According to the 2015 worldwide Pew Research Survey on World Religions, the three most common religions in the world are: Christianity (31%), Islam (24%) and Hinduism (15%) - comprising 70% of the world’s population. There are many other smaller religions (in number of followers) such as Buddhism (7%) and Judaism (0.2%). In addition, nearly 16% of the world’s population is not affiliated with any particular religion making them the third largest group after Christians and Muslims.
Most of these religiously unaffiliated live in the Asia-Pacific region (61% in China), however they are increasing in numbers in Europe, North America, Australia and New Zealand. The significant increase in their numbers in these countries is primarily due to the switching of millions of those who were born into Christianity to the religiously unaffiliated group.1
According to NatCen’s 2016 British Social Attitudes Survey, the number of people in Britain without any religious affiliation has increased from 31% in 1983 to 48% in 2015 and this percentage is even higher (62%) in those aged 18-24.2
In the United States, according to a recent Pew Research Poll, the religiously unaffiliated have increased from <10% few years ago to 23% and this number is close to 35% in the millennials (those born after 1980).3
Not everyone who falls in the category of religiously “unaffiliated” is an atheist/agnostic however. According to the Pew Survey, only 33% of the religiously unaffiliated deny the existence of God or a higher power (8% of the total population) while a majority of them believe in some higher power or spirit.
Based on the Oxford Handbook of Atheism, globally 7% of the adult population is atheist.
Countries with a large atheist population are mostly in Central and Western Europe (Czech Republic 55%; France 41%; Germany 36%; UK 30%) and in Asia-Pacific Region (South Korea 28%; Japan 28%; New Zealand 28%; China 18%).4
The lowest number as a percentage of population are in the Middle East and Africa.
In the United States according to a Pew Research Survey, 3.1% of the population identify themselves as atheists and 4% as agnostics.5
As discussed in Chapter 10, the major religions in the world started centuries ago in what is termed as the Axial Age. Today billions of people follow different religions. Even amongst those who give up on a particular religion belief in God or a higher power remain prevalent and there are very few amongst us (globally this figure is at <10%) who reject the idea of a God.
One should ask what is it that makes a person lose faith in religion, and in particular the very idea of a God? Let us first turn to the Qur’an to see if we can find some answers.
The Qur’anic terminology for those who are disbelievers is al-Kuffar (the plural of al-kafir). It is derived from the root word “kafara” which means to cover or hide something. In classic Arabic, this term was used for farmers who hid seeds underneath the soil. Thus, a “kafir” is someone who hides or covers up the truth or his/her innate tendency to believe in a Creator. It is also used for someone who is ungrateful for what has been given to them.
When disbelievers claim that they do not believe in any god, nor do they follow any religion, is that a true statement? If someone rejects faith in God, do they end up having no god at all? When someone claims that they do not follow any particular religion, do they end up having no religion at all? The Qur’an negates this. They do have a “god” and they do follow a “religion”:
أَرَأَيْتَ مَنِ اتَّخَذَ إِلَٰهَهُ هَوَاهُ أَفَأَنْتَ تَكُونُ عَلَيْهِ وَكِيلًا
Have you considered one who has taken his own low desires for his deity? Can you then be a guardian over such a one? (Qur’an, Surah al-Furqan, 25:43).
At another place, the Qur’an mentions that due to worshipping their desires - their eyes, ears and understanding have been covered up making them oblivious of the realities:
أَفَرَأَيْتَ مَنِ اتَّخَذَ إِلَٰهَهُ هَوَاهُ وَأَضَلَّهُ اللّٰهُ عَلَىٰ عِلْمٍ وَخَتَمَ عَلَىٰ سَمْعِهِ وَقَـلْبِهِ وَجَعَلَ عَلَىٰ بَصَرِهِ غِشَاوَةً فَمَنْ يَهْدِيهِ مِنْ بَعْدِ اللّٰه أَفَلَا تَذَكَّرُونَ
Have you considered the case of him who has taken his own low desires for his god and whom God has forsaken and adjudged as lost on the basis of (His infinite) knowledge, and whose ears and heart He has sealed and whose eyes He has covered with a veil? Who then will guide him after God (has condemned him for his being given to evil ways)? Will you then pay no heed? (Qur’an, Surah al-Jathiyah, 45:23).
