Friday, October 31, 2008

How I became the Secular Humanist from the Muslim Fundamentalist !

By Dr. Khalid Sohail
Dear Ladies and Gentlemen, I would like to thank Humanist Association ofCanada specially Kathy Meidell for arranging such a wonderful seminar. I feelhonored to be invited to share my story, my dilemmas and dreams and themilestones of my personal and philosophical journey from fundamentalism tohumanism. I hope it would give you people some insight into the struggles of all those men and women who grow up and live in traditional, conservative andreligious Muslim families, communities and cultures. After my book From Islam to Secular Humanism was published I was invited by many Muslims to have dinner and a heart to heart talk with them. They shared with me that in their hearts theywere atheists, agnostics, humanists or free thinkers but they were afraid to sharetheir truth publicly as they were nervous of the negative reactions of theirreligious families and communities. They were afraid of the prejudice,punishment and persecution. During those meetings I realized that there weremany closet atheists in the Muslim community. I was struck by the reality howreligion can suppress and silence peopleand even living in a free and secular country like Canada they had to hide their true self. How sad!
During my discussions I encouraged them to become members of thegrowing community of free thinkers. Some of them were surprised that I was soopen about my secular views and humanistic lifestyle. Many of them identifiedwith me and one of them told his wife, "Sweetheart, we have been married for 11years and we have 4 children. You always ask me how I became an atheist. I amnot a writer. Please read Dr Sohail's book. His story is not different than mine". Iwas glad that my story resonated with many open minded and non-traditional Muslims who wanted to leave God and Religion, become free thinkers and adopta humanistic lifestyle. Some of them said that before reading my book they did not know that they were humanists. So my story will give you an idea of the storyof many others who are still not ready to share their stories publicly.
I am quite aware that it is not easy to share the story of dilemmas and dreams of 40years in 40 minutes but I will share some of the highlights anddiscuss some of the milestones of my existential journey. At the end I would bemore than willing to answer your questions or respond to your emails toelaborate on the issues you would be interested in.
When I reflect on my past struggles I can easily divide my journey in fourstages.
First stage…Following a Religious Tradition
Second Stage…Following a Spiritual Tradition
Third Sage…Living in a Spiritual No- Man's land
Fourth Stage…Following Secular Tradition and embracing Humanism
Let me share the highlights of each stage.
There was a time
…I believed in holy war
…I believed all non-Muslims were my enemies
…I was willing to give my life for a holy cause
…I was willing to kill in the name of God..
Now when I think about those years, a cold chill runs down my spine and I feelashamed and embarrassed.
How could I think like that?
How could anybody think like that?
How can anybody believe in a merciful God and then be as cruel as to take ahuman life?
How can anybody kill a human being and then consider his cause noble andholy? (Ref 1)
Now when I ask myself, "How did I become a holy warrior when I was ateenager?" I think of a number of factors in my personal, social, political andreligious lives that might have contributed in developing such a violent psyche.
My parents used to live in India that had become a British Colony. Theresistance against British Rule that had started in 1857 had reached its climax in1940s. My parents and their families lived in Amratsar that had seen the tragedyof Jalianwala Bagh in which a British Army General had opened fire and killedmany innocent unarmed civilians. The wave of resistance, independence andfreedom became stronger with the passage of time. On one hand the Britishused the old colonial tactics of divide and rule, but on the other hand Mohandas Gandhi, the leader of Indian Congress Party, and Mohammad Ali Jinnah, theleader of Muslim League could not resolve their conflicts peacefully and therewere violent confrontations between Muslims and Hindus, killing thousands of innocent civilians. It was the religious and political violence at its worst. Thepeaceful dream of freedom was turning into a violent nightmare. One glimpse ofthat violent confrontation is presented by Larry Collins and Dominic Lapierre intheir book Freedom at Midnight, vividly describing what happened on August 16,1946,
"At dawn Moslem mobs howling in a quasi-religious fervor came bursting from their slums, waving clubs, iron bars, shovels, any instrument capable ofsmashing in a human skull. Theycame in answer to a call issued by the MuslimLeague, proclaiming August 16 'Direct Action Day' to prove to Britain and the
Congress Party that India's Moslems were prepared 'to get Pakistan forthemselves' by 'Direct Action' if necessary.'
' They savagely beat to a pulp any Hindus in their path and left the bodiesin the city's open gutters. The terrified police simply disappeared. Soon tall pillarsof black smoke stretched up from a score of spots in the city, Hindu bazaars in afull blaze."
'Later, the Hindu mobs came storming out of their neighborhoods, lookingfor defenseless Moslems to slaughter. Never, in all the violent history hadCalcutta known twenty-four hours as savage, as packed with human viciousness.Like water-logged logs, scores of bloated cadavers bobbed down the HooghlyRiver toward the sea. Other corpses, savagely mutilated, littered the city streets."(Ref 2)
The conflicts between Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs escalated and finally inAugust 1947 Pakistan came into existence and thousands of Muslim families lefttheir homes in India and went to Pakistan to save their lives. My parents and theirfamilies were part of those refugees.
