Atheists I have loved

Alain de Botton

I’m in the midst of a blistering spiritual drought.

While I am happy that so many people have connected to my book on a deeply personal level, the 24/7 promotion and publicity machine coupled with parental unhappiness with certain aspects of said book have resulted in a rapid and vast spiritual desertification unlike anything I have experienced before.

In the face of this, I did what any good Muslim girl experiencing a spiritual drought would do: I went to hear an intelligent atheist hold forth at the  Jewish Community Center.

I’ve loved many atheists in my life, and they have all had the effect of helping me fall back in love with my faith and religion in a way that often co-religionists do not. It’s not because of their abrasive, militant stance against religion  – that’s not the style of atheist I’m attracted to –  but rather their curiosity, and willingness to engage with and to listen to someone with a different belief system.

Even people of other faiths can help me see my religion in a renewed and beautiful light. It’s often other Muslims I struggle the most with. They are the ones who make me feel furthest away from the beauty and light of my own faith. Perhaps it’s because I expect more of them.

So, I went to hear the charming, brilliant & self-proclaimed “gentle” atheist philosopher Alain de Botton speak about his new book, Religion for Atheists: A Non-Believers Guide to the Uses of Religion.

His insights into the meanings of the ritual, forgiveness, community, art, and other aspects that are so central to religion were poetic, insightful & moving. Even his remarks on the necessity of daily spiritual breaks like prayer or the use of water as a cleansing and focusing agent were lovely in a way that  lectures on the fiqh of salat or wudu have rarely been. Indeed, they revived my own faith in a way that little has since January.

I only wish that we had more people like him – affiliated with religious traditions, or not – who are devoted to exploring and sharing the qualities of beauty, wisdom, empathy, curiosity and compassion. As members of a secular society, we need that so desperately in this day & age in which romantic love and financial success are deemed the ultimate arbiters of success and yet so often leave us feeling empty and longing for something deeper, something more. As believers, we need more poets and lovers – people who are ablaze with the loving and generous spirit that is supposed to illuminate the legal structure of faith.

Didn’t Imam Shafi say that he considered everyone he met to be his teacher, either on how to be or not to be? Last night, Mr. de Botton was my teacher on the special strengths of faith and the bridges that are possible between people with opposing views on God.

If Mr. de Botton’s lecture was a love letter to believers, this post is a love letter to atheists in honor of all that I have learned and continue to learn from them.

Ayesha Mattu is a writer, international development consultant and the editor of Love InshAllah. Her writing has appeared in CNN.com, The Huffington Post, International Museum of Women, and Religion Dispatches. This piece was originally posted at her blog, Rickshaw Diaries.


4 Comments on “Atheists I have loved”

  1. Nomi Naeem says:

    Ayesha, I appreciate your approach towards religions and it reminded me of American philosopher Ken Wilber’s notion of the unity of all religions, aka wisdom traditions:

    “Most of the great wisdom traditions agree that:

    1. Spirit, by whatever name, exists.
    2. Spirit, although existing “out there,” is found “in here,” or revealed within to the open heart and mind.
    3. Most of us don’t realize this Spirit within, however, because we are living in a world of sin, separation, or duality—that is, we are living in a fallen, illusory, or fragmented state.
    4. There is a way out of this fallen state (of sin or illusion or disharmony), there is a Path to our liberation.
    5. If we follow this Path to its conclusion, the result is a Rebirth or Enlightenment, a direct experience of Spirit within and without, a Supreme Liberation, which
    6. Marks the end of sin and suffering, and
    7. Manifests in social action of mercy and compassion on behalf of all sentient beings.

    This recognition would also imply that, any practices that would help individual human beings attune themselves to these patterns would increase humanity’s understanding of, and attunement with, the spiritual patterns of the universe. This attunement could occur through any of the great religions, but would be tied exclusively to none of them. A person could be attuned to an “integral spirituality” while still be a practicing Christian, Buddhist, New-Age advocate, or Neopagan. This would be something added to one’s religion, not subtracted from it. The only thing it would subtract (and there’s no way around this) is the belief that one’s own path is the only true path to salvation…If humanity’s attunement to the spiritual patterns of the universe are helped by various practices—which might include prayer, meditation, yoga, contemplation—then modern psychological and psychotherapeutic measures would surely be part of any integral spirituality, since those measures can help increase a person’s capacity for various sorts of practice.”

  2. Chinyere says:

    I like this the best: “Even people of other faiths can help me see my religion in a renewed and beautiful light. It’s often other Muslims I struggle the most with. They are the ones who make me feel furthest away from the beauty and light of my own faith. Perhaps it’s because I expect more of them.”

    You ain’t wrong! I so feel this!