The Atheist in the Room

On Wednesday I attended the World Muslim Leadership Forum’s annual conference. That’s probably the last place you’d expect to find an atheist and yet there I was, my little BHA pin badge proudly on display, to listen to a varied collection of Muslim speakers from around the world discussing issues facing the “Islamic world” today.
The conference couldn’t have been more timely. With riots across the Muslim world in response to an inflammatory YouTube video and the Arab Spring still unfolding, what these guys have to say matters.
The first speaker, and probably my favourite, was Anwar Choudhury, director of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the first Muslim to represent the UK as a diplomat. Choudhury spoke passionately of his identity as both a proud Muslim and proud UK citizen. He argued, quite rightly, that it takes more courage to be a moderate than an extremist; that to choose the extremes betrays a lack, not abundance, of faith. He himself was a victim of a terrorist attack when working as the UK ambassador to his country of birth, Bangladesh, when a grenade was thrown at him when leaving prayer at a mosque, leaving him in hospital and killing his bodyguard. However, he said, the abiding memory for him of the attack was not the grenade but the 100s of Bangladeshi civilians who surrounded his hospital that night to protect him from further attack.
We had talks from 9:30 to 5 covering a wide range of Muslim voices from the self declared “eco Jihadi” imploring her listeners to go veggie to Ugandan born Lord Sheikh of Cornhill, chairman of the Conservative Muslim Forum, giving business advice. The Muslim Council of Britain, representing over 500 Muslim groups, was represented by its director who chaired one of the panels. Something that stood out was the lack of calls for any explicitly “Islamic” style of government or political movement. Instead speakers focussed on the need for more Islamic voices within current systems- Islamic financial products competing along side conventional products and more Muslims taking their place in the public sphere.
For all the panic in Britain about the lack of Muslim integration in the UK, the suggestion that British Muslims are seeking special laws and exemptions, this event showed those who seek the exact opposite; Muslims seeking to practice their faith freely and work with others on building common ground. This was, after all, their reason for inviting someone from the BHA. Anwar Choundry finished his speech by highlighting his view that there is no war between Islam and “The Other”, instead the fight is between extremist and moderate. There is no doubt in my mind that the passionate “moderates” who spoke on Wednesday have a great deal of good to bring to the country, a necessary reminder that the tempting narrative of “crash of civilisations” gives too simplistic a world view, a message that now more than ever we need to hear. It is up to us to decide which narrative to believe- from personal experience working with Muslims, I believe much more in the narrative of the Muslim Leadership Forum than the divisive narrative of extremists. It needs to be heard.

Secular Humanism and Life After Death

Just what is there to say about secular humanism and the afterlife? Humanists don’t believe in any such thing, after all and yet I’ve been asked to talk about just that at the London Interfaith Centre this November. It might seem as sensible as discussing the Christian view of Mohammad or vegetarian recipes for roast pork. 

But stuck for ideas I ain’t after a tweet for help (and a helpful retweet from the BHA) was answered with over 30 thoughtful 160 character gobbets to get me started. There were new ideas and ones I’d thought of, ideas I liked and those I wasn’t so sure of. Here, for your reading pleasure, are my thoughts on these tweets.

You want a physicist to speak at your funeral

A few people quoted a nice piece from NPR about what a physicist might say to your bereaved. Some also suggested quoting Sagan about how we’ll end up in stars. I can certainly see the poetry in this. It’s a pretty nice thought that the stuff we’re made of will one day undergo a nuclear reaction in the belly of a star or that our matter never really dies; it just takes another form. But I’m not sure this can provide true comfort. After all, the blood in my veins may well one day play its part in the celestial boogie, but so will the atoms in this keyboard and Julius Cesar’s dandruff. In fact, this version of “afterlife” is open for us all, regardless of how we live, as if it doesn’t matter how we treat people, the risks we take, where we stand on the Mac/ PC debate, none of it. For a humanist who believes that there is such a thing as a good life, this concept of afterlife kinda sucks compared with the wrath/ reward structure found in most religions. What’s more, it requires a pretty selective reading of science. Yes we could become stars but then those stars will burn out and spacetime will continue expanding until all is isolated and cold (I suspect this sentence explains why I haven’t been invited to speak at any funerals). Also, stars are only cool because we humans say they’re cool, they ain’t objectively, scientifically so. You just can’t have meaning without humans. So selective science provides for some nice poetry, but we’re going to have to get more humany…

Humany woomany

Most tweets spoke of the need to focus on the here and now over any hope of afterlife. These were much more in line with my own thinking. Here are a few of the tweets I got;

For me, as an atheist, the “afterlife” is how we are remembered: how we have influenced others and the world around us.

Make the most of this life. Its all the more precious because its brief.

Important to try and make this world better, in this life, because there probably isn’t a second chance.

Celebrating the life & using this life to do good?

You could go with the old (but true) cliche that the fear of death is really fear of a life half-lived.

I like ’em all! One thing you’ll notice is that unlike Sagan and religion, these human-ier approach offers no immortality. Reproducing won’t make you last for ever- your genes get watered down with the generations and your children are individuals, not you reincarnated. Memories can’t last forever, either. But is that so bad a thing? I guess firstly, if that’s how it is then that’s how it is. There’s no competition on for who can create the loveliest vision of the world. 

But is eternal life even all that lovely? It’s certainly unfathomable. Would I still be the same person without my body? If a big part of my personality is playing golf, how can I still be myself without arms? But I don’t really see how it’s desirable to simply never expire. It seems that the sensible statement “I don’t want to die tomorrow” has been madly extended ad infinitum without too much thought. 

Looking at the world around us all we can guess is- this is it. There are no second chances. Lost opportunities will remain just that; lost. This was the theme in many of Tuesday’s tweets and what I would say is the essence of the humanist approach to death. We are born without purpose and die without going anywhere, all that matters is what happens in between. Whom we meet, how we live, what we leave behind. 

This doesn’t mean religious ideas of afterlife have no use. Nietzsche made good use of the concept of reincarnation to express neatly his view of life. He invites the reader to imagine being forced to repeat her life over and over for ever. Every mistake, triumph, wasted evening, friendship gained and lover lost. Now, he said, how would you live your life differently knowing this? I’d say that’s the acid test for a life well lived. It may only be a metaphor but there is still some use, at least, for the afterlife for a secular humanist. So, as the cool kids say, YOLO.

A million thanks for the tweets! I’ve still a while to go before this talk, will be sure to write more about it.