City of Brass

City of Brass


musing about morality and faith

posted by Aziz Poonawalla

A dear friend wrote something quite moving on Facebook, to which I’d like to respond publicly (keeping their privacy, of course). They wrote,

Over the past week, I have heard many people blame the shooting in Connecticut on (among other things) “taking God out of the classroom.” This idea was easy for me to dismiss initially, but it seems to have gained momentum. Perpetuation of this idea has done much, much more damage to my faith in humanity than the actions of one person.

Each time I hear someone perpetrate the myth that a lack in religious faith leads to moral depravity, it eats away at my hope that my children will be met with the same kindness they show others. I can only hope that parents, and anyone else whose life includes children, see the value in perpetuating tolerance rather than hatred or blame.

The truth is that there is no dictum in any religion which states that morality must be divine in origin to be valid. True, for a believer such as myself, morality is defined by religious doctrine. However, as a believer, I do not consult my doctrine to guide my morality, aside from special cases on the margins of life and experience. Any believer who denigrates the morals of an unbeliever is themselves, immoral.

The Qur’an says, in Surat al-Hujurat,

O you who have believed, let not a people ridicule [another] people; perhaps they may be better than them; nor let women ridicule [other] women; perhaps they may be better than them. And do not insult one another and do not call each other by [offensive] nicknames. Wretched is the name of disobedience after [one’s] faith. And whoever does not repent – then it is those who are the wrongdoers. (49:11)

And the Bible says, in the New Testament,

Do not judge, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven. (Luke 6:37)

I don’t know how Allah could make it any clearer than that.

It’s pernicious, this idea that bad things happen because society has moved away from God. It denies the agency of man, and the gift of reason which we have the freedom to use for good or for evil. The question of why God “lets” bad things happen is as old as religion itself, but Allah answers that question via the story of Job, in both the Qur’an and the Bible. Job was persecuted by Satan himself and yet his faith never wavered (and arguably, his test of faith was way easier than that of the Prophet Abraham, but I digress). Bad things happen by men’s hands, and men’s choices, and even if we were to tear the wall between Church and State down like the barricades in Les Miserables, bad things would still happen.

It’s also essential to remind people who try to moralize about evil in this way, that the vast majority of evil done on this Earth is by people acting in the name of God. The empires of Islam and Christianity warred with each other and within themselves for centuries; genocides in the Americas and Europe; and the modern era of terrorism, from Oklahoma City to New York. If morality were the sole province of religion, then the believers have more to answer for than the non-believers, in the aggregate.

It’s tempting to want to “fix” the problems of school shootings and terrorism and even wars. But at some level, contra President Obama’s assertion, these things are in a sense the price of our freedom – not to own guns, but rather the freedom of our intellect itself.

What we can’t do is lose hope in ourselves and in our neighbors. We have no right to judge everyone by the actions of the intolerant any more than the intolerant have the right to judge everyone. I think the kids are gonna be okay.

Related: my friend Hussein Rashid has an essay, asking that same question: Where was God in Newton?



  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Yohance Adams

    I have two young boys of my own. When I heard the news of the shooting I thought of my own and said to myself, what is going on in the world today? I don’t known if it is that people have lost faith or is it that this world is just coming to an END? I myself feel lost with everything that is going on today! Jobs/Government/just life period.

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Taher

    When you write, “I do not consult my doctrine to guide my morality”, I have to disagree. When you decide upon a framework to behave, dietary restrictions for example, those restrictions are moral and are guided by religious doctrine.

    We cannot be so shortsighted as to believe that calibrating our freedoms will fix our problems. That creates other problems.

    Tolerance is tied to faith, but intolerance is a price of freedom.

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