I recently read a nice article which was linked to from Religious freaks. It’s available here and titled “The Dumbing Of America”.

Many of the criticisms I see and hear of religion in general (ie. faith without reason is bad and should be unacceptable) by prominent atheists like Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris focus on how “dumb” religious people are. The characterisation of atheists as “brights“, the use of terms like irrational, blind faith etc. to describe people of religious persuasions all point to this. There’s some (not so well) hidden feeling that it’s in some way “superior” to be an atheist. It’s hip, it’s elite and it’s the way to be if you’re enlightened.

I disagree with the idea of course but after reading this article, it occurs to me how anti-rational and anti-intellectual many religious people are. The percentage of seriously religious people who are well read and whom one can have an intelligent conversation with about a subject is quite low. The amount of general knowledge too is quite low. Many of them close off their minds to all subjects except perhaps some parts of their own faiths. While this might be important to them, it’s unquestionable that there is a lot of interesting stuff out there that’s purely secular. To not take advantage of this vast body of human knowledge that our ancestors and contemporaries left us is sad. Some people argue that their faiths are in embryonic stages and they don’t want to hurt themselves by taking in too much secular stuff. This is understandable. It’s a decision some people make. However, to deny that there is anything out there outside their own faiths and to withdraw into that shell of isolation is a horrible way to go through life.

So, in this sense, religion has a “dumbening” effect on people. “This is all there is to know. End of story!”. However, it’s not a hopeless situation. There are lots of people out there who are very well grounded in traditional religion and who are equally well read. The fine folks who hang around on Deen port are good examples. We need more like them. This is especially true in the matter of scholars. Ulema need to be exceptionally strong in this regard. A person who is completely devoid of any external knowledge of the world might be able to save himself but can’t really illuminate the lives of others too well in my opinion. Their narrowness and naivete about matters of the world and it’s history can be really damaging to their efforts to guide people. Many Muslim preachers these days often hold out famous forgeries like “The Protocols” in their fire and brimstone speeches about the evil Jews. This kind of thing is not only embarrassing, it’s also damaging to the fabric of the Muslim community as a whole.

This is quite saddening and not only for Islam but for most religions since the majority of the great thinkers of the past were rooted in one religious tradition or the other. Nowadays, the people who actively contribute to science and technology seem to be people outside a theistic tradition. They’d probably argue that this is proof for the mentally stultifying power of religion but I think it’s the general slump in the desire to learn and advance that the article linked to above that’s the reason.

Shaykh Hamza and Shaykh Abdul Hakim Murad are examples of people who are very well read. Their speeches and lessons have a certain liberating effect without compromising on any aspects of the religion itself. Their lessons unlike those of a typical village mulla who went through Islamic school simply because he wouldn’t fit anywhere else are wide and freely draw on sources outside the faith without compromising it in anyway. Sort of like trees with very deep and strong roots. They can grow as wide and outspread as they want without falling down. More people reap their benefits. We need more people like them.

  1. Paul Geisert 19.02.08 / 4pm

    From day one, the word Bright has referred to the Enlightenment, a time when reason and science offered a hope for humanity to move toward a better world. Never have the Brights claimed superior intelligence to supers. “Bright” refers to a worldview, not to the intelligence of individuals.

    A Bright is an individual who has a naturalistic worldview, free of supernatural and mystical elements.

    A minority of the Brights’ international constituency self-identifies as “atheist.” Large contingents of Brights are agnostics, humanists, rationalists, secularists, naturalistic religion adherents (e.g. certain Buddhists) and secular religionists (e.g. secular Jews), with the largest group probably being “nones” (i.e. those who state they are “none of above” when asked on forms for their religion).

    It should be kept in mind that The Brights’ Net is a civic justice/civil rights organization. Consequently, it is committed to creating an open and level civic playing field for diverse worldviews (both naturalistic and religious). Brights recognize a need to better establish the legitimacy and worth of a naturalistic worldview so that persons who have that type of outlook can be fully accepted and participating citizens of society.

    Toward that end, many Brights think it worthwhile to engage religious people with civility and mutual regard. They are willing to cooperate on actions of common interest. Concepts such as the separation of religion and government and teaching of evolution in the public schools are but two example areas where reciprocal understanding and collaboration by citizens of all the many stripes would be fruitful.

    For a more detailed statement see: http://www.the-brights.net/vision/essays/futrell_geisert_period.html

    Paul Geisert
    Co-director of The Brights’ Net

  2. Noufal 19.02.08 / 11pm

    Thank you Paul for your comment.

    Mutual cooperation to achieve common aims is a good thing I think. The 2 “groups” are going to be around for quite a while. Numbers may shift either way but I don’t think either is going to disappear any time soon. Initiatives taken by both parties to make the world a better place to live in where all of us can get along fine are to be hailed.

    Perhaps my distinctions between brights and atheists were not accurate. I apologise. I considered them roughly synonymous based on what I’ve read and heard from prominent atheists who support organising themselves into a group of some kind (like what Richard Dawkins advocates).

    It also makes sense to me that people of a non-theistic persuasion are organising themselves into a lobby group of sorts to strive for equality in all walks of society. I personally have some issues with some aspects of non-theism but they’re things that are open to discussion and they don’t preclude non religious people from being good people and productive members of the societies in which they live. After all, it’s a choice.

    My concern was that the liberating aspects of religion which I’ve seen in many traditional scholars are dying out amongst the masses of religious people. The insular nature of their societies and their narrow outlooks are hurting them and this is in contrast to the history of many religious traditions. I’m a Muslim from India and it’s pretty much accepted how scientifically and culturally advanced ancient Muslim and Hindu societies were. These parts never really fell into the “dark ages” and didn’t really have a (re)enlightenment. After colonial dominance however, their economies were quite shattered and history took another one of it’s turns. That’s another story.

    I’m bemoaning the lack of intellectual culture amongst religious societies in general. it’s not always the way things were and there’s a certain bitter (half) truth in Sam Harris’ comparisons of religious peoples to UFO or Elvis sighters. That’s something which needs to change and it’s not a completely new step forward. It’s a step back to an era in which a strong intellectual environment existed in religious societies. A time when the religious people were worth admiring and imitating for their personalities and knowledge.

  3. Faramir 23.02.08 / 9am


    I left a lengthy comment a couple of days ago! It must not have come through; I have been having connection problems.

    Anyway, good passage, I said!


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