According to the above mentioned verses, the god of the disbelievers is their own “desires.” They worship their whims and wishes, doing everything according to them and to satisfy them. They worship the biggest idol, i.e. the idol of the “self.”
As for their religion, they just want to enjoy, play and have amusement in this worldly life. Their focus is on materialism, collecting things to satisfy their desires, competing with each other over material possessions, trying to live as comfortable as they can, seeking fame and prominence and dominance over others, not worrying about anything other than their own personal satisfaction. They follow their conjectures and the freedom to do whatever they wish to do:
وَذَرِ الَّذِينَ اتَّخَذُوا دِينَهُمْ لَعِبًا وَلَهْوًا وَغَرَّتْهُمُ الْحَيَاةُ لدُّنْيَا
And leave alone those who take their religion as a futile and frivolous thing causing diversion (from God). The present life has beguiled them… (Qur’an, Surah al-Anʿam, 6:70).
When someone asks them about existential questions, forcing them to think deeply, their response is equally absurd:
وَقَالُوا مَا هِيَ إِلَّا حَيَاتُنَا الدُّنْيَا نَمُوتُ وَنَحْيَا وَمَا يُهْلِكُنَا إِلَّا الدَّهْرُ وَمَا لَهُمْ بِذَٰلِكَ مِنْ عِلْمٍ إِنْ هُمْ إِلَّا يَظُنُّونَ
They say: We have only this our present life (to live). We (people of one generation) die and we (people of a new generation from among us) come to life again (here in this very world). It is (the passage of) time alone that deals us death. But they have no real knowledge whatsoever about the matter (the Hereafter). They merely make conjectures. (Qur’an, Surah al-Jathiya, 45:24).
They only believe in the life of this world, with people being born and dying without a real cause or purpose behind it. It just happens, and we are a part of it so let us enjoy it while it lasts!
إِنْ هِيَ إِلَّا حَيَاتُنَا الدُّنْيَا نَمُوتُ وَنَحْيَا وَمَا نَحْنُ بِمَبْعُوثِينَ
There is naught but our life in this world; we die and we live and we shall not be raised again (Qur’an, Surah al-Mu’minun, 23:37).
A manifestation of this way of thinking is the ideology of modern day secular humanism. Secular humanists reject God or revelation and focus only on human reason, empirical knowledge, conjectures, personal whims and desire to create a world view. Their focus is their personal well-being only during course of this life. To add some value to their life they promote secular morality, human rights and environmental concerns. They want to appear as intellectuals but are unable to satisfactorily answer questions about origin of universe or purpose of their existence.
These are the individuals whom the life of this world has occupied so much that they fail to realize the deeper meaning and purpose of existence. They are truly in delusion:
إِنِ الْكَافِرُونَ إِلَّا فِي غُرُورٍ
The disbelievers are only in delusion. (Qur’an, Surah al-Mulk, 67:20).
It is also important to recognize that there are many individuals who fall under the category of disbelievers or atheists, but the real reason of their disbelief is that so far, they are still searching for convincing arguments or satisfactory answers to their questions so as a default position declare themselves as agnostic/atheist. They find a conflict in scientific understanding of the world and the religious dogmas presented to them from the faith they were born into. If they do come across convincing arguments they will likely become believers and I hope this book may help answer some of their questions.
Before we get into the reasons behind “kufr” in some individuals, it must be clarified that a true “kafir” or a disbeliever is the one who has been presented ample evidence about the truth, is convinced of its reality but still rejects it due to personal reasons. He or she knows with convincing evidences and arguments what the reality is but still rejects it either because declaring faith makes life uncomfortable for them or changes their status quo, or they dread following the religious practices or prohibitions or they worry about being identified with a particular group or any other short term personal inconvenience or loss that they may anticipate due to adopting faith.
