Do you like this Muslim?

Abdur Raheem Green

Abdur Raheem Green

Abdur Raheem Green is a British convert to Islam who does a great deal of speaking on his religion. Here is one entitled “How I came to Islam” (90-min).  I think conversion videos, like ghosts, can be another touchstone to distinguish certain types of atheists from others: some atheists will can feel empathy for well presented faith conversions and some certainly won’t.  Which one are you?

I found Green’s talk touching, funny and inspiring — I could feel his zealous sincerity.  But with only a little searching, the not so pretty side of his Islam is easy to find.  Apparently Green admitted that back in the 90s he said that Muslims and Westerners cannot live peaceably together and that dying while fighting jihad is one of the surest ways to Paradise and Allah’s good pleasure. Though he now swears off his former radical views.  Those supposedly rejected views was why in 2005 he was banned from speaking in Australia. But has he given up his fundamentalism?  Here he vehemently preaches hell and brimstone to put to shame a Christian fundamentalist. And here he speaks against Sufism (5-min) where he sounds all too much like an Evangelical Christian belittling Pentecostals.  Ah the in-fighting in Islam is as complicated as that within Christianity.

My experience with Islam is limited. I lived in Pakistan with a Muslim (Shiite) family for a season studying language (Urdu) and religion (Islam). During that time, I would occasionally visit mosques (masjids) with my favorites being Sufis shrines where I participated in some swaying prayers. Prior to living in Pakistan, I had an American Urdu professor who was a Muslim convert and he would tell me stories of why he loved Islam. Later I other nationalities of Muslims during a few weeks in Java and in China where minority Muslims were in one of my favorite parts of Chengdu. I have also read a few books on Islam and love some Irani films.

Books critical on Islam abound.  But in understanding any faith, it is important to seek both critical and sympathetic material. As far as readings, I really enjoyed reading Karen Armstrong’s “Muhammed: a biography of the Prophet“. After reading it, I remembered saying to myself, “Wow, I can feel how a Muslim could love his faith”. I can easily feel my self flux between empathy and antipathy depending on the material.

The main point in this post is not to discuss the pros-and-cons of Islam. I am talking about religious empathy.  I am trying to point out that I don’t think every mind is built for religious empathy though mine certainly is. Religious empathy is absent in many atheists and I think this may be a temperament issue that causes people to talk past each other. I was amazed watching empathy rise in me as I watched Green’s video, given all my other knowledge. And though another part of my mind is built to see through the self-deceptive and dangerous aspects of religion, I am still OK holding both of these apparently contrary feelings (empathy & antipathy) simultaneously.

So, before arguing on religion with an atheist, ask them if they have ever felt religious empathy (not sympathy).  Likewise, before arguing with an exclusivist religious person, it may be useful to see if they can feel empathy with a faith expression of someone their faith tells them is bound for hell.

Question to readers:  So, what does the religious sympathy touchstone reveal about you?


See: my other posts on Islam here.


Filed under Philosophy & Religion

33 responses to “Do you like this Muslim?

  1. ccmclaugh

    How is “religious empathy” different from the more general empathy that we humans posses?

  2. @ ccmclaugh,
    Good question. I don’t view empathy as a general thing. I think we all empathize with different classes of emotions and experiences. So, to be a bit bizarre, let’s say you are a hunter who love the thrill of the hunt and kill — not everyone would empathize with that — there is no “general empathy” that makes it so.
    What do you think.

  3. I think it is telling that (according to Wikipedia) Mr. Green, at the tender and impressionable age of 19, defended his Catholic faith, although he didn’t really believe in it. He then practiced Buddhism for three years before turning to Islam. He would seem to one of those individuals who psychologically need a celestial figure or supernatural philosophy to tell them how to live their lives. I am reminded of Erich Frome’s classic book “Escape From Freedom.”

  4. Question to readers: So, what does the religious sympathy touchstone reveal about you?

    Answer from Paarsurrey:

    I feel love and sympathy for every human being; more so if they belong to a revealed religion; and even for the Atheists if they stick to reason; but I hate nobody.

  5. @ Charles Corum,
    In your world, do you only imagine people who are religious as having some major defect that allows them to stay religious?
    Don’t you ever imagine some folks remaining religious for virtuous reasons.

    To feel greater sympathy for those just like yourself is blandly normal.

  6. “But with only a little searching, the not so pretty side of his Islam is easy to find. Apparently Green admitted that back in the 90s he said that Muslims and Westerners cannot live peaceably together and that dying while fighting jihad is one of the surest ways to Paradise and Allah’s good pleasure.”

    There Abdur Raheem Green is wrong; there is no general commandment, repeat, not a single one, in Quran to fight with the innocent non-believers or any other innocent non-Muslim (Jews, Christians, and Atheists etc all included):

    [33:49] And follow not the disbelievers and the hypocrites, and leave alone their annoyance, and put thy trust in Allah; for Allah is sufficient as a Guardian.