My parents had an arranged marriage in 1950 and I was born two yearslater in 1952. In 1954, when my dad passed his Masters Examination inMathematics, he was offered a job at Government College in Kohat, Pakistan. At
the age of two I moved with my parents from Lahore to Kohat, not only to adifferent city, but also a differentprovince and culture. People all around usspoke Pushto while my parents did not understand a word of it. I can imagine thedifficulties they must have had to adjust to a traditional tribal culture, especiallywhen my mother rarely, if ever, left our home.
The difficulties, struggles and challenges became so stressful that my father hada nervous breakdown and was admitted to hospital when I was about ten yearsold.
I remember the day when, after frantically pacing back and forth in his room throughout the night, he finally lost control. My mother called one of hisfriends who took him to the hospital. He was so out of control that requiredrestraint. His hands and feet were tied to the bed. While the doctors and thenurses were trying to control him, I remember sitting on a windowsill in the nextroom praying to God for help. After a few days, his struggles lessened to thepoint that he was sent to Lahore to be with my mother's family who looked afterhim day and night for months. They had planned the nursing care in four-hour shifts so as not to leave him alone, because he surely would have done himselfserious injury or fled, never to be found. The unfortunate thing was that the familywould not let me see him, as they were apprehensive he might hurt me. Yet, mylove for my father was more powerful than their wish to keep me away. I used tosneak into his room quietly. He used to hug and kiss me and talked to me so very
affectionately with tears in his eyes. How could I know fear from this kind man?
When he finally recovered a few months later, he was a changed man. Hehad gone through a mystical transformation. Everybody thought he hadexperienced a nervous breakdown while he believed he had a spiritualbreakthrough. A non-religious person had become a deeply religious man.
Looking back now I sometimes wonder whether my father's illness playeda significant unconscious role in my choosing the profession of psychiatry,developing compassion for people with emotional problems and a special interestin understanding the mysteries of human mind.
After the mysterious transformation of my dad I remember both my parents
…reciting Quran daily
…praying regularly
….observing fasts every year
…paying zakaat (charity)
and praying to go to Mecca to perform Haj, the pilgrimage. Both my parents triedtheir best to provide a religious atmosphere for my upbringing. My mother startedteaching me Quran when I was only four and encouraged me to fast andpray when I reached the age of seven.. By the time I was eleven I had finished all thethirty chapters of Quran in Arabic. They succeeded in making me a dedicatedand devoted Muslim like themselves.
In 1965 Pakistan had a war with India that lasted for seventeen days. Blackouts became a regular feature every night. I saw bombs dropped that murdered andmutilated innocent people in villages.. People became very religious and fanaticand developed a burning hatred for Hindus that has not abated even today. I was so affected by the war myself that at the age of thirteen I used to fantasize aboutjoining the army and becoming part of the Islamic Armed Forces. I was taughtthat Hindus were our enemies and it was sacred to kill them as we were fighting a jihad, a holy war. We were also told by religious leaders that anyone who iskilled in the holy war is shaheed, a martyr, and goes directly to heaven.
Looking back now I remember the days when I believed in a PersonalGod, Prophets and Scriptures and never questioned miracles and angels. I hadblind faith in all of them. For a while I even joined a religious group calledTableeghi Jamaat that, like Jehovah Witness People in Canada, went from doorto door preaching the teachings of Islam and inviting people to mosque for prayers and religious sermons. Many times I arose at three a.m. in the darknessof early morning to offer special prayers and pray to God to convert the entireworld to Islam.
Now that I think of those years in my life I find it hard to believe that I was not only a dedicated and devoted Muslim, I was also militant and was a religiousfundamentalist. I feel embarrassed thinking about those years when I had blind
faith and was brainwashed by social conditioning but that is a reality and I have to humbly accept that. Reflecting on those days helps me communicate and havea dialogue with all those men and women who are still religious fundamentalistsand believe in holy wars. They not only try to convert others but are also willing to die and kill in the name of God and Religion.
When I started studying science it introduced me to rational and logical thinkingthat questioned the blind faith of religion. The more I developed critical andanalytical thinking the more I experienced a conflict between teachings of religionbased on divine revelations and logical thinking of science. That ongoing painfulconflict led to sleepless nights and I went through a turbulent phase in myadolescence that I identified as an 'extended intellectual nightmare'.
One of the tragedies was that my teachers of science had little interest orin depth knowledge of religion and scriptures,and the religious leaders I knew had no sound knowledge or understanding of the fundamentals of science.Science and Religion were two banks of the river in the cultural flow I grew up in,existing opposite to each other but never coming together. I was desperate to find a bridge between religion and science and resolve my intellectual andemotional conflicts. When I was disappointed in my parents, teachers andreligious leaders as they could not answer my questions, I approached the
libraries and became an avid reader myself. I realized that I had to find my ownanswers to my special questions.