So why is it that most of us believe in God and a religion, but there are many amongst us who reject the signs of God, stop acknowledging His existence, and do not follow anything but their own personal whims and conjectures? The Qur’an sheds light on this.
One of the main characteristics of the disbelievers is the false pride and arrogance they have:
بَلِ الَّذِينَ كَفَرُوا فِي عِزَّةٍ وَشِقَاقٍ
The only thing is that the disbelievers are suffering from a sense of (false) pride and are hostile (to him). (Qur’an, Surah Sad, 38:2).
إِنَّ الَّذِينَ يُجَادِلُونَ فِي آيَاتِ اللّٰهِ بِغَيْرِ سُلْطَانٍ أَتَاهُمْ ۙ إِنْ فِي صُدُورِهِمْ إِلَّا كِبْرٌ مَا هُمْ بِبَالِغِيهِ ۚ فَاسْتَعِذْ بِاللّٰهِ ۖ إِنَّهُ هُوَ السَّمِيعُ الْبَصِيرُ
Those who dispute regarding the signs of God without any authoritative proof having come to them (from God in their support), there is nothing in their minds but (an ambition for) greatness to which (goal) they can never attain. So (do not bother about them rather) go on seeking refuge in God (against their mischiefs). Surely, He alone is the All-Hearing, the All-Seeing. (Qur’an, Surah al-Mu’min, 40:56).
The reason why Satan (Shaytan) refused to obey God was also pride and arrogance, just as the Qur’an narrates:
وَإِذْ قُلْنَا لِلْمَلَائِكَةِ اسْجُدُوا لِآدَمَ فَسَجَدُوا إِلَّا إِبْلِيسَ أَبَىٰ وَاسْتَكْبَرَ وَكَانَ مِنَ الْكَافِرِينَ
And (recall) when We said to the angels, Make obeisance to Adam. So they obeyed except Iblis (Satan), he refused stubbornly and waxed proud, and he was already one of the disbelievers. (Qur’an, Surah al-Baqarah, 2:34).
This false pride can be due to anything. It can be due to a person’s wealth, power, beauty, fame, or it can be, as in many instances, from having knowledge. Ironically sometimes those who get an advanced degree like a Masters or PhD - especially in science - feel very proud and haughty about their degree, scientific papers, or the discovery that they may have made. They think that they know more than ordinary people, they are smarter than ordinary folks who do not understand science or philosophy, and this feeling of looking down on others and belittling them ultimately leads to arrogance towards religion and God as well.
False pride or arrogance makes us stick to our original position even in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary. How can I be wrong? Or, I have already declared a certain position on a matter so going against it will cause embarrassment.
Another aspect of looking down on others is when the disbelievers notice that people who are of a lower social status or education than themselves have faith, they arrogantly react to it by saying that if the faith had any value, then they would have acquired it first before others as they are “smarter” and “better” than others. The Qur’an says:
وَقَالَ الَّذِينَ كَفَرُوا لِلَّذِينَ آمَنُوا لَوْ كَانَ خَيْرًا مَا سَبَقُونَا إِلَيْهِ ۚ وَإِذْ لَمْ يَهْتَدُوا بِهِ فَسَيَقُولُونَ هَٰذَا إِفْكٌ قَدِيمٌ
And those who disbelieve say of those who believe, If these (the Qur’anic doctrines) were any good they would not have taken precedence over us in believing in it. Since they themselves have received no guidance from it they say (out of malice), It is an old lie. (Qur’an, Surah al-Ahqaf, 46:11).
The term fasiq is used for those who display perverse behavior – actions which are contrary to social norms and such people may often have personal bad habits such as lying, sexual promiscuity and hypocrisy.
