It’s hard to not think about death right now.
One of the most commonly-cited criticisms of atheism is the lack of comfort it offers in the face of death and tragedy. Atheism doesn’t provide any kind of solace when loved ones and innocent people die, the reasoning goes, so why rob people of that happiness?
I can’t say that I relate to that line of thinking at all, personally.
The vice I felt tightening around my godless heart as I read through as much of the New York Times front page list as I could stand? The pain couldn’t compare in the slightest to the soul-crushing agony I used to go through upon the most minor news of tragedy when I was a Muslim. When I was a believer, that allegedly comforting belief in an afterlife was agonizing torture.
Why I found the afterlife to be upsetting rather than reassuring comes down to confidence. I’ll never cease to be astounded by the confidence of religious believers who are so sure they and their loved ones will all make it to heaven. When it came to my own worthiness, my assessment of others, my interpretation and even choice of religion—I was self-assured in exactly none of it. To be so confident seemed to me to be playing god, a grave sin.
As a believer, I left a lot up to my god. The only reason I remained a believer in Islam through my teen years was that I humbled myself in deference to Allah’s wisdom and majesty. I resolved whatever issues I had with the religion by comparing my own judgment to that of the eternal, all-powerful, all-knowing being who had created me. To find fault with what my god had ordained seemed unspeakably arrogant. I knew that I was a single flawed being, with a mortal and very narrow perspective, and so I believed myself in need of divine guidance in order to comport myself correctly.
That humility translated to a complete lack of the very certainty assumed of believers.
What Lurks in the Hearts of Others
Because I wasn’t Allah, I didn’t believe that I had the right to play god and judge others. While that might sound like a positive and wonderful way to live, it really wasn’t. Because I couldn’t know what others truly felt or believed or did when no one was looking, I didn’t believe I could judge anyone either way, good or bad. That meant that I could’t rest assured that my loved ones would make it into heaven, no matter how adherent they seemed to Islam. I also couldn’t tell myself that bad people would go to hell and be punished for their misdeed.
Stories abounded in the Islamic texts I read of people who seemed destined for hellfire but were actually heaven-bound, and vice versa. The point of those stories was to destroy any sense that a human being could judge another. Allah said there were people who called themselves Muslims and even acted as though they were true believers and good people, but whose minds harbored evil, sometimes to the point of sordid bad deeds. Only Allah could know the truth about people.
My own life provided evidence for the existence of extreme hypocrites. After all, didn’t my own father lecture others piously in public while punishing me for my devotion and faith in private? And didn’t my own internal moral compass contradict Islam constantly? To have faith in my own judgement instead of what Allah told me wasn’t something I could fathom. So I cried and fearfully prayed for myself and those I loved, hoping we were doing the right thing and humbly asking Allah to forgive us.
I knew my own faults, flaws, and sins all too well. What could I know of others’ worthiness or lack thereof?
My Own Worthiness
There are a lot of ways to be a sinner in Islam. Every school of thought, every interpretation, offers fresh and interesting takes on ways you might be offending the One who is your Lord and the Lord of all. As a sincere believer desiring to do right, I often felt lost. My internal moral compass was of no help. It contradicted what Islam, my father, my family, religious authorities, and our Muslim community said so often that I strove to ignore it as much as I could. I considered my own compassionate impulses as temptations to avoid.
On top of the confusion, I had to feel guilty and secretive about how torn I felt. Allah said that Islam was a clear, perfect, complete, and simple religion. My very uncertainty and doubt couldn’t be expressed, since it was an indicator that I wasn’t believing hard enough. Those times I managed to express my feelings, no one seemed to understand what I was asking.
I’ve considered that this might be a faith vs. works thing. In a simple faith-as-salvation theological framework, I could perhaps conceive of feeling confident in one’s understanding of one’s own ultimate destination, if not that of others. Even then, though, how could you be sure you believed in the right religion? Most believers think they happen to have been born into the right faith, and they can’t all be right.
Pascal’s Wager, But Which?
Pascal’s Wager has never done much for me other elicit a rueful chuckle or two. Presenting Pascal’s Wager as a reason to believe is a disingenuous move for most believers, especially those who believe in Christianity or Islam. The fringe sects that allow for a person to go to heaven based solely on a vague belief in a non-specific deity and a generalized afterlife are few and far between. Generally speaking, you have to at least have a very specific set of beliefs, if not the accompanying and appropriately-matched set of deeds, to earn a ticket to a torture-free afterlife.
Choosing the right religion isn’t enough, either. Religious in-groups have squabbled and civil-warred themselves to actual literal death since the dawn of time. Muhammad himself said that as the world neared its last days, the Muslim population would be divided into dozens of sects, but that only one of those sects would make it into heaven.
I could have never thought so much of myself and my own judgment to rest assured that I’d happened upon the one correct interpretation of the single correct sect of the only correct religion.