The documentary I am currently editing focuses on the Islamic Society at UCL, who ran an Islam Awareness Week earlier this year.
This and a number of conversations I’ve been having recently have been causing me to think back over my views on religion and spirituality. Most people ignore the big questions in life by blocking them out – with noise, with drama, with alcohol. And it is the big questions that I’m talking about. The way we react to a snub, a slander, a rejection or a break-up is a direct result of the attitude we hold towards our existence and our purpose.
Many of us barely allow ourselves time to consider this. This is why I have growing appreciation for individuals who have come to decide that one religion or another is for them. Editing this documentary, for example, is reminding me that there is a great deal to be learnt from the inner peace that Islam offers its followers. Granted, in my belief system, religion is just another way of filling the above-mentioned space. But it is at least a way of filling the space that acknowledges the enormity of the questions that we cannot escape. What if we all forced ourselves to confront the fears that lurk in our souls?
Of course, there are plenty of non-religious people, such as myself, who do make it their business to confront their deepest fears. Humanism is the framework within which I do so. But for the moment, religion is the most ubiquitous context for this, a situation that’s not going to change any time soon. This I came to accept a while ago, and it’s increasingly something for which I have genuine respect.
My respect is cemented as I am challenged by footage of the Islam Awareness Week. One organiser remarks, ‘if a visitor is non-Muslim, maybe they can learn something by connecting the values we hold with their own experiences?’ True enough, hearing all these individuals voice their belief in Islam is reminding me that contemplation and sobriety can bring joy and peace to a soul. Many of us will never realise this because many of us do not realise that the space is there, obscured as it is by the chatter and the rat race of daily life.
Some of us choose to fill the space with Allah or a similar all-knowing entity. I do not and never will believe in a god: indeed one of the reasons I am Atheist is because I understand how terrified humans are of our lack of purpose; how desperately we need to invent something to fill that space, even if some of us don’t realise it. Humans created gods, not the other way around. Wherever I look, I see people scrambling for truth, finding their answer in whatever happens to make sense to them; and if they don’t find an answer, they create one. Yet we owe a great deal to the humans that have nurtured the various gods that have sprung up since ancient times, from the Greek and Roman gods to Pagan beliefs to all the main religious groups of today.
All values-driven and free-thinking people have something to learn from each other. From my contact with many different people across the world I have come to realise that selfishness, conformism and fear of change are found in equal measure amongst people of every kind of faith and of no faith.
The values at the heart of most religions should be shared and understood by all. Personally I admire the Islamic values of not judging others (‘allowing Allah to judge’), putting family first (and maintaining a very broad understanding of ‘family’) and pursuing a lifelong inner struggle for peace with your soul (‘jihad’). And I admire equally the Christian values of humility, charity and unconditional love for other human beings. Some people may wish to dispute these as the flagship values of those religions, which I accept, since I am simply commenting on what has stood out for me.
Burning issues and infringements of human rights such as the oppression of women, homophobia, prevention of access to abortion, violent extremism and racism are social issues. They result from a sickness of society. They do not issue automatically from the values inherent to any belief system, although they are often committed and defended in the name of those values. A belief system can transcend many societies and epochs: a fact of which we have daily evidence.
In my view, the values at the foundations of the various religions may well be read as the essence of ‘God’s word’, but they are in fact born of collective human wisdom and experience. As a humanist – believing that we must make the most of the one life we have and base our judgments on fact – I therefore have tremendous respect for these values. In my eyes their true origin is enough to afford them them great authority. This origin is what a religious person would refer to as ‘God’. God, or time-honoured human conscience – does it matter so much what we call it?
Some would retort that it matters a great deal. For my part, I’d hope we could find a way to focus on the common values rather than the difference in beliefs.
Religion has for years been the human way of recording values and passing them down to a future generation. Unfortunately, this can also result in exploitative systems of power and the excuse for the preservation of social norms because of the fear some of us harbour towards change. Perhaps one day humans will credit ourselves with what is rightfully ours: the legacy of spending our entire history creating a web of values based on our shared experience. And, like many of us are beginning to do – religious and non-religious – we must learn to detach these values from the social diseases of our day, appreciating them for their universality and timeliness. The presence of these values should give us the courage and conviction to band together in the name of a shared human identity, whether or not we believe God to be their origin.
The iSoc documentary, directed by Nida Manzoor, is currently in bits and pieces but will hopefully be screened somewhere in a couple of months’ time.