    Muhammad was commanded by the One-True-God to have forbearance for disbelievers and the hypocrites, and leave alone their annoyance.

    There is no commandment in Quran for violence against innocent Non-Muslims of any faith.

  7. @ paarsurrey,
    I have no intention to argue Islamic Theology with you. Even Green said he does not agree with his old ideas. But many Muslims disagree with you and embrace violence for Allah. Your sect does not — we get that. But there is as much disagreement within Islam as there is within Christianity. No surprise there.
    Again, I don’t want to talk about your theology here. Stick to the topic.
    Religious Empathy. You said yours is limited only to the “revealed religion folks” — your own kind. Yawn.

  8. I don’t look at people who are religious as “having some major defect.” I just fine it interesting that Mr. Green, at an age when individuals are susceptibility to authority figures, since the male brain doesn’t mature until approx. 25-26 years of age, is taken seriously as having anything substantive to contribute to a discussion of what others should believe. My point is that individuals should remain open to ALL possibilities, and be willing to change their minds when presented with objective evidence that might contradict their faith-based beliefs. As a humanist/agnostic, I remain open to the possibility of the “truth” of Christianity, Islam, etc., BUT, I want to see some OBJECTIVE evidence. See the book “Caught in the Pulpit: Leaving Belief Behind,” by Dennett and LaScola

  9. @ Charles Corum,
    What I am saying is that it may not be “major authority figures” that he is drawn to. It sounds like he changed his mind several times — perhaps more than you? So maybe he was more “open minded”.🙂
    All to say, it is too hard for me to judge this stuff without know a person very very well and that is hard to do.

    But here is the question of the post, Charles. Have you ever listened to a religious conversion story and been deeply touched? Have you, as an adult, every embraced a religion. Do you see a correlation?

  10. I feel a little ambivalent about “empathy” and would prefer “inclination” for the question to make sense to me. There was a time when I thought of tendency to religious thought as an inherent defect. I’ve softened my stance a bit in recent years to think of it as a coping mechanism we haven’t outgrown yet due to lack of evolutionary pressure in that direction. I am convinced the behavior *is involuntary in those who experience it strongly. It’s then [for them] a matter of finding the belief that provides the most emotional comfort.

  11. Earnest

    My empathy for the religious of a variety of faiths often clouds my judgement regarding the logic of their statements.

  12. @ Earnest:
    Yes, exactly, you are the type of person who has very strong empathy for some religious experiences. We share our empathies but we act on them a bit differently at times, eh?

    @ P Yew:
    I don’t thing Earnest’s empathy is necessarily a coping mechanism, nor is mine. You see, you view the empathy (or inclination) as a weakness (a defect) of some sort. Indeed, religion is complex — sometimes it is just a perception thing. It is not a “comfort” thing for many folks but a mystical thing. Although I would agree that comfort and coping mechanism can be involved in religious sentiments.

  13. @Sabio- I wasn’t singling Earnest out, my comment was before his🙂 You may not consciously see religion, or in your specific case, spirituality, as a comfort thing. Humans don’t do things there is no reward in. It’s antithetical to survival. Even the stigmatists who “suffer” do so for purification or atonement. The comfort for them is redemption, forgiveness. We agree that the motivations for belief are extraordinarily complex.

  14. @ P Yew,
    Well then you must also think your atheism/worldview is for comfort and as a coping mechanism since “Humans don’t do things there is no reward in.”


  15. @Sabio- Sigh. No I don’t view my atheism as an explanation for the universe. It’s a doubt of god claims. In fact I identify as an apostate. I feel it’s more accurate to my specific situation and circumstances. I left religion because it *failed* to provide any comfort of any kind. It’s both intellectually and emotionally dishonest in its practices. Ergo, I don’t do things in which for *me* there is no reward. Atheism is not a substitute for that. It’s what I’m left with.

  16. P Yew,
    But since humans don’t do things for no reward, then your worldview, be it scientific, artistic or whatever is for reward. It is then a crutch, for comfort, a coping mechanism.

    So, can’t you imagine theists doing things similar to you in their motivations.

    I may be misreading you, but you do seem to see some inherent weakness in all religious inclinations of theists. I think such a view is to simplistic and wrong. But I may misunderstand you.

    We both agree on many of the foibles of many religions, but religious folks, like secular folks are complex.

