GOD, RELIGION AND SEX

  By  - Dr. Khalid Sohail

I grew up in a traditional, conservative and religious family, community and culture on the border of Pakistan and Afghanistan, the area that has taken centre stage in world politics since the September 11, 2001 tragedy. It is the border where the East and West, the religious and secular forces of the world are fighting a political and religious battle. While growing up in this tribal area I would never have imagined that Osama bin Laden would move in after I had moved out.

          My parents had emigrated from India to Pakistan in 1947, as Pakistan was born from the womb of Islam. After their marriage and my birth in 1952 they settled in Frontier Province surrounded by Pukhtoons. My parents used to pray and fast and recite the Quran regularly and wanted me to become a good Muslim. As a child I followed in their footsteps and accepted their faith blindly. I remember the times when I believed that God was an old man with a long white beard sitting on a throne in the skies and controling the whole universe. My mother, like other traditional mothers used to say, “Not even a leaf can move without His permission.” I believed God was omnipotent and omnipresent and micromanaged the whole universe.

          When I was thirteen Pakistan had a war with India in September 1965 for 17days. Maulanas, the religious clerics, declared that it was a holy war, a jihad, and Hindus were our enemies. Those were the days I believed in God and Islam, considered myself a proud Muslim and fantasized about making the whole world Muslim. I believed that that was what God wanted Muslims to do--to spread his message to all four corners of the world. Now that I think about those years I smile and say to myself--how naïve!

          When I became a teenager I started questioning my blind faith and the religious traditions of my family, community and culture. It was a long, convoluted, complicated and confusing process. I remember having sleepless nights struggling with my inner conflicts and contradictions. Two of the highlights of that journey included:

1. Studying science and realizing that the universe ran according to the laws of nature and not by the orders of God sitting in seventh heaven trying to run the world by remote control. I stopped believing in miracles and started accepting rational and logical thinking rather than the superstition of blind faith.

2.Studying literature and reading the poems of progressive poets like Faiz Ahmed Faiz and Sahir Ludhianvi and the stories of enlightened fiction writers like Saadat Hasan Minto, Krishan Chandar and Rajender Singh Bedi. I remember Minto writing this comment in one of his short stories about the1947 massacre, “ Why do you say 100 Muslims went to heaven and 100 Hindus went to hell, why do you not say that we lost 200 precious human lives.” I could not imagine hating Krishan Chander and Rajender Singh Bedi just because they were not Muslims. I gradually accepted Hindus and Sikhs and Jews and Christians and Parsis as my brothers and sisters.

          As a teenager I realized that I had to study Quran seriously and decide what role it had to play in my life. Since I did not know Arabic, like millions of Muslims in Pakistan and India, I relied on Urdu and English translations and commentaries. I remember those days when I would be lying on the floor with five pillows around me. In the centre was the Arabic Quran and on four sides were scattered the translations and commentaries of Maulana Abul Ala Maududi, Ghulam Ahmed Pervaiz, Abul Kalaam Azaad and Mohammad Iqbal. After studying dozens of translations and commentaries about the Quran--- from first verse to the last, from the first chapter to the last--- I realized that all those translations were not only different they were contradictory. I realized that in the last 1400 years there has been so much dust collected on the translations that there was no way for anyone to come up with the right interpretation and no hope for any consensus between Shiites and Sunnis and Ahmedis and Deobandis and Brelvis. I realized that it was dangerous to make laws based on the Quran because it would lead to violence and holy wars.

Then I studied the Old and New Testaments and Hindu Upanishaads and Buddhist philosophy and gradually realized that religious stories were folktales and holy scriptures were part of wisdom literature. I realized that Prophets were poets and philosophers. I respected them as reformers of their times but thought the only role they had to play in the modern world was of a historical one. I started to believe that our new world belonged to science, psychology and philosophy rather than traditional religions.

          Alongside the philosophical journey I was also experiencing a psychological journey. When I reached puberty I developed interest in sex. Maulanas told me that masturbation was a sin and sex only belonged inside the institution of marriage and only for reproductive purposes. Associating premarital sex with sin and guilt and hell did not make sense to me. For me sex was a natural desire and love between two adults was innocent and pure. I was rather shocked to see the tradition of arranged marriage between strangers. I could not imagine spouses in Pakistan sleeping together who did not have any feelings of affection and love. To me it sounded unnatural. So in my heart I secretly rebelled against religious morality and rejected it.

          The last straw was my discomfort with God as an omnipotent and omnipresent Being, who watched everything I did. That meant I was never alone and did not have my privacy even in my washroom and bedroom. I felt God was a barrier in my personal day-to-day freedom and independence. I gradually realized that he was the creation of my own imagination like the tooth fairy and Santa Claus in the West, based on my cultural conditioning. I figured out that God was a name given to a Mystery that human beings could not understand and each culture had given it a unique name and meaning. Allah, Bhagwan and God reflected more of the psyche of human beings than a real Being. Gradually when I understood that God was a metaphor and not a concrete reality, I experienced a sense of freedom. So one night I said goodbye to God and never looked back. We parted respectfully and peacefully. After saying goodbye to God religion and religious morality, I became an atheist, left the highway of tradition and started following the trail of my heart.