The more I studied science the more I felt comfortable with the disciplinesof logical, rational, analytical and critical thinking. I learnt that the universe ranaccording to the laws of nature and the more we understood those laws the morewe could solve the mysteries of nature. It was such an exciting and wonderfulexperience. I realized that those laws were objective and universal and I do nothave to rely on the will of a Personal God to understand the natural phenomena.I remember the day when hundreds of people gathered in a big mosque ofEidgah and I asked an old man why they were praying. He said they werepraying for rain. I wondered how prayers could bring the rain. When it did not rain for weeks I went back to him and asked him why it did not rain. He said thepeople who prayed were not good Muslims and God was angry with them. His comments made me aware of an angry and punitive God that produced feelings of guilt and fear in my heart.
When I went to medical school I studied science related to human illnesses andtheir treatments. I realized that by studying medicine I could help the sick peopleand relieve their suffering. It was a great feeling to know that science offered ahealing promise to humanity.
While studying medicine I was also fascinated with embryology. That was thefirst time I was introduced to Darwin's Theory of Evolution and I could understandthat by studying human embryos we could understand how the journey ofmillions of years of evolution is passed in a few months in the mother's womb. Iwas amazed to see how human embryo in the first few weeks was similar to theembryos of other animals. Darwin's theory was the beginning of understanding life on planet earth in a scientific way. I was so excited learning all thosewonderful things in the medical school.
Alongside studying science and medicine I also had a keen interest in literature. I studied poetry and fiction and plays and started writing poems and stories andessays that were published in my college magazines. I was pleased to see mycreative writings being liked and appreciated. Of all the Urdu writers I studied theone that impressed me the most was Saadat Hasan Minto. He had written somewonderful short stories about the tragedies of 1947 killings. In one of his storieshe wrote, ' Why do you say that one hundred Muslims went to heaven and onehundred Hindus went to hell. Why do you not say that we lost two hundred precious human lives?" Minto helped me question the religious dogma andtradition and accept that we are all human beings first and Muslims and Hinduslater. Looking back now I realize that he was the first humanist writer I read although I was not aware of the philosophy of humanism at that time.
After developing a serious interest in literature I thought I should study Quranseriously. Since I did not understand Arabic, like millions of non-Arab Muslims, I brought a number of Urdu and English translations and studied Quran from thefirst to the last verse, from the first to the thirtieth chapter and read all theinterpretations. The more I studied Quran the more I realized that some scholars offered a literal interpretation, while others offered a metaphorical interpretation.When I studied the books of Maulana Abul Ala Maududi, Ghulam AhmedPervaiz, Mohammad Iqbal and Abul Kalam Azad and many others, I realized thatthey had not only different but also contradictory interpretations.
…some scholars translated Quranic term farishtayas angels while others as laws of nature.
…some considered heaven and hell as places while others said they were 'statesnot places'.
…some believed in theory of evolution and translated Quranic expression nafs-un-wahida as a unicellular organism amoeba while others translated it as Adamand thought theory of evolution was absurd.
…some believed in four marriages while others believed it was only allowed inspecial circumstances like war
…some believed that husbands could beat their wives if they disobeyed whileothers thought only the state could punish the citizens.
…some believed in a theocratic state and Political Islam while others believed in
Spiritual Islam and thought that religion was a private matter.
The more translations and interpretations I read the more I realized that in 1400years every Muslim sect had created their own interpretation and there was noway for any human being today to have the correct interpretation of Quran until they had a direct 1-800 line to God.
Gradually I realized that Quran, like the Old and the New Testament andother holy scriptures of the world, was part of folklore and wisdom literature andcould be read to have insights in the psyche of Middle Eastern culture. I realizedit was dangerous to use the scriptures written hundreds of years ago as afoundation to write constitutions and create theocratic states.
The more I studied Quran, the more I felt sadto realize that different sects had used different Quranic verses to support their political and religious agendaand declared holy wars on other religious sects.
I remember the days when Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto was contesting election inPakistan. He had won with overwhelming majority in the provinces of Punjab andSindh but he lost to Maulana Mufti Mehmood, a religious cleric in Peshawar,because his followers, the taliban, had gone from door to door with a copy ofHoly Quran asking people whether they would vote for Bhutto or the Holy Quran, which meant Maulana Mufti Mehmood. I lived with the taliban far before the world
knew about them. After coming into power in 1970s they had banned alcohol andmusic in the province and restaurants were closed in the month of Ramadan.
I was shocked to see how Sunnis and Shiites, Ahmedis and Wahabiswere treated by other sects. I was utterly disillusioned when my Ahmedi friends inmedical school were the victims of religious prejudice and persecution. Peoplehad thrown garbage on their doorsteps. The state of Pakistan, rather thanprotecting them as respectable citizens, declared them non-Muslims and robbed them of their human rights by declaring them a minority. That was the time Irealized that Pakistan had turned intoan Islamic Republic of Pakistan. Those were the days I became acutely aware how religion can harm people when itmarries politics and creates a theocratic state. That was the first time in my life Irealized that if I stayed in Pakistan I would either land up in prison or a mental asylum.