  17. Sabio- Your argument summed up is: you’re no different than me, I have beliefs and based on my experience you must have them too. It’s why you keep insisting reward is inextricably linked to worldview. It is possible to perceive the world without that perception being reliant on a benefit.
    You’re correct. I do see religious inclinations as a weakness. I discovered it first in myself. I can respect that you disagree with my opinions. They may be simplistic, I don’t know. They are the conclusions made from many decades of introspection, study, and thought. Your experiences have obviously led you in a different direction.🙂

  18. @ P Yew,
    Actually, I don’t think our “argument” is focused or clear at all.
    But I think we have come to some clear disagreements:
    Tell me if I am right:
    (1) You think Theists see the world based on benefits but you have transcended that.
    (2) You think religious inclinations is nothing but weakness.

    So, you view me as full of weakness, bound by reward seeking.
    And you see Earnest that way, and ….

    I think people are much more complex than that and such simple classifications reminds me of perhaps a heaven-or-hell classification you feel you left behind after ” decades of introspection, study, and thought.”

    But I could be wrong.

  19. Sabio- I don’t intend for our discussion to be a personal criticism of you or Earnest. You solicited opinions, I’ve offered mine. I’m sensing an emotional attachment here in your dialog. I’ll leave you with what I hope are clarifications to my thinking and thank you for a stimulating conversation.

    1): I think that some people to varying degrees rely on religion for comfort. It may not be the primary cause in every case but it’s in the top 10. I’m not claiming to have transcended anything. That is your characterization, not mine. If I could have found solace in religion I would still be in it.

    2): I think that religious inclinations are an impediment to improved social order. They subvert [substitute] personal judgement and contribute to a tribalism that isn’t always positive. They are a way to abrogate personal responsibility of their actions to a “higher power”. In some instances it’s a projection of the parent child relationship, and can manifest in unhealthy ways. Elements of punishment and forgiveness litter the religious landscape, even in eastern philosophy, but primarily in the Abrahamic faiths. And in ALL of them there is a goal to attain that can be accurately described as a reward. I.E. Nirvana, eternal life, eternal happiness, gold, silver, virgins, knowledge, enlightenment, etc. To suggest otherwise is naive.
    There are useful elements to religion as well. Some good has come from religious practice. At balance, I think overall the bad outweighs the good. So, yes, I see it as a weakness. I don’t however claim all people with religious inclination to be nothing but fundamentally flawed, or as having no worth. Again, those are your characterizations, not mine.

    All the best to you and Earnest.🙂 Thanks for taking your time to read and respond to my comments.

  20. Earnest

    @ P Yew: no offense taken, but I agree with Sabio that the spiritual are not necessarily as simply involuntary as you propose. Or perhaps we spirituals simply have a palpable hypnotic illusion that we are🙂 !

    I think there are things that humans do that are meaningless, or for purely entertainment value. If you read The Spandrels of San Marco by Steven J Gould you will find a respected opinion that there are animal (and by assumption human) features that are just there. They exist without function, or without a fathomable function.

    I will grant to you that I become more religious in times of social stress, whatever that means.

  21. @Earnest- Thanks. I’m relieved I haven’t annoyed everyone.🙂 I haven’t read “The Spandrels…” and I’m always looking for new reading. I’m anxious to get started. Thanks for mentioning it.

    @Sabio- I’ve read back the thread and on consideration did sound condescending or “appealing to my own authority” with my comment “…decades of introspection, study, and thought.” It did nothing to advance my point and I apologize.

  22. @ P Yew,
    Actually, I am not the least bit annoyed. But I thought if I made it personal, I would make your over-generalizations more clear.

    That is the point of much of my writing on this blog when it comes to atheists — many of them over-generalize. I argue for a more nuanced understanding of what “religion” is. Religion is not merely doctrinal positions or beliefs. I’m not sure you have read any of my other posts on this.

    Likewise, religious experiences and motivation span a large variety of difference between individuals. So to generalize about them shows emotional agendas of the atheists that do — they are pissed at religion, they are not being scientists any more but just want to be sure to let folks know how pissed they are.

    The point of this article is to say that sympathy to religion can go both ways: make one blind to the weaknesses of religions and make one less prone to gross generalizations when criticizing.

    So I tried to show that your initial claims which explained away religious experiences as coping mechanism for emotional comfort were too broad. In your number 1 above you softened that claim — “Some people” , “to varying degrees”, “not primary” — sure, I agree with that, but not the way you originally put it.

    But there are good reasons for embracing faiths, for having religious experience etc — that is the part you seemed to not want to admit. Religion is not homogenous — neither between faiths, nor within a faith nor within an individual. I would direct you to my other posts that discuss the complexity of the parts of mind and relationships that can feed the huge bundle of experience we label as religion.

    In your number 2 you say, “I think that religious inclinations are an impediment to improved social order.” Though this can be true for some religious practices, dogmas or attitudes, in many, many cases, these same religious factors can greatly improve social order. This number 2 of yours is another inaccurate generalization. But as I said, I think you and others make it because you are so rightfully disgusted with the wrongs you have seen done by religion. But I contend it confuses your rational evaluation of the psychological and social phenomena labeled as “religion”.

