushayri, I could not find a satisfying explanation for the horrific innocent suffering we see again and again in our world. I know that many people are content to leave such things alone, as a “mystery” of God’s will, but I simply could not. Indeed, more often than not, the explanations I found were absolutely horrifying and nonsensical. You’ve all heard them. For example, arguments that natural disasters (e.g., the 2004 tsunami) that kill many thousands of men, women and children are divine punishments for sinful behavior. Some have said the same about genocides. And parents who lost a child to leukemia, or to a stroke in a hot car, or to a predatory kidnapper? Some suggest that they shouldn’t lose faith because “God never gives us more than we can handle.” Or that such things are meant to “teach us” or help us to “grow.” Still others from the religions of the world talk of karma or an evil deity who causes all bad things to happen. There are infinite examples of these sorts, all of them nonsensical, outrageous and producing only more questions and contradictions than answers.

The simple truth shakes us to the core, because it pulls us down from the privileged meaningful position we’ve understandably given ourselves. The gods, whether Zeus, Ahura Mazda, Yahweh or Shiva, do not exist. Our ancestors erroneously attributed sentient agency to natural phenomena, deceived by the imagination and our propensity for pattern recognition, and then expressed it through the influential power of narrative (i.e., storytelling). In these narratives, we find "man" unsurprisingly positioned as the pinnacle of creation, forged on the last day or chosen as a viceroy over the Earth. Even the angels are jealous of us! However, contrary to these narratives, we are wholly insignificant. We are, as the late Carl Sagan put it, “Johnny-come-latelys” on a planet that has existed for over 4.5 billion years. Our planet has seen innumerable other life forms in a variety of sizes over that span, most of which have gone extinct (as we will one day). Our ever-expanding universe has existed long before our microbial ancestors stirred in the muck, and it will continue long after no trace of humanity remains. We inhabit a planet that revolves around a sun that is only one of more than 100 billion stars in the Milky Way Galaxy, which is only one of more than 100 billion galaxies in the observable universe. That universe is 13.7 billion years old. And yet, we Homo sapiens, who evolved via natural selection in East Africa just 200,000 years ago, are the pinnacle of it all? What hubris! Homo sapiens were not even the only bipedal tool-using, clothes-wearing, language-speaking human species on Earth until Homo neanderthalensis (Neanderthals) went extinct 40,000 years ago. The arrogance and self-deception of Homo sapiens is perhaps nowhere more apparent than in the surviving religious traditions of the world.

While the majority of religions in human history have gone extinct (in some cases after surviving for over a millennium), many remain, most notably Christianity, Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism. Credit them for being survivors. But these “great religions,” despite their evident appeal and durability, are thoroughly human from beginning to end. If you’re willing to take the time to look, and critically examine the histories of the different religions of the world, you will see our little fingerprints at every turn, stained by the pre-scientific ignorance, cruelty, sexism and prejudice of the eras when they first began. There are countless troubling elements and contradictions in these traditions that can only be reconciled with our 21st century knowledge (if at all) through the most fanciful, selective and convoluted interpretations that the human mind can muster. But most of us will never bother to even look that closely. Indeed, many people are sadly forbidden to critically examine religion (e.g., Saudi Arabia). Many others are simply content to live their lives following familiar traditions and narratives that comfort, extol and praise their own existence and social positions. I know the appeal of that. But like Neo in "The Matrix," we humans have a choice between two pills. Many still choose the blue one (not the red as Neo did). I understand why, but I must disagree with that decision. There is much to be said for the value of tradition and the role of religion in identity constructions. However, I cannot help but have great concern when I see and hear religion shaping public policy, school curriculum, individual rights, laws and political systems. The mere fact that biological evolution via natural selection is still rejected in certain corners of our society, despite a veritable mountain of empirical evidence, and is challenged by creationists (“Intelligent Design” proponents) should alarm us. Recently many Americans listened to candidates for president of the United States — the commander-in-chief of the most powerful military (and nuclear arsenal) on Earth — suggest tax systems, policies and laws that are based on an old Near Eastern deity’s "revealed Word." We must sound the alarm. At this critical juncture in world history, the time to stay politely silent has ended. It is an uncomfortable subject. But as Sagan once said, “knowledge is preferable to ignorance; better by far to embrace the hard truth than a reassuring fable.”

Jeffry R. Halverson, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of religious studies and Islamic studies at Coastal Carolina University (SC). He is the author of three academic books, including most recently "Searching for a King: Muslim Nonviolence and the Future of Islam" (Potomac, 2012), and a self-published humanist magical realism novel, "The Mural" (Grand Strand Press, 2014).

By Jeffry R. Halverson

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