After reading a number of Eastern writers and philosophers, I found books ofWestern philosophers in the library. I was particularly impressed by BertrandRussell and Sigmund Freud. Russell was of the opinion that all religions weredangerous for human civilization. He was open and honest in expressing hisdissenting views,
"I think all the great religions of the world…Buddhism, Hinduism, Christianity,
Islam and Communism---are both untrue and harmful. It is evident as a matter oflogic that, since they disagree, not more than one can be true." Ref 3 p v
"In the so-called ages of faith, when men really did believe the Christian religionin all its completeness, there was the Inquisition, with the tortures, there were millions of unfortunate women burned as witches, and there was every kind ofcruelty practiced upon all sorts of people in the name of religion…I say quitedeliberately that the Christian religion, as organized in its churches, has been and still is the principal enemy of moral progress in the world." Ref 3 p 21
While Russell focused on the social and political aspects of religion Freudfocused on the psychological aspect. He brought to our attention that religiousbeliefs had such a hold in people's cultural psyche that if people criticized orchallenged those beliefs with logical and rational thinking they would bepunished, penalized and persecuted. He expressed his views in these words,
"When we ask on what theirclaim to be believed is founded, we are met withthree answers, which harmonize remarkably badly with one another. Firstly,these teachings deserve to be believed because they are already believed by ourprimal ancestors, secondly, we possess proofs whichhave been handed down to us from those primeval times, and thirdly, it is forbidden to raise the question oftheir authentication at all. In former days anything so presumptuous was visitedwith the severest penalties…' Ref 4 p 26
Freud was optimistic that as science enlarged its territories, religion would haveno choice but to withdraw. He was hopeful that in the long run logical thoughtwould triumph over blind faith. He believed religion was a phenomenon of thepast while the future belonged to science, psychology and philosophy.
After studying the European writers I read South American and Africanwriters and was impressed by their analysis how different political, economic and
religious ideologies have negatively affected their culture. Wole Soyinka, a Nobel Prize winner, wrote,
'Taken together, therefore, the history of African people provides us with twoprincipal enemies of their authentic traditions and their will to cultural identity.One is European Imperialism, the other Arab-Islamic penetration and domination of significant areas of the continent. Ref 5 p 124
' …Freedom remains an antithesis of power, that historically proven corollary ofenslavement. Obviously power can only be made manifest with the act ofenslavement of some other. What then of the Third World, captive and client ofthe two ideological estates…socialism and capitalism…even as it has been, andstill holds itself in thrall to two other alien contending religions, Christianity andIslam? Both these religions in their turn operate globally in mind-boggling, fluctuating alliances with the two main ideological scaffoldings, left and right, yetconstantly strike out in their own specific authoritarian-isms, often of the most destructive, anti-humanist nature" Ref 5…p 210
The more I reflected on the psychological, social and political effects of religionthe more I felt ready to say goodbye to religion. I realized that the institution ofreligion was used my religious and political leaders to exploit and manipulate innocent and vulnerable people.
Even after saying goodbye to religion, there was a time I believed in God and thespiritual tradition. I believed that each human being could make a personalconnection with God and strive for spiritual enlightenment. In that phase I wasquite impressed by mystic poets who were critical of the hypocrisy of religiousclerics and the social control of religious institutions but still considered God as asource of spiritual inspiration.
Whether it was Bulley Shah, a sufi, Kabir Das, a sant or William Blake, a saint,they were all mystic poets who had created wisdom literature and I was quiteimpressed by them. While studying mystic poetry I became aware that mysticpoets accept the ultimate challenge of describing the indescribable, giving formto the formless. They ask themselves:
How do we talk about a world
Where sounds turn mute?
How do we write about a world
Where words lose all their meanings?
How do we discuss a world
That transcends every logic?
How do we describe a world
That has no boundaries?
How do we conceptualize a world
That defies any form?
How do we understand a world
That is beyond words and sounds
and colors and space and time and logic and….?
And answer it in the words of Rabindranath Tagore,
"I dive down into the depths of the ocean of forms, hoping to gain the perfectpearl of the formless."
J Krishnamurti said, "Truth is a pathless land"
I realized that God of the clerics was like a punitive father, while God of mysticswas like a loving mother who was kind and caring and compassionate andforgiving. In mystic tradition God becomes the beloved and can be seen byfollowing the spiritual path. Kabir Das shares how that path can be followed andthe face of the beloved God can be seen.
I shall make
My body into
A clay-lamp
My soul, its wick
And my blood, oil
Ah, the light
Of this lamp
Will reveal
The face
Of my beloved
To me (Ref 6)
It gradually dawned on me that God was a metaphor and each personand culture had made its unique interpretation. Concept of God over the centuries had become part of our cultural psyche and mythology.
