How I Became an Atheist: Umran Haji

I was raised in a Muslim family. I was never a particularly “good” or devout Muslim and I rarely practiced Islam, but I more or less espoused a belief in God and the tenets of the religion, and generally used this to guide my opinions about morality.

My path to atheism began when I was a junior in high school (though I did not realize it until after I became an atheist). Throughout high school, I was interested in a career in politics, and in the fall of junior year I had just returned from a summer camp geared towards students interested in politics. Instead of being excited by the experience, I became rather disillusioned; one of the things we did there was nightly debates on all sorts of political issues, and I became disillusioned by how entrenched people were in their political opinions, how people stick to their positions even if it means making fallacious arguments, and how the mining of facts and statistics to support a position trumps the search for what is actually the case.

This was not for me. Something in the fabric of my being told me that there was something that everyone was missing out on, and that the endless ideological charlatanism of partisan politics was obscuring what was actually the case. I did not want to end up like everyone else; I did not want to argue for positions unless I could have a high degree of assurance that they were true, and I thirsted for an intellectual setting where people value truth over ideology.

I found that setting in the spring, when a friend introduced me to an online course on edX.org called “Justice”—one of the most popular courses at Harvard, it was an introduction to moral and political philosophy. I didn’t know anything about philosophy, but I decided to take the course because of my interest in politics. In that course, we considered fundamental, far-reaching questions like “What’s the right thing to do?” and “What is the most just way to structure a society?”, and we considered many famous concepts in political philosophy such as Jeremy Bentham’s and J.S. Mill’s utilitarianism, John Locke’s ideas of natural law and natural rights, Robert Nozick’s arguments for libertarianism, John Rawls’ “veil of ignorance”, etc. It was the first time I was formally introduced to a domain in which people make serious attempts to justify their political views with quality arguments and subject their own views to critical assessment: the domain of philosophy.

I was fascinated with this previously unknown field of study and its honest aims and methodology, and I realized that philosophy was the intellectual high road when it comes to decision-making; our political decisions should be determined by what is most likely to be the case, not by what we like to think is the case, and we should allow ourselves to be convinced not by demagoguery and sophistry, but only by logical arguments. This is what philosophy has the power to deliver to us. The spirit of philosophy as philo-sophia, the “love of wisdom”, the search for truth via rational inquiry and the rejection of unfounded preconceptions, took hold of me and made me decide to major in philosophy at Berkeley.

Then, in my first semester, I took Ancient Greek Philosophy and was captivated by the character of Socrates. Little is known for certain about Socrates (~470-399 BC), particularly because he never wrote anything, but as my professor brilliantly put it, he had a reputation in Athens for “molesting people in the marketplace with penetrating questions”. He appears as a character in the writings of several contemporary figures, most notably in the dialogues of his student Plato. In Plato’s dialogues, Socrates is portrayed as a character who wants to discover truth, usually about ethics; he confronts many of the greatest politicians and thinkers in Athens, asking them ethical questions like “What is justice?” and “What is piety?” and “What is goodness?”, hoping that these supposedly wise men will be able to give him a satisfactory account of what it means to be just/pious/good/etc.. Upon being questioned, Socrates’ interlocutor provides him with an answer, which, through an incessant form of questioning that we now call the “Socratic method”, Socrates almost always shows to be inadequate or self-contradictory, thus demonstrating that the interlocutor doesn’t know what he is talking about, that his beliefs about ethics are inconsistent, and that he should provide a better answer. As expected, people don’t like being shown their own ignorance, so this usually doesn’t go down well with the interlocutor, who usually becomes angry with Socrates and refuses to speak to him further.

The Socratic Method

Socrates was certainly a real person, but it is unclear to what extent the Socrates in Plato’s dialogues is representative of the real Socrates. Nevertheless, what is certain is that the character of Socrates as presented by Plato is one of the most influential figures in Western philosophy, and that he is often regarded by philosophers as the epitome of a philosopher; unlike everyone around him, Socrates had no pretensions to knowledge. Everyone in Athens was ignorant of what things like justice, piety, and goodness were, but Socrates was the only one who knew he was ignorant, hence the famous quote attributed to him: “I know that I know nothing.” Because of this, Socrates made an honest effort to gain knowledge. Someone who thinks he knows all the answers for certain will not bother to seek truth, because he does not open his mind to the possibility that he might be wrong; only when one knows the extent of his ignorance is he liberated to dispassionately seek knowledge and follow evidence wherever it leads.

So how did Socrates influence me? He made me reconsider many of the things I thought I “knew”. Among many other things, religion was placed on the chopping block. I realized that although vast numbers of people claim to know that a god or supernatural things exist, the fact is that there is not a single person on earth who has knowledge of such things. Moreover, studying philosophy in general made me realize how important it is that claims and beliefs be justified, and how we very often hold beliefs without justification and neglect to critically examine them.