According to a Pew Survey, 40% of atheist/agnostic people have never been married (instead, they choose to engage in illegitimate sexual relationships) as compared to 23% of the general US population. If someone’s concern is only to satisfy their personal needs and desires, even at the detriment of others around them, they are going to become self-centered and selfish. Giving precedence to what I want even when it harms others or is against moral principles, will leads to rejection of the faith and religion also if it comes in the way of satisfying my personal desires. Their perverse behavior is often noticeable in their speech which includes excessive cursing to emphasize their point. Some of them are extremely selfish only focusing on themselves and disregarding others, or merely using others. They show elements of narcissism in their behavior.
وَلَقَدْ أَنْزَلْنَا إِلَيْكَ آيَاتٍ بَيِّنَاتٍ وَمَا يَكْفُرُ بِهَا إِلَّا الْفَاسِقُونَ
And We indeed have sent down to you clear arguments which none reject but the perverse. (Qur’an, Surah al-Baqarah, 2:99).
This does not mean that outwardly religious people cannot be perverse. If someone outwardly declares faith and claim to follow a religion but in their personal and private life remain “fasiq” then they are hypocrites which are even worse that the disbelievers as the later are at least honest in their declaration of lack of faith. If someone remains strict to their religious teachings, they are less likely to be perverse in their behavior. Whereas those with a moral code subservient to their base desires, are really on their own in their behavior.
The combination of arrogance and the desire to pursue a behavior untamed by any religious moral code is a deadly combination which leads many to first reject the teachings of religion and finally give up on the very idea of God. It is often that people do not want to behave in a way expected of them from a religious moral code which leads them to giving up on religion and then finally on God. Once there is no God in their lives, there is no need to follow a particular moral code prescribed by the religion. This makes life easy for them.
Another aspect of disbelief is not paying attention to the obvious signs of God’s existence all around the person and even within themselves. They disregard His signs, not acknowledging that these signs point towards the existence of their Maker. When someone reminds them about these signs, as they do not have a proper answer, they often tend to just close their eyes or look the other way. They fail to use reason. Disbelief is a direct result of not exercising reason properly, and they prefer to follow their conjecture:
وَمَثَلُ الَّذِينَ كَفَرُوا كَمَثَلِ الَّذِي يَنْعِقُ بِمَا لَا يَسْمَعُ إِلَّا دُعَاءً وَنِدَاءً صُمٌّ بُكْمٌ عُمْيٌ فَهُمْ لَا يَعْقِلُونَ
The case of (one that calls) those who refuse (to obey the commandments of God) is like the case of one who shouts to that (animal) who hears nothing, but a mere call and a cry (of a shepherd). (They are) deaf, dumb and blind, moreover they do not use their reason. (Qur’an, Surah al-Baqarah, 2:171).
Sometimes people commit indecent or immoral acts which leave significant guilt inside. If they do not get caught or punished for their actions, then the feeling of guilt quietly grows inside of them ultimately making them depressed. This depression can lead to losing all hope and becoming despaired from the mercy of God and a chance to correct their behavior. This despair from ever being able to improve themselves is a serious spiritual illness which is worse than the original immoral act that made them depressed:
وَالَّذِينَ كَفَرُوا بِآيَاتِ اللّٰهِ وَلِقَائِهِ أُولَٰئِكَ يَئِسُوا مِنْ رَحْمَتِي وَأُولَٰئِكَ لَهُمْ عَذَابٌ أَلِيمٌ
And those who deny the signs of God and (deny) that they will meet Him are actually despaired of My mercy. It is they for whom awaits a grievous punishment. (Qur’an, Surah al-ʿAnkabut, 29:23).
It has been narrated from Abu Jaʿfar that: The Commander of the Faithful ʿAli b. Abi Talib was asked about faith (al-iman) to which he replied:
God, Mighty and Majestic, made faith to rest upon four foundations – patience, conviction, justice, and struggle.
