I have as long as I can remember been an atheist. My father is an atheist as well. I don’t want to say that’s why I am an atheist. When I was young and my father told me that he did not believe in a god I remember being very intrigued with the idea. “I don’t believe there is a god” he said no more than just that I assure you. I started toying with the idea as best I could being as young , uninformed and naive as I was. I should preface that by saying that I now live in the US but I was raised in Pakistan and moved to the US when I was 19. I went to a school affiliated with the Cambridge and Oxford Universities in Pakistan. I was quite lucky I suppose to have the privilege of such a good education and a secular household. We were not at all rich. In fact my school was one of the most expensive schools in the country where children of rich businessmen and politicians went. My father was a journalist and my mother was an accountant and they often had to sell their jewelry or borrow money from friends to pay for tuition because they wanted me to have the best education possible. In 2002 I came to the US to start school in a small town liberal arts college for a degree in criminal justice.
Even though religion, especially Islam, had very little to do with my life at home in Pakistan, in school Islamic studies was a subject we were required to take from 1st grade all the way up till 10th grade. We were tested on it using tests prepared at Cambridge University for our O’levels. . Before high school I am sure I had been told all my life that Mohammed heard the voice of god who told him fascinating things about the nature of the universe morality etc which he then told his followers. However, I knew I was an atheist because I couldn’t see god so he does not exist and I don’t believe in things I can’t see or feel. And I thought no more of it. I was perhaps too young to have made up my mind like that. I specifically remember, when I was roughly in high school, that I took the next step in questioning the idea of god. For some reason at that moment in my life when the words that “Allah spoke to Mohammed and told him that he was the last prophet and there shall be none after him” were spoken to me, my reaction was all of a sudden “wait a second” “what?….you mean to tell me that a man talked to god, when no one else was around and people just believed him?”In retrospect I think I was still too young to understand why I had an issue with the words spoken to me. So I carried on thinking that there was something fishy about the logic I was being taught in my Islam classes but did not have the capability or even that much of a desire to investigate it further. I was too busy with playing Cricket and Soccer. I just knew I was an atheist and that was enough.
9/11 changed everything for me, as it did for billions around the world. I was 18 and in Pakistan watching the WTC buildings collapse on TV and thought to myself that the fundamentalist Muslims had ruined us. The Islamic world would now bear the brunt of a massive American war and the threat of nuclear annihilation by Pakistan’s nukes would come to fruition. I went to school the next day and it was the talk of the school. A small minority of my friends had very little to say about the matter but I was shocked to hear that many of them were very happy and supported this type of terrorism. These were kids studying at one of the best schools in the country, a curriculum prepared at two of the most respected universities in the world and were celebrating this event. Many of them were not even practicing Muslims. They just called themselves Muslims. Even my more moderate friends who listened to Eminem and watched porn movies in their parents basements, were all of a sudden praising Al Qaeda and Bin Laden. This was all very horrifying and more importantly confusing to me. I could not understand how people could, on one hand, love American music, movies, TV and came to school to get a western education and on the other hand condemn the West as infidels who deserved to die because they were waging a war on Islam. Most of this hate originated from the Palestine Israel conflict, (which is a completely different discussion). This hypocrisy disgusted me and my idea that there is no god changed a bit. Now I started to think about how the belief in god was bad for us and drove people to do horrible things. It was very simple. Osama bin Laden and his band of unfortunate men did what they did because they believed in god. More specifically a god that favored them over all other religions. I started paying attention to things I had been hearing all my life like “Allah hates the Jews because they are no longer the chosen people. Muslims are and for that reason the Jews want to kill Muslims” and “Christians are infidels as well because Mohammed was the last prophet of Allah and god revealed the Quran to him as a perfect book which all should embrace. Those who did not aka people of any other religion but Islam were infidels who should be fought and killed or converted.” This was stuff I heard in school from my classmates, on television and local mosques. I started to look around me at so many other horrific things done daily in the name of god. IT IS Pakistan so I didn’t have to go far beyond my own extended family and friends to see such things. Like my uncle who forces his wife to wear a burka, puts curtains on his car windows and makes her sit in the back seat so no other man will lay eyes on her. Or how my female cousins were brainwashed into believing that education was not good for them, they were a burden on their families as they could not bring the family any income because they were not born boys, and their sole purpose was to get married and take care of the man’s house. Or how Imams constantly called for violence against anyone who was not Muslim, especially westerners. They attacked art and music and science constantly. Needless to say I was suddenly aware of the world around me. My disgust with Islam specifically was reaffirmed and I wanted to get out of Pakistan as soon as possible and I did.
In Pakistan declaring myself as an atheist would surely have resulted in my death or serious injury. I had been consigned to believe that even though I was an atheist, religion was sacred, holy and deserved respect. It should not be criticized because people get angry and will want to hurt you and that was somehow their right. At college in the US I started realizing that I could now openly say that I did not believe in god and I would not be killed for it. It was an amazing realization. Just being able to say the words to a person other than my father that I did not believe in god was transformational and had profound meaning and effect. I found how the importance of words when spoken out loud, without fear of death or violence, can not only be meaningful but also allowed me, for the first time, to question my atheism. Now I wanted to know why I was an atheist. Since I can’t see god, therefore he does not exist? It can’t be that simple.
I still had not heard of you or even so much as read any atheist writers besides Karl Marx’s criticism of religion in one of my sociology classes. During a visit to my best friend’s family, after a discussion about religion, his father gave me a book called “Breaking the Spell by Daniel Dennett. I have to say I was not impressed by the book although my curiosity was finally at its highest. My journey that lead me to you started one day when I was walking around Barnes and Noble and saw a book titled “The End of Faith” by Sam Harris. I bought the book and began reading it and with every page I read I began to question more and more my atheism. I also thought finally someone has put into words almost everything that I felt but could not articulate. I wanted to learn more about Harris so I began watching his lectures which lead me to Christopher Hitchens. His unapologetic and stark criticism of religion was freeing in way. I was amazed and overjoyed to see someone like him who is not afraid to say what I was for so many years. Although I disagree with quite a bit of what he says now, at the time I was over the moon simply because I realized there was a voice like his out there. Over time I wanted to see if there were more people who were writing about god and that’s when I found your lectures and interviews and I must say it has been a life changing experience. I read your book “The God Delusion” recently and am going to read Hitchens’ book quite soon and thanks to you I now know why I am an atheist. I now realize that atheism is not something that happens by chance, like the complete arbitrary nature of being born, raised and indoctrinated in certain religion. I became an atheist because over the last few years I studied Islam, Christianity, Buddhism and Hinduism as best I could and was able to question my atheism. I consciously made the choice with as much of the information I could grasp to be an atheist. I would like to sincerely thank you for that. Thank you for helping me understand my disbelief in a fairy tale and have new respect for reason, science and rationality. Furthermore, thank you for opening my eyes and sparking my curiosity to theology, philosophy and read about other doubters of religion who approach it from varying perspectives, much of which I was quite ignorant to until now. Please keep doing what you are doing. We need a voice like yours.
Lastly I do want to criticize you a bit about when you say that we must give our children a secular education. I agree completely. I know about the faith schools and Jerry Fallwell’s University in Virginia etc that rob children off a secular education and indoctrinate them in a certain faith. However, most schools in the west are quite secular. I think though that these faith schools are an extension of the problem. The true indoctrination starts at home with the parents. Parents have a much deeper impact on children than do schools or teachers. Children are especially susceptible to authority figures and parents are the first and strongest authority figures in a child’s life. I would like you to speak more to that effect as well and maybe focus on how people believe the religion of their parents. Maybe you have and I have yet to come across it.