In some cultures we have a male God, in others we have femaleGoddesses.
In some cultures God is fatherly and punitive, in others, God is motherlyand nurturing.
In some cultures God is abstract, in others God appears as man-made statues and idols.
In some cultures God is perceived as a Creator and is believed to exist
outside the universe. In others people say All that Exists is God.
In some cultures people believe God lives within all of us, and we do notneed to believe in Him to know and experience Him.
In some cultures people believe we are all Gods in the making.
After studying different theologies and mythologies, I came to believe that rather than saying Man was created in God's image, it might be wiser to say thatGod was created in Man's image and that the qualities assigned to God or Allahor Bhagwan or Great Mystery are reflections of the human psyche of that era and culture. There are no two human beings or cultures in the whole wide world thathave a similar concept or experience of the reality. For those who project theirfears and insecurities, God becomes a psychologist's Rorschach Test, and forthose who project their fantasies, dreams and ideals, God becomes a SantaClaus.
There is a time human beings as children believe in Santa Claus, but thenthey grow up and learn to buy their own toys while they fulfill their own dreamsand follow their own ideals.
When I studied human history I found out that the concept and belief inGod has also faced many challenges over the centuries. The biggest threat toblind faith in God was the tradition of rational thinking developed by Greek philosophers, and the most fatal war that God had to face was with science and
philosophy. That holy war had different outcomes in different communities,countries and cultures. Octavio Paz, a Mexican Nobel laureate compared God'swar in the Christian and Muslim worlds. He believed that in the Christian worldscience and philosophy won and God lost while in the Muslim world God wonand science and philosophy lost. He wrote, "God, our God, was a victim of philosophical infection, the Logos was the virus, the cause of death…we Christians have used pagan philosophy to kill our God. Philosophy was theweapon, but the hand that wielded it was our hand. We are obliged to go back toNietzsche's idea: within the perspective of the death of God, atheism can only be experienced as a personal act—even though this thought is unbearable andintolerable. Only Christians can really kill God….Islam has experienceddifficulties similar to those Christianity has undergone. Finding it impossible todiscover any rational or philosophical ground for belief in a single God, AbuHamid Ghazali writes his Incoherence of Philosophy; a century later, Averroes answers with his Incoherence of Incoherence. For Moslems, too, the battle between God and philosophy was a fight to the death.In this instance God won, and a Muslim Nietzsche might have written: " Philosophy is dead; we all killed ittogether. You killed it and I killed it." (Ref 7 p114)
Of all the Eastern and Western philosophers that dealt with the belief inGod and its impact on humanity, I would like to quote two that impressed me themost, J. Krishnamurti from the East and from the West, Karen Armstrong.Armstrong in her book History of God discusses the crisis of faith. She highlights
that the belief in a traditional and Personal God faced a serious dilemma in thetwentieth century, especially after the tragedy of the Holocaust. Many traditionalbelievers had to review their philosophy and ideology. She wrote, ' One day the Gestapo hanged a child. Even the SS were disturbed by the prospect of hanging a young boy in front of thousands of spectators. The child who, Elie Weiselrecalled, had the face of a 'sad-eyed angel' was silent, lividly pale and almostcalm as he ascended the gallows. Behind Weisel, one of the other prisoners was forced to look him in the face. The same man asked again, "Where is God now?'And Weisel heard a voice within him make this answer: Where is He? Here Heis…He is hanging here on the gallows…
'…Many Jews can no longer subscribe to the biblical idea of God who manifests himself in history, who, they say with Weisel, died in Auschwitz. Theidea of a personal God, like one of us writ large, is fraught with difficulty. If thisGod is omnipotent, he could have prevented the Holocaust. If he was unable to stop it, he is impotent and useless, if he could have stopped it and chose not to,he is a monster. Jews are not the only people who believe that the Holocaust putan end to conventional theology." (Ref 8)
On the other hand Krishnamurti highlights that belief does not stop people from committing all kinds of violence. When he was asked, "Belief in God has been apowerful incentive to better living. Why do you deny God? Why do you not try torevive man's faith in the idea of God?" he responded, "Let us look at the problem
widely and intelligently…I know you believe and I know it has very little meaningin your life. There are many people who believe, millions believe in God and takeconsolation. First of all, why do you believe? You believe because it gives you satisfaction, consolation, hope, and you say it gives you significance in life.Actually your belief has very little significance, because you believe and exploit,you believe and kill, you believe in a universal God and murder each other. Therich man also believes in God; he exploits ruthlessly, accumulates money, andthen builds a temple and becomes a philanthropist.
The men who dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima said God was withthem, those who flew from England to destroy Germanysaid that God was their co-pilot. The dictators, the prime ministers, the generals, the presidents, all talk toGod, they have immense faith in God. Are they doing service, making a better lifefor man? The people who say they believe in God have destroyed half of the world and the world is in complete misery." (Ref 9 )
Even in the contemporary world crisis both leaders, Osama bin Laden inthe East and George Bush in the West, the biggest threats to world peace, bothnot only believe in God but also insist that God is on their side.