It has been narrated from the Commander of the Faithful ʿAli (‘a) as having said:
Disbelief (al-kufr) is built upon four pillars – immorality, exaggeration, doubt, and suspicion.6
These traditions show that there are certain elements in one’s personality like patience and immorality that lead to faith and disbelief. Both faith and disbelief progressively grow in individuals having degrees and levels. Faith requires one to have patience in daily life, conviction in their belief, justice in dealing with themselves and others and struggle in the path of truth. Disbelief comes from behaving immorally and indecently repeatedly without remorse, unnecessarily disputing about various issues in an obstinate way and having unnecessary doubts and suspicion. Both faith and disbelief have degrees and levels, and grow gradually in us depending on how we behave and conduct ourselves.
Human sensory experience, empirical knowledge and reason have limitations in terms of what we can experience directly or have an understanding about. As mentioned in Chapter 1, the hidden realities are much more extensive than the apparent realities. It is through the faculty of faith that we can acknowledge those realities which we are unable to witness directly right now but accept them to be true based on what we currently know and are convinced about. Faith is a deeper form of understanding about the reality of existence.
الَّذِينَ يُؤْمِنُونَ بِالْغَيْبِ وَيُقِيمُونَ الصَّلَاةَ وَمِمَّا رَزَقْنَاهُمْ يُنْفِقُونَ
Those who believe in the existence of hidden reality, that which is beyond the reach of human perception and ordinary cognisance, and who observe the prayer and spend (on others) out of that which We have provided for them. (Qur’an, Surah al-Baqarah, 2:3).
As the degree of faith increases, the hidden realities are made manifest to the individual and that person will be able to witness what is beyond the ordinary sensory experiences:
مَا كَذَبَ الْفُؤَادُ مَا رَأَىٰ أَفَتُمَارُونَهُ عَلَىٰ مَا يَرَىٰ وَلَقَدْ رَآهُ نَزْلَةً أُخْرَىٰ عِنْدَ سِدْرَةِ الْمُنْتَهَىٰ عِنْدَهَا جَنَّةُ الْمَأْوَىٰ إِذْ يَغْشَى السِّدْرَةَ مَا يَغْشَىٰ مَا زَاغَ الْبَصَرُ وَمَا طَغَىٰ لَقَدْ رَأَىٰ مِنْ آيَاتِ رَبِّهِ الْكُبْرَىٰ
(The Prophet) Whose mind made no mistake in (the interpretation of) that which he saw (during the ascension). Will you doubt and dispute with him concerning that (sight) which he saw with his own eyes (it being no figment of imagination)? And, of course, he saw Him (in His another manifestation to him) yet another time. It was near the farthest lote-tree. Near where also is the Garden which is the real eternal abode. (This was) when the sublime thing (the Divine Manifestation) which was to cover lote-tree had covered it. (When he saw the Divine Manifestation) his eye deviated not (from the certainty of the Truth) nor did it wander away (from the invincible faith on which he stood). (It was the moment when) he saw the greatly important signs of his Lord. (Qur’an, Surah al-Najm, 53:11-18).
Faith involves not only knowing the truth but also accepting it, having an inclination towards it and liking it; whereas disbelief involves rejecting the truth and showing an aversion to it.
Prophet Muhammad (S) has said:
The firmest handhold of faith is to love for the sake of God and to hate for the sake of God, to befriend God’s friends and to renounce His enemies.7
Imam al-Sadiq (‘a) has said:
Is faith anything but love and hate?8
It is also narrated that Imam al-Baqir (‘a) has said:
Faith is love and love is faith.9
Faith is not mere acknowledgement of certain realities, rather, after acknowledgment, one must act based on that acknowledgement. Our actions must reflect our faith and be clear from the by-products of disbelief.
When Imam ʿAli (‘a) was asked about belief, he said:
Faith involves acceptance with the heart, acknowledgement with the tongue, and actions with the limbs.10
As discussed in Chapter 10, some people have linked the decline of religion with the prevalence of scientific understanding in society. They argue that as scientific understanding of nature improves, people will give up on religion. It is true that as someone’s scientific understanding improves they are more likely to question any idea which does not have a good rational basis.
