During the month of Ramadan, Muslims all around the world fast by abstaining from food and drink during daytime hours. In addition to participating in these physical aspects of fasting, Muslims also see the month of Ramadan as an opportunity for spiritual growth. How this spiritual growth is achieved varies widely between cultures and individuals. Many Muslims devote an extraordinary amount of time to performing prayers, set aside time and money for charitable activities or study the Quran. My own approach to spiritual growth during Ramadan is to study the Scriptures and writings of other faiths and belief systems. I also like to engage in such interfaith readings outside of the month of Ramadan, but during Ramadan, my desire to learn about other faiths and beliefs intensifies.
The most plausible explanation for this is that my glucose-starved brain and dehydrated body are impatiently nudging me toward other belief systems as a reaction to depriving my body of food and drink for 17 hours. However, a plausibility does not make an explanation appealing. I have developed a personal, idiosyncratic explanation, which is (partly) grounded in the Muslim tradition. According to the Muslim narratives, God places the devils in chains during the month of Ramadan as a mercy to humans so that they can grow spiritually and are less likely to be lead astray by devils. The image that always comes to my mind is that of Mephistopheles from Goethe's Faust, in the classic performance by Gustaf Gründgens. I imagine Mephistopheles in an orange jump-suit, all chained up in a prison cell, cracking witty jokes and making snide comments, but unable to reach his target audience. I envision the devil leading humans astray by dampening our curiosity and our willingness to engage in dialogue; by preventing us from learning about what lies beyond our intellectual, spiritual and creative horizon and by creating a false sense of comfort. I believe that once the devil is placed in shackles during Ramadan, he is forced to release us from our cozy narrow-mindedness. I realize that my personal mythical narrative that I have developed around how the imprisoned devil fosters my interest in other faiths will not hold up to rigorous psychological testing or to traditional Muslim theology, but I still stick with it.
In the course of studying non-Muslim writings and Scriptures during this Ramadan, I came across the excellent essay "What I Believe" by the great atheist philosopher and Nobel laureate Bertrand Russell. This essay can be found in a collection of essays, including the famous or perhaps infamous "Why I Am Not a Christian." I remember reading this essay collection a number of years ago, but as with many of Bertrand Russell's writings, it does not hurt to continuously re-read them since one is bound to find new facets of wisdom each time. In "What I Believe," Russell formulates some of the key principles of his humanist and atheist philosophy.
Part of the essay is devoted to critiquing religion, such as when he says: "Religion, since it has its source in terror, has dignified certain kinds of fear and made people think them not disgraceful. In this it has done mankind a great disservice: all fear is bad."
Russell acknowledges that fear is found not only in religion, but in many aspects of our society.
"Fear is the basis of religious dogma, as of so much else in human life. Fear of human beings, individually or collectively, dominates much of our social life, but it is fear of nature that gives rise to religion."
Fear of human beings continues to dominate much of our lives today, nearly one century after Russell wrote these prescient words. When we look at sensationalist descriptions of infectious super-bugs, looming economic catastrophes, fear of wars and attacks -- our media and politics engulf us in a blanket of fear. Russell's comments about the emphasis on fear in religion are primarily directed toward the Christian faith, but I think they are applicable to the Muslim faith, too, since the recent Friday sermons that I attended all seem to harp on the importance of fearing God and hell-fire. Russell then offers us a vision of a "good life" without fear:
"The good life is one inspired by love and guided by knowledge."
This sentence encapsulates the beauty of atheism. Contemporary best-selling books and debates on TV often like to portray atheism as a form of anti-theism, as if its sole purpose were to fight religion. This feeds on the sensationalism of the public, thus boosting book-sales and guaranteeing large audiences, but it does not always do justice to the beauty and depth of atheism. At its core, atheism is not so much an anti-theism, but a life-affirming philosophy that celebrates the human spirit and intellect without relying on a supernatural force.
The remainder of the essay highlights the importance of cultivating courage as a means of overcoming fear, and clarifies what is meant with courage:
"But courage in fighting is by no means the only form, nor perhaps even the most important. There is courage in facing poverty, courage in facing derision, courage in facing the hostility of one's own herd. In these, the bravest soldiers are often lamentably deficient. And above all there is the courage to think calmly and rationally in the face of danger, and to control the impulse of panic fear or panic rage."
After reading the essay, I felt a sense of joy and hope. Joy because I had read an excellent essay with profound insights into human nature and hope because Russell eloquently reminded us that there is a path to the "good life" for all humans, as long as we are able to help each other overcome our fears and are guided by knowledge.
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