    You pull out the old atheist tripe, “overall the bad outweighs the good”, which simply translates as “I hate it” — because there is not one iota of evidence for that pseudo-empirical claim. Ironically, it is very much a pseudo-empirical claim similar to what many theists do.

    I hope that makes my points more clear. We may not be very far apart in our understanding of many of the harms of some religion behavior, dogma and attitudes, but we may differ strongly in our analysis of what religion is, how the mind works and how to understand their interaction. But I wager with more careful dialogue we’d agree, perhaps.

  23. @Sabio- No, you didn’t make it more clear, you simply made it personal. I could have given specific examples to illustrate my points, but thought it more material than necessary in “comments”. We agree at this point that we disagree on the fundamentals. Careful dialog isn’t going to be effective, I think. Thanks again for your time.

  24. I think I said the following:
    “I feel love and sympathy for every human being; more so if they belong to a revealed religion; and even for the Atheists if they stick to reason; but I hate nobody.”

  25. Earnest

    @ P Yew: if you are still following this post…
    My impression of much of what you put forth is fairly pure utilitarianism. I have been tempted to express those beliefs as truly my own but find them colorless and cold. When I allow myself to wander mentally into spiritual falsehoods, there is more warmth and color in my life, which I enjoy as a pastime on occasion. Like having dessert with certain meals. Maybe that will make the concept of spiritual falsehoods as positive influences more digestible to you.

  26. @Sabio:
    In order to answer your question, I must remind myself of the definition of the term “empathy”: Empathy is the capacity to recognize emotions that are being experienced by another sentient or fictional being. One may need to have a certain amount of empathy before being able to experience accurate sympathy or compassion. (The word in Greek means something very different: maliciousness.)

    I can understand the feelings of a religious person, and empathy may lead to sympathy, so long as this person does not try to justify his/her religion by using reason or some pseudo-arguments (of the type “my religion is true because the holy book says so and my holy book was revealed to humans by the true-god (not by the false one)”.) The opposite of empathy (and sympathy) occurs to me when a religious person attempts to justify his/her beliefs by using “science”, say, or by using his/her professional qualifications to obfuscate the true origin of his/her religious beliefs. At the same time, I feel very sad when I see how religion leads some people to total blindness. Non-adherence to [almost] anything is my ideal. This is why I would feel great affinity to that Buddhist who would (in theory…) claim: “if you meet Buddha on the road, kill him.”

  27. @Takis: That is interest about the different uses of the greek work. Reminds me of 手紙 (if your browser can read the chinese characters) which translates as Hand-Paper which in Japanese means Letter while in Chinese it means Toilet Paper.

    Anyway, I think of empathy as more reflexive and far less cognitive than you are being. Yes, yes, I understand all the negatives about religion, but I am talking about an emotion – spontaneous — “to feel with”. My guess is that you probably have none of that since you have never had the experiences and are a natural atheist. That is one of the points of this post. And thus you drop into analytic cognitive mode, not emotive.

  28. @Sabio: Yes, yes, I do. I often do feel a positive emotion and my first reaction is frequently, if not always, to “sympathize with”.

    Yes, I can see the Chinese character. Thanks for pointing it out. And thanks for making me think about the word “empathy”. Admittedly, I hadn’t realized that this is a “new” word in English (100 years old) and hadn’t thought about the differences between the English and Greek versions.

  29. @Takis,
    Ah, you you do have empathy — hmmm, I wouldn’t have guessed.
    BTW, check out this ngram showing how new empathy is and how it seems to have made sympathy fall!

  30. BTW, my Greek lover once called me “εμπαθε”, but I thought that meant “passionate”, not maliciousness (εμπάθεια). What is that all about? Pretty darn close, eh?

  31. @Sabio: What comes out of my writings is not exactly what I actually feel or am.

    Thanks for this ngram thing. I had no clue what it was about. I know now. I tried “jejune”, a rare word (in decline), and also “arachibutyrophobia” which turns out to be even rarer and on the rise since the 80s (but then, so are all the phobias.)

  32. @Sabio: εμπαθε? I don’t know what this means. Is that supposed to be on the vocative case? Did she call you this? I can’t guess what the actual word could have been.

    Yes, the word εμπάθεια has only one meaning in Greek and it’s not a nice one. A person is εμπαθής (adjective) if he/she is spiteful. A word very close to it is χαιρέκακος (adjective, literally `one who loves to be bad’). Πάθος, of course, is passion. But together with the prefix “εν” (which becomes “εμ” in front of π for phonetic reasons), it changes meaning!

  33. Well, I am sure Homer used it correctly but you modern Greeks must have bastardized it and we in the West preserved the original pure meaning!

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