We notice that in a Pew Research Survey, atheists/agnostics were more likely to have a college or higher degree than the general public (44% vs 28%). It is also true that some religious traditions have dogmas which do not have a sound rational basis, and the followers are told to just “accept” and have “faith” in them. Naturally someone with a scientific or philosophical background will not just “accept” a religious dogma or have “faith” in them. Unable to find a satisfactory answer to religious dogmas or utility of following their religion, they are likely to leave that religion - as we are witnessing in Europe and North America.
But if someone’s faith is grounded in reason and backed by personal conviction, then a scientific understanding of the universe will not lead to a loss of faith - in fact it can actually increase it.
If increased scientific understanding of the universe is the main reason why people are losing faith in God, then we should not see atheist/agnostic ideology prior to the scientific revolution in the 16th/17th Century.
As per the verses of the Qur’an discussed in this chapter and the debates of atheist/agnostics with the imams of the Ahlul Bayt (‘a), it is clear that atheist/agnostic ideologies existed in the 7th/8th Century or even before that.
If the prevalence of science is the main reason for losing faith and religion, then why do we see that the largest group of such people is in China - where people are not particularly more scientifically educated than the rest of the world? The opposite is true in America which is the most technologically advanced nation right now but has a sizeable population who value faith and religion in their personal lives. Scientific progress and lack of faith in a society are not necessarily directly linked with each other.
Moreover, if good scientific and philosophical understanding leads to a loss of faith in God, then many Muslim scientists and philosophers from the Middle Ages should not be believers. On the contrary, many leading scientists of the middle ages like Avicenna and al-Tusi were well grounded in religious and philosophical traditions, and even wrote many treaties about religion. Even one of the greatest scientific minds like Sir Isaac Newton was a firm believer in monotheism and wrote a theological treaty called Philosophical Origins of Gentile Theology (see Chapter 10).
Even today, there are many scientists and philosophers amongst both Muslims and non-Muslims who see no conflict between science and religion. To link science with the loss of religion is another conjecture and false assessment of atheists/agnostics looking to justify their irrational ideology.
To summarize, disbelief or the loss of faith is a result of a personal immoral, obstinate, arrogant way of thinking and behavior and not exercising reason properly. It comes from excessive materialism and indulgence in a pleasure-seeking behavior. The disbelievers worship the idol of the self and their religion is enjoyment of life and experiencing its various pleasures. They may do charitable work or engage in beneficial social causes due to the natural instinct towards compassion and altruism, but they have no solid reason why they engage in such behavior based on their agnostic/atheist world view as discussed in Chapter 11.
Many religious people may also have a lifestyle which is not very different from irreligious people because they too prioritize materialism over everything else. The loss of religion or faith in God has nothing to do with increased scientific understanding or rationality, in fact it springs from not exercising reason properly. The Qur’an says:
إِنِ الْكَافِرُونَ إِلَّا فِي غُرُورٍ
The disbelievers are not but in delusion. (Qur’an, Surah al-Mulk, 67:20).
- 1. Pew Research Center, April 5, 2017, “The Changing Global Religious Landscape”.
- 2. http://www.natcen.ac.uk/media/1236081/religious-affiliation-over-time-br...
- 3. Pew Research Center, April 5, 2017, “The Changing Global Religious Landscape”.
- 4. Bullivant, Stephen and Ruse, Michael, The Oxford Handbook of Atheism. Oxford University Press, 2016.
- 5. Pew Research Center, April 5, 2017, “The Changing Global Religious Landscape”.
- 6. Al-Kafi, vol. 2, Book of Faith and Disbelief.
- 7. Hijazi, Sayyid Muhammad, S Rida, The Concept of Love in the Shi'i Creed, Al-Tawhid Islamic Journal, Published online at: https://www.al-islam.org/al-tawhid/vol11-no1-no2/concept-love-shii-creed...
- 8. Ibid.
- 9. Ibid.
- 10. Reason, Faith and Authority: A Shiite Perspective.