Thursday, 2 March 2017

The Divine Reality: God, Islam and The Mirage of Atheism By Hamza Andreas Tzortzis

The writer begins with sharing his own journey to Islam and the drivers that motivated him to search for truth. He describes the greatest of these as being the contemplation of death. This serves as a background for how the author came to grapple with this question and also a disclosure of any bias on his part.

The book outlines a definition of atheism, the different types of atheism and what the reasons for these to emerge could be. The writer cites historical examples showing that atheism has always existed in some form or other since the earliest days of Islam and that Islamic scholars have responded to it articulately and with confidence, something that we should retain today in the face of modern challenges to faith. There is a brief history of the rise of atheism in recent years including its growth in Muslim countries and Muslim populations in the Western world.

The writer then breaks down the implications of not believing in God, including the loss of hope and a light at the end of the tunnel and the loss of meaning for our struggles, pain and sacrifices. In contrast there is the hope that faith brings and the reminder from the Quran that those who do not believe in God will feel hopeless:

“Certainly no one despairs of God’s Mercy, except the people who disbelieve.”

The book explores fundamental questions like “what is our purpose?”, “what is true happiness?” and “where are we going?” underpinned with logical reasoning, examples to illustrate the writers thinking and including different viewpoints. The writer uses these questions to show that atheism cannot provide satisfactory answers to the big questions in life and because of this cannot lead to the peace and happiness that we seek through trying to answer these questions.

The book then explore the oft-presented argument that you can live a good life as an atheist and while accepting that you can, it cites research evidence of relationships between religion and greater charitable giving, greater levels of volunteering, lower risk of depression, drug abuse, fewer suicide attempts and greater wellbeing.

The writer takes to task naturalist and Darwinist thinking, challenging the belief that everything we do and believe in is geared to increase our chances of survival. He asserts that our existence is not just based on our will to survive, but to find the truth, giving examples of all of the dangerous things we are willing to do to get to it (like explore space or climb a mountain).

The book looks at the argument for the existence of God as opposed to the evidence for the absence of a Creator giving evidence from psychological, sociological and anthropological sources. It also suggests that belief is intuitive, citing the concept of “fitrah” or the innate disposition within each of us to recognise God. This departure is interesting, because the author has to step aside from rational arguments for the existence of God and consider something that is so hard to prove, so easy to reject when arguing about these things, but still so impossible to dismiss on a personal level. It’s that part of us that speaks to us when we look at the beauty of nature and the world around us and tells us that there is something greater than us and that everything that is happening to us is not just random. Tzortzis quotes Al-Ghazali to explain this point quite beautifully:

Al-Ghazali argues that the fitrah is a means that people use to acquire the truth of God’s existence and that He is entitled to our worship. He also maintained that knowledge of God is something “every human being has in the depths of his consciousness.” 

I enjoyed the books forays into descriptions of planets, energy forces and the laws of physics and how they prove some kind of intelligent design as well as the chapter on the divine authorship of the Quran. The latter cites a variety of Islamic and academic scholars. The chapter entitled the Messenger of God (sallallahu alaihi wasallam) is also fascinating in its mention of his teachings, character and impact, but also the things he predicted would come in the future.

One thing I really liked about this book was that it doesn’t dismiss any alternative views out of hand as books written from one religious viewpoint can do. It has the courage to outline all of the alternative views and voices and then follow a line of logic that takes us to why belief in the Divine is the one that makes the most sense.

The book is well structured and aims to be logical as it reasons its way through interlinked elements of atheism. The writer unpacks the arguments in a systematic way. This subject can be a complex and extremely abstract area, difficult to get your head around, cloaked in academic language and sometimes just chasing its tail in circles. This book breaks down the different parts to think about when addressing or trying to understand atheism and provides examples to illustrate what the reasoning looks like. At the same time there were some parts of the book where the reasoning followed through to a conclusion quite effortlessly and there were other parts where the author took the argument to a conclusion in favour of theism rather than atheism, but it did not feel as conclusive. I think that this is because for some of the issues looked at, logic and reason can only take us so far and there is a point at which you have to come down on one side of the argument or other based on what you believe. 

The Divine Reality does not shy away from covering extensive research, multiple areas of study and complex arguments. There were parts of the book that required deeper thinking, re-reading or for me to take a step away and mull over them. This was not for me a book to be devoured in one sitting, but one that took careful reading and some clear thinking space to get through. Even being peripherally aware of the current debates around atheism and the history between the writer and atheist Richard Dawkins, the book introduced me to a very wide range of concepts I was unaware of (such as the “the hard problem of consciousness”).

One of the things in the book that had a powerful impact on me, was a quote from a different writer altogether:

“On the contrary, if the universe were just electrons and selfish genes, meaningless tragedies like the crashing of this bus are exactly what we should expect, along with equally meaningless good fortune. Such a universe would be neither evil nor good in intention. It would manifest no intentions of any kind. In a universe of blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won’t find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice. The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference.” ~ Richard Dawkins

I found this quote stopped in my tracks. It is so full of hopelessness and so depressing, especially in contrast to the books description of how empowering and uplifting the Islamic belief in a Creator can be.

The writer explains that he wrote the book to assist Muslim’s in having clarity for themselves and when engaging others, particularly at a time when atheism is increasing both in Muslim countries and non-Muslim. Particularly he notes there is an aggressive push to promote atheist ideology on university campuses. This book will serve as an accessible, useful tool in discussing faith and answering the very difficult questions we find ourselves faced with from people both critical of faith and those interested in it.

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