The more I contemplated about my relationship with God, the more I wasgetting ready to say goodbye to Him. So when my atheist poet uncle Arif Abdul
Mateen came for a visit to our home I told him that I wanted to have a heart toheart talk with him. He took me out to a hotel and while sipping green tea andeating snacks I shared with him that I was losing faith in religion and God. Helistened to my story patiently and then said, "My dear nephew, in everycommunity and culture there are two groups of people. The first group follows thehighway of tradition. They are in majority. The second group follows the trail oftheir hearts. They are in minority. They are the poets and philosophers and reformers. They lead the caravan of humanity. Many of them are humanists andatheists. In your family on your father's side there are many non-conformists and non-traditional people. My uncle, your grandfather, had become an atheist when he was in his 60s, I lost faith in God when I was in my 40s and you are becominga free thinker in your 20s. That is wonderful. Feel free to leave the highway oftradition and follow the trail of your heart."
Alongside the mythological and philosophical aspects, there was apsychological dimension to my relationship with God. I used to believe he wasomnipresent. Whether it was at work or at home, whether in the bedroom or inthe washroom He was always watching me as if He had a camera. That mademe uncomfortable as I did not like being watched. I felt he was intruding in myprivacy. It made me feel like a child and He was the parent. Finally I felt that forme to be an adult I have to say goodbye to God that looked after me as a parent in my childhood and adolescence.
I vividly remember the night when I had a long discussion with God. It wasnot a dialogue; it was rather a monologue. I talked and He listened like apsychoanalyst. I was lying on my bed like patient of a psychoanalyst who practices free association while lying on a couch .I realized that all my life I talkedto God and He never answered. After a long monologue and saying goodbye toGod, I fell asleep and He left like an old Native Indian grandfather who leaves in the middle of the night when it is time to go and his family never sees him again.After that night I never again had a monologue with God or prayed to Him. Heparted gracefully and respectfully. From a psychological point of view, now that I look back to that stage of my life as a psychotherapist and focus on my journeyof personal growth and emotional maturity, I think that as the sun of my self-confidence started to shine in my heart, blind faith in God started to disappearlike the morning fog. That was the time I started seeing with my own eyes,listening with my own ears, feeling with my own heart, thinking with my own mindand trusting my own encounters with life. It was a wonderful experience.
After saying goodbye to religion and God I lived in a spiritual no-man's land for years. I knew what I did not believe in, but I did not know what I believed in.
I had a painful realization that after becoming an atheist life was not aseasy as I had expected. Although I was successful in overcoming intellectualconditioning and had crossed many borders and unlearnt many traditions but Iwas still controlled by emotional conditioning. I realized that religious traditions
had induced feelings of fear and guilt in my heart. Such a religious guilt wasassociated with the concept of sin. Gradually I overcame my feelings of fear andguilt about many aspects of life and started associating sex with love andaffection rather than sin and guilt. I was amazed and amused how deep cultural roots were in my personality and how difficult it was to overcome religiousattitudes and enjoy my life without feeling guilty.
After graduating from Khyber Medical College in Pakistan I went to Iran for a couple of years and then came to Newfoundland in 1977. I studied at MemorialUniversity in Newfoundland and after receiving my Fellowship in Psychiatry,worked in Newbrunswick and then moved to Ontario in 1984. I worked in WhitbyPsychiatric Hospital for a decade and then started my Creative PsychotherapyClinic. In 1995. Gradually I built a bridge between my personal philosophy andmy professional practice of psychotherapy.
As time passed I became more confident in my philosophy and personality and I realized that I was ready to embrace the secular tradition of humanism but for methat tradition was more than a set of ideas, it had many dimensions. Over theyears I have discovered 7 colors of my humanistic rainbow
Over the years I realized that to become a humanist I had to leave blind faithbehind and study science and philosophy so that I could develop logical andrational thinking and use critical thinking to question all the myths and supernatural teachings of my family, community and culture. In this journeywritings of Charles Darwin, Karl Marx, Sigmund Freud, Bertrand Russell, JeanPaul Sartre and many other philosophers paved my way to my acceptance ofatheism and humanism. I am glad that humanist philosophy helped me in makingrational and responsible choices for myself and communicating with others whohave a scientific attitude towards life.
When I realized that people's behaviors maynot be a true reflection of their belief system and their personality may not be in harmony with their philosophy, Istarted paying more attention to people's behaviors and personalities. Now Ihave come to the awareness that humanist personality reflected in a caring, kind and compassionate attitude might be seen in different people with differentideologies and philosophies. As compared to humanist personality some peoplehave a fundamentalist personality that is very critical, judgmental and aggressive.People with such personality try to convert others and get into angry and bitterdebates with their opponents. It is quite amazing for me to see how somereligious people have a humanist personality while there are some atheists whohave a fundamentalist personality. Over the years I have tried to develop ahumanist personality alongside acquiring a humanist philosophy.