          For the next few years I was in a no-man’s land. I knew what I did not believe but did not know what I believed. As I started reflecting on my life experiences, following my conscience and reading books of Bertrand Russell, Albert Einstein, Charles Darwin, Sigmund Freud, Jean Paul Sartre and many more I accepted the philosophy of Humanism and my identity changed from an atheist to a Secular Humanist. I realized that one could lead an honest and ethical life without God, religion and religious morality. That was when I wrote my book From Islam to Secular Humanism. That was when I started believing that religion was a private affair and the state should be based on secular and humanistic principles where all citizens have equal rights and privileges, where there is not only freedom of religion but also freedom from religion.

          As I studied human psychology and psychiatry I decided to become a Humanist Psychotherapist, started promoting mental health education and developed the Green Zone Philosophy in my clinic so that people could live a healthy, happy and peaceful life.

          In my clinic I started working with couples, who were struggling with romantic conflicts. Over the years I have come to believe that all human beings are born with a Natural Self and then they develop a Conditioned Self based on the conditioning of their families and communities and cultures. Therapy helps them get in touch with their Natural Self and get over the feelings of guilt produced by their religious upbringing. By bringing my Humanist Philosophy and Humanist Psychotherapy together I am now developing a concept of the Humanist Personality. I think that all religious and secular traditions over the centuries wanted people to grow and become better human beings by becoming fully human. This concept helps us move in that direction. In my opinion people with Humanist Personality are caring and compassionate and share their truth without hurting and offending others. And when they become leaders of social and political organizations they are able to resolve conflicts respectfully and peacefully as they believe in cooperation rather than confrontation.

          As far as the relationship of sex, romance, love and marriage, each culture has developed their traditions. I think sex needs to be related to love and affection rather than sin and guilt. My observations and experiences tell me that:

…in the East in many traditional marriages there was no love to start with between spouses

and

…in the West there are people who fell in love but could not keep it alive after marriage. In many cases monogamy led to monotony and marriage killed love. That is a sad situation.

I remember an interview of a Catholic priest who stated that he believed in divorce because ‘till death do us part’ did not mean physical death, rather death of love. So as far as love is alive couples grow and nurture and cherish each other but when love dies the relationship starts to suffer and people get angry, frustrated and bitter. Many wives become depressed and many husbands become alcoholic and start having affairs. Some philosopher stated, “When there is marriage without love, there is a love without marriage”.

          I am not convinced human beings are monogamous beings by nature but there are more women who are conditioned by traditional morality and live monogamous lives. It is partly because of the double standards. When men have multiple partners they are called ‘playboys’ but when women have many lovers they are called ‘sluts’ and ‘whores’ and ‘loose women’.

          I do not think we need religious formulas. In a secular and humanistic community, people have choices and they can choose a lifestyle that suits them. If people want to get married and have families and want to make sacrifices for the sake of children they need to be accepted. However, if people want to be celibate or have alternate lifestyles that needs to be respected too. I prefer secular love over religious morality which can make people feel guilty and sinful. People with a good conscience do not need dictates from priests and maulanas and rabbis and pundits about how to run their sexual lives. Healthy and mature people and couples can make healthy and mature choices. Sex, like religion, needs to be a private matter.

          I am of the opinion that we need to seriously analyze the relationship between men and women in religious and secular cultures. In religious cultures, there is more of a tendency for men to dominate women. I am becoming more aware that

…cultures existed before religions

and

…languages existed before holy scriptures

Since most ancient cultures and languages were patriarchal most religions and scriptures are also patriarchal. In Judeo-Christion-o-Islamic tradition there is no mention of female prophets. I think equality of men and women is paramount in creating secular and humanist societies. I say to my Pakistani Muslim friends, ‘ If you want your son to be a prince, you have to treat his mother like a queen. A son of a slave does not become a prince.” Many religious men treat their spouses as maids and slaves and second-class citizens and when those men become leaders of religious institutions and political organizations they make laws that are unfair to women. Ironically many women are so brainwashed and conditioned that they perpetuate such inhumane laws and traditions rather than revolting against them.

          When I look at the future I see a strong wave of religious fundamentalism rising all over the world in the short term but after that there would be an acceptance of secular humanistic philosophy in the long term. Things might get worse before they get better. The atrocities of George W Bush and Osama bin Laden are accelerating the process. There might be a breakdown of secular and humanistic ideals in many parts of the world but then there will be a breakthrough. Humanists are still in the minority. In 1900, 1% of the people studied were Humanists while the number in 2000 had increased to 19% worldwide. So 4 out of 5 people still believe in a God and need a religion. History moves slow. We are at the dawn of a new civilization. I am optimistic that as time passes, more and more people would like to have secular societies where there will be freedom of religion as well as freedom from religion and people will create humanistic communities rather than theocratic states. I think human beings are maturing to adulthood, being able to live without God, religion and religious morality. It is part of evolution and I am an optimist.

          After becoming a Humanist, I am leading a healthy, happy and peaceful life in my Green Zone. I share my humanistic philosophy through my writings and practice it in my personal and professional lives. I am glad that more and more people are connecting with me personally as well as through internet. Internet makes me feel an integral part of global village as I can have intellectually stimulating and meaningful dialogues in cyberspace.

 I am coming to this gradual realization that we need to work together to fight religious fundamentalism and focus on common goals to serve our communities rather that having angry debates about the multiple interpretations of scriptures. Life moves forwards, religious people look backwards. They focus on the past while humanists focus on the future. I want to work with all those who believe in peace, justice and harmony and want to make a paradise on earth rather than waiting for it in the life after death.     

 

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