At the same time as I was taking Ancient Greek Philosophy, I was also taking my first physics class. It was a non-quantitative class designed for non-science majors, which covered the big ideas of physics in a conceptual way, from motion, thermodynamics, and electromagnetism all the way to quantum mechanics, relativity, astronomy, and the dream of a “theory of everything” to unify all of physics. Before taking that class, I didn’t have a very good appreciation for science, and was rather indifferent to it. But after taking that class and realizing that the things I was learning were fundamental laws that hold throughout the entire universe, I suddenly recognized science for what it is: a process of seeking truth about the natural world. In this regard it is much like philosophy. It starts from a position that recognizes our ignorance, makes no pretensions to knowledge, and seeks to expand our understanding through a rigorous methodology (the only differences are that scientific inquiry is primarily based on empirical observation of the natural world while philosophical inquiry is primarily based on rational argument, and science and philosophy deal with difference domains of knowledge). And after all, science was once called “natural philosophy”, because it owes its existence to the same tradition of seeking knowledge that gave rise to what we now call philosophy (in addition to other fields like mathematics).

When I consciously realized this for the first time, it had huge epistemological significance; I started to reconsider the ways in which I gain knowledge, and what I realized was that religion is based on a completely different epistemic system from science (and philosophy, for that matter). In science, we don’t believe things unless we have a substantial amount of evidence for them, and we do not accept a particular explanation for our empirical observations unless that explanation is more likely to be the case than any other explanation. But this is not true in religion; religious beliefs are not based on evidence (or at least not on objective, substantial, unambiguous evidence), and religious people insist on supernatural explanations for phenomena without inquiring into whether natural explanations are more likely. The standard of evidence and rigor is far, far lower in religion than in science and, indeed, lower than in any other aspect of life. As Sam Harris says in The End of Faith:

“Even most fundamentalists live by the lights of reason in this regard; it is just that their minds seem to have been partitioned to accommodate the profligate truth claims of their faith. Tell a devout Christian that his wife is cheating on him, or that frozen yogurt can make a man invisible, and he is likely to require as much evidence as anyone else, and to be persuaded only to the extent that you give it. Tell him that the book he keeps by his bed was written by an invisible deity who will punish him with fire for eternity if he fails to accept its every incredible claim about the universe, and he seems to require no evidence whatsoever.”

When we hold religious beliefs in addition to all our other beliefs, we are essential carrying around two distinct epistemic system with us, i.e. two different criteria for arbitrating what is true and what is not true; we require little evidence for our religious beliefs, but substantial evidence for everything else.

Now, I do not see anything inherently wrong with having different epistemic systems for different areas of knowledge, but the problem in this particular case is that religion gets allowed a lower standard of evidence arbitrarily. There is no good reason for giving religious beliefs special treatment and maintaining a lower standard of evidence for them. So, the only sensible response to such a problem is to jettison this less rigorous epistemic system and the beliefs that were attached to it.

That is exactly what I did at the end of my first semester at Berkeley, when I became an atheist.

Science Faith Flowchart

But the epistemological foundations of science are not all that influenced me; I was also enthralled by the findings of science. After taking my physics class, my mind was blown by how vast the universe is, how insignificant we are, and how beautiful the laws of nature are in their ability to produce the complex systems we observe all around us. I decided I wanted to spend my life learning about the universe, so I decided to major in astrophysics in addition to philosophy, but I began devouring all the knowledge I could about other fields of science. I began binge-reading everything I could find by the likes of Carl Sagan, Richard Dawkins, etc., and I came to realize the extent of the sheer beauty with which everything that occurs around us is explainable in terms of natural causes. Everything, from the origin of species, to the motion and interactions of the heavenly bodies, to “supernatural” psychological experiences, happens by itself, because of the laws of physics and chemistry. It requires no supernatural force, no designer, no intelligence, no purpose. Everything that religious people take as evidence for the existence of a god is no evidence at all.

One of the most valuable things I learned from reading Carl Sagan’s Pale Blue Dot is the ability to recognize “provincialism”, the tendency for us to think our experiences are unique, or that we are special or significant, when we are ignorant of the outside world and do not know any better. If you are one of the many people on Earth who have not had the luxury of a proper liberal arts education, you are liable to succumb to religion because, lacking sufficient knowledge of history, anthropology, and literature, you might be trapped in provincial attitudes. For instance, you might fail to realize that an innumerable amount of religious traditions exist and have existed throughout human history, each espoused by many followers just as certain of their beliefs as you are of yours. You might fail to realize that members of every other religion think you’re wrong for exactly the same reason you think they’re wrong: their holy book says so. You might fail to realize that many of the stories in your holy books are shared with many now defunct religions you would consider “paganistic” or “heathen”. You might fail to realize just how easy it is for religions to arise in uneducated societies. And you might fail to realize, as Richard Dawkins points out, that your belief in your religion is no way special or unique and is merely another aspect of the culture you were accidentally born into:

(in response to a questioner who asked “What if you’re wrong?”)