After developing a humanist philosophy and striving to have a humanistpersonality, I realized that both of them had to be actualized in a humanistlifestyle. When I put my philosophy and personality in practice I realized thatother humanists welcomed it but it created a tension with the traditional friendsand religious families I knew. I had to learn tobe tolerant and accepting of their truth. It was a struggle to accept the reality that my truth is a truth and not the truth. It was a test for me to accept that other human beings have the right totheir ideology and philosophy as long as they do not impose it on me or stop me from practicing my truth. In this transition I lost some of my relatives and friendswho could not accept my humanism and associated atheism with an immoral andunethical life. Now I have a circle of friends from different cultures and backgrounds who are respectful of each other's philosophy and are willing tohave a meaningful dialogue. Now I realize that there are as many truths ashuman beings and as many realities as pairs of eyes in this world.
As I accepted my own truth and felt confident to acknowledge it publicly in mysocial life I also introduced humanist philosophy to my clinical practice. Readingthe writings of Eric Fromm, Carl Rogers, Victor Frankl and Abraham Maslowhelped me at a conceptual and philosophical level to accept my patient'sexperiences and truths and then help them decrease their suffering and improvetheir quality of life. Such a journey helped me create my unique clinical practice
of my Creative Psychotherapy Clinic and with the help of my colleagues AnneHenderson and Bette Davis write a series of books about my Green ZonePhilosophy. Such a philosophy and practice has helped me in helping mypatients to develop a kind, caring and compassionate personality. I helped them in trusting their conscience more than the religious traditions of their families andcommunities that contributed in their concept of sin and feelings of guilt.. Therapyalso helped them either resolve their social conflicts with their religious relatives or dissolve their relationships with relatives and friends who have afundamentalist personality. As therapy evolved they were able to create ahealthy, happy and peaceful lifestyle. I feel very excited that now we havecreated a website
and videos and books so that more and more people can benefit from a GreenZone Philosophy and develop a humanist personality and lifestyle.
After I realized that my religious upbringing had negatively affected mypersonality and had introduced me to the concept of sin producing feelings ofguilt about sex and many other things and it took me years even decades tounlearn those values, I tried to share with others that it might be wise to teachreligious traditions of the world at homes and in schools as a part of history ratherthan a part of their faith. Parents and teachers have the responsibility to pass oncollective knowledge and wisdom to the next generation so that children can
make rational and responsible choices for their own lives as adults. I had toshare with parents and teachers that humanist values can be taught even withoutwrapping them in religious and faith based practices. It is encouraging to see that more and more parents and teachers are realizing that education based onsecular values married to science, philosophy and psychology encourageschildren in developing a rational, critical and creative mind.
Since I am a poet and a writer alongside a psychotherapist, I became involved inthe social and political dialogues of different groups in Pakistan and Canada. Ithas been my experience that as more and more people become aware of theeffects of religion on people and how different religious and political leadersexploit and abuse the concepts of God and Religion to create holy wars betweendifferent sects and different religions, it is important for free thinkers to try theirbest to raise social consciousness. Being a writer I have written many essaysand books on these subjects and translated writings of atheist and humanistphilosophers in Urdu so that we can promote humanism through education inUrdu speaking men and women. I receivemany emails from Asia and Middle East from men and women who read my essays on website
and share their struggles. I feel that free thinkers need a moral support as theyare in minority and need a group where they can share their struggles and getinto meaningful dialogue while they are in search of their truth. Creating a secularcommunity is essential part of humanism so that there is not only freedom of
religion but also freedom from religion. There are many communities all over the world that have very punitive traditions and persecutory laws against non-believers. In some communities atheists are afraid to be killed by religiouszealots. Such an oppressive environment forces people to become hypocrites and not share their truth openly and honestly and lead a double life.
It is my dream that we reach such a stage in human evolution where we can seea humanist culture all over the world. I am of the opinion that the unresolved conflicts of class, gender, race, sexual orientation, language, nationality andreligion continue to be the cause of human suffering and we need to worktogether to create a just and a humanist culture. Such culture will help all ofus to become fully human individually and collectively.
I am well aware that these are the colors of my humanist dream but I alsoknow that we all have to dream before the dream comes true. We need a criticalmass of humanists who are dedicated and committed and willing to work together to create humanist traditions in their families, schools and communities.It is encouraging to read that in 1900 only 1% people publicly acknowledged thatthey did not believe in God and organized religions and in 2000 the number had increased to 20% internationally. As the numbers grow I become more hopefulthat my humanist dream will come true.