“Well, what if I’m wrong, I mean — anybody could be wrong. We could all be wrong about the Flying Spaghetti Monster and the pink unicorn and the flying teapot. You happen to have been brought up, I would presume, in the Christian faith. You know what it’s like to not believe in a particular faith because you’re not a Muslim. You’re not a Hindu. Why aren’t you a Hindu? Because you happen to have been brought up in America, not in India. If you had been brought up in India, you’d be a Hindu. If you had been brought up in Denmark in the time of the Vikings, you’d be believing in Wotan and Thor. If you were brought up in classical Greece, you’d be believing in Zeus. If you were brought up in central Africa, you’d be believing in the great Juju up the mountain. There’s no particular reason to pick on the Judeo-Christian god, in which by the sheerest accident you happen to have been brought up, and ask me the question, ‘What if I’m wrong?’ What if you’re wrong about the great Juju at the bottom of the sea?”

By learning about the nature of our species and our place in the cosmos, we are able to “deprovincialize” ourselves and discover our world and our universe as they really are. I liken the story of humanity to waking up in a dark room. Our species arrived on this planet tens of thousands of years ago, completely blind to the forces that gave rise to us. We didn’t know who we were, where we came from, what the world was, or what the strange lights in the sky were. It was very much like waking up in a dark room. We spent most of our history completely blind, fumbling around in the darkness. We looked at the night sky and entertained stories about the gods and heroes in the constellations and how the world came to be. When terrifying events happened that we could not explain, like lightning, famine, and disease, we attributed them to the wrath of a god. We were almost as ignorant as our cousins the animals—indeed, ignorant of the fact that they were our cousins at all.

In this dark room, it has scarcely been a few thousand years since we began to find our way around by touch and sound, thanks to societies like the ancient Greeks and Arabs who laid the foundations of mathematics and science. And it has scarcely been a few hundred years since we figured out where the light switch was. That was when we discovered what we now call the scientific method, and since then we have made advances in our knowledge that are orders of magnitude greater than anything our ancestors could have even dreamed of. As our horizons grow ever broader, and as we begin to cajole Mother Nature into revealing her secrets, we repeatedly discover that the world is not the way we thought it was. We discover that the stories we told in the childhood of our species are no more real than the make-believe fantasies of a child. We discover that the explanations we used to have for why things happened are dead wrong. We discover a universe vast and mysterious, with nothing in it to confirm the mythology we held dear.

Now that we have begun to view our species from a cosmic perspective, our mythologies look all the more ridiculous. Many of the world’s most prominent religions, including Christianity and Islam, blatantly espouse the view that man is the greatest of God’s creations and that the universe was created with us in mind. How ludicrous such a claim is when one considers the vastness of the cosmos and the inevitably of other intelligent life out there somewhere! And what a shame that many of us continue to have such pretensions to knowledge of the divine, that we purport to find evidence for our ancient myths where there is none. and that we continue to wallow in the backwardness of epistemic naïveté!

More likely that not, this story is not unique to our species. Presumably every young intelligent species, on every planetary island of life in the cosmos, must go through a similar painful process of ignorance, self-delusion, and then awakening, with plenty of denial along the way. No intelligent species can be perfectly rational, or at least it cannot start out that way. Every intelligent species must carry the baggage of its historical and evolutionary past.

The universe is a vast and humbling place. We must realize that it was here before us, that it will be here long after we are gone, and that it does not care what we think is true about it. Faced with this reality, we must come to grips with the fact that we have long had a habit of deluding ourselves about the universe’s true nature, and that this habit is still with us today. As our species enters its adolescence, we must learn to put away our ignorance like a child puts away its toys and imaginary friends, and we must learn to forge a path free of delusions, presumptuousness, and dogma if we are to discover truth. The only way forward is to be like Socrates: to know that we do not know.

Pale Blue Dot 1

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About Umran Haji

I'm from Chico, CA, and I'm a sophomore at UC Berkeley intending to double major in philosophy and astrophysics. I currently serve as Public Relations Manager for the Berkeley Atheists & Skeptics Society. Philosophically, I am most interested in epistemology, philosophy of science, ethics, and political philosophy. In my spare time I like to indulge in classic literature, Baroque and Classical music, early modern history, antiquarian scientific and political books, and classic and neotraditional country music. :)
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