One of the fundamental question that I reflect upon as a humanist
psychotherapist is to identify those human needs that are fulfilled by the conceptsof God and Religion. When we study human history we realize that people allover the world have used their belief in God and Religion to cope with theirproblems. The more people feel emotionallyinsecure and the more they are facing social and economic crises, the more they rely on the concepts of Godand Religion. Mao tse Tung used to say that China is like an old man who has abig burden of problems on his head and a cane of religion in his hand to support himself. If we ask him to let the cane of religion go, he is afraid he will fall. But ifwe help him in removing the burden of his problems from his head, he may notneed the cane.. As a humanist I feel that it is the duty of secular scientists, psychologists, sociologists and economists to find solutions to the humanproblems. The more human beings will be able to feel confident that they cansolve their problems in a logical, rational, creative and compassionate way theless they would rely on the magical thinking of religion. The more human beingscan solve their problems on their own individually and collectively, the less theywould rely on miracles and wait for divine interventions. It takes a lot of time tounlearn the social and cultural conditioning of thousands of years.
In the last couple of decades when I traveled in Europe, Asia, NorthAmerica, Latin America and South Africa I realized that most of the people stillhave a tribal mentality and divide people as
US / THEM based on class, race, gender, nationalism and religion. Whether they
are Hindus and Muslims in India, Shiites, Sunnis and Ahmedis in Pakistan,Catholics and Protestants in Ireland or Jews, Christians and Muslims in Israel,people are still fighting holy wars..
In the 21st century humanity is at a crossroads and is vulnerable to becrushed between Western imperialism and religious fundamentalism. In 20thcentury we saw the rising tides of Christian, Jewish, Muslim and Hindufundamentalism in different parts of the world that have become threats to worldpeace, progress and prosperity. There are still so many men and women who arewilling to give and take lives in the name of Religion and God.
It is amazing to see how Western powers especially America, that considers herself the symbol of freedom and democracy has played her role inthe last fifty years to support dictators, kings and army generals. Whether it wasShah of Iran, Saddam Hussain of Iraq, Saudi King or Pervaz Musharraf of Pakistan they were all supported by America to get control on the economicresources and holy oil. To create free societies all those individuals andorganizations who believe in democratic, secular and humanistic values need towork together.
One of the fundamental questions humanists all over the world face todayis: Can followers of religious, spiritual and secular traditions work together? In myhumble opinion I think they can. In my professional life as a psychiatrist I have
worked with many religious and spiritual colleagues who worked with me toachieve a common goal to serve our psychiatric patients and educate theirfamilies so that they can decrease their human suffering and increase their quality of life.
Similarly in my personal and social life I have worked with many religiousand spiritual people to organize seminars on decreasing domestic violence andincreasing human rights. We tried to create a respectful and peaceful environment where we can rise above our ideological differences and focus oncommon goals. The biggest compliment I received was from a Catholic womanwho said, "I am so happy to meet you. You are a loving humanist and not an angry atheist"
I am quite aware that some atheists, agnostics and free thinkers keep arespectful distance from religious and spiritual people. I would encourage them toreview their position. It is my observation and experience that many followers of religious and spiritual traditions are liberal people and are willing to work withatheists and humanists on common goals. I believe people:
…who respect human rights of women, children and minorities
…who are against religious fundamentalism and extremism
…who are against war and in favor of peaceful resolution of social and politicalconflicts
…who want to keep church and state, mosque and parliament separate
…who are in favor of free education and universal health care
can work together to create secular humanistic communities.
One of the examples of followers of religious and secular traditions workingtogether was in South Africa where Nelson Mandela, follower of a seculartradition, while staying inside the prison and ReverendDesmund Tutu, follower of a religious tradition, staying outside the prison worked together for the humanrights of Blacks and finally brought a revolution that culminated in the freemultiparty elections for all races, faiths and classes. Both of them received Nobel Peace prizes for their valuable contributions to humanity. In South Africa, religionbecame a private matter while the state was run according to the secular andhumanistic values. In my opinion a cooperative relationship of Mandela and Tutucan become a source of inspiration for the leaders of other communitiesespecially Middle East.
In the end I want to thank Humanist Association of Canada one more timeto arrange such a seminar so that we can have a genuine dialogue about ourvalues, dilemmas and dreams. Such seminars provide us with an opportunity tolearn from each other and grow together and I believe growing together is betterthan growing alone..
1. The Humanist Magazine Canada Spring 2002
2. Sohail K. Freedom of Religion, Freedom from Religion
Green Zone Publishers Canada 2007
3. Russell Bertrand Why I am not a Christian?A Touch Stone Book New York 1957
4. Freud Sigmund The Future of an Illusion WW Norton and Company New York 1961
5. Soyinka Wole Art, Dialogue and Outrage Pantheon Books New York 1993
6. Kumar Sehdev The Vision of Kabir Alpha and Omega Books Ontario Canada 1984
7. Paz Octavio Alternating Current Arcade Publishing New York 1967
8. Armstrong Karen A History of God Ballantyne Books New York 1993
9. Krishnamurti J The First and Last Freedom Harper and Rowe Publishers New York 1975
10. Sohail K. From Islam to Secular Humanism Abbeyfield Publishers Toronto Canada 2001